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Satan by Blake
1757 - 1827

Does the Devil exist?

The official Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) still presents Satan as a being who opposes God and inspires evil.


no 391.
"Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy (Genesis 3,1-5; Wisdom 2,24). Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil" (John 8,44; Revelation 12,9). The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing" (Lateran Council IV, 1215)."

no 395. The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature- to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but "we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him" (Romans 8,28).

However, new research makes many scholars conclude that neither Satan nor the other devils presented in Sacred Scripture do not exist as real persons. Rather, Satan should be seen as a symbol of the evil that exists in us, human beings.

In explaining the view of these scholars, I will start from Jesus' encounter with Satan in the temptation story and then move to more general observations.

This document is part of an online course. If you want to study the rules of understanding Sacred Scripture methodically, join our course
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First Observation

The temptation story in Matthew and Luke is a midrash that brings out how Jesus refuses to let his mission by corrupted by greed, vain glory or power.

The temptations of Jesus rank among the most puzzling and inspiring stories of the Gospel. What do they mean? Did the Devil literally appear to Jesus and talk to him? Did he physically lift Jesus up onto the outside wall of the Temple and transport him later to the top of a high mountain?

Matthew 4,1-11
Luke 4,1-13
1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
 1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."
 4Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' (Deuteronomy 8,3)"

 3The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread."
 4Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone.' (Deuteronomy 8,3)"

 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
   " 'He will command his angels concerning you,
      and they will lift you up in their hands,
   so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.' (Psalm 91,11-12)"
 7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' (Deuteronomy 6,16)"

 5The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7So if you worship me, it will all be yours."
 8Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.' (Deuteronomy 6,13)"

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' (Deuteronomy 6,13)"

 9The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. 10For it is written:
   " 'He will command his angels concerning you
      to guard you carefully;
 11they will lift you up in their hands,
      so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.' (Psalm 91,11-12)"
 12Jesus answered, "It says: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Deuteronomy 6,16)"

 11Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
 13When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

To understand the story, we have to know that it is a "narrative reflection" -a form of instruction the Jews called midrash. A midrash is constructed by weaving a story around a historical fact. It is such an unusual form of teaching that we had better stick to its Jewish name, in spite of it sounding so foreign.

The temptations of Abraham

One famous midrash used by Jewish teachers described the three temptations of Abraham. You will remember how God had commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. It is true that when Abraham lifted his knife to kill Isaac, God stopped him just in the nick of time. But Abraham did not know this in advance. He had travelled for three days to Mount Moriah believing that God expected him to sacrifice his son (read Genesis 22; 1-19).

The Jewish rabbis reflected on this. They asked themselves, "What went through Abraham's mind during those three long terrible days while he was escorting his beloved son Isaac to the mountain of sacrifice?"

Would Abraham not be tempted to rebel against God's command with thoughts such as, "Did not God himself kforbid us to kill? How can he now expect me to kill my son? Did not God promise that I would have innumerable offspring through Isaac?" and so on.

To make the temptations even more dramatic, the story was turned into a midrash. That is: it was re-told as a threefold encounter between Abraham and Satan. "Satan" actually means "tempter" and each time Satan or Abraham spoke, their words were phrased as quotations from Scripture.

The midrash of Abraham's temptations ran something like this:

While Abraham was on his way, Satan met him and said: "You've always been so faithful to God. Why has this unfair burden been laid upon you?" (Job 4:2-5).
Abraham answered, "I will walk in my integrity" (Psalm 26:11).

The second day Satan appeared again and said, "God told you, You shall not kill (Exodus 20:13). Tomorrow he will blame you for having shed Isaac's blood." Abraham replied, "All the same I have to obey" (Samuel 13:13).

On the third day Satan said, "Did not God promise 'In Isaac shall your offspring be called'?" (Genesis 17:19). Abraham simply said, "I am like a dumb man who opens not his mouth" (Psalm 38:13).

Now no Jew who heard this story would ever think that Satan had actually appeared to Abraham and made those remarks. They knew that the meaning of the midrash lay in bringing out Abraham's unwavering commitment to God, in spite of the natural turmoil he must have felt in his mind and heart.

The midrash of Abraham's temptations became so well known and had so many forms that soon similar temptation stories arose about other saints and heroes of the past - the three temptations of Moses, David, Samson and others. The midrash always reflected on people who achieved great things despite natural objections.

The midrash of Jesus' temptations

The story of Jesus' temptations has the same origin. It is quite possible that the earliest version of the story was an instruction Jesus gave to his disciples. Jesus was going to bring salvation through spiritual means. This was a decision he had taken during his retreat in the desert when he had started his mission. But the disciples would have preferred Jesus to further his cause by using human tools - money, influence and power.

by Duccio, ca. 1310

Jesus took his disciples aside and, I am sure, told them the midrash of the three temptations about himself.

"When I was preparing myself for my mission," he may have said, "I was wondering how I could save the world. And the Tempter came and advised me to accumulate material goods ("turn stones into bread"), to grab publicity through miracles ("throw yourself down from the Temple") and to acquire political power ("See these many nations? I will give you all this power"). But I decided against it", Jesus said.

By narrating the midrash story about himself, Jesus told his disciples,

"I have a very difficult task! Do not put obstacles to the purity of my mission by trying to make me use worldly means, such as money, publicity and political power. Like Abraham I received a difficult mission from my Father and like Abraham I must be faithful to it."

The disciples understood the meaning of the midrash. They did not take the Tempter's words or deeds literally. They knew the story brought out Jesus' reliance on his Father's word and Jesus' total commitment to the Father's work. It is only later when the story was translated into Greek for the Greek speaking readers of the Gospels that it began to be misunderstood. For the Greeks, like ourselves, had never heard of a midrash.

Second Observation

We may not validly conclude from the midrash of the temptations that Jesus teaches the existence of the Devil as a distinct person. The same applies to other Gospel passages where the 'Devil' is mentioned.

When using the midrash of the temptations, Jesus simply refers to Satan (the Tempter) as the great opponent of God in the Jewish cultural climate of his time. His focus is not on teaching the existence of Satan, but on his own determination to be loyal to his mission.

The same applies to other texts where he refers to the great opponent:

  • Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8,42-44

    Explanation. By saying that the Pharisees 'belong to the Devil, the father of lies, etc.', Jesus does not teach the existence of the Devil. Rather, accepting the Devil as a cultural concept, he accuses the Pharisees of not being open to the truth.
  • Similar expressions in the New Testament are:
    the prince of this world (John 12,31;14,30;16,11)
    the evil one (Matthew 13,19,38)
    the ruler of the darkness of this world (Ephesians 6,12)
    the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2,2)

    In all such cases, Jesus, the evangelists and the authors of the Letters refer to the same Great Opponent of God. They cover him in the cultural imagery, first of Judaism (Jesus, Matthew, etc.) and then of Hellenism (John, Paul, etc.). They speak of him as if he is a distinct individual. However, they do not directly teach his distinct personality. What they are focusing on is opposition from 'evil' to the Gospel values.

Third Observation

Jesus' action of driving out demons has to be understood correctly in the context of popular Jewish belief of the time.

At that time a lot of medical conditions that were not properly understood were attributed to 'demons', that is: small malicious 'spirits' that infested people, animals and even plants. An example will make this clear:

They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"
"Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the abyss.
A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
Luke 8,26-33; see Mark 5,1-20; Matthew 8,28-34

It is clear that the man suffered from a mental condition. His strange behaviour was attributed to demons. Jesus' healing of the man took the form of driving out the demons. Similarly, when a local herd of pigs began to behave strangely, it was attributed to the demons who had been driven out!

In the same way demons are blamed for:

  • deafness (Matthew 9,32,33)
  • blindness (Matthew 12,22; Luke 11,14)
  • epilepsy (Matthew 17,14-18; Mark 9,17-27; Luke 9,37-42)
  • mental illness (Mark 1,23-26; Luke 4,33-35)
  • prostitution and, perhaps, addiction to drink (Mark 16,9; Luke 8,2,3)
  • and so on.

Jesus describes the process in a parable:

"When an unclean spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation." Matthew 12, 43-45

Explanation. Jesus tells the Pharisees that their original commitment to virtue - i.e. getting rid of the demon of sin - is not enough. If they do not truly convert spiritually, seven other demons will take possession of them: spiritual pride, presumption, intolerance and so on. Read Luke 18,9-14.

Conclusion. The concept of 'demons' has nothing to do with 'evils' and certainly not with Satan, the personal Devil. Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Matthew 10,25;12,24,27; Mark 3,22; Luke 11,15,18,19), is the imaginary chief of the evil spirits.

Fourth Observation

The image of an evil spirit who is the personal opponent of God derives from cultural sources. It is not based on a revelation that belongs to Christian faith.

In the Old Testament, the idea of a personal opponent to God stems mainly from three sources:

  1. An angel tempting a virtuous person at the suggestion of God. This is the origin of the word 'Satan' which means 'tempter'. He is not really an evil individual, just acting as 'the devil's advocate'! Described in the book of Job. See Job 1,6-12.
  2. Demons, like the 'evil demon Asmodeus' described in the religious novelette Tobit. See Tobit 3,8.17; 6,13-14; 8,3-4.
  3. Lucifer [= 'Morning Star] alluded to in Isaiah 14,12 (see also Ezekiel 28,11-19). Though very vague in these writings the image was greatly enlarged in popular Jewish thought and by the Christian Fathers.

The New Testament image of the Great Opponent: the Evil One, Satan (as intrinsecally evil), the Prince of Darkness derives from cultural influences of the time, mainly Persian. The Persian religion had a long history of seeing life as a struggle between the powers of good and evil. This thinking had influenced Judaism in the centuries leading up to Christ.

It was natural for the Early Christians to elaborate on the image of Satan, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. This gave rise to the classic picture of Satan that can still be found among many Christians today. However, this belief was just a common opinion in the Church and no part of true Tradition.

FINAL OVERALL CONCLUSION

Many scholars today believe that the image of 'Satan', etc. should be seen as a symbol of evil which is real in our human world, the evil of human malice and selfishness.

One day a more general awareness of the slim evidence for the existence of a personal Satan will hit the wider community of the faithful. This will become a 'problem' to many since they have been told until now that the Devil is an individual.

It is a typical example of the kind of 'problem' that Christians have to face from time to time.

However, the cause of the problem is a misunderstanding of Scripture in previous generations. Problems like this do not need to upset Christian faith.

Credits

Much of the text in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly is based on publications by John Wijngaards, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.