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4. Exposing the Adversary

While Jesus was praying in Gethsemani-, his opponents closed in on him. "Judas took charge of a group of soldiers and temple police supplied by the chief priest and the pharisees. They went there equipped with lanterns and torches and weapons" (Jn 18,3). After a brief confrontation in which Jesus made them feel his power, they took hold of him. "The soldiers with their commanding officer and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him" (Jn 18,12). Note the words: they arrested and bound him. Both underline the drama of the moment. It is a moment John has prepared us for."They tried to arrest him" (Jn 7,30). "The chief priests and pharisees despatched temple police to arrest him" (Jn 7,32). "Some of them wanted to arrest him" (Jn 7,44). "Still no one arrested him because his hour had not yet come" (Jn 7,44). "Still no one arrested him because his hour had not yet come" (Jn 8,20). "They tried again to arrest him, but he slipped out of their hands" (Jn 1-0,39). Now their purpose has been achieved; Jesus is their prisoner.

John also says: "They bound him" (see also Jn 18,24). This binding in the middle of the night had for John's readers the unmistakable connotation of a stranglehold grip by the powers of darkness. "Whatever I bind, no one can loosen" was the magical formula of the goddess Isis.(1) "(The Egyptians) were imprisoned in a cage not made of iron for with one chain of darkness they were all bound" (Wis 17,16-17). "This woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for eighteen years" (Lk 13.16). And then the reverse in apocalyptic times: "The angel seized the dragon, that ancient serpent. who is the devil. Satan. and bound him for a thousand years" (Rev 20.2). The "binding" of Jesus means that now the powers of darkness have him in their grip.

In his farewell to the disciples Jesus himself refers to this moment of arrest and binding. It will be the head-on collision with the powers of evil, the coming face to face to face with his adversary.

"I will no longer speak with you for the Prince of the World is coming. Actually, he has no hold over me; but the world must recognise that I love the Father." Jn 14.30-31

When we read this episode in the Gospel, one question seems to require an answer. Who really was Jesus' adversary? Was it Judas who betrayed him? Was it the soldiers and temple police who executed the arrest? Was it rather the chief priests and pharisees who sent them? Or, most of all, was it the prince of darkness, the devil himself, who hid behind these human figures?

The author of malice

In our Christian cultural inheritance we have quite a distinct picture of the devil as the archetype of all evil. The scriptural image of the spiritual adversary who prowls around like a hungry lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5,8), was extended and elaborated in legends, popular theatre and literature; till such fascinating characters were created as Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles in Faustus and John Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost. The devil now had claws and a tail, and hair all over his body, and cleft feet, and horns on his head. You could notice his presence by the smell of sulphur; but even more by the insidious snares he seeks to entangle people in: sin, unwanted habits, physical illness, emotional wounds, psychological problems, "bad luck", disunity in relationships, problems in relating to God, fears and compulsions.(2) In other words: whatever evil, you name it - the devil is behind it, or will use it if he can!

For malice is the chief characteristic of the devil. Lucifer and his followers have no other purpose than tocause harm.

Of this be sure, to do aught good never will be our task, but ever to do ill our sole delight." Paradise Lost Bk 1, 1.157

The devil, Calvin tells us, is the author, leader and architect of all malice and iniquity. "He opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles people's minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contentions and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God's kingdom and plunge people with himself into eternal death". (3)

Is this traditional figure of Satan the same person as "the Prince of the World" who is presented as Jesus' main opponent in his passion and death? This is an important question. Many are confused about the role the devil plays in our Ghristian lives. For some he simply does not exist; and with it goes the idea of all malicious opposition. For others, especially in charismatic circles, he is feared and fought with renewed intensity; but not without a relapse into forms of medieval superstition. What does John teach us about this adversary? How much of him is real, and how much part of our fertile human imagination?

The cesspool of evil spirits

For the contemporaries of Jesus the world was full of demons. These demons, or evil spirits, should not be confused with the devil, even if sometimes the devil was supposed to boss over them and use them. The evil spirits were thought to live in graveyards and inhabit tombs. They could be found in the ruins of ancient buildings. They freely roamed about at night. Food and drink left under the bed overnight might be infected with them. They too were held responsible for many diseases and sicknesses. They might cause blindness, paralysis, hysteria and madness.

Small wonder that we see in the Gospel accounts how closely in the eyes of people, healing and the driving out of demons were connected. Also, we are not surprised to find in John's Gospel, that the Jews who could not understand Jesus or disagreed with him, would exclaim: "You have a demon in you". Translated in our culture, it means little more than: "You are mad. You have lost your mind!" (Jn 7,20; 8,48-49; 8,52; 10,20-21).(4) This Jewish belief in and speaking of demons need not detain us here because they are not as such connected to the devil, nor does John pay much attention to them. Let us concentrate on the devil, the power of evil, itself.

In spite of Persian and Hellenistic influences, Palestinian Jews seem to have retained more or less the Old Testament figure of Satan. He is an angel, hostile to man, who constantly tries to disrupt good relationships between God and his people. He will do this in a variety of ways. He may tempt man to sin. He many accuse man before God, as we see in Job. He may put obstacles in the way of man's reconciliation with God. A typical Jewish prayer of that time formulates Satan's activity in this way: ''May the spirit of Belchor not dominate your people, to accuse them before you, and to seduce them from all the ways of righteousness, that they may not perish far from your presence".(5) In popular catechesis, Satan was made responsible for all the sins Israel committed. He tempted Cain, Noah, Abraham, Aaron, David and everyone else. Satan was the one who cunningly drew a person into sin and then hypocritically accused them before God.

As far as I can judge from available evidence and from discussion among scholars, this was also the way the historical Jesus viewed Satan. Jesus himself nowhere gives Satan the status and dominion he received in Hellenistic thought. So in the Our Father. "Deliver us from the evil one" is parallel to "lead us not into temptation" (Mt 6,13). In the parable of the sower, Satan takes away the word from worldly-minded people (Mk 4,15). God sows the good seed of his message, but the enemy sows weeds (Mt 13,25.28.39). Jesus warns Peter that Satan will "sift you like wheat" (Lk 22,31). In all these cases, Satan simply appears as the seducing, fraudulent plotter of evil.

This even applies to the one text in which Jesus seems to speak of Satan in more general terms. "How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand" (Mk 3,23-24). But commentators note that this comparison may not be pressed, because Jesus formulates it in response to a pharisaic accusation. The pharisees had insinuated that Jesus accomplished his exorcisms through Beelzebul (Satan) who used the evil spirits as his pawns. In his answer Jesus points out that the allegation is absurd. If Satan controlled the demons, he would not allow Jesus to upset them. Jesus' reply does not imply that he attributed to Satan dominion over the world.(6) Even Jesus' vision of seeing Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Lk 10,18) involves the same concept. It means that from now on Satan can no longer accuse mankind before God. He has been banned from God's presence for ever.

We may make a few observations at this stage. In a number of instances, Jesus certainly speaks of Satan in a metaphorical sense; as when he calls Peter "Satan" because he tempts him (Mk 8,33). But even if elsewhere Jesus is thinking of a personal devil, which would be the most natural thing for him to do in his culture,66 he never allows people to shift the blame for sin to Satan for it is from inside, from a person's heart, that the evil ideas come that make him sin whether it is immorality, violence, greed,deceipt, jealousy, slander or pride (Mk 7,21-22).

The satanic ruler

In Hellenistic circles it was commonly believed that when the Demiurge (the creator god) organised the material world, he appointed lower gods as rulers over different regions or spheres. Under the influence of Persian dualism, the ruler of "this world", the world of darkness, was given a new role in the hierarchy of evil. In an Essene text, for instance, we read: "In the dwelling of light are the origins of truth and from the source of darkness are the origins of wickedness.(7) In the hand of the Prince of Light is dominion over all the sons of righteousness; in the hand of the Angel of Darkness is all dominion over the sons of wickedness". In the same vein Ephesians can speak of "the principalities, the powers, the world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph 6,12), and "the powerful prince of lower space, the spirit that is now at work in the people who are disobedient" (Eph 2,2). For the Mandaeans, Ur was the king of darkness and prince of this world. His mother, the mother of darkness, was known as Ruha (the spirit). In this trend of thinking, the Prince of the World becomes the chief opponent of God and God's salvific plans.

It is against this background that the Johannine passages about the Prince of this World can be understood. "Now will the Prince of this World be overthrown" (Jn 12,31). "The Prince of the World is coming" (Jn 14,30). "The Prince of this World has been condemned" (Jn 16,11). During his passion, Jesus clashed with the powers of darkness, but he came out victoriously. He won the victory over the world (16,33) and its leader (Jn 16,11). Judas' treason, which was traditionally ascribed to the manipulation of Satan the tempter (Lk 22,3), now received more serious overtones. It was seen as the means through which the Prince of this World tried to get Jesus into his power (Jn 6,70;13,2;13,27). The petition from the Our Father, "Keep us safe from the evil one", which originally meant: "Do not allow us to fall into temptation" (Mt 6,13), now received a far more general meaning in the highpriestly prayer: "I do not ask you to take them out of the world but to keep them safe from the evil one" (Jn 17,15

John gives the devil a far more prominent role than he had in the Synoptic Gospels. It is easy to see why this should happen. When the Gospel began to be preached widely in the Hellenistic world, its message of redemption could only mean one thing: that the powers of darkness, and therefore the Ruler of this World, had been overthrown in Jesus. It was the natural way of making salvation clear to the religious seekers whom the preachers would encounter. The figure of the enemy of man, the tempter, accepted by the Jews, could without any difficulty be enlarged to become the image of the evil tyrant, dominating the world of darkness.

The issues at stake

It is my honest conviction that we have no ground to accept a personal devil as part of revealed faith. Discussing the existence or non-existence of devils (and angels) goes beyond the scope of this book. With other theologians (8) I am persuaded that their existence cannot be deduced from the sources of revelation;(9) that their existence is not affirmed by infallible Church teaching;(10) and that so-called possessions can be understood in psychological terms.(11) The examination of the Johannine passages presented in this chapter confirm this general view. When driving out demons or speaking of Satan, the tempter, Jesus adopted the thinking of his contemporaries. The Prince of this World in John' own writing was a Hellenistic construction.

But I do not think the existence or non-existence of a personal devil is of very great importance. Let scholarship continue its debate until the question will be clarified one way or the other. My reason for stating that it is not very important is based on John's writing itself. For although there are references to the devil, the Prince of the World, the evil one, their mention is almost negligible when we compare the Gospel to contemporary writings. Rabbinical literature teems with stories of demons and evil spirits; Gnostic tracts instruct initiates in dozens of names of lower and higher "rulers" one should know and avoid. But John's Gospel serenely teaches about Jesus from beginning to end, omitting exorcisms and only referring to the Prince of this World when bringing out Jesus cosmic victory over darkness. Nowhere is this "Prince of this World" described or introduced for his own sake.

Moreover, as in Jesus' own teaching, John never loses sight of man's personal responsibility. Even though the devil induced Judas to betray Jesus (Jn 13,2), Judas himself committed the crime. In terms of the powers of darkness, Jesus' arrest and binding (18,12) was seen as a success for the Prince of this World (Jn 14,30). But it was the chief priest and scribes who were to blame. They were the ones responsible for Jesus' death. "The person who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin" (19,11).74 In other words: the sin of the world is very much the sin of individual people.(12)

And what we are talking about here is not sins of weakness but sins of malice. For regretfully, evil intent, spiteful revenge, pleasure in causing harm or in seeing pain are well within our human range of options. The psychological school of transactional analysis recognises an aspect of our Child personality which it calls "the demon". It is that part of us that can suddenly decide to "play the devil": to upset a good arrangement, to be cruel to a friend, to turn success into failure. The demon makes his first appearance "in the high chair when he scatters his food on the floor with a merry glint, waiting to see what his parents will do".(13) When we are grown up this demon in us can take over, making us do things that are vicious and mean. This is the real adversary we have to fear, the only one who can stop us from accepting God's love.

Structural Evil

But there is more to it. As in the imagery of "this world", of "the darkness", so the image of the "Prince of the World' points to an evil in mankind that goes beyond the control of the individual. We are all born into a human family that is already tarnished by violence and selfishness. As the individual grows up, he or she gets scarred by negative experiences that will affect the person for a lifetime. Then there are the injustice and violence woven into the very network of our relationships and social structures. Jesus recognised the power such evil influences have on people. Are they not often the Satan who takes away the word out of people's hearts (Mk 4,15)? Did John not refer to this when he made Jesus denounce the fabric of lies that entangled the Scribes?

"You are products of your father the devil. And you are intent on carrying out your father's wishes. He was a murderer from the beginning and has never been on the side of truth, for there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie' he speaks according to his nature, for he is a liar and the father of lying" Jn 8,44

Satan seduces with lies. The scribes were entangled in not just one error or another, but in a system of lies. It is this whole system, the agglomeration of mistaken insights accumulated in a succession of generations and given permanence in institutions and practices, that forms the "diabolic" power Jesus denounces.

The implication is clear: while recognising the powers of evil that hold us back, whether they are of a psychological nature or the consequence of the society to which we belong, the decision to remain in the darkness or receive the light will ultimately be our own. Sin is the real adversary that holds us bound (Jn 8,34-36) but Jesus has enabled us to throw off our chains. The Prince of this World has lost the contest (Jn 16,11). Christ drove him out of his kingdom, and for good (Jn 12,31).

For reflection. The household we belong to

In 8,34-36 we find the traces of a parable which we might reconstruct in a free, imaginative way. "A skilled craftsman was discharged by the army. 'Where will I find security?' he thought. So he offered his services to a lady who owned a large warehouse. She agreed on condition he would sell himself to her as a slave. He did so. But then he realised his folly. For as a slave he was totally at her mercy. He was more insecure than ever for she could sell him or send him away whenever she wished. Fortunately for him, a rich patron became his friend. When he had explained his predicament this patron bought him free. Being a son of a well-to-do landowner, this patron now introduced him to his father's household. There he was welcomed as a friend, a free man; yes, even more, as an adopted child of the family. He was filled with happiness for he knew he had found the security he had always wanted." This is Jesus' summing up:

"Amen, amen, I tell you: Everyone who commits sin becomes a slave of sin. Now a slave has no permanent position in the household, but a son has. When the Son therefore offers you freedom you will truly be free." Jn 8,34-36

Who are the people or what are the things that influence me most? Do they have a real hold over me? Is their power beneficial to me, or do I experience them as evil?

Do I have bad memories from my past life that haunt me still? Do these stop me from being good or feeling happy? Why do they continue to be a hindrance to me now? How can I exorcise them?

If some friend I know well were asked to give an honest opinion about me, what failings would he or she find in me? What would he or she point out as vindictiveness, stubbornness, meanness perhaps? Has anyone who dislike me accused me of any of such things?

If I were asked to pinpoint the evil forces in my life, where would I place them? Am I truly free? What is the real devil holding me away from God?

Foot Notes

1. Diod. S.I. 27-. Cf. F. BUCHSEL, TDNT, II.60.

2. M. SCANLAN and R. J. CIRNER, Deliverance from Evil Spirits, Ann Arbor 1980, p.14.

3. J. CALVIN, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol I, Westminster Press, London 1967, p.174.

4. That is why R. E. Brown rightly translates these passages as: "You are demented!" The only possible exception is 8,48 where Jesus is also accused of being a Samaritan. There may be a reference here to the practice of the Samaritan Simon the Magician, who was reputed to use evil spirits to do miracles (Acts 8,9-13).

5. Jub 1,20. W. FOERSTER, TDNT, II 77.

6. K. KERKELGE, "Jesus, his miracles and Satan", Concilium 11 (1975) No.3; Dutch pp.40-41.

7. 1QS 3,13 - 4,26 ,

8. An enquiry among West German Catholic theologians revealed that more than one third ascribe the personal devil to mythology and that more than two thirds maintain the intention of Scripture is fulfilled if we fight evil as such, whether we believe in a personal devil or not. A. HAMMERS and U. ROSIN, "Fragen uber den Teufel", in Psi und Psyche, ed. E. BAUER, Stuttgart 1974, pp.61-73. See also B. M. VAN IERSEL et al., Engelen en Duivels, Paul Brand, Hilversum 1966. H. HAAG, Abschied vom Teufel, Benziger, Einsiedeln 1971.

9. Even Karl Rahner who cautiously holds on to the existence of angels and devils admits that "the original source of the actual content of angelology was not divine revelation as such". The teaching of Scripture and revelation about the devil (as about evil spirits in general) appears rather to be a natural presupposition of human experience, which is incorporated, critically corrected, into the doctrine of the victory of the grace of Christ", Sacramentum Mundi, Herder and Herder, New York 1968, vol 1,30; vol II 73-75.

10. An excellent analysis of Church teaching in this matter is provided by Ch. MEYER, "The Magisterium on Angels and Devils", Concilium 11 (1975) no. 3; Dutch ed. p.62-69.

11. See J. MISCHO, "Interdisciplinary diagnostic and psychohygienic perspectives in cases of 'demonic possession"', Concilium 11 (1975) no. 3; Dutch ed. pp.70-85.

12. In the Johannine Epistles the "Antichrist", the great adversary of eschatological times (2 Thess 2,4-8) is clearly identified with individual people, viz. with those who oppose God and his revelation in Christ (1 Jn 2,22; 4,3). There is talk of a large number of "Antichrists" (1 Jn 2,18; 2 Jn 7). See J. ERNST, Die eschatologischen Gegenspieler in den Schriften der Neuen Testaments, Pustet, Regensburg 1967.

13. E. BERNE, What do you say after you say hello?, Bantam, New York 1973, esp. p.116, 122-123.


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