The Many Faces of Evil

In Pope Francis’ first homily, given March 14, the day after his election to the Chair of Peter, he made a comment that went mostly unnoticed. Quoting the French novelist and poet, Léon Bloy (1846-1917), Francis said, “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: ‘Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”

A few days later, on March 24, in one of his first papal tweets, Francis wrote: “We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us that there is nothing we can do in the face of violence, injustice and sin.”

And Francis’ warnings about the devil have continued, including his Oct. 11 homily at Casa Santa Marta, when he admonished the faithful to be watchful: “We must always be on guard, on guard against deceit, against the seduction of evil.”

As has become evident, Pope Francis has a strong conviction about the reality of Satan.

Waning belief

We, of course, expect the pope to believe in the existence of the devil. After all, isn’t belief in the existence of Satan as much a part of basic Christian belief as belief in God, Jesus Christ and the Resurrection?

But various polls in recent years indicate that Americans in general — and Catholics specifically — often employ a “pick and choose” approach to basic beliefs, particularly when it comes to the devil.

For example, a 2009 Harris Poll survey of 2,303 U.S. adults found, among other things, that 82 percent of adult Americans believed in God and 75 percent believed in heaven, but only 61 percent believed in hell and 60 percent believed in the devil.

As for Catholics, the same poll found that while 94 percent expressed belief in God and 86 percent said they believed in heaven, a notably lower percentage believed in the existence of hell (70 percent) and of the devil (69 percent).

What is not clear from the poll is how many of the respondents might believe the devil is a metaphor or symbol for evil. Recent history indicates that the step from denying that Satan is an actual creature to denying his existence in any form can be a short, quick one.

And perhaps that is how Satan would prefer it. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his “Life of Christ” (Image, $17.95), wrote, “Very few people believe in the devil these days, which suits the devil very well. He is always helping to circulate the news of his own death. The essence of God is existence, and he defines himself as: ‘I am Who am.’ The essence of the devil is the lie, and he defines himself as: ‘I am who am not.’ Satan has very little trouble with those who do not believe in him; they are already on his side.”

Church teaching

Mary crushes the serpent’s head in this image. Crosiers

While it is undoubtedly the case that many Catholics, including even some priests and catechists, prefer to remain silent about the subject of Satan, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not.

“Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil’” (No. 391).It further notes that the Church “teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God,” and then quotes from the Fourth Lateran Council, which convened in 1215: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.’”

Satan, the Catechism teaches, is a creature of pure spirit who possesses significant power, yet he is not infinite.

“He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign.”

He does act in the world out of his hatred for God and the kingdom established by Jesus Christ, and in doing so, he “may cause grave injuries — of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature — to each man and to society...” Yet these destructive acts can only occur because they are “permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history” (No. 395).

The essential feature of the devil’s rebellious activity is pride, which ultimately manifests in seeking to be “godlike” but without acknowledging, knowing or loving God: “Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully ‘divinized’ by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to ‘be like God,’ but ‘without God, before God, and not in accordance with God’” (No. 398; see No. 414).

This echoes what the Second Vatican Council fathers said in Gaudium et Spes: “Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to attain his goal apart from God” (No. 13).

Satan in Scripture

At the start of Scripture and in its conclusion, the devil is depicted as a serpent. He was “the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made ...” (Gn 3:1) and he is “the dragon, the ancient serpent, which is the Devil or Satan ...” (Rv 20:2).

But the Old Testament’s presentation of Satan is complicated and even ambiguous at times. The Hebrew word satan does not appear often in the Old Testament, and when it does, it usually refers to an action — obstructing, opposing, accusing — rather than a specific entity. It is sometimes used to describe the work of both human and heavenly beings sent to stop, or oppose, the actions of a wrongdoer and to act as an agent of judgment on behalf of God.

First Chronicles recounts that “a satan stood up against Israel, and he incited David to take a census of Israel” (21:1). But it is in the famous story of Job that the name is used of a specific figure, “the satan,” whose role was to investigate and test the works and character of men. Asked by God, “Where have you been?” Satan replied, “Roaming the earth and patrolling it” (Jb 2:2). The subsequent testing of Job is done within clear parameters established by God, and so Satan is presented as a sort of divine agent who is not clearly in overt opposition to God. The Book of Zechariah presents Satan as the one accusing Joshua the high priest, which earns him a divine rebuke: “May the LORD rebuke you, O adversary; may the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” (Zec 3:1-2).

By the time of Christ, however, the word “Satan” was a proper name used for a creature of heavenly origin who now stood in open opposition to God and who seeks to undermine creation and destroy mankind. In Jewish apocryphal writings he was described as the prince of evil spirits whose expulsion from heaven was due to his refusal to recognize man as the image of God (see Gn 1:26-27).

Satan was an angel, a being of pure spirit, created by God for God’s glory and work. Possessing free will, he and other angels chose to rebel against their Maker and were cast from heaven. That cosmic disruption is noted in 2 Peter, which mentions the angels who had sinned (2:4), and in John’s first epistle, which states that “the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 Jn 3:8).

There is also a cryptic passage in Isaiah (14:12), which describes the fall from heaven of Lucifer, the “morning star, son of the dawn” (“lucifer” deriving from the Latin for “light-bringing”).

But the longest and most dramatic depiction of the rebellion in heaven comes from the Bible’s final book, Revelation:

“Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it” (Rv 12:7-9).

Satan and the Son

It is Jesus who most often refers to Satan in the New Testament. He identified Satan as the “ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31), a murderer, a liar and the father of lies (Jn 8:44). He also preached that a central aspect of the salvation he offered involved the destruction of Satan’s power in the world:

“‘Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:31-32).

The conflict between Jesus and the ruler of this world is evident throughout the Gospels, even if implicitly. For instance, Jesus often cured people suffering from demonic possession, demonstrating his power over evil and the “prince of demons.”

There were several important moments in Jesus’ ministry when he either spoke of Satan or to Satan. The best-known instance was Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13; Catechism No. 540), an encounter that inaugurated Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus knew that just as he had been tempted and confronted by the devil, his disciples and Church would also come under severe attack from Satan and his angels. He told Peter that the powers of hell would seek to destroy the Church but would not prevail (Mt 16:18). He also told him, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat” (Lk 22:31), indicating some of the hardships the apostles would have to endure.

Although St. Peter denied Jesus, he repented of his sin; Judas, on the other hand, was seduced by Satan and betrayed Jesus (Jn 13:2, 27).

Satan tempts us to sin, but he cannot make us sin; we choose to either sin or not. “Submit yourselves to God,” wrote St. James in his epistle, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas 4:7).

What will happen to Satan at the conclusion of temporal history? Just before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples that the devil and his angels are destined for “eternal fire” that has been prepared for them (Mt 25:41).

And at the end of time, after being allowed to test the faithful for a time (Rv 20:7), Satan will be “thrown into the pool of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet were. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rv 20:10).

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.

Satan and the Saints

Padre Pio
St. Pio of Pietrelcina The Crosiers, CNS
St. Benedict of Nursia: The founder of the Benedictine order had several encounters with the devil, including one incident when the devil held down a stone to prevent builders from using it to construct the Abbey of Monte Cassino. St. Benedict walked over and, after praying, easily picked it up.
St. John Vianney: The Curé of Ars often spent 18 hours a day hearing confessions, sleeping just a few hours a night. As his reputation as a confessor spread, he began to be attacked, sometimes physically and, at other times, emotionally and psychologically. For 35 years, Satan assaulted Vianney in numerous ways. The saint, for his part, developed a remarkable sense of humor about the supernatural assaults, saying, “Oh! the grappin (his nickname for the devil) and myself? We are almost chums.”

The work of Satan today

Written nearly 40 years ago, the document, “Christian Faith and Demonology,” (June 26, 1975) found in “Vatican II: More Post Conciliar Documents (Vatican Collection, Volume 2),” edited by Austin Flannery, O.P. (The Liturgical Press, 1982), makes several fundamental points about the reality and work of Satan in the world today.

Recent Popes and the Devil

Pope Paul VI: In a general audience titled “Confronting the Devil’s power” (Nov. 15, 1972). Pope Paul VI reiterated three important truths about Satan, stating that it is a departure from “biblical Church teaching to refuse to acknowledge the devil’s existence; to regard him as a self-sustaining principle who, unlike other creatures, does not owe his origin to God; or to explain the Devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes.”
Blessed John Paul II CNS