Why such a gloomy, and to many absurd, topic? Three reasons: know your enemy, know what he’s after, know his tactics.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the majority, especially the educated majority, are convinced that anyone who talks about the devil as if he really exists, as a being that thinks and acts, A) is superstitious, B) has a psychological illness, C) is ignorant, D) is all of the above.
The devil and his angels (demons) have been pondered by many illustrious thinkers, including Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Catherine of Sienna, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and Peter Kreeft, to name just a few. Who are the devil (Lucifer, Satan) and his angels? Thomas Aquinas held that though angels and men cannot have a predisposition to evil—they are ontologically good—they can willfully make disordered choices. Aquinas suggests that the first angel to sin caused other angels to sin, by example rather than coercion. Thus, the demons are subject to the devil because when a rational creature sins at the suggestion of another, he becomes subject to that other’s power as part of the punishment for the sin.
In The Philosophy of Tolkien, philosopher Peter Kreeft describes the angels as “the next step up the cosmic hierarchy (from man), immensely more intelligent, powerful, and beautiful than we are, the most Godlike creatures that exist.” Angels and demons are spiritual beings—though Scripture and other writers and thinkers suggest they can assume human guises when necessary—and they’re extra-dimensional, meaning they aren’t constrained by the three physical dimensions and the fixed timeline that constrain man.
In This Tremendous Lover, M. Eugene Boylan, O.C.R., observes: “Even the manner of their (angels) mental processes is quite different; for while we human beings proceed step by step in the gradual process of reasoning, they see truth immediately—at a glance…It would be wrong to imagine that the immediate condemnation of the rebellious angels, without any further time for reconsideration and repentance, is any reflection on God’s mercy. The very excellence of the powers of the angelic mind is such, that reconsideration, as we understand it, is meaningless for them. They were in full possession of the facts of the case, completely undisturbed in their judgment by any earthly passions or by lack of reflection, and they saw their obligations and the heinousness of their crime with a clarity that is far beyond anything we can imagine. No amount of time for reconsideration would lead to a reversal of their decision.”
Though the devil and the demons rebelled against God, they retain the attributes they received when they were created, except they use these attributes to oppose, rather than serve, their Creator. Scriptural, philosophical, theological, artistic perspectives and portrayals suggest that the devil is:
- Far more powerful than mortal man, than any mortal man
- Not an atheist; the devil knows God exists and is out to thwart him
- Exceedingly crafty and resourceful
- An enthusiastic liar when it suits his purposes
- A master at finding and exploiting human weakness
So, how do the devil and his demons operate in the world, and what are their tactics?
The devil often deceives us into believing he doesn’t exist
A passage in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust”:
THE WITCH: I’m crazy with excitement, now I see
Our young Lord Satan’s back again!
MEPHISTOPHELES: Woman, don’t use that name to me!
THE WITCH: Why, sir, what harm’s it ever done?
MEPHISTOPHELES: The name has been a myth too long.
Not that man’s any better off—the Evil One
They’re rid of; evil is still going strong.
Science and the dominant culture tell us that belief in a thinking, active devil is passé, that one who persists in such a belief is superstitious, psychologically damaged, or ignorant, and who wants to be considered one of these? Science’s bailiwick is what it can observe, measure, and quantify. Not having observed, measured or quantified something does not mean it doesn’t, or cannot, exist. Scientific inquiry had been underway for 3,000 years before black holes and subatomic particles were discovered; nonetheless, they existed.
The devil knows man inside and out
Masterful storytelling can reveal truth in ways theology, philosophy, apologetics, science, and other reason and evidence based forms of inquiry cannot. C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape, Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Professor Woland are masters at manipulating their subjects, and versatile in appealing to their subject’s desires or fears. Mephistopheles is slyly sophisticated and parasitic, preying on his “host’s” weakness, in Faust’s case, a pride that makes him resentful of the fragility and limitedness of humanity:
“I am not like a god!
Too deeply now I feel this truth. I am a worm stuck in the dust,
Burrowing and feeding, where at last I must
Be crushed and buried by some rambler’s heel.”
The prologue of “Faust”, where Mephistopheles says, “The solar system I must leave unsung, And to mankind’s woes lend my humble tongue”, hearkens to Satan’s dialogue with God in the beginning of the Book of Job.
The story of man’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden and the ongoing story of human misery can be reduced to man asserting what is “mine”—my freedom, my possessions, my privileges, my rights…mine, mine, mine. Lewis’ devil Screwtape says, “And all the time the joke is that the word ‘mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run, either Our Father (the devil) or the Enemy (God) will say ‘mine’ of each thing that exists, and especially of each man…At present, the Enemy says ‘mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it. Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”
Tolkien’s Gollum is the type of person who first gives into lust, then allows his lust to cause him to commit murder and disassociate himself from human society, falling completely under the dominion of the devil in the form of Sauron’s Ring. Kreeft says, “Pleasure is only the sugar on the bait of power. Any addict knows that. ‘I’ve got to have it’ is his philosophy. Not I but It is the Master. Gollum is believable because we know him; he is every drug addict. In fact, he is every addict, which means every man. For we are all addicted to something we cannot part with that is less than God.”
Like Gollum, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray first succumbs to diabolical temptation, then possession, though Gray remains virile and beautiful on the outside, while diabolical possession makes Gollum physically ugly. In both cases, the bait, the fish reeled in, then, wrenched from the water into the boat of its destruction.
As different as are the images of Satan in Scripture, literature, verse, and film, one can readily see that plasticity is a quality the devil possesses in abundance so as to lure, convince, or crush human beings, depending on what he discerns to be most advantageous.
Writing before the 21st century Device Age, C. S. Lewis’ demon Screwtape says, “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides as regards to Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.”
In Dante’s hell, the ravenous Satan doesn’t need to adapt, and doesn’t speak; he reigns. He doesn’t need to speak because he already owns the residents of hell. Virgil forewarns Dante as they approach Satan: “He (Virgil) stopped me, stepped away from where I stood saying, ‘Behold there, Dis (the devil)! Behold the place where you must arm yourself with fortitude’.”
The devil is accomplished at murder and terror
In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton writes:
There was established on the opposite coast of the inland sea (from Rome) a city that bore the name of New Town…It was an outpost or settlement of the energy or expansion of the great commercial cities of Tyre and Sidon…In the New Town, which the Romans called Carthage, as in the parent cities of Phoenicia, the god who got things done bore the name of Moloch, who was perhaps identical with the other deity whom we know as Baal, the Lord. The Romans did not at first know quite what to call him or what to make of him; they had to go back to the grossest myth of Greek or Roman origin and compare him to Saturn devouring his children. But the worshippers of Moloch were not gross or primitive. They were members of a mature and polished civilization, abounding in refinements and luxuries; they were probably more civilized than the Romans. And Moloch was not a myth; or at any rate his meal was not a myth. These highly civilized people really met together to invoke the blessing of heaven on their empire by throwing hundreds of their infants into a large furnace.
As Chesterton demonstrates, apart from whether the devil and his demons actually exist, countless millions have been sacrificed—murdered—in their names, right up to the present day.
In the Book of Genesis, Satan is seen tempting man and woman under the auspices of lifting them up: “But the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad’.” (Gen 3:4). In other words, no longer human, but angels. But the nature of man and woman is to be human, not angelic, and they can never be fulfilled by rejecting their God-given nature.
Goethe’s Mephistopheles tells a student, “Now heed my ancient serpent-aunt, her words were wise! And be like God; you’ll find it no light enterprise.”
Karol Wojtyla, St. John Paul II, writes in Crossing The Threshold of Hope, “God created man as rational and free, thereby placing Himself under man’s judgment. The history of salvation is also the history of man’s continual judgment of God. Not only of man’s questions and doubts but of his actual judgment of God. In part, the Old Testament Book of Job is the paradigm of this judgment. There is also the intervention of the evil spirit, who, with even greater shrewdness than man would judge not only man but God’s actions in human history.”
When the devil’s disciple-liberators take power: a Carthage in thrall to Moloch, the French Jacobins, American slaveholders, Soviets, Nazis, Mao’s workers paradise, ISIS, the Kims in North Korea, bodies pile up and terror descends like a fog.
The devil is masterful at twisting the good
Twisting the love of nature into nature worship and the equivalence of all living things; twisting the quest for knowledge into arrogance; twisting the quest for freedom into license to do whatever I will; twisting the quest for truth, beauty, and the good into a desire to self-define truth, beauty, and the good.
In Tolkien’s mythology, the most talented of all the elves was Feanor, who made the jewel-like Silmarils that awed and delighted even the Valar (angels). Tolkien’s Lucifer figure, Melkor, uses Feanor’s talent and destructive pride to sunder elves from angels, and from each other, producing a catastrophic centuries-long war. As Rod Serling said, “Some people possess talent, and others are possessed by it. When that happens, a talent is a curse.”
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devil, Professor Woland, in The Master and Margarita isn’t as forward as Goethe’s Mephistopheles, but he is no less sinister or steeped in malice, described as having one green (mad) eye and one black (dead) eye, and sometimes accompanied by a black cat of “revolting proportions”. Unlike his worldly interlocutors in the story, the Professor believes that Jesus really existed, though his Jesus is a twisted version who cannot save man, the version we’re so often subjected to today, in response to which St. Paul says, “For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:16-20).
The devil is relentless, and is the consummate liar
Why should an angelic being desire the destruction of mere human beings? Caryll Houselander suggests the devil’s obsession with man is “the torment of the damned—for Satan to be compelled to witness the indwelling of divine Love, of Jesus Christ, in the dust that we are made of, and to see the substance of earthly things endowed, by the touch of his human hands and the warmth of his breath, with life-giving power.”
Peter John Cameron asks why God would “ever allow temptation in the first place? Why not abolish temptation altogether? Maybe this is when Jesus told them (the disciples) the story about spending forty days in the desert and being tempted three times by Satan. For if Jesus undergoes certain forms of temptation, it reveals how indispensable temptation remains for the perfect living out of our own relationship with the Father.”
It’s the devil that’s in dire straits—imprisoned—in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode, “The Howling Man”, an allegorical story that depicts a Satan captured and imprisoned to curtail the wickedness he inflicts on man. The devil eventually escapes by exploiting the weakest human link, exactly the manner in which he relentlessly works on the conscience of each human being.
One of the most masterful depictions of this quality of the devil takes place between the wretched prisoner Hurin and Morgoth/Melkor in Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin: “I am the Eldar King Melkor, first and mightiest of all the Valar (Tolkien’s angels), who was before the world, and made it. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.”
And much the same devastation is wreaked on Denethor, the Steward of Minith Tirith, by Morgoth’s servant demon, Sauron, who breaks the Steward’s will and drives him mad with images of defeat and despair.
Stoking and inciting Faust’s despairing sentiments, Mephistopheles says:
“I am the spirit of perpetual negation;
And rightly so, for all things that exist
Deserve to perish, and would not be missed
Much better it would be if nothing were
Brought into being. Thus, what you men call
Destruction, sin, evil in short, is all
My sphere, the element I most prefer…”
Vividly depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, the devil is an androgynous accuser, dispensing despair, moving in and out of scenes from start to finish. Gibson’s devil is pressing with all it has while witnessing the apparent destruction of this cipher of a man.
The devil and the mystery of evil
How can evil in the world be reconciled with an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God? Why are the devil and his demons permitted to wreak havoc in the world?
Tolkien and Lewis had similar explanations for the problem of evil in the world, with both human and natural evil proceeding from God’s desire for his creatures to be free to make good or bad choices. Tolkien depicts natural evil as the result of Eru (the Creator) allowing Melkor’s “false notes” to remain in the “music” that brought the universe into being, with Eru intending to bring good even from Melkor’s rebelliousness.
Lewis explains the matter this way in Miracles: “In the first place, we ask how Nature created by a good God comes to be in this condition…her positive depravity calls for a very different explanation. According to the Christians, this is all due to sin; the sin both of men and of powerful, non-human beings, supernatural but created…The sin, both of men and of angels, was rendered possible by the fact that God gave them free will; thus surrendering a portion of his omnipotence”—as Karol Wojtyla said, subjecting Himself to their judgment—”…because He saw that from a world of free creatures even though they fell, He could work out…a deeper happiness and a fuller splendor than any world of automata would admit.”
The idea that God uses the angels as agents in creating the material world is, as Kreeft states, “…not heretical. It is a theologoumenon, or a possible theological opinion, that is found in some Church fathers…they (fallen angels) may have had a hand in the world’s ‘thorns and thistles’.”
C. S. Lewis’ demon Screwtape’s confusion about God’s relationship with man is expressed in one of his Letters to his protégé Wormwood: “Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it too; creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel, or assimilate them, will not serve.” The rebellious angels have no reticence about tampering with human freedom, while the faithful angels who respect human freedom, as their Creator does, rarely interfere in human commerce in explicit or spectacular ways.
A man shoveling snow has a heart attack, and dies in a snow bank. People who witness this are horrified. The man’s family and friends are devastated. Everyone who knew him agrees this is terrible. But the devil is distraught for another reason: the man was in a state of grace, so the devil has lost a fish that was once firmly hooked.
Karol Wojtyla observes: “The battle against the devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the archangel is still being fought today, because the devil is still alive and active in the world. The evils that surround us today, the disorders that plague our society, man’s inconsistency and brokenness, are not only the result of original sin, but also the result of Satan’s pervasive and dark action.” This from a philosophical giant, a man of mind who embraced art and science, and someone who experienced wickedness and the temptation it spawns, like wind and rain from the eye of a hurricane.
Know your enemy. Know what he’s after. Know his tactics.