Pope Francis has recently caused some people to scratch their heads over his comments about the real existence of the Devil. For example, on Sunday June 1, the Pope made a speech to over 50,000 people about the way the Devil wants to destroy the family: “Let us pray to the Lord and ask Him to protect the family in the crisis with which the Devil wants to destroy it.” (http://bit.ly/1rGTUis). On May 10, Anthony Faiola in the Washington Post had a long article exploring Francis’ frequent references to the Devil and some reaction to them within the Vatican (http://wapo.st/1j8bpti). Such views raise eyebrows in western culture, where personal autonomy, belief in free will, and a modern, scientific mindset all proscribe a personified evil being like Satan or the Devil. There are reasons, however, that I think we should consider why Pope Francis talks this way and the implications of it.
From a historical point of view, the idea of Satan or the Devil was, at one point in history, a theological innovation. For most of the history of Judaism, (and thus, most of the Hebrew Bible) there is no understanding of life after death like Christians think of today, let alone a personified evil personage that reigns over a place of torment like hell. A figure called Ha Satan in Hebrew does appear at the beginning of Job, for instance, but he is little more than a strange spiritual free agent, a trouble maker and meddler. I tell my students to think of him more like Doby the house elf from Harry Potter than Satan with a capital S.
The development of a personified evil figure arises within Jewish apocalypticism, a widely varied theological movement that starts somewhere around 350 BCE and develops in diverse ways over time. This apocalyptic worldview was very dualistic, dividing humanity into two groups: good and bad. Apocalypticists divided time into discrete ages. Such views led to reflection about the spiritual realm, resulting in a dualistic view of the spiritual world. This resulted in interest in demons, angels, and, eventually, the chieftains thereof. Within the Jewish tradition, the chief otherworldly adversary had a variety of names: Beliar, Devil, Satan, Mastema (these figures appear in Jewish apocalyptic texts like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament). Not all Jewish groups at the time were in favor of this type of theological innovation. Some, who were more traditional in their approach, rejected an idea of the afterlife, resurrection, and such dualism.
Apocalypticism is the mother of Christian Theology. The New Testament emerges from apocalyptic Judaism, and thus is infused with dualism, belief in the demonic, and its leader, the Devil or Satan (these two titles are used almost synonymously in the New Testament, and even appear in tandem in Revelation 12:9). In the gospels, for instance, Jesus and the disciples constantly face threats from demons (e.g., Mark 5:1-20). The apostle Paul also views the world apocalyptically, and sees Satan as operative in the world (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:18).
When we look back on this spiritual belief 2,000 years later, we can see that this was nothing more than an ancient mythology. With our modern sensibilities and scientific worldview, we might look back and demur. We no longer operate with such a mythology (although this is not true for some segments of evangelical Christianity, nor for some non-western cultures). Nevertheless, I think it is worth considering its merits for theological reasons.
First, we ought to note that this ancient apocalyptic worldview did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, such views of the world tend to arise in specific types of sociological situations, usually those where a community is enduring severe suffering and oppression. When under severe oppression, a dualistic view of the world and the spiritual realm becomes a powerful way of understanding the human condition. The “logic” behind it suggests that, even though a group is being severely oppressed in this life, there is a realm in which God really is in control, and the evil which is being imposed upon them will be thwarted, punished. The righteous who endure will then be rewarded. All theology is contextual, and in a context of suffering, dualism and a chief rival like Satan become a powerful way of framing the longed-for liberation.
I wonder, therefore, if Francis’ experiences at the margins of society might have had some impact on him in this regard. A dualistic view of the world and its concomitant spiritual realm make little sense to people living comfortable lives, scratching their heads when they read a tweet about Satan from @pontifex. For a severely marginalized community, however, the experience of evil is not their fault; it has been imposed on them. Sin and evil are not the aggregate of human wrong choices, but are bred into the structure of the world. In such a context, the concept of a “hamartiosphere,” (Gutierrez, borrowing the term from Ruiz, Theology of Liberation, p. 103) from liberation theology, becomes a powerful expression of the extent to which thing have gone awry and the deep need for liberation. In this view of the world, talk of Satan and his effects finds a legitimate home.
Second, in my own reading of Francis’ ministry, he seems particularly interested in a profile of God. He talks frequently about a God who is full of surprises, who is unpredictable, and that faith is a journey rather than signing in assent to a set of doctrines. In such a context, a radical view of Satan requires a radical view of God. The dualism inherent in such a view needs a God for victory. In fact, one of the criticisms of such a dualistic view is that humans become little more than bystanders in a cosmic drama. The myth about the origin of evil in 1 Enoch, for instance, which influenced the beginnings of Christian theology, is one where angels rebel from heaven and impose evil on a righteous segment of humanity. Evil is not their fault! Nor, then, is its alleviation. God must rouse and destroy the evil forces. In an apocalyptic worldview where Satan runs rampant, everything depends on God.
We should worry about what can happen when Christianity eschews any belief in dualism and an evil adversary. Throw out Satan and you can get rid of God, too. Christianity then becomes little more than self-maintenance, just an ethical system. Humans just need to make the right choices, buy the right self-help book, or listen to the right podcast, so that we can live in such a way that God will bless us.
The myth of Satan should terrify us, not because of what Satan might do, but because of what God might do. Pope Francis seems interested in change, whether doctrinal or procedural. We might see then, ironically through his statements about Satan, the theological foundation for his ministry. In a world where Satan is a real, operative force, our only hope will be to turn to a powerful God, one who moves, acts, prods, and changes hearts and minds.
This vision is fundamentally biblical and deeply embedded within the tradition of the church. It is also an ancient mythology. But so is any other paradigm through which we refract the inaccessible historical occurrences that lie behind the faith. When Francis talks about the devil or Satan, we best pay attention and consider what the world would look like if we took seriously an active God, fighting on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, moving to liberate them from the hamartiosphere in which they live.