Editorial: The Real Devil
We Christadelphians stand with our backs to the world when it comes to
our unique understanding of Satan. We’re the only denomination to
reject the existence of a superhuman Devil, and to locate the blame for
sin solely within the human heart, unflinchingly accepting that evil in
its wider sense originates with God and not with any Satan figure. Ursula
LeGuin wrote powerfully of "all the pain and suffering and waste
and loss and injustice we will meet all our lives long, and must face
and cope with over and over, and admit, and live with, in order to live
human lives at all". This is indeed how it is: her cancer, the tragedy
of his life, the tsunami here and the repression of human rights there,
the deeply hidden regrets and secret sins of every human life... over
and over we have to rise each day and live with it all.
It seems to me that the burden of it all, the sheer pain and difficulty
of the struggle to understand, has led people to simply give up, and blame
it all on a personal Satan who fell off the 99th floor and came down here
to mess up our nice, good little lives. But simplistic ten cent answers
to these million dollar questions aren’t good enough for us. Quite
rightly we’ve concluded that legitimate responses and understandings
are not going to be found in a pagan myth, no matter how respectably it's
been developed by bunk theology.
In this editorial I want to bring out the implications of our understanding
of Satan, knowing that the whole purpose of true doctrine is the radical
transformation of human life in practice. For if we leave all this at
the level of mere ideas, lodged merely within some complex brain chemistry
beneath our skulls, we will have totally missed the point. These 'ideas'
must have real encounter with our whole personalities. I mean that reading
the Bible, or this book or that book about the Bible as we ride to work
or a few pages each night before sleep takes us... really should and can
have a gripping effect upon human personality, upon our entire world-view,
taking us far beyond our safe, sleepy little bedtime studies, out into
the most fundamental issues of the cosmos, and into the real issues of
the dirty lives we humans live out on the face of this spectacularly beautiful
planet. The fruit of correct understanding of these issues will, in the
end, be love, and walking humbly with our God. I urge you to take these
reflections especially seriously; for I believe our community faces a
huge danger in purely academic study of God's word which doesn't lead
to any accepted practice.
When we are told: "Resist the devil and he will flee from you"
(James 4:7), we hardly imagine ourselves wrestling with a literal beast
who runs away just because we put up a fight. To put any meaning into
James words it must surely be apparent that he is speaking of the need
to resist sin in our minds, and that very process of resistance will lead
to the temptation receding. The fact that the Lord Jesus really conquered
the Devil should mean for us that in our struggles against sin, victory
is ultimately certain. If we grasp this, we will battle daily for control
of the mind, we will strive to fill our mind with God's word, we will
do our daily readings, we will be cynical of our motivations, we will
examine ourselves, we will appreciate the latent liability to sin which
we and all men have by nature. We won't take the weakness of others towards
us so personally; we will see it as their 'devil'.
Belief in a personal Devil is so popular, because it takes the focus
away from our struggle with our innermost nature and thoughts. Yet whilst
we Christadelphians don't believe in a personal Devil, we can create the
same thing in essence; we can create an external devil such as TV or Catholicism,
and feel that our entire spiritual endeavour must be directed to doing
battle with these things, rather than focusing on our own weaknesses.
A lack of focus on personal sinfulness and the need for personal cleansing
and growth, with the humility this will bring forth, can so easily give
place to a focus instead upon something external to us as the real enemy.
Realizing who ‘the devil’ really is inspires us to more concretely
fight against him.
We should not blame our nature for our moral failures in the way that
some blame an external devil. We must hang our head over every sin. In
this we will find the basis for a true appreciation of grace, a true motivation
for works of humble response, a true flame of praise within us, a realistic
basis for a genuine humility. We really can achieve some measure of self
control; it cannot be that God is angry with us simply because we are
human. It cannot be that our nature forces us to sin in a way which we
can never counteract. The Lord Jesus shared our nature and yet didn't
commit sin, and in this He is our ever- beckoning example and inspiration.
The question, 'What would Jesus do…?' in this or that situation
has all the more inspirational power once we accept that the Lord Jesus,
tempted just as we are, managed to put the devil within Him to death,
triumphing over it in the cross, even though He bore our nature. People
tend to say parrot-fashion such this as, ‘I'm a sinner’, 'going
to heaven', 'satan', without the faintest idea what they are really saying.
And we can do just the same - we can speak of 'Sin' with no real idea
what we ought to feel and understand by it.
If we truly perceive and believe that, in fact, ‘the devil’
and its power has been vanquished in Jesus, if we survey the wondrous
cross and see there the power of the devil finally slaughtered in the
perfect mind of the Lord Jesus, and that ultimate victory of victories
shared with us who are in Him… the source, the root cause, of so
much neurosis and dysfunction, is revealed to us as powerless. For we
who have given in and do give in to temptation, who submit to ‘the
violence within’ all too often, who are at times beaten in the fight,
have been saved from the power of that defeat by grace and forgiveness,
and are counted by the God of all Grace as being ‘in Christ’.
The Lord Jesus was the one who overcame that ‘violence within’
moment by moment, as well as in the more accentuated and obvious scenes
of ‘the violence within’ which we see in the wilderness temptations
and on the cross. And, by grace, we are counted as in Him. No wonder that
to achieve this He had to share human nature in order to overcome it.
Perfectly and seamlessly, one true aspect of Biblical interpretation thus
leads to another, and becomes the basis for a transformed life in practice.
It would be fair to say that the Biblical devil refers to our self-talk
- the very opposite of the external devil idea. Jesus pinpointed the crucial
importance of self-talk in His parable of the rich fool, who said to himself
that he had many goods, and discussed with his own “soul”
the need for greater barns etc. (Lk. 12:17-19). If we at least realize
that our self-talk is potentially our greatest adversary [‘satan’],
then we will find the strength to move towards genuine spiritual mindedness,
“bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”.
In Deuteronomy 15:9 Moses was warning Israel: “Beware that there
be not a word in thy wicked heart” - don’t have self-talk
that says because the year of release was coming soon, you would not lend
your brother anything. Here we have the Old Testament equivalent of the
New Testament ‘devil’. We can control our self-talk, but we
must be aware that it takes place. Moses is basically saying: ‘Beware
of your own self-talk; see how you speak to yourself in unfinished sentences
like “The year of release is at hand…”, resulting in
you ‘finishing the sentence’ by unkind deeds. Perceiving the
reality and power of our own self-talk is one outcome of truly comprehending
who the devil is. Ps. 36:1 warns: "Sin speaks to the wicked man in
his heart" (Heb.).
Our self-talk actually defines where we go in our relationships. If we
have a certain ‘self-talk’ opinion of someone and yet speak
and act nicely to them, sooner or later we won’t be able to keep
up the act. “An unconscious relationship is more powerful than a
conscious one”. What you say to yourself about your wife, how you
analyze to yourself the actions of your child… this has the real
power, far beyond any forms of words and outward behaviour we may show.
Yet, sadly, this world thinks that how you say things is all important;
it’s a running away from the importance and crucial value of the
real ‘self’ within.
Sin De-Emphasized and Minimized
It's commonly understood that human beings frequently practice 'projection'
onto others of certain attitudes and behaviours with which they themselves
struggle. It seems to me that the Satan concept is a classic case. People
have taken all the aspects of God's personality with which we struggle
- not least, that He brings evil into our lives - and they've also taken
all the aspects of our own personality which we dislike, our sin, our
unpleasantness... and projected them onto an external being called Satan.
All this is not only a minimizing of our own sin; it's an attempt to remake
'God' into our image who we think He should be. It's blasphemous - as
well as demeaning to Him, and reflects our huge barrier to accepting that
we are not God, that we are sinners and need to work on self-improvement
rather than projecting all our weakness away from ourselves and onto something
or someone else. Conversely, an awareness of our sin is the basis for
the joy and marvel we experience of God's grace, that energy to serve
Him and love Him through thick and thin, which so many Christians privately
admit that they lack.
Out of Denial
For a long time I was unwilling to give myself wholly to this idea that
sin is solely rooted in the individual human heart. I would have gone
along with Jeffrey Russell's comment that, "It is true that there
is evil in each of us, but adding together even large numbers of individual
evils does not enable anyone to explain an Auschwitz". Why did I
have that impression, and why was it so strong and so intuitive? Because
I simply didn't want to face up to what Paul calls, 'the exceeding sinfulness
of sin' (Rom. 7:13). Paul speaks of how God had had to reveal ‘sin
as sin’ to him. That process goes on in each of us. Instead of thinking
that sin is an occasional ‘whoopsy’, we come to see that it
really is the radical issue which the Bible presents it as.
The example of Auschwitz is personally significant for me. Living in
Eastern Europe, I visited Auschwitz four times over a period of 16 years.
It was only on the fourth visit that I came to disagree with Russell's
comment. Quite simply we radically, seriously, majorly and above all dangerously
under-estimate the power of human sin and the colossal influence for evil
which our sinful actions, thoughts and decisions can have upon others.
My intuitive desire to find some bigger source of evil to explain the
Holocaust is probably typical of the struggle we all have to not only
minimize our own sin, but also the sin of humanity. Paul Tournier’s
psychological study, The Violence Within, shows how within each person
there is a huge battle between the right and the wrong, good and evil,
temptation and resistance to temptation. This battle goes on constantly,
over even the most insignificant things - e.g. the choice to take an instant
dislike to another person, to get angry and aggressive because we feel
a person in a restaurant is somehow laughing at us, etc. Levi-Strauss
came to the same conclusions in The Savage Mind - a book whose title says
it all. We must unflinchingly face our own huge capacity for evil. The
same essential sinful tendencies are within us as within the most depraved
rapist or sadist. Solzhenitsyn lamented: "If only it were all so
simple! If only... it were necessary only to separate [evil people] from
the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts
through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy
a piece of his own heart?"
The 'Devil' remains an unexamined assumption in much of Christianity,
and in most societies and religions. The presence of unexamined assumptions
in our lives and hearts, as well as in societies, ought to be a red flag.
Why, in this age of apparently fearless examination, eager toppling of
examples, deconstruction of just about everything, rigorous research,
trashing of tradition, brutal testing of assumptions... does the Devil
idea remain an unexamined assumption? I suggest it's because to reject
that tradition of a personal satan [for that's all it is - tradition]
and get down to living out the Biblical position on the Devil demands
just too much. It's hard to accept all negative experience in life as
ultimately allowed and even sent by a loving God, it's humiliating to
realize we're only tiny children, whose view of good and evil isn't fully
that of our Father; and it's the call of a lifetime to recognize that
our own personal, natural passions and desires are in fact the great satan
The Value of Persons
The de-emphasis of sin by the personal Satan theory also results in a
devaluing of personal salvation and the meaning of the individual. Grace
means little on a personal level for any of us if our salvation was really
an abstract transaction which occurred somewhere out in the cosmos between
God and Satan. The Biblical picture is so much more personally gripping
- salvation was achieved by a man, Jesus the Son of God, here on this
earth, on a stake outside Jerusalem. He died in love for us, for the forgiveness
of our personal sins, rather than to provide some payment to a cosmic
creature called Satan. The essential failure is not of the cosmos - it
is the failure in our individual response to God's love and grace.
Responsibility for Actions
Understanding that sin comes from within leads us to a far higher level
of responsibility for our own actions - as well as teaching us to hold
others the more responsible for theirs, too. Responsibility is something
sadly and increasingly lacking in the modern world. We justify both ourselves
and others, to the point that real feelings of contrition, humility, joy
at the experience of forgiveness, realistic and victorious striving for
self-improvement, all seem little known in the lives of many today.
Don’t Demonize Others
There's a huge attraction to the idea that we here on earth are somehow
on the side of God and Jesus, who are engaged in a cosmic conflict with
the Devil in Heaven. It empowers us to assume that anyone against us on
earth must therefore be somehow 'of the devil', and we are made to feel
that any aggression towards them or description of them in Satanic terms
is somehow legitimate. The real, Biblical understanding of Satan is so
different, and calls us to personal self-control, self-examination, awareness
of our weakness and Christ's strength - and this, in turn, affects our
attitude to others. Rather than witch-hunting and demonizing, even within
the ecclesia, we become understanding of human weakness and sensitive
to the human condition.
I have on my computer a file of images of cartoons and posters which
demonize people as the Devil. In the two world wars, each side 'demonized'
the other. Since 1945, Soviets demonized their enemies with 'Satan' features
even though they officially didn't believe in Satan nor God; Western powers
likewise 'Satanized' the Soviets. More recently, the West has done the
same in their cartoons of Islamic leaders and terrorists; and Islamic
cartoonists have done likewise in representing Western and Israeli leaders
as 'the great Satan'. Bosnian Moslems and Serbian Christians did the same
to each other in the wars which wracked the former Yugoslavia... flicking
through those images on my hard drive is a depressing experience. Everyone
is out to demonize the other, and drawing horns and tail on 'the other
guy' is obviously so easy and attractive. And whilst most of us aren't
into drawing cartoons, we effectively tend to do the same in conflicts
great and small; in our minds we deface the image of others by scribbling
horns and tail on them. This form of Dualism is very attractive to our
judgmental human minds; it lends itself to categorizing life and society
in a simplistic binary manner, into Us and Them, Cowboys and Indians,
Hero and Villain, Friend and Foe... whilst all the time missing the point
that the ultimate struggle is within the human mind.
Freedom from Fear
Psychologists suggest that there is something within the human psyche
that needs to fear, that wants to fear. Just look at the huge success
of terror stories, movies, images, Stephen King novels and the way that
the media realizes that their global audience laps up fear and sensationalism
about terror. One common thread throughout all the pagan forerunners of
the 'personal satan' idea is that the pagan concepts all involved the
generation of fear and terror. True Christianity "casts out"
such fear (1 Jn. 4:18). So many control systems have played upon fear
of the devil - to bring children into subdued obedience, flocks into submission
to pastors, etc. This is not how God works; He isn't a psychological manipulator.
"For fear has torment" (1 Jn. 4:18), and this is exactly what
true understanding of the cross of Christ saves us from. And yet it could
be said that humanity is increasingly addicted to fear. People may mock
fearing a Loch Ness monster, werewolves, funny sounds at night... but
they still buy in big time to fearing a personal Devil. There's something
in people that wants to fear something; that just loves the popular idea
of a personal Satan.
A Final Appeal
I would have failed my readership if I left you with an invitation to
merely repress your sinful desires in a kind of clinical, legalistic way.
By repressing our destructive feelings, we can end up creating a negative
force within us which bursts out at times. An example would be the highly
self-controlled Christian who at times gives vent to their aggression
in screaming fits against their partner or co-worker, over a totally minor
issue. Those repressed feelings don't just disappear because they're repressed-
they can lead to anything from stomach ulcers to self-hatred. Solzhenitsyn
again: "In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within
us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and
it will rise up a thousandfold in the future".
The answer involves a complete submission to the Lord Jesus Christ as
our personal Lord and Master, and believing and acting as if we are "in
Christ", with His righteousness and personality counted to us in
what Paul calls 'imputed righteousness'. Our self-perception changes,
so that, although we sin, we perceive ourselves as being "in Christ",
acting as He acted, thinking as He thought. Paul speaks in Romans 7 of
his miserable failure at self-control and repression of sin, explaining
how he simply couldn't repress what was wrong because it was too strong...
and he goes on in Romans 8 to thank God that the way of escape was through
being "in Christ" and having the mind / spirit / indwelling
personality of the Lord Jesus. And all this is in the context of his appeal
in Romans 6 for us to understand baptism as a yielding of ourselves to
Christ personally, "crucified with him, that the body of sin might
be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he
that hath died is justified [freed] from sin... even so reckon ye also
yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ... for sin
shall not have dominion over you... being then made free from sin, you
come the servants of righteousness... but now being made free from sin,
and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto holiness, and the
end - eternal life".
Note: This is extracted from Duncan’s forthcoming book, The Real
Devil. You can read and order it online at www.realdevil.info