Monday 24 September 2012

Christianity needs the devil - for coherence


Something that has struck me again and again, is that without the devil - that is without the concept of autonomous purposive evil operating in the human world - Christianity is incoherent.

Of course, philosophical ingenuity can at least seem to make Christianity cohere without the devil - and indeed that is mainstream.


But there are three significant problems with the mainstream Christianity-minus-the-devil:

1. It probably doesn't not really work, even at a philosophical level.

2. It is anti-Scriptural, and flies in the face of most of Christian history.

3. The arguments make no sense for plain simple people who are not philosophers.

In other words, subtracting the devil makes Christianity nonsense for the very people who might make the best Christians.  


Focusing on the third point: without the devil, at the level of plain simple analysis, when evil things happen they are explained as being done by God. Which means - in this non-intellectual way - that because God is Good, evil things are actually good. In other words, think of the most evil thing you can, and (without the devil) this was done by God for good reasons (which are no doubt obscure).

The above is not a parody, but is what plain people are being asked to accept from a Christianity minus the devil. No wonder the problem of evil (or the problem of pain) is responsible for so many people leaving Christianity.

Without the devil (and to the plain person), Christianity becomes merely a religion of submission to the incomprehensible will of God - meliorated by the promise that Christ's sacrifice and resurrection will make things right in the next life.


I am aware that the idea of the devil is now regarded as ridiculous or itself a source of evil; and that it can in practice become an excuse for evil ('the devil made me do it' etc).

But the concept is just essential to Christianity; without the devil we cannot make Christian sense of Christianity in a fashion which is comprehensible.


The reality of the devil is therefore non-negotiable for Christians; and - since the earth is full of evil - the use of the devil in explanations will not be exception but frequent, everyday.


Naturally, there are other sources of evil and reasons for bad things: especially original sin (the fault of humans, including ourselves), and random events.

Specifying a particular evil as the fault of the devil is therefore a conjecture, and may be wrong.

But it is a possibility that ought to be considered: and not as a last resort but as a normal everyday thing for Christians.

That is, indeed, how the devil has been regarded by all truly devout historical Christians of whom I am aware.   



Jonathan C said...

I have never had any difficulty with the "problem of evil", because to me it seems like an obvious consequence of God giving man and the angels the gift of free will.

But what I am struggling with mightily right now is the "problem of God not talking to us." We are expected to figure out which religion is correct, which variant of that religion, which rules within that religion are really in effect, and how to interpret those rules. Clearly, the vast majority of humanity must be choosing wrong, because any given interpretation accounts for only a small fraction of us; the gift of "discernment" is surely as rare as being a billionaire.

I cannot reconcile a God who demands we follow His rules, a satan who fills the world with lies about His rules, and a God who won't communicate with most of us to clarify his rules, yet claims to love us. It seems to me like God has stuck us in a perverse guessing game, with our souls in the pot.

David Stanley said...

Not many anglican sermons mention the devil these days,or judgement and hell. But without these concepts being a christian can seem like a very complex and confusing type of self-help or niceness therapy. I only came back to God when I realised what a sinner I was and needed help.
Thanks for this website Bruce,it is fascinating reading. Can you put up some more recommendations from your own source materials?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dave Baker - thanks for your comments.

I don't index this blog, for reasons of laziness, so you would need to slog through the post titles to the entries for a complete list of my recent reading.

But I would mention Fr Seraphim Rose as the single major influence - if you are serious about him, you should buy and browse the "Father Seraphim Rose - his life and works" 1000 page biography by Hieromonk Damascene.

But you could take a look at the essays indexed here:

Other recent influences include the Centuries of Thomas Traherne; and Fr HH Kelly - e.g.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan C. My own take on this is very simplified: it is as if God set-up this world as a time-limited creation within-which Angels and Men are given Free Will to choose God or not.

The model is allowed to run for a while, depending on the accumulated results of the choices made by Men and angels - but inevitably the fruits of evil will tend to accumulate in this world; and as time goes by, fewer and fewer men will choose God.

When this deterioriating situation reaches a certain point the model will be destroyed and the 'experiment' stopped - this will be judgment day.

The purpose of all this, is that Men living mortal lives in Time are a certain kind of being which, if they choose God, may become Sons of God.

Probably, to spend Time in this world allows the possibility of a higher kind of Man than if we were (as many humans throughout history have been) simply created and died - for instance children that die just after birth.

(After all Heaven is hierarchical, and Saints are higher than those who minimally attain salvation. This Heavenly hierarchy is - I think - established during life on earth in Time.)

I realize this isn't a direct answer to your points: but I am trying to show the importance to my thinking of the fact that we are in the end times of a world of finite duration and therefore with a linear history.

sykes.1 said...

Catholic dogma requires belief in Satan, as well as angels and devils. Since they are 80% of all Christians world-wide it would seem that belief in the Devil is in fact mainstream among Christians. Of course, this assumes that the Catholic laity pays any attention to their priests. Unlikely.

Mainline Protestant churches are thoroughly secularized, and most of them reject the Bible or least large parts of it. So lack of belief in Satan is mainstream Protestantism.

That said, logically there cannot be a benevolent, loving God without an independent agent of evil. So, dismissal of Satan necessarily entails dismissal of Jesus. Otherwise, you have to be a strict materialist.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the devil is a necessary part of Christian doctrine. Why? Because Scripture says it. Period.

But I don't think it solves the problem of evil.

without the devil, at the level of plain simple analysis, when evil things happen they are explained as being done by God.[..] In other words, think of the most evil thing you can, and (without the devil) this was done by God for good reasons (which are no doubt obscure).

I don't think this is a valid reasoning, Bruce. Since Satan is a creature of God and God is more powerful than the devil, the fact that God allows evil means that every evil thing is allowed by God for good reasons (which are no doubt obscure). In other words, the devil's deed are allowed by God. So the devil doesn't solve anything about the problem of evil.

For example, when Hitler killed six million people, the problem of evil is worded this way: "Why did God allow that?". With a devil as the evil-doer, the problem of evil is worded that way: "Why did God allow the devil to do that?".

I don't think this is a solution. If the devil was as powerful as God, the problem of evil wouldn't exist. We would have two Gods: a good God and a bad God (the devil) in eternal struggle. This would solve the problem of evil but this is not Christianity. In fact, some religions have this view.

Having said that, I couldn't agree more with Jonathan C. The problem of evil is not important to me but the problem of God not talking to us really is.

Somebody could say: "But God speaks to us. Here is the Bible". But, after seeing all the different opinions about the same biblical text, one only can feel despair. You see disagreeing scholars who know Koine Greek and that have studied the Bible for a lifetime. What chance do you have? An average man, with no knowledge of Greek, with a lot of hard work to do, only can know the Bible in an imperfect way. Only can rely on scholars or on the authority of the tradition (but there are different traditions so the problem is the same). And the scholars or the dead holy people who devote their lives to the study of the Bible don't agree about what it says.

One could say: "But the points of dispute are trivial. You only have to say a Mere Christianity believer". But, in fact, the points of dispute are NOT trivial. Knowing if salvation is because of faith or works is not trivial. It is a practical matter with eternal consequences. If you have the wrong opinion, you will be damned for all the eternity, as 2 Peter, 15-16 says.

our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

This, for me, is much worse than the problem of evil.


Bruce Charlton said...

@I - "Because Scripture says it. Period."

But this is just uncomprehending submission. People need to understand.

"So the devil doesn't solve anything about the problem of evil."

But the devil does make a difference: of course! Why argue the opposite? Because Angels, as well as Men, have free will in this world, in Time.

Of course, in the context of eternity things are different, and all is ultimately good; but 99.9 percent of people cannot even think about that - nor do they need to. We cannot know what 'good' means in an eternal context.

"don't think this is a solution. If the devil was as powerful as God, the problem of evil wouldn't exist. We would have two Gods: a good God and a bad God (the devil) in eternal struggle. This would solve the problem of evil ..."

Wrong. CS Lewis demolished this. There would be two gods and neither would be good or evil, since there is no reference point for which is which - they would simply be arbitrarily different.

In fact, two gods makes no sense if you think it through: one must be ultimate, the other subordinate. The creator must be above the destroyer.


The problem you speak of is indeed a terrible one after so much apostasy and schism and in the face of so much deception and dishonesty.

Pascal's point is worth remembering Christ's promise that he who seeks *will* find.

The sincere seeker *will* attain salvation: that was the promise, and Christ's promises are *always* real (how could they be otherwise?)

Bruce Charlton said...

@I - the thing to realize is that (in this world) Free Will is the main thing - it is not an 'optional extra' to being a human (or angel) but the main thing, the whole point of the business. Everything else is arranged around Free Will.

It is of the essence. We are beings with Free Will, and must choose salvation - must make the choice to love God, and our neighbour.

'And our neighbour' *adds* to our choices, increases our chances, a second route to loving God - it does not make matters more restrictive and harder (as so many seem to feel).

JP said...


My impression is that in European and North American Catholic Churches, there is increasing de-emphasis on the Devil, and not much mention of him during Mass. I could be wrong...

@Jonathan C,

The more God spoke directly to us, and the more often it happened, the less free will we would have. If He appeared before you and told you what to do in "real time", then you would be a puppet with no free will at all and no choices to make.

Gabe Ruth said...

Dr. Charlton, you're on a roll! What have you been reading? Or perhaps it's due to a lack reading?

I've come to a certain mental peace with the problem of evil by acknowledging that the devil is probably real and acts in the world, there are demons who aide him in his fight against the Almighty, and also that evil cannot have any substantive reality, but is a deprivation of the Good.

Regarding why He does not reveal Himself, the greatest trick of modernity, after convincing the world that the devil doesn't exist, was convincing the world that the human conscience is a social construct. Obviously I've never known anyone's deepest thoughts but my own, nor has anyone else. And certainly the social milieu affects the strength of one's conscience over one's actions. But no matter how bludgeoned by lies it is, as long as one is human the conscience lives, and speaks with His voice.

Lewis' speculated that humans will be graded on a scale, so to speak, depending on the circumstances each person encountered in life. I don't think that is particularly scripturally sound, and it certainly doesn't do one good to think about how you were handi-capped in life. But I do think it's a helpful idea when thinking about how most people's understanding of theology, and whether they will be damned for it.

Samson J. said...

Another reason not to discount Satan is that without him (and his demons), we also lose a powerful apologetic argument: that there is too much evil in the world *not* to be the intentional work of some powerful agency.

Candian Army General Romeo Dallaire had charge of the UN forces in Rwanda when the genocide occurred there. In the foreword to his account of the events, he wrote that "ever since I came back, people ask me how I can still believe in God after what I saw. I tell them, I believe in God because I've seen the Devil."

It's not only the sheer *volume* of evil - the *pattern*, as well, just strikes me as the kind of thing that doesn't happen randomly. (Many of the things that are happening to our modern societies fit this bill.) Of course, some people will not find this compelling, but I do.

Anonymous said...

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no
flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that
were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar, for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned
to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in
all the gifts of his brethren. He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire
grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the
Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had
begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.

Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that
sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune
their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and
the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it
seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless
wrath that would not be assuaged.

Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme
began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the
discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before,
until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery. Then again Ilúvatar arose, and
the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew
amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds
in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that
there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one
was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly
came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little
harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the
other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven
into its own solemn pattern.

In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved,
Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord,
deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.

Anonymous said...

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: 'Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may
know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what
ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can
any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things
more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.'

Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was
filled with shame, of which came secret anger. But Ilúvatar arose in splendour, and he went forth from the fair regions
that he had made for the Ainur; and the Ainur followed him.

But when they were come into the Void, Ilúvatar said to them: 'Behold your Music!' And he showed to them a
vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; arid they saw a new World made visible before them, and it
was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World
began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. And when the Ainur had gazed for a while and
were silent, Ilúvatar said again: 'Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained
herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And
thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole
and tributary to its glory.'

FHL said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

"Yet the lies that Melkor, the mighty and accursed, Morgoth Bauglir, the Power of Terror and of Hate, sowed in the hearts of Elves and Men are a seed that does not die and cannot be destroyed; and ever and anon it sprouts anew, and will bear dark fruit even unto the latest days." The End.

Anonymous said...

The best answer I can come up with is- God *could* have created a world where everyone was good without choice, but wanted to be worshipped and obeyed by creatures who would do it of their own free will. Many don't, which was a predictable outcome, and thus predestined. Boethius explained how predestination and free will were not in conflict.

And yet I don't see a lot of free will out there. Many people are destroyed by evil. Does God save them in some other way?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - I think you are wrong here.

Men just do have free will - this is not a matter of observation, and does not change with circumstances.

And in a world without free will nobody would be good (in the moral sense), and there would be no people - only animals, plants etc.

Anonymous said...

Free will is what makes good good and evil evil. In other word what is obedience without the potential for disobedience? What is Good without a potential for evil. If there can only be good without potential for evil aren't we just mere fleshly automatons?

Why does god allow evil to happen? I think this link explains it partially:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - "what is obedience without the potential for disobedience?" - indeed, but you may misunderstand just how fundamental is free will. Obedience without the possibility of disobedience is simply incoherent, nonsense, oxymoronic.

Free will entails an active choice of God - the 'plan' is that the Sons of God will have chosen to be Sons of God.

There is enough evidence of the reality of God that this choice of God is rational; but the evidence is neither compelling, nor overwhelming, nor coercive - it is always possible for people to say no to God; and it is vital this this must be so. Humans cannot do anything about this basic situation.

The importance of the devil/ Satan/ demons in a Christian explanation is to clarify that it is not (usually) a matter of God 'allowing' evil to happen; but evil (as we experience it) being *actively* pursued by the powers of purposive evil

(often with humans as their servants... either as servants of evil who have chosen evil, or as passive servants of evil who have simply not-chosen-God/ Good).