Beware of the Devil

Do you believe in the Devil?

It seems probable that a large number of modern Christians would be somewhat embarrassed if faced with the question. Many would like to see in Satan only a symbolic representation of the evil tendencies in human nature. Others, while giving a notional assent to his existence, could hardly be said to believe effectively in him, to make that belief an active element in their lives: their assent would remain notional rather than real.

Certainly it seems that the Devil is rather played down in modern Christian teaching and writing, and we tend to discount stories, such as we find in the lives of the saints, in which he makes a personal appearance.

It seems useful to inquire why this is so.


Granted that Satan does exist, it would be extremely foolish and dangerous to write him off as mere fantasy. Indeed, as the writer Denis de Rougemont has pointed out, Satan’s great triumph in modern times consists precisely in having caused mankind to disbelieve in him. For if Satan is as mighty and malicious, as close to us, and as intent on our destruction as Christian tradition would have us believe, nothing could be more foolhardy than to pretend he does not exist at all.

Moreover it is a short step from disbelief in Satan to disbelief in the reality of moral evil in any form, to the view that there is never anything morally censurable in crime: that it is simply a disease, as wanting in moral significance as measles or a cold, and to be cured simply by proper medical or psychiatric treatment. Sin, too, as distinguished from the more obvious and violent forms of antisocial behavior which we call crime, has lost most of its meaning and become largely a question of outmoded social conventions or obscurantist prejudices.

Such a climate of opinion may well influence Christians, who live in it, more deeply and in more ways than they realize. It is possible, while acknowledging the reality of sin, to adopt in practice a somewhat cavalier attitude toward it, as something regrettable, of course, but inevitable and not worth all the fuss the theologians and devout writers make about it.

And where Satan is concerned, it is all too easy to accept his existence in a vague and wholly theoretical sort of way while in practice ignoring it. We are often “tempted,” yes; but for the source of the temptation we need look no farther than ourselves. We know so much more nowadays than was known, for instance, in the Middle Ages about our own urges and impulses and motivations. Medieval man, aware of the upsurge of some sinful impulse in him, looked around for a demon, with horns and tail, to explain it; others have changed all that for us.

But there is something very naive and unreal about any such clear-cut distinction between temptations which spring simply from our own inclination to evil and others which might be supposed to be due entirely to the promptings of Satan. In the first place, if Satan does exist and is what Christianity holds him to be, he is far too intelligent to tempt us to forms of evil to which we have no inclination: on the contrary, he will seek to utilize our own particular propensities.

Secondly, we have to accept those propensities as realities within ourselves, yes; but how did they get there? If we look just at the imperfections, the quirks of character, in our friends and in ordinary, decent people, we may well fail to discern any sign of diabolical activity. But what if we take a larger view? If we look at the appalling burden of physical and mental anguish which weighs down the world, and at the still more appalling cruelty, malice, and stark evil which cause so much of it, shall we be so ready to believe that all this is sufficiently explained from within humanity — the humanity we know as normally so decent, so good?

We can invoke, plausibly and indeed validly enough, the psychology of sadism to explain one case of murderousness; this criminal is a diseased man just as surely as the victim of cancer or tuberculosis, and the one simply needs psychiatric treatment as the other needs medical treatment. But then multiply the one example, as we have to, by millions. There is not just something wrong with one man or with a few men; our whole world is a diseased. It becomes less easy to write Satan off as a medieval superstition.

Why, then, do we find it so hard to take the Devil seriously? The question was studied in an interesting essay by Professor Henri Irénée Marrou entitled “Un ange déchu, un ange pourtant” (“A fallen angel, yet still an angel.”) He suggests that the difficulty springs from the fact that we are not really thinking of Satan at all, but of a phantasma, a caricature, against which it is natural enough, and indeed laudable, to react, for it represents not the Devil of Christian theology, but the princi­ple of evil of Gnosticism: as God is wholly good, is indeed the Good, so we think of Satan as wholly evil, as Evil the adversary on more or less equal terms with the Good.

We have to remember, first of all, that according to Christian thought, evil is non-being — a privation. Satan therefore is not evil, pure and simple, as God is pure goodness: he is an angel, and his fall did not destroy his angelic nature. So it is that some early Christian paintings depict him as a beautiful winged youth; after all, his biblical name, Lucifer, the “light-bearer,” underlines this idea of beauty, of dazzling splendor.

He is said in many stories to have appeared to men under monstrous shapes; but these are momentary disguises designed to inspire terror, and are no more a representation of Satan’s angelic nature than the simpering, epicene, winged young men of modern repository art are a faithful representation of the good angels.

In the second place, we have to remember that if we find it hard to believe in the fallen angels, we will find it hard to believe in angels at all. That is part of the penalty we pay for our pervasive materialism. Like doubting Thomas, we are reluctant to believe in anything we cannot see or touch. As Marrou points out, except perhaps for the idea of guardian angels, Christian angelology means very little to us; and he points in particular to the eclipse in modern times of the archangel Michael compared with his important cultus in the Middle Ages.

We might well remind ourselves, therefore, that in this, as in so much else, we are almost alone in the world’s history in the impoverishment to which our materialism has led us; we might remind ourselves that it is, to say the least, somewhat arrogant to suppose that in the unimaginable vastness of the universe, we humans are the sole intelligent creatures, perched improbably as we are on the tiny speck of dust we call the earth. We should be far better equipped for life, and should find life far more interesting, if we were more aware of Jacob’s ladder and had the sense to understand the Christian reality faintly adumbrated in the naiads and dryads of the Greeks.

We would be better equipped to deal with evil and its effects if we realized that while the kingdom of God is within us, the kingdom of Satan can be within us too; and that the Greek satyrs, whom we meet also in the book of Isaiah, should suggest to us something much deeper and more sinister than a mere pagan lewdness. They should suggest something somber and subhumanly degraded, but satanic too; for the satyr is the symbol of man half-dehumanized, half turned into a goat. But traditionally it is the goat who is adored in the witches’ sabbats, for it is the purpose of the warped but still mighty superhuman spirit to rob us of our humanity so as to make it impossible for us to know divinity.

We are indebted to C. S. Lewis for an imaginative presentation of the angelic nature far nearer to reality than the conceptions of the repository artists, and we would do well to reconstruct our mental image of Satan accordingly: an angel like the others, but malignant, his mighty nature wholly given over to the pursuit of evil. God created free beings, beings therefore endowed with the terrible power of retreating from reality into nothingness if they so willed — for, once again, evil is privation, nonbeing, emptiness — and Satan is simply the first of those beings to choose this path. We moderns, with our somber understanding of the will-to-death, should not find that conception so remote from our ordinary ways of thought. We have our own nostalgie de la boue: it is simply the urge to do in our own more brutish way what Satan, in all the majesty of his giant intellect, did in his.

The extreme expression of that nostalgia is to be found in that worship of Satan which is part of human history and is far from being extinct at the present day. We may write off a great deal of demonology and witchcraft as mere moonshine. The fact remains that underneath all that, there is a hard core of hatred of God and servitude to His greatest enemy; there is all the horror and blasphemy of the Black Mass, and the fact of the ravaged souls and psychotic frenzies of its hierophants.

Where all else fails, terror may be the last remaining motive of credibility. There is certainly nothing unreasonable or infantile about a fear inspired by the Mystery of Iniquity; but whatever else it may be, that Mystery cannot be ultimate Reality: to believe in Satan is to be logically committed to belief in God.

But to believe in the Devil is not to believe that every time we are conscious of an evil impulse in ourselves, we must see in it the direct influence of Satan himself. Christian angelology tells us simply that the visible world we apprehend through our senses is not the only reality with which we are in contact; that in that visible world there is another world of mighty spirits, some filled with love of God and striving to help the world through its travail to its ultimate fulfillment in God, and others filled with hatred of God and striving to destroy the world with that hatred and its effects.

It is that evil power that covers the world, as St. Augustine puts it, as though with an aer caliginosus, a pall of dense, murky vapor, shutting out the light of the sun. We speak of being black-hearted: that is what happens when the vapor finds entry into the soul, and we know well enough the horrors, the degradation, and the disintegration to which it can lead. We do well, then, to recognize Satan for what he really is.

In the case of our own temptations, we should certainly be ill-advised to try to distinguish between those which are of immediate satanic origin and those which are not. The important thing is that they are all of satanic origin in the sense that ultimately they all spring from the evil which has twisted and warped the soul of humanity, from that Mystery of Iniquity which is not to be explained in terms of humanity itself. When, then, we think of the story of our Lord’s temptations, we can for practical purposes, when applying it to our own experience, think of Satan simply in terms of those evil suggestions and impulses, rising up within us, with which we are so familiar.

But we are wise to remind ourselves of the mighty power of evil from which they ultimately spring; we are wise to remember the words in which St. Paul warns us: “It is not against flesh and blood that we enter the lists; we have to do with princedoms and powers, with those who have mastery of the world in these dark days, with malign influences in an order higher than ours.” For only if we are persuaded of that shall we be moved to obey St. Paul’s bidding and take up the armor of God so that we may be able to stand our ground when the evil time comes.

We do well to fear the might and malice of Satan, and this story can teach us, among many other things, the fear that we need.

Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from The Devil and How to Resist Him, which has been reprinted by Sophia Institute Press. 

Fr. Gerald Vann, OP


Fr. Gerald Vann (1906-1963) was an English Dominican priest, philosopher, and scholar. He was the author of numerous articles and books about subjects as various as Thomas Aquinas, morality, and warfare. His work reflects a deep understanding of humanity and its relationship to God. He died after battling a long illness in 1963.

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