Sunday, 9 May 2010

Good and Evil or God and the Devil?

I have recently been reading some posts on Lesley and Red's blogs about whether they believe in a personal devil. As a child, I was fascinated by a wonderful illustration in my children’s bible of the devil tempting Christ in the wilderness to throw himself off the highest mountain. Christ was rather conventionally depicted with flowing hair and a white robe and he wore an expression of disapproval, like a severe school teacher who is not amused by the latest attempts to disrupt classroom discipline. The devil was a rather glorious figure; he was hovering majestically in the air indicating all the cities and temples of the world, with wings outstretched. You could definitely see the appeal, and later helped me to understand Blake’s assertion that Milton wrote in chains and fetters when writing of God and at liberty when he described the Devil.
I think there are dangers associated with believing in a "personal devil", such as the tendency to demonise others or to simplify human complexity or fail to seek for the human rather than supernatural reasons that lie behind evil. However, I think there is also a problem in discarding the idea of a personal devil. We might argue that once the Devil loses the "D" and becomes "evil", then God may just pick up an "O" and come to equal all that is "good". I am not saying that this view of good and evil is wrong, but it is not really a personal faith.
So, what is my view? Well, I am not saying it is necessarily correct, but I do see the devil as a metaphor. I find it hard to believe the devil is a created being, an angel who fell and set himself up in opposition to God. I see that story as a myth, one which tries to explain that evil exists as a result of creating a universe in which choice and free will exists. However, I do believe in the existence of pure evil and in a source of pure evil which is contrary to all that is holy and Godly. I also believe that that source of evil can influence our thoughts and actions, if we open ourselves to it; is that close enough to "the devil"? I think it is.

(You may like to read a Ugandan perspective here at the Ugandananglican.)


  1. It's from a Buddhist perspective, but you might enjoy and be provoked by Stephen Batchelor's wonderful 'Living with the Devil'.

  2. I shall look it out! I will have a little more time to read soon - the students go on study leave in a few weeks time. I am finishing teaching Blake at the moment. I love Blake and whenever I teach him I feel that I feel I must be "of the devil's persuasion without knowing it."
    I have just finished reading the Pullman book "Jesus the good man and Christ the scoundrel"

  3. The religious element of the question only exists because religion exists making claims for a God that is active in the affairs of human kind, but unable to offer any direct evidence for such. To quote Ghandi: the only devils that exist are those running around inside the hearts of men" and there are plenty. One might also say that as a species, we remain on the 'moral' learning curve. evil being the limitations of our ethical understanding, which appear fixed by our evolutionary inheritance!

  4. Thank you for commenting, Klatu.

    If you are an atheist, I guess good and evil are purely human constructs anyhow and do not exist in any real sense?

    One of the problems of considering good and evil as a matter of ethics might be that what one culture see as intrinsically good, another could reject as evil. As Hamlet said, "there's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so."

    From that perspective, are there any moral absolutes?

  5. I appreciate your struggles and as someone who has moved from the idea of a personal devil, I recognise your struggles. Thank you for sharing them. Incidentally I admire your honesty and willingness to share it online. The only problem I see is that it is possible then to justify the idea of a personal deity. Or am I just being picky?

  6. Hi F and thanks for commenting.

    No, I don't think it is being picky and I do look at the potential danger of losing the idea of a personal devil is that that could erode the idea of a personal god. For me, losing a belief in a personal devil has not led me to question the existence of God as a very real entity, that's all I can say on that one!

    I had a look at your blog and read the section about you, which was interesting and I will return for a longer read. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  7. Sue, thanks for the interesting post and blog in general, I wish I had the time and eloquence to comment more frequently.
    Practically speaking, there are a couple of issues that we need to hold in mind when thinking about the devil.

    1. The bible does tend present the devil as a clearly identifiable person, and Jesus' belief in demonic posession seems fairly clear (eg Luke 10:18).

    2. The bible is also absolutely clear that the devil is in no way equal to God in glory or Authority, and has 'lost' following Jesus' death and resurrection. When Legion confronts Jesus in Matthew 8:28-34 there is an apparent understanding of Jesus' complete authority and power.

    3. When people are described as evil it downplays the truth that we are made in God's image, and is therefore a thoroughly unhelpful thing.

  8. Hi AChristiandad,
    It is lovely to see you commenting - you're always welcome.

    I think we see the bible in very different ways ( I may do a post on how people read the bible sometime.) I suppose I would say that in Christ's time, people did not have the concept of mental illness and other conditions, so these were understood as demon possession, and Jesus spoke to the understanding and the language of that time.
    I think seeing people as "demon possessed" is potentially dangerous, it can lead to very vulnerable people suffering spiritual and psychological abuse or, in the worst of cases, lead to abuse such as happened to that little girl, Victoria Climbie.(Ugandananglican's post gives an interesting perspective.)

    I agree the bible largely presents the devil as a "person", I suppose I see this as a personifying of evil.

    However, I do have a fairly open mind. I do believe in evil in the pure sense and I am convinced that involvement in the occult is dangerous.

    I agree that it is unhelpful to describe people as "evil", although people can do very evil things.