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Who the Devil . . .?
February 23, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


On a warm summer day, two boys were lying on the soft green grass looking up into the maze of soft blue and white fluffy clouds. One boy, reflecting his new found scientific knowledge of the atmosphere, said, “There ain’t no sky.” The other boy, still gazing upward, looking at the upturned bowl, questioned, “Then what is it that ain’t?” Some people say, “There ain’t no devil.” To which others gazing out on bloodshed, war, discrimination, hunger, crime, sickness, injustice, ask, “Then, what is it that ain’t?” It is a good question.

Contrary to what our eyes tell us, there is no bowl up there painted with blue and white images. There is no sky as such, but how else can it be ex­pressed. Perhaps there is no devil as such, but then, “What is it that ain’t? 

We have interrupted the series on the windows to look at the devil on this second Sunday in Lent. The designer did not devote any of our windows to the devil, perhaps because the devil is already a pain! Last week we looked at the testing of Jesus in the wasteland, how the devil tempted him with security, certainty and authority. This morning, let’s look more closely at who the devil is. What does the Christian church mean by the devil?

There is no developed idea of a devil or Satan in the Old Testament. Wickedness, evil is acknowledged but there is no personification of evil into a devil. The only real reference to Satan is in the book of Job where Satan is seen as an accuser. He is the prosecuting attorney in the court of God bringing charges against Job’s faithfulness and loyalty. Here the devil is an accuser, but not necessarily evil nor does he command destructive forces.

Other religions developed the idea of evil personified. The Babylonians, whom we shall be discussing soon in later windows, had Tiamat, a horned and clawed fowl. Set, the Egyptian devil, appears as a snake or crocodile. To Hindus the devil is Kalo, a black many-armed goddess who swaggers through the world spreading disaster with a collection of human heads dangling at her belt.

The New Testament reflects the popular Greek view of the world of that time—a spiritual world and a physical world such. The spiritual world of cosmic forces, demons, and the devil are seen on the pages of the New Testament. Jesus heals by driving out demons. He is tempted by the devil himself. Paul proclaims Christ’s victory over the cosmic forces—the principalities and powers. 

Throughout the middle ages and continuing into the modern era, the devil has played a large role in Christian thought. Now today there is a renewal of interest because of movies like the “Exorcist.” Also, a growing interest in devil worship, black masses.

What does it all mean? Is there a devil? If not, what is there that ain’t? Is there a force bent on destruction whose sole purpose is to destroy you and me, and all that is good and beautiful?

Perhaps the voice of the devil in the wilderness was Jesus’ own inner questions and doubts as he struggled with the direction his ministry would take. Perhaps these conversations occurred within himself and have been objectified for easier telling and recording. Certainly, as far as you and I are concerned, we have many dialogues within ourselves between our lesser and higher impulses and desires, No person is wholly good nor wholly bad. We have both urges. We are both saints and sinners. There is something demonic in us as well as angelic. Perhaps the force of evil we call the devil is really the heart of each person. Even so stated, our question is not really answered.

Is there an independent reality of evil? Is there a devil as well as God? We are beginning to see the truth of the ancient Christian assertion that there is a spiritual world as well as the natural world. Existence is not exhausted by this world, nor by our sensory perceptions. There is another reality which Isaiah experienced through his worship exper­ience. Because of where we are, confined to this physical world, all talk about the spiritual world is symbolic. We use images drawn from this world to talk about that world. Our talk is therefore by analogy. No one has seen God. It is difficult to conceive of spirit; therefore we talk about God as if he were a person. We call him Father, King, Lord, Shepherd. We use human terms to speak of God because human terms are the highest and most noble terms we can create and understand.

When we look at the world in which we live we see a mixture of crea­tive and destructive powers. Our logic tells us that the creative pre­cedes the destructive; there must be something to destroy before some­thing can be destroyed. Therefore, the creator God is the Source, the beginning of life. Because we see creative and destructive in this world, we project the same dichotomy into the spiritual world, and as we analogize God by using human, personal terms, so we analogize evil by using human, personal terms and calling it the devil. We experience the devil as a personal destructiveness; he issues personal invitations, tempts me to cooperate with him in my own destruction.

Who would deny the reality of evil, the force of destruction? A friend of mine when he finished seminary and was assigned to his first church, had a very difficult funeral service. A father strangled three of his own children, drove his car deliberately into the back of a semi, killing himself and another son. My friend conducted the funeral. The church was lined with five caskets. Five hearses led the Mother to the cemetery. Is it enough to say that the father was emotionally ill, mentally deranged? Whether we use devil language or psychological language, the effect is the same. The destruction of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany was a triumph of planning, executive ability, bureaucratic order, a magnificent administrative achievement—possessed by the devil!

The New Testament accepts the reality of evil, symbolically personifying it by calling it the devil, demons, principalities, powers, cosmic forces. But the good news of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is victor­ious over evil. At Easter we celebrate the power of the resurrection, the conquest of the devil by Christ. The creative love and power of God has won.

Now, what does all this mean to us today? To take the devil seriously would have what effect on our daily living? How shall we meet each day and each situation when recognizing the reality of a force bent on our destruction?

First, acceptance does not mean that we live in fear. The old bogey man of a red devil hiding under the table, or possessing someone, needs to be relegated to the closet. We do not need to resurrect prim­itive, medieval, ignorant fears. Secondly, acknowledging the reality of the force of evil does not excuse us nor our behavior. “The devil made me do it” should not be in our vocabulary. It is so easy for us to blame someone else, blame our parents, blame the times, the situation. We make our decisions. We decide how to live our lives—no one else. After all, the devil can’t do much without our cooperation.

To take the devil seriously does mean that each day should be given to God. Live each day to his glory. Begin your day with the prayer, “Lord, this is your day. Take this day. Take my life. Take me.” Trust God with your plans, your dreams. Live each day in his name.

To take the devil seriously does mean that you should be conscious, aware of struggle. Life is a struggle, not an easy freeway to happiness. It is not a popular, wide, accessible freeway, but rather life is a sparsely traveled road of bumps, ruts, pot holes to avoid. There are hills, bad curves requiring caution. It is a road of tears, pain, confession, repentance, forgiveness, backing up and trying again.

But it is a road that is going somewhere, and that gives us hope and determination to keep the battery charged engine tuned, gas tank filled. And the hope, the scenery, the road signs that signal our progress makes the traveling joyful.

Lire is a struggle. Even Jesus was not exempt, even he struggled with the devil. Life is a struggle and our task in this life is to nourish the good; fight for the good, the true, the just, the kind, the beautiful. Acknowledging the ugliness in life rather than pretending it doesn’t exist gives us a goal, gives us something to do. We are to fight evil, to stand up for Jesus.

And we fight by love. The devil can’t handle love. Love is the most powerful weapon on this earth. We can even love the devil out of people, out of situations, out of communities. Love—build up rather than tear down, edify rather than criticize, educate rather than demean or destroy.

“What there is that ain’t” can be called the devil, acknowledging the reality of evil. Give your life to God, accept the struggle, and stand prepared to fight. I used the analogy of life as a trip down a rugged road. Our New Testament lesson this morning used the analogy of a soldier preparing for battle. Hear again these words of Paul, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Victory is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord who has already conquered the powers of death. Amen.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris