Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (9)
9. Two matters continue to divide the church which in my opinion should not. One is “the devil” and the other is the “virginal conception” of Jesus. Not the “virgin birth” as it is usually styled. Jesus’ birth was the same as any other baby ever born. The Bible is clear that it is his conception that distinguishes him for all other babies. But let’s look at the devil first.
C. S. Lewis famously said that making too much or too little of the devil are equal and opposite errors we should avoid. What the Bible says, which is what we need to stick to in heeding Lewis’ counsel, is basically that God has some intentional, intelligent, and crafty opposition in the cosmos from a supra-human cohort of rebellious creatures who resist serving him. At the head of this cohort is a figure called (the) Satan or the devil, apparently the chief and leader of these rebels. This figure develops from Old Testament to New from a member of God’s heavenly council who task is to test the genuineness of human’s faith to an adversary of God’s people seeking their destruction. The crafty serpent of Gen.3 morphs into the devilish dragon of Rev.12. It is clear from scripture that
a. these realities are creatures, not on equal footing with God. The universe is NOT divided into two realms – the good controlled by God and the evil controlled by the devil.
b. Their revolt, then, is ultimately foolish and futile. They will lose. What’s more, they will come to realize that in unimaginable and inscrutable ways God has used their rebellion, against their will and intention, to advance his own purposes.
c. As created realities, under the ultimate will and dominion of God and defeated by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, they have no power over us save that which we allow them. We cannot say, “The devil made me do it.”
Though some persist in denying that there is anything other than human will and perversion at work in the world, most of us, I suspect, at least sense there is more going on than that. I can’t prove that, of course. But I do think it is intriguing that many social scientists have discerned forces that shape human behavior that drives them to use language functionally similar to this Christian concept.
The real problem, of course, is how we interpret such a concept in our contemporary world which largely rejects and trivializes the whole idea. In particular, Is belief in a literal devil figure a “litmus test” for faithfully interpreting the Bible? Is the failure to do so regard this concept an infallible sign one has left the faith and is on a “slippery slope” to denying other vital teachings as well? I would say No and encourage all Christians to allow one another latitude in this matter for the following reasons:
d. The figure of the devil and the devilish serpent are symbolic of this evil intelligent opposition to God in his world. As a symbol it surely does not require us to take it literally. Indeed, its symbolic quality more likely suggests otherwise. How we render this symbol, then, is less important than what it means.
e. That meaning, that there is an active, intelligent center of evil in the creation that, though defeated, still flails around in its death throes, seeking to undo God’s people and purposes, is, as far as I can see, the non-negotiable truth of this matter. To fail to grasp this is to fail to engage a vital part of Christian mission in the world and underestimate the challenge we face.
f. So I conclude that whoever affirms (e) is on the side of biblical truth whether they affirm a devil figure or maintain that what we face are forces or powers. That we force such a reality and are called to stand against it with the “full armor” of God is what the Bible requires of us.
There’s much more to be said on all this, of course. But I hope I’ve said enough to allow Christians to give one another the latitude to belief what they will about how to best conceptualize “the devil” and band together and bend all our efforts and energies to combatting its baleful influence. In the next post I’ll take up the virginal conception of Jesus.