Giving the devil his due

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.

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7 thoughts on “Giving the devil his due

  1. I’ve always found it chilling to realize that if there is some form of cognitively aware evil spirit about, and its strategy is to get people to believe that the existence of such a thing is foolish and immature, then he seems to have already accomplished his goal. What must lie ahead?

  2. And I guess if the above comment were true we would find people would be much more likely to comment on your posts that mention gender issues, or the raging disputes between Calvinists and Armenians, than discuss the lunacy of a backwoods preacher living in Bloomington, IN who happens to believe that there just might be an evil spirit afoot.

    Is all of this because, in tune with Wesleyan theology, only believers are reading your blog and the evil presence has been cast out of them, thus making this discussion irrelevant?

    1. I do not understand very well why some topics collect comments and others do not, expect in the case of hot topics “political” questions.

  3. Here’s a possibility: I’ve noticed that when people stop believing in the “devil” their belief in God also changes. When there is no longer a devil God seems to undergo a transformation in which the positive, loving dimension is emphasized to the detriment of other aspects of His being. When God has become a loving teddy bear, grandpa figure one wonders why he wouldn’t just love everyone, forgive everything, even unrenounced sins, and only be upset with those who aren’t “tolerant” of everyone and everything. Everybody gets to heaven, hooray! The big questions have become the political ones about gender and marriage and so on. The fact that these aren’t really questions at all, but issues that were decided decades, even centuries, ago, and that most of the Christians in the rest of the world understand this, is irrelevant, If you hold to this argument–pointing to scripture, tradition, the Pope, etc.—you actually are the one who is out of step and you are also not a very nice person. Obviously, to also talk about the devil in this environment is inappropriate and absolute proof that you don’t have a clue, because the only thing that matters is the stuff the UMC is fighting about right now.

    What a mess Chrisitanity is at that point, something that would be barely recognizable to the church fathers or, in fact, to thousands, millions of Christians even up into the middle of the last century. And, as I mentioned, to most Christians today, just not many of those living in American and Western European homes.

    This is my hypothesis about why certain topics get a lot of attention and others get little. It has to do with whether or not the Devil exists, and what we happen to believe about that. I know how this all ends, and who wins, but right now you have to admit the dark forces are doing well for themselves.

    1. Your comment has me wondering about the sequence of my own belief. I did not believe in the devil as an active personality at one time. I do know. I’m not aware enough of when that changed to map this onto other changes in my faith. I don’t know which beliefs are chickens and which are eggs.

  4. I think when you reject the idea of Evil you also mess with your concept of God. Not sure how these things develop in the mind that is just awakening to truth. I think those are two different processes.

  5. Doesn’t look like anyone else is going to join this conversation. So I assume the topic can move on.

    What do you think of angels? Do they exist, are they in touch with us, is this just a medieval superstition? Does anybody out there care?

    I don’t expect you to answer this directly, but perhaps down the road a blog entry on your thoughts here would be possible. At least I would like to benefit in that way.

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