Do you believe in the devil?
I get this question from time to time. Often it is asked after I have said something that triggers a moment of horrified recognition in the other person. They suddenly come to realize that this person who they took for a reasonable fellow might just be unstable.
Truth be told, I don’t like the sentence “I believe in the devil,” but only because I spend a fair amount of energy trying to get Christians to understand that when we say “I believe in Jesus” we are not talking merely about ideas in our heads. But, for lack of a better way to phrase it, I do believe in the devil and in demons.
This comes about from reading Scripture and using it to help me understand my experience in the world. I am comforted in my oddness by the realization that my spiritual mentor John Wesley had no doubts about the existence of Satan. We can see this in his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” which is right up there with “Catholic Spirit” as sermons that the more progressive/liberal wings of the United Methodist Church love to quote.
The part they love to quote is the part about doctrinal differences not mattering. What they tend to skip over is the bit about devils.
The sermon takes Mark 9:38-39 as its text. As that text is centered on a question about casting out devils, Wesley considers in his sermon what it means to cast out devils. In so doing, he takes as given that there are devils and demons. As Wesley writes, the reason why so many people do not believe in the devil is because that is what the devil wants.
It is, therefore, an unquestionable truth, that the god and prince of this world still possesses all who know not God. Only the manner wherein he possesses them now differs from that wherein he did it of old time. Then he frequently tormented their bodies as well as souls, and that openly, without any disguise: now he torments their souls only (unless in some rare cases), and that as covertly as possible. The reason of this difference is plain: it was then his aim to drive mankind into superstition; therefore, he wrought as openly as he could. But it is his aim to drive us into infidelity; therefore, he works as privately as he can: for the more secret he is, the more he prevails.
For Wesley, the lack of diabolical manifestations in our day is not a sign that the devil is a myth, but that his methods have changed to fit the times. And hard at work the devil is. Wesley writes:
He blinds the eyes of their understanding, so that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ cannot shine upon them. He chains their souls down to earth and hell, with the chains of their own vile affections. He binds them down to the earth, by love of the world, love of money, of pleasure, of praise. And by pride, envy, anger, hate, revenge, he causes their souls to draw nigh unto hell; acting the more secure and uncontrolled, because they know not that he acts at all.
In his native England Wesley saw the work of the devil in every village and town.
But, alas! we cannot open our eyes even here, without seeing them on every side. Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience!
It is to these devil-enslaved people that salvation comes by the hand of the one that God uses to cast out devils. When a sinner repents and his or her heart is purified of all foul desires, the devil has been cast out. The work of the devil has been destroyed by the work of Christ.
Now that is good news.