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Debunking the Devil

Sermon – 2/13/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

The season of Lent mirrors, after a fashion, the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.  Thus the reading from the Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent traditionally is one of the temptation stories found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  This year we’ll read from Matthew’s account, found in the 4th chapter.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ 

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ 7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 

10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Typically we use this story to focus on the nature of temptations we face in the world, but this morning I want to focus instead on the tempter.  It’s been four years since I last hit on this subject, which, I figure, is kind of like presidential elections—after all the hype and hoopla, it comes down to the devil we know vs. the one we don’t.  And that’s precisely what I want to talk about this morning, the “devil” we know or at least think we know.

Jessica Lange has a great line in the movie Rob Roy, the story of a Scottish folk hero in the 18th century played by Liam Neeson.  Neeson’s adversary is a snobbish British aristocrat who abuses his power by stealing from Neeson, destroying his farm and taking advantage of his wife, played by Lange.  He says something to her about remembering him, the details of which I have forgotten, but I can hear her response to this day.  In a low, contemptuous voice she says to her attacker, “When my husband finds thee, I think of thee dead and then I will think of thee no more.”

Such is what I think of the devil, dead.  And once I thought him dead, I’ve thought of him no more.  Thus the devil is simply not part of the world I know.  That’s not to say that I do not believe evil is real.  Far from it.  But to recognize the reality of evil is vastly differently from attributing such evil to a satanic being that is consciously striving to lead us astray or is engaged in some cosmic battle with God for control of the universe.

Consider the Biblical evidence.  Satan appears in the Hebrew scriptures a grand total of three times.  In contrast the proper name for God, YHWH, appears a total of 2417 times (I counted them all), not to mention any of the other names used for God.   That should tell you something right there.  Two of the references to Satan are more of a job description than a name.  In Job 1 and 2 and again Zechariah 3, “Satan” appears as the Accuser, a sort of prosecuting attorney in the heavenly council.  1 Chronicles 21 refers to Satan as the one who causes David to initiate a census.  The interesting thing about that story is that it has a parallel in 2 Samuel 24—exact same story except that instead of Satan, it is an angry God that incites David to start the census.  So which is it, Satan or God?  That distinction is not so clear because in the Hebrew tradition, “Satan” is not the adversary of God, rather Satan is the agent of God called upon to do unpleasant things on God’s behalf.  In short, Satan in these three stories is not anything like what we typically imagine today.  And that is it for references to the devil in the first Testament.

Then, of course, there is the old problem of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, commonly assumed to be the incarnation of the devil.  Truth be told, however, the serpent got a bad rap.  No where in the story is the serpent ever identified with the devil.  Serpents in ancient times had many symbolic means, both good and bad.  They could be a symbol for healing, as in the two serpents wrapped around the physicians staff, and a symbol for wisdom or craftiness.  Recall the saying of Jesus, “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”  In the Genesis story of the fall from Eden, the serpent is more of a trickster than the devil, who fools the woman to taste the fruit of the forbidden tree.  We do not see him identified with the devil in any Hebrew literature until we get to the time of Jesus.

In sum, then, there is no Satan or Devil as we think of him in the first Testament, or what we commonly call the Old Testament.  But when we come to the New Testament we see about 30 references to both “Satan” and the “devil” more along the lines of what we picture as the adversary of God.  Take out the duplications and repetitions and you find that Jesus refers to Satan or the devil sixteen times, not an overwhelming number but significant for sure.  So what happened between the two testaments?  How did we get from a non-existent Satan in the first half of the story to a more significant figure in the second? Was Satan just on vacation while the first one was being written?  Maybe God hadn’t turned him loose yet?  Or was he always there and just overlooked by ancient Jews? 

Omissions are always difficult to explain, but it is fairly easy to trace the development of the image of Satan through ancient literature leading up to the time of Jesus. 

Prior to the fifth century before the common era, the predominant explanation for tragedy and evil was divine vengeance.  Whether the forty years in the desert, seventy years in exile or the ten lost tribes of Israel, all were seen as God’s punishment for the disobedience of the people.  But when Israel lost its independence and suffered not just decades but centuries under foreign domination, that explanation ceased to be adequate.  It was during this time that the story of Job arose in its present form, a story that contemplates how it is that the righteous can suffer, or as Kushner puts it, how bad things can happen to good people.

At the same time, foreign domination brought greater exposure to other cultures. religions and philosophies.  One of the major ideas foreign to Hebrew thought but common in eastern cultures and Greek philosophy was dualism—light vs. dark, body vs. spirit, good vs. evil.  In a dualistic world, suffering need not be the punishment of God, it can also be the work of God’s adversary.  Thus the longer Israel remained under foreign domination, the greater the influence of such thought and the more developed the concept of Satan became.  By the time we get to Jesus, Satan has left the court of God and now operates in the underworld below, totally apart from and contrary to the will of God.  Thus we have God in heaven above and Satan on earth below vying for control of the human spirit on earth in between.  Bishop Shelby Spong calls this “theological schizophrenia.” Take it too far, too seriously or too literally and it will make you crazy.

I am spending this time on this arcane history once again because I believe we need to debunk the myth of the Satan and deprive the devil of his power.  For the reality is, as demonstrated in the temptation story, the devil only has the power we chose to give him. Jesus refuses to go along with him and thus he is robbed of any influence over Jesus. 

So then, what shall we do with the devil today?  Jesus rejects him as part of his world, so why shouldn’t we?  If we think on the devil no more, then he in fact will be no more.

The biggest problem I have with a theology that gives power to demonic beings is that, 1) it teaches that God is not really so powerful after all if God’s will can so easily be thwarted by other powers, and 2) it absolves us of our accountability for evil in this world, “the devil made me do it” defense.

So here is my proposal for what we should do with the devil. 

First, follow the example of the historical creeds.  You’ll find them in our hymnal, the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps from the 2nd century, on page 359—oops, I mean the “Apostolic Affirmation of Faith” since we Disciples don’t believe in creeds, you can’t put creeds in our hymnal.  The rest of Christendom may call it the Apostles’ Creed, but by golly will show them the errors of their ways by giving it a new title!  The Nicene Creed, I mean the Nicene Affirmation of Faith, from the 4th century on page 358, plus several more modern ones, including the Disciples Affirmation of Faith on page 355.  I invite you to read them for yourself and tell me, where do you find mention of Satan or the devil in any of those ancient and modern statements, be they creeds or affirmations of faith?  It’s not there.  Why not?  The simple truth is that we believe in God, we believe in Christ, we do not believe in the devil.  Good Christians may or may not believe there is a devil, but that is different from believing in the devil.  The point is, you do not need a devil or to believe there is a devil in order to be a Christian.  Those who chose to preoccupy themselves with the devil are the ones destined to be tormented by him.

Second, just because evil is real does not mean the devil is.  Personifying evil is a very dangerous thing.  When we lived in Germany, I visited a Roman Catholic Church in Bavaria.  On the ceiling were a number of biblical images, inspired no doubt by the Sistine Chapel.  The only one I recall was an image of the devil because it was painted with the face of Martin Luther.  To personify evil, that is, to make it human, to give evil a face and a name, worries me.  Christians justified killing Jews as children of the devil.  Religious terrorists of all stripes almost always describe their targets as devils in one form or another in order to justify their evil deeds.  This has been my biggest beef with our government as well.  The moment we labeled Saddam Hussein and his cohorts as evil, then anything we did to them became justifiable.  Why then, were we so surprised to discovered that so many of our troops have been involved in torture? 

Third, at the same time, we do need to confront evil.  Jesus rebukes Peter at one point, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”  It seems incredibly harsh until you realized that the suggestion made by Peter that prompted the rebuke, that Jesus need not suffer and die, is precisely the temptation offered by Satan in the wilderness story, the temptation Jesus had to overcome.  But even that rebuke by Jesus offers the possibility of repentance and reconciliation.  “Get behind me, Peter!  Don’t stand in my way, follow me!” To respond to evil in any form with nothing but death and destruction is to add to the evil rather than to diminish it.

Lastly, back to the temptation story, the temptation of Jesus by Satan points us to a much larger reality.  Note that in the story how the physical world with laws of gravity, time and space does not apply.  This is the storyteller’s clue that we are dealing with a different reality here.  This is not a story of the day-to-day trials and temptations we face, this is the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.  In this struggle Jesus wins round one, but the fight is not over yet.  The final struggle will come later when these two, other-worldly beings clash in a very worldly way, in both temple and palace, the seat of power for both religion and government.  Having declined Satan’s offer to accept the reigns of worldly power, Jesus is crushed by it, and thus ends round two, on the crest of Golgotha where Satan is the victor.  The stage is now set for the third and final round which should make clear once and for all who is the ultimate victor and who, for once and for all, is ultimately defeated.  In that story, one thought to be dead comes back to life.  That can only mean that the other thought to be dead is alive and the one thought to be alive we should think of dead, and then we should think on him no more.

But that is another story, which must wait these forty days to be told.


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