The Church of England (and Wales) is in a bit of a fluff over the devil. Should we ask candidates for baptism, or their parents and godparents, to reject him and all his works? Or is that too confronting, too difficult for them to understand, too medieval a mode of expression? Do we even believe in him any more?
Anne Atkins, in today’s Thought for the Day, argues for the existence of the devil:
Michael Green, in his book, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, points out that we regard the highest forms of life to be those that are sentient, capable of awareness and planning. … God thinks: He speaks, and argues. He feels: He and loves and hates. He wills: deciding on action and carrying it out.
If this is so, it is at least a rational supposition that the same could be true of evil. Indeed, otherwise it’s hard to see how evil ultimately exists. The difference between a wicked crime and an unfortunate accident is intent: one is wilful, the other fortuitous. If there is no evil objective behind the sorrows of the world, then they are not wrong but random…
This type of thinking about evil goes back a long way, indeed it is essentially the dualism of ancient Greek philosophy, which sees good and evil as two great powers in contest over the world. As rational as the supposition might be, it has never been a Christian view of the world. It misunderstands the nature of the devil. And it misunderstands the nature of God.
The devil is not the embodiment of all evil; not evil incarnate. God expects Satan to do good, just as every other being is expected to do good; on what other grounds is he punished for doing evil? His punishment is quite clear: “Because you have done this…” (Gen 3:14) That Satan is created is so fundamental that it is not even mentioned explicitly; we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Satan’s eternal punishment is seen by John: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Rev 20:10)
Satan’s role is not to create evil per se but to drag humanity away from God. From the very first temptation in the garden, Satan led not to destruction and death but to disobedience to God. Satan did not cause evil to Job as an end in itself but so that he could accuse Job. Jesus was not tempted to use his power to cause misery, suffering and death but to bow down and worship him.
And God is not merely the embodiment of all good. God is not good because he has to be good, as though there were some law of goodness to which he is subject. God is good because he chooses to be good. If it were not so, what would the temptation of Jesus mean? Temptation is not temptation if there is not the real possibility to giving in to it; resisting temptation is easy when the thing you are resisting is impossible anyway. It is very easy for me, say, to resist the temptation of levitation, or of eating nitrogen, or of living in Wales, because those things are simply physically impossible. And if God’s goodness were not by choice but by compulsion, on what grounds would it be glorious and worthy of praise?
It does not do to ponder a sort of parallel universe where God is not like this; thanks be to God that he is.