AN EXAMPLE OF HOW HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE CAN BE USED FOR LOOKING INTO THEOLOGICAL TOPICS

Reproduced with the permission of St.  Mary's Press.

Notes on Angels and Devils

By John L. McKenzie

Copyright 1982Ä1983 by Saint Mary's Press, Winona, Minnesota 55987.

THERE IS HARDLY ANY DOUBT that man, up to quite recent times, has always and everywhere felt that he walked in a world populated by unseen beings endowed with hidden powers whose effects were indeed palpable, but whose operations were beyond human comprehension and control.  These beings were usually personal, possessed of a superior intelligence.  Yet they were at the same time pathetically feeble, controlled by incantations which are collections of nonsense syllables, valid only if they are recited correctly.  Sometimes these unseen beings are identified with the spirits of the departed, who cannot rest because they have been denied decent burial.  There is no doubt that in many places the practices of burial and of cremation were intended not only to dispose of the remains of the deceased but also to put their spirits at rest.

These unseen beings could be either well disposed or malicious; in either case, human beings who enjoyed the rare gift of communication with them and some degree of control over them were credited with supernatural power, always to be feared and sometimes to be annulled by such desperate means as the killing of the possessors of occult power.  Many of these ancient beliefs and superstitions survive in the pranks and costumes of Halloween, the witches' sabbath.  That the beliefs lie at a shallow depth below the surface of civilised rationalism is suggested by the recent success of the novel and the film The Exorcist

Even a superficial acquaintance with the demonology of the ancient Near East shows that the books of the Old and New Testaments were written in the same world of spirits in which their contemporaries in neighbouring lands dwelt.  Yet traditional Christianity has long regarded the existence of the world of spirits as an article of faith.  Belief in the existence of demons was a primitive attempt to explain a number of evils of which no cause could be observed.  Unless man in some way can control or at least hinder such demonic operations, life could not be tolerated.  Evils of genuine catastrophic magnitude were not attributed to demons; these had to be the work of an angry and hostile deity.  Demons might be responsible for the souring of milk or a toothache; but a hurricane or an earthquake lay beyond their powers of wreaking evil.  If ancient man were asked whether the universe were friendly, he would have answered, Of course not; but we can handle it, unless we are compelled to resort to prayer.  It was not their belief in demons which distinguished Israelites and Jews from the Gentiles, it was their belief in a different quality of deity.  Superstition is essentially antireligious, but the human mind is such a marvel of inconsistency that the two can coexist in the same person.

T In modern times, a more profound and a more extensive understanding of natural forces has made it unnecessary and even impossible to postulate the existence and operations of demons.  The same knowledge does not so obviously make it impossible to postulate the existence of benevolent spirits or angels.  Yet the fact that we do not experience the operations of angels makes it difficult to argue their existence on the basis of the Bible or traditional belief.  The theologian now regards the ancient belief in angels and devils as on exactly the same level as the ancient belief in a flat earth about which the sun revolves, above which there lies heaven, and beneath which there is hell.  The observation of the ancients did not go as far as modern observation has gone.  We should not stop with that rather arrogant remark.  Like all mythologies, angels and demons were an attempt to face reality.  It is not intellectual progress to deny that there is a reality to be faced.

I am aware that there is danger of a logical fallacy in making my experience the criterion of reality; and even the collective experience of many does not escape this fallacy.  We all know (from experience!) how easily we, as a crowd, can convince ourselves collectively of things which are not so.  The same century which saw the career of Isaac Newton saw also a firm, popular conviction of the reality of witchcraft.  Hence, I say that I have never experienced angels or devils at work with the added caution that I do not know everything, nor have I ever met anyone who did.  I can say that, like others, I have never made the existence of angels or devils a factor in my plans, nor have I known anyone who did.

I realise also that the convinced atheist may leap on this uncertainty and say that I also lack any experience of God.  I can only respond that the existence of mankind and the world is an object of experience, and that neither is a sufficient explanation of its own reality.  If they are, then they are God.  If they are not, then I am not satisfied, as the atheist seems to be, with explaining chickens as the product of eggs, and eggs as the product of chickens.  I intend to convince or to refute no one, but simply to set forth in very summary form the shreds of logical discourse on which conviction of the reality of God is joined with some uncertainty about the reality of angels and devils.  I am all but certain that the angels and devils of popular belief are mythological beings.  This does not entitle me to say that the area of reality does not contain spiritual creatures of which I know nothing.

The Christian theologian who takes up this topic cannot and should not evade the fact that the Gospels exhibit a belief in the reality of angels and devils, and that they present Jesus as sharing this belief.  The exorcisms of the Gospels are just that, exorcisms: the expulsion of real personal beings who do real harm.  The fact that these beings drown when the pigs which they inhabit are drowned should cause even the fundamentalist reader a second, or a third, thought; I know nothing about spirits, but I cannot find room in my mind for spirits which can be drowned.  Contemporary interpreters assume that the Gospels sometimes relate events which never happened, and they seek the meaning of the text in some place other than literal, historical narrative.  Perhaps they sometimes fail; they think their failures are preferable to accepting the drowning of two thousand personal spiritual beings.

But the evil wrought by devils in the New Testament is greater than the illnesses and other afflictions

which can often be readily explained as diseases not recognised and not subject to treatment by ancient medicine.  Satan appears in the Gospels and Epistles as the Tempter, the great inciter to evildoing.  This figure of the Tempter appears only in some later books of the Old Testament, and very frequently in the apocryphal books of Judaism in the later pre-Christian centuries.  The New Testament Satan is clearly derived from this figure.  He is a cosmic figure of evil, a true anti-God.  He struggles with God on equal terms as long as God permits him; but, in Judaism and in early Christianity, this struggle must and will issue in the final and total defeat of the Tempter, and the final and total reign of God.  And it seems that this conception of the two cosmic kingdoms at war is reflected in the Epistles and was accepted by Jesus himself.

To this point several remarks may be made.  The first is that the language of the New Testament, and of Jesus himself as reported, is the language of popular beliefs about God, man, and nature which modern man feels unable to take seriously.  The men and women of New Testament times lived on a flat world of narrow dimensions.  They thought of its age as not much greater than what we call historical memory; its origins, so to speak, lay just beyond the horizon.  Man had always been historic man, physically and culturally unchanged as far back as human memory ran.  People could not even think or speak of the world in terms other than those of experience.  Jesus did not come to explain the circulation of the blood; but if he had, what terms intelligible to his contemporaries could he have used? I suppose one could put the difference between the ancient world-view and our world-view if one were to say that the ancients thought of the world as stable.  In modern times we expect the world to change, and to change beneath our eyes.

I have already noted that the people of this stable world had lived for several thousand years (the period of history) in a world populated by spirits.  I do not know what words Jesus may have used about their existence; I am sure that those who remembered and reported his words could not have created a world in which there were no spirits.  What could Jesus have said about angels and devils which would have been meaningful to his listeners? In his speech, angels are literary ornaments, as they were ornaments of religious symbolism in Christian art.  About devils he said the only meaningful thing he could have said: do not fear them, because they have no power over you.  When a child fears the dark (I confess that I did) the fear is removed not by denying the existence of darkness, but by showing that the darkness is not dangerous.  It is not for nothing that the devil was called the prince of darkness.  If Christians had believed the words of Jesus about the power and will of God for good, they would have overcome the atavistic fear of demons and not have allowed the history of Christendom to be defaced by centuries of superstition, which issued in such episodes of panic as the burning of witches -- some of whom pathetically seem to have believed in their own maleficent power.

This seems to sum up the teaching of Jesus in words he never used: whether devils exist or not is unimportant; it is important to know that God communicates to you his power over them, and any fear of them is pathological.  But the devil serves a useful purpose in human thought and culture, as I shall point out shortly; hence, the admonitions of Jesus to ignore him have rarely been heard, while even modern man clings to the thought patterns of a vanished culture.  It would be worthwhile to dwell briefly upon these patterns which lie behind so much of the New Testament.  The reign of evil is seen as a power hostile to the reign of God.  This power is rendered concrete as the domain of personal beings, headed by Satan, the chieftain of the infernal kingdom.  The reign of evil is hostile to man, for only through man can it attack God.  Satan and his minions are the agents of all the evils which afflict mankind; they are not only the tempters to sin, but they are the agents of disease, especially diseases of the mind (hence demoniacs).  They are the inciters of strife.  Late Judaism identified demons with the gods of the Gentiles, a belief which Christians did not adopt; it is implicit in the temptation of Jesus according to Matthew, in which Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.  They are his to give.  I mentioned that Satan is called the prince of darkness; he is also called the prince of this world.  The celebrated Four Horsemen are demonic figures (Rev.  6:1-9): Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.  One may ask how Jesus could say or imply that these demons are powerless, or how Paul could write that no power, even a spiritual or cosmic power, can separate us from the love of God (Rom.  8:38-39).

In Jesus, God begins to roll back the frontiers of the kingdom of evil.  Every victory over sin, every healing of disease, every reconciliation, every relief of misery is a recovery of territory from Satan.  The image implies that it is a long struggle, in which victory is achieved only by the recovery of individual persons from the reign of evil.  It also views the reign of evil as more comprehensive than the reign of sin, although it never presents the evils of the human condition as detached from the basic evil, which is human wickedness.  It also shows that no one is delivered from the reign of Satan unless he so chooses.  unless he changes his allegiance.

Is this not mythology? I see no reason to call it anything else; but let us not forget that myth is an effort to come to terms with reality.  If one does not think about reality mythologically, one will have to think about it in some other terms.  One can easily poke holes in the myth; the existence of demons, especially of the prince of demons, demoniacs, possession and some similar primitive views are obvious examples.  The fact remains that the history of the twentieth century is as easily explained by the release of four horsemen or the opening of seven seals or seven vials as by some of the more sophisticated current interpretations which do not deal with reality.  I do not think, to use some unexceptional examples, that Adolf Hitler or Charlie Manson were devils or possessed by devils.  I think they did wicked things; to many of my contemporaries, human malice is as mythological as demons or demoniacs.  But that is the hard core of reality which so many cannot swallow; there is much wrong with the human condition, but it cannot be human nature, because we are told that men and women are essentially good.  And that is the counter-myth.

I said above that the devil has long served useful purposes in human thought and culture.  He has been a scapegoat for human wickedness.  When people were unwilling to accept responsibility for what people had done, which was often, they hid behind the excuse of a cosmic evil.  Did not Jesus himself speak of the tempter? So he did, but he also said that the invincible reign of God is here in which the tempter has no power.  He spoke of faith more frequently than he did of the tempter.  Against the shabby excuse that "the devil made me do it," he said that faith the size of a grain of mustard seed could move mountains.

In modern times, when the myth of Satan has become obsolete, and the realities with which it attempted to deal are still present, contemporary mankind has created other devils.  By devils I mean any power for evil, great or small, which is thought to be beyond human control and for which mankind, collectively or personally, cannot be held responsible or blameworthy.  Space does not permit me to recite examples; the thoughtful reader can think of some for himself or herself, and they might not be those which I would suggest.  I think of things which modem science has revealed as maleficent factors in the human conditions which were unknown in earlier times.  Man makes them a devil when he denies responsibility for them or denies that they can be controlled when all that is required is some massive changes in the civilised ways of life or the civilised standards of living.  I think of things like war and lesser violence, of the exploitation of nature and of persons, of all those things which we say we do only because we have to do them -- for what? To survive? No, but to maintain the quality of our state of life.  These are devils, and to the degree to which we adore and serve them we are devil-worshippers.

We have reached the point where we may identify the Devil, or identify that cosmic principle, that anti-God who is the enemy.  The Devil has been portrayed in literature, but in modern literature the horns and the cloven feet (the Devil is really a goat like the god Pan) do not appear.  He appears as a handsome, young adult male (Lilith is out of fashion) -- suave, debonair, articulate, athletic; something of a poet and a philosopher; possessed of many skills; a ready fluent speaker; an artist; a charming, attractive person who embodies the idea of a gentleman -- all that we would like to be.  He is all Dr.  Jekyll and nothing of Mr.  Hyde.  He is ourselves, all that we are and all we would like to be.  Humanity and human persons are the Devil, the cosmic principle of evil, the tempter, the destroyer.  Human beings are the sole cause of all that is wrong with the human condition.  When we worship ourselves and our achievements, we are devil-worshippers.  Mankind is what Jesus came to save, and mankind is the only thing in all of God's creation that needs to be saved.  The Reign of God moves against the Reign of Evil and attacks the very seat of its power, the human person.  If there were a devil and he were intelligent, he would stay far away from people, because he would know that no one is safe in our company, not even ourselves.  Why should the devil do dirty work which I and my kind are capable of doing for ourselves, even the ultimate work of self-destruction? I do not believe in the devil because I know that we do not need a cosmic principle of evil or a Great Tempter; we human beings are the cosmic principle of evil.  We are not nice people with good hearts who can be counted on to do the right thing.  If that were the case, Jesus lived and died for nothing.

I have not forgotten the angelic world.  In fact the world of angelic spirits seems to have arisen in human belief as counterweight to the world of demonic spirits.  In a universe so full of malevolent personal beings, it seemed only fair that there should be a balancing force of benevolent personal beings, to make the odds against mankind a little less overwhelming.  The hostile host should be met by a friendly host.  Just as the devils seem to be unnecessary as forces of evil, so the angels seem unnecessary as forces of good.  If men and women can do all that devils do, I may risk the assertion that when men and women have decided not to play the role of devils, they can do all that the angels are expected to do.  Anyone as old as I am has experienced those human actions which make the angels unnecessary.  I need not believe in people; I have experienced their goodness.  Gloomy as the world may appear, I believe that it belongs to God, the sole and supreme power for good.  To paraphrase St.  Paul, no little people are big enough to overthrow the government.

Rev.  John L McKenzie, author of THE OLD TESTAMENT WITHOUT ILLUSION and THE NEW TESTAMENT WITHOUT ILLUSION, among many other works -- including the current Thomas More publication, SOURCE .