I’m writing a story about the devil.
I’ve been working on it for quite some time – off and on for the past three years – but I’m about to finish it up. When I’ve completed it (and have gone through it with a fine-tooth editing comb that is both the writer’s thorn and tweezers), it will most likely be saved and stowed away in a folder on my hard drive. If I don’t mind using the ink, I might print it out and place it in an actual paper folder. Other than that, I don’t envision the story having much impact beyond my own experience of writing it. I know it will be too long to submit to a magazine or journal, too short to call a novel, too genre-like to appeal to a writing workshop, and too literary to interest publishers of Koontz or King. It’s about the Devil, after all, and the Devil is one hell of a character to get a handle on.
Whatever you know – or think you know – about God and religion, you are at least familiar with the Devil. It’s hard not to be; the name itself has worked its way into our figures of speech. “That ol’ devil,” and “Speak of the devil,” and the ultimate hyperbole: “You’re the devil!” Centuries upon centuries of influence have effected idioms like “The devil made me do it,” “The devil is in the details,” “Give the devil his due,” and one of Granny’s greatest hits, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
Within some of these familiar adages, and other sayings like them, there are kernels of truth. However, to get down to that truth takes a bit more digging than most people have the patience for. I mean, didn’t Freud say something to the effect that the devil is only a product of the psychic activity of man. Unless you’re really into literal interpretation of the Bible (and, to a lesser extent, the Koran and various Buddhist writings), it seems much more logical to understand the Devil as simply a personification of the evil that humans do. Then again, one of Dostoevsky’s characters remarked, “I think if the devil doesn’t exist, then man has created him. He has created him in his own image and likeness.” If there is no actual Devil, we have only ourselves to blame when it comes to the evil that humans do. That’s not the most encouraging of thoughts.
Near the end of my story, Ben, the main character and narrator, states, “It’s been said that the greatest trick the devil ever played is convincing the world he didn’t exist. I don’t think that’s true. We convinced ourselves. The devil had nothing to do with it.” Ben says this not because he’s lost faith in humanity, but because he’s terrified humanity has gotten the whole Devil question wrong for centuries.
Is Ben right? Have we? Has our understanding of the Devil – whether as an actual entity or simply a metaphor for human vice – been warped by years and years and years of misinterpretation and mythic fabrication?
I recently read a short story by Stephen King called “Fair Extension,” about a man with cancer who propitiously encounters a business man, going by the name of George Elvid (hello!) who is willing to offer a deal: he’ll take away the man’s cancer and guarantee good luck in the future, but in fairness he must transfer the disease and bad luck to someone else. When I taught American literature, I assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a tale of the devil corrupting a Puritan village and inciting worship, or at least tricking the main character into thinking he was doing that. I would also teach Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” an Americanized folk tale version of the popular Faustian legend. Having already lectured on literary archetypes – including the “devil figure” – we would then discuss exactly who the Devil is, and what powers he actually possesses.
The first appearance of an actual devil figure – rather than a mere manifestation of human naughtiness – is found in the Old Testament of the Bible. When pointed in that direction, most people will immediately conjure the image of a talking snake, because everyone knows the serpent in the Garden of Eden was Satan; the talking-snake-is-the-devil thing also jives with the Devil as a liar and eternal enemy of God, a sly creature hell-bent on corrupting mankind and spawning villainy and immorality. Be that as it may, the first appearance in the scriptures of the actual character, the Satan or Ha-Satan in Hebrew, is in the Book of Job. Many people will remember this story as the famous wager between God and the Devil, though I always found it strange that Satan could just walk into heaven as if to attend a business meeting. What angelic bouncer wasn’t minding the gates that day? That’s cause for a reprimand, and grounds for termination when it happens again in the very next chapter.
Unless Satan – or, literally, the Satan - had every right to be there. God certainly isn’t surprised to see him, or even bothered by his presence. If anything, he seems to address the Satan as if a report is due. It’s almost as if – All Aboard! Next stop: Heresy – Satan is simply doing his job (no pun intended). He doesn’t seem to be the archenemy of God - the Lex Luthor to Jesus’ Superman. He seems more like Heaven’s district attorney. Now, without the “Ha” article, “satan” shows up ten times in the Old Testament and is usually interpreted as “adversary” or “accuser.” In the Book of Job, however, the Satan is used (as well as in the third chapter of Zechariah). This is not merely a name, just like Jesus’s mailbox doesn’t read “Mr. Christ.” Rather, “Satan” is a title, a role. It’s the Devil’s job to act as the adversary, or the accuser, of human beings. And that’s just what he does in Job. Sure, he plays the part of the bad cop, but remove all the preconceived ideas about the Devil and what you have is an angelic being doing the very job he’s called upon to do.
Sounds like a pretty crummy job. Probably just above working in the lost luggage office for Air France.
What we know of the Devil as a malevolent being committed to human apostasy and ultimate annihilation is a combination of New Testament revision and a hodge-podge of apocryphal books, medieval literature, a Rolling Stones song and, I don’t know, maybe that awful Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Am I saying the Devil is not evil? Am I intimating that he is not the enemy of God? No, I am not. I have the New Testament epistles that refer to his trickery and his appetite for our fallenness. And I have the Gospels, where Satan (in Greek, Diabolos) goes after Jesus, trying to get him to forsake his humility and committment to God’s will. Then again, even this story – the most direct reference to the Devil in the entire New Testament – isn’t much different from the Satan’s business in the Old.
What I am saying is that if there is one thing the Devil is not, it’s to blame. He’s become a scapegoat for our own iniquity. Contrary to the sayings, the devil didn’t make you do anything. Contrary to the stories, the Devil is not interested in striking a deal with you in exchange for your soul or your allegiance. Contrary to Mick Jagger, the Devil doesn’t assassinate czars or presidents.
In the story I’m writing, the most frightening thing about the Devil is not how evil he is, but the fact that he knows how capable the human characters are of doing their own evil, of creating a world of depravity all by ourselves. In other words, we should fear the Devil not because he’s good at lying to us, but because he’s very good at convincing us of our own sinfulness. In his classic epistolary novel, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis examines this very strategy. Imaginatively depicting Satan’s mission as a demon army complete with high ranks commanding underlings (thank you, Middle Ages), he expounds on the greatest trickery of all: Satan isn’t out to redirect our worship onto him, but simply to persuade us that God wants nothing to do with humankind. Why would he? Look at all the horror that we do on a daily basis, from flipping off people in traffic to sex-trafficking twelve-year-old girls. And to top it off, even God’s hands and feet and mouthpiece in the world, the Church, often places the blame not on humanity, but on that shrewd and slippery Satan – he’s behind it all.
We don’t turn to Jesus because we want to escape the Devil. We turn to Jesus because he’s the only way to escape the reality that Satan might actually be proven right about us. Ultimately, the Devil doesn’t lie. We are unworthy. We do place our faith in our possessions rather than in Almighty God. We are living as if we’re the masters of our own fate. The district attorney has made his case, and we’re left stuttering in the witness stand, spitting excuses and appealing to some vague idea of being “good enough.”
No wonder Jesus refers to His Spirit as “the Advocate.” No wonder one of the most powerful metaphors of his sacrifice and death is to be the one who takes all our well-deserved blame upon himself and allows the death sentence to fall on him.
The moment we start believing the Devil isn’t real is the moment we stop seeing the cross of Jesus as indispensible. Is it too crazy to suggest that we should actually be thankful for the Satan? Whether you’re compelled to believe in an actual being or simply a personification of our own inability to measure up, there is a need to give the devil his due.
Now you can see why very few people would be interested in my story.