Our purpose is not to write everything that can reasonably be said about the devil. This would require a whole volume from such sources as books on demonology (as a science), the testimony of reliable people throughout history, and even sometimes the public press. We propose giving only what is needed for an intelligent understanding of the Scriptures and especially of the Gospels — and this is a considerable amount.
The Greek word “diabolos” meant an “accuser” or “slanderer,” and the Septuagint used this word to translate the Hebrew for “accuser” and “adversary,” which usage was adopted by the writers of the New Testament who also used “diamonion,” the Greek for “demon.”
Although the classical Greeks sometimes used the word “demon” in a good sense as a sort of guardian god or goddess, in the New Testament it is always used in an evil sense, and is equivalent to “devil.” “Lucifer” (or light-bearer, a name strictly speaking, not found in the Sacred Scriptures) is the name of the chief devil, whereas “Satan” (meaning “adversary” or “enemy”) is used not only for him but also in a general sense for any devil.
Proof of Existence
The burden of proving the existence of the devil by the light of reason alone is impossible in itself. We can (and will) show the existence of personal, evil powers but it would be very difficult to reason to their existence and also to the full identity of their inner being, we know as the devils. For this we must of necessity go to the pages of divine revelation, that is to the Bible, and accept this evidence as true, truth based on the triumph of the God–man Jesus over the power of this, His adversary (-ies).
The pages of anthropology offer no solution, or at least not an adequate solution. All that the respected explorers and scholars can validly do is to relate what they find, a widespread belief in evil powers and the magical arts. Any attempt to explain this as a form or outgrowth of animism (whereby everything, even the rocks and waters, is considered to have a soul) cannot possibly be more than an unprovable theory. The facts can be accounted for just as well (and in the light of divine reason, better) by saying that this was a distorted remnant of primitive tradition (that is, from the beginning), supported by their own experiences of a seemingly evil one.
In comparison with the extravagant quality of the ancient myths and primitive folklore, the Bible is quite emphatically reserved. The devil is the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gn 3). Quite obviously he is more than a serpent since he has intelligence and can speak — and he also lies. He is clearly a tempter (see also 1 Chs. 21:1).
In the Book of Job (1:6-12; 2:1-7) he is seen in a poetic dramatization which allows him free access to God. His envy of Job’s goodness is evident, and under the guise of testing it, he hopes to destroy it and prove God wrong. Thus he is more of a destroyer.
Devils are also involved in the pagan religions (Dt 32:15-18; Ps 106/105:36-37 and see also 1 Cor 10:21-22), and therefore are understood to have much power over the entire world. The devil is also shown as the accuser of man, at least somewhat falsely in this case (Zech 3:1-4). Jesus will call him “the father of lies” later (Jn 8:44). Devils have power to harm physically and even to kill (Tb 3:8), but they can be overpowered by good angels (Tb 8:3).
There are many references in the New Testament outside the Gospels, and we will mention some of them in the course of further explanation. But from all these it will become obvious that the Scripture is clear on the existence of the devil. These above references are sufficient here to show that the devil exists and was realized as evil long before the time of Christ.
Jesus Affirmed Their Existence
Without going into the many confrontations which Jesus had with devils who had taken possession of various people, we can sum up his position in this way: Jesus as Son of God and our Savior came to teach us about matters of religion. Thus He did not come to teach mankind that the earth was round or about DNA, germs and the like. Therefore, the Hebrew concept of the physical universe was false, because this error is not a matter pertaining to our salvation and is strictly not taught by the sacred Scriptures. But if there were no such being as the devil, God would be bound to tell the people, just as He corrected the Pharisees on their interpretations of the Law, and corrected the apostles as to the cause of the blindness of the man who was born that way (Jn 9:2-3). But in this very important religious matter of the devils, Jesus is constantly affirming their existence by word and action as we will see in the text.
Another way in which the reality of Satan can be indicated is by experience. We are not saying that everybody experiences the devil as a definite person, nor are we asking that everyone claiming such experience be believed. The findings of psychiatry in many individual cases may indeed be accepted as true, that such an “experience” is nothing but an overwrought imagination prompted by internal weakness or compulsions.
Two cautions are appropriate here however. The first is that, although the clinical evidence fits into well-known categories, the devil (whose general policy is to remain hidden) can still be involved and is attacking the patient in his weakest area. The devil is no gentleman. The second caution is the danger of generalization. Since some people are deceived concerning attacks or undue harassment by the devil, it would be false to say that all cases are therefore self-deception. A medical doctor would be forbidden to practice if he judged all complaints to be groundless just because some are. Psychiatrists have often been inept in cases which involve possession by the devil, and therefore they cannot be accurate in dismissing lesser forms of disturbance such as what are called diabolical obsession.
Obsession By the Devil
There are many instances of obsession by the devil recorded in reliable accounts. We will briefly look at two. One of the most well-reported is that of St. Anthony of Egypt as recorded in The Life of St. Anthony the Great, written by a man who had at one time been his disciple, St. Athanasius (A.D. 293?-373), the heroic bishop of Alexandria. Written not long after the death of Anthony, the Life shows him as a well-balanced man who attracted many others by his holiness and was in fact the founder of monasticism. The account of his experience with devils is in his own words (Life, Chs. 22-44), and the calmness and balance of the man certainly does not argue for a psychotic case. He details his experiences usually in general terms; the devil “taking the form of women, of wild beasts, of reptiles, of gigantic bodies, and the troops of soldiers” (Ch. 23), much of which have given artists inspiration for several centuries. He does not dramatize, but argues against fear and inspires confidence in overcoming the devil with the help of God.
Another example took place in more modern times, at least when there were railroads and the world was filled with scepticism. He is the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney (d. 1859), who was renowned in his time for his power to read souls. People would come from all over Europe to his small village in southern France just to go to confession to him. Our interest in him in this article is the well-authenticated fact that he was tormented for 30 years by the devil. He would be dragged around his room at night, the curtains set on fire, with continual noises preventing him from sleeping. These were attested to not only by those with whom he lived but also by those in rooms near him when he would be away from his parish.
Whereas diabolic obsession comes from the outside, the term “possession” describes the power of the devil over the body of the victim, but never directly over the will. Acting from within, he can command the faculties such as speech. The victims are not necessarily sinners; sometimes they are too young to have incurred such evil through their own fault. The phenomena include enormous strength (e.g. a child must be held down by several strong adults), the ability to speak not only in languages not learned but in dialects which are spoken in a very limited and distant territory, and the knowledge of the secret sins of others in the room. There are often two or more voices, one of the victim and the other entirely different (e.g., a gutteral voice in a child) which the evil spirit often uses. Also common are the repelling of any holy object such as a crucifix, and the ability to detect holy water even when it is disguised as ordinary water.
The exorcism requires that the name of the spirit be found out; this is difficult because of the lies that come from this evil spirit. The exorcism is often very exhausting physically and emotionally for the exorcist, even long afterwards (see The Rite of Exorcism). It is therefore amusing to read the older skeptics who want to attribute all this to mental conditions and who declare that a competent psychiatrist could have cured the trouble without an exorcism.
The truth is that many of the more modern victims have had psychiatric help without effect. At times a psychiatrist has been present to observe the successful liberation by exorcism. Yet it is sometimes held that these successful exorcisms are not evidence of the devil simply because a psychiatric history indicated mental defects. But whether they had true mental defects is irrelevant because, as we have said, the devil will seek out our weaknesses and use them — or he wouldn’t be a very competent devil. The fact of going to a psychiatrist is a normal action in our times whenever something happens that is too big to handle. The basic fact is that in true cases of diabolical possession, psychotherapy is unable to help whereas the exorcism produced a permanent cure.
Some members of the psychiatric or psychological profession attempt to explain, and will name a cause for some part or other of such phenomena but always must helplessly retreat to the safe ground of “unknown forces” (non-diabolic of course) which are alleged to be responsible for the whole of the phenomena. Thus they have no adequate explanation whereas that of a powerful evil being who hates both God and the good is able to account completely for everything.
During his life, Jesus drove out many devils; sometimes they are listed in a specific incident (e.g., His first recorded exorcism: Mk 1:21-28; Lk 4:31-37); at other times they are mentioned only in general (e.g., later the same day: Mt 8:16; Mk 1:32-34; Lk 4:41).
At times one might wonder why there were so many afflicted by devils in those times whereas there seem to be relatively few now (although we have been told by missionaries more than once that the devil is very much in evidence in pagan lands). A conjecture which seems to be valid is that we would expect the devil to concentrate his forces and consolidate his position by many possessions in the area (Palestine) where he expected the Messiah to appear.
As to the allegedly fewer possessed people nowadays, it might really be that the devil is hiding his presence even among many he does possess. That way he can use them better. When he wishes it, they act diabolically, as a devil would in the same situation. Perhaps even world leaders have been of this type. How else does one explain the Holocaust of the Jews and others in World War II? Or the Communists’ killing of even more millions of their own people? Nevertheless, the devil shows his presence openly at times because he does not want to be forgotten. He plans and hopes for a quite total domination before Jesus comes again.
It is said that the Jews often mistook disease for possession, diseases that they did not understand. Probably to some extent they did this, but it is not a universal solution to the problem. In the first place, Matthew, a man not to be moved easily by the people’s opinions (a former publican would have overcome that), lists “all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics” (4:24). Likewise: “He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all the sick” (8:16. see also Mk 1:32,34). This indicates some medical knowledge, as well as the power of discretion. We also have Luke who was a physician and is recognized as such (from his writings) by discerning scholars. This should make us reluctant to correct the evangelists unless the evidence is clearly in favor of a purely natural cause.
We cannot take the time and space here to go into the details of each case in the Gospels. We will do some of this individually in the text. Where there is no doubt, we will follow the evangelists. In general statements we will leave them as they are judged by the evangelists, but allow for some influence of the general opinion of the people. Let it be noted here, however, that the devil often leaves with violence (see Mk 9:25; Lk 4:35), whereas a sick man cured has only wonder and gratitude. This difference was evident to the evangelists or to their sources — allowing for the fact that devils are able to cause diseases, as we shall discuss here later.
Superstitions of the People
As for Jesus’ alleged accommodation to the superstitions of the people — making believe that He was casting out devils where there were none — somewhat like the tricks of a professional magician on a stage — this cannot be held for one whose message must be founded on truth and whose divine nature is Truth. So far from merely tolerating a popular superstition, Jesus converses with the possessing devils and sometimes allows them partially to have their way (Mt 8:32). He also described how a cast-out devil acts (Mt 12:44-45; Lk 11:24-26) and told the apostles why they had failed to drive one out (Mk 9:27-28), having earlier given them the power to do so (Mt 10:1; Mk 6:7; Lk 9:1. See also Mk 16:17). Jesus cannot be said to have merely tolerated superstition; He actually taught that it was true.
The existence of the devil, however, does not explain his origin. It would have been impossible for God to have created the devil as such, that is, as evil, because God can create only what is good. The truth is that God created angels, very many thousands of them, all good. Somehow there was a test proposed to them, even as in our life many tests are given to all of us. We do not know strictly taken what this test was (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 63, 1-2). Since the devil has no body, he cannot commit sin in the many ways that we sin through our bodies. The basic answer, even though without knowing the details, is that the devil out of pride wanted to be independent of God. Lucifer, the leader, possessed power of great proportions but wanted more and was able to influence many other angels to follow him.
The result was the creation of hell in which the devils are imprisoned although some are permitted to leave in order to tempt us. Eventually they will all be there forever. The fires of hell do not harm them as they would a body; the punishment is that it constitutes a prison and a humiliation to their pride by being confined (perhaps by matter), something very inferior to their spiritual nature or perhaps something even worse which is not known to us.
However, as the result of their fall, the devils have not lost their nature which is the nature of angels; that is, they are pure spirit, without bodies and having all the powers of angels — although with the necessary blindness that follows sin. Their pride is their worst characteristic. They do not have virtues in the proper sense, but only the natural qualities of greatly superior intellect, a stubborn will, and certain relative power over matter (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 114, 1-5, and CCC, No. 395).
Wherefore, their enormous knowledge makes devils an uneven match against a human intellect in any context of knowledge alone. However they are not to be trusted for information because of their evil tendency to lie. Nor for prophecy because, as St. Anthony says (Life of St. Anthony, Ch. 32), they would be able to predict the flooding of the Nile by knowing that there were heavy rains in Ethiopia, and consequently this is not true prophecy. However, they do not know the undetermined and contingent things which depend on the will of God or sometimes even on the human will.
Evil spirits are able to take on other forms by manipulating matter. Being purely spiritual in nature, they cannot be seen and therefore the horns and tails given them by artists are only our need to have some sort of picture. In fact, since the devil prefers to deceive rather than terrify, his disguises may be much more attractive.
They are not independent principals of evil in a dualism of two gods, according to the teachings of the Manicheans. They are always under the control of God who permits them to work evil in the world in order to bring about the greater good willed by God, not easily grasped by reason.
The Devil’s Envy
The first such intervention is the well known temptation of Adam and Eve. Even before the time of Christ, the serpent in the Garden was understood as being the devil. The Book of Wisdom, written within 100 years before the Christian era, tells us: “Through the devil’s envy, death entered the world” (2:24). Envy on the part of the devil would have come because we are destined to enjoy the happiness that was once within his grasp. This is therefore a confirmation of the doctrine that he was created in grace but fell from it through his sin.
The first temptation was the beginning of uncounted others so that he is well described by St. Peter: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). And this sort of enemy will be present until the end of time.
Temptation by the devil is under the control of God who limits him (see 2 Cor 12:7-9). When we read in St. Luke (4:13) that the devil departed from Jesus “until an opportune time,” we may conclude that God limited the temptations, otherwise Satan would have tempted Jesus continually and interfered with His mission. There is no evidence in the Scriptures or tradition that we all have a personal devil, as we have a guardian angel.
Another restraint upon Satan is the fact that he cannot directly act upon the human will; only God can do this and, even then, the will is free. However the devil has power over matter, and this would include our bodies by which he can influence by our cravings. He also can work on our nervous system and, through this, especially on the brain (which is a system of nerves). He can arouse emotions of various kinds through the imagination and past memories. Falling into sin, however, is our own doing — provided that the intellect and will are at least to some extent operating. He is not directly active in every temptation or sin (see CCC, Nos. 2846-2849).
We become strong against him, as well as against those temptations arising from our weakness, by self-discipline whereby we strengthen our will, by prudence through which we avoid occasions of sin, and most of all by the grace of God which is especially given to those who ask for it humbly and who use the means of grace as outlined in any solid book (the Catechism of the Catholic Church) on the Christian or spiritual life.
We mentioned the devil’s power to induce illness. This is not to say that he becomes a germ or virus. But certain diseases can be brought on by the nervous system, not only in the nervous system itself, but also in the various organs which operate by means of muscles and nerves. We read at times in books on the various stages of the spiritual life that men or women had diseases that doctors are unable to diagnose or cure. This is not to make the devil a major suspect in regard to our health — here again he is limited by God — but poor health is one way of discouraging us and he will not pass up any opportunity, if permitted, to bring us to that state of spiritual, mental and physical inertia.
There is no reluctance in Jesus to attribute certain diseases to the devil, as in the case of the woman with the curved spine (Lk 13:11,16). Surely not all diseases should be attributed to Satan, nor does Jesus do so. We may even infer that the attribution of the people regarding such influence of the devil was more extensive than His. Yet He certainly could have used other language in such situations, but He does not. We must also be aware of the lack of total knowledge of the causes of diseases on the part of the medical profession even today. What we take so absolutely true in our illnesses is called by them “the germ theory of disease.”
The Devil’s Master Plan
The difficulty with such a presentation as we have given here is that the whole may be obscured by the parts. Behind all of the devil’s varied activities, there is a master plan. His pride, which lost him his place in heaven, impels him to get as many followers as possible and not only for the next world. He also wants a kingdom in this world. His ultimate design is what he asked of Jesus in the third temptation, that we fall down and adore him. This he sees as a compensation for what he has eternally lost.
The devil’s kingdom in a fundamental sense consists of all who are in mortal sin: to the extent that they sin mortally they are at least temporarily his. Some people even (unconsciously for the most part) work to further his domination over the minds and hearts of others. He has some who help him more consciously. With the spread of witchcraft, the interest in the occult, and devil worship in a century of unparalleled material and scientific progress, his hopes should be running very high.
His plan is to work toward the false exaltation of man; man can best be imprisoned by pride. Nevertheless in the end he himself will want to be worshiped by all. Whatever the vehicle by which he hopes to ride into this kind of power, it will be highly organized, even as its master is (see Mt 12:26; Mk 3:26; Lk 11:18).
It should be noted that this plan of the devil will ultimately fail. Jesus by His death and resurrection has all power given to Him in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18), even as man. The final struggle with evil that will take place at the Second Coming will be won by Him. He will judge the living and the dead, assigning each man and woman to the destiny deserved. The devil will reign, but amid eternal torment for himself and all who have followed him (Mt 25:41-46). It is a part of our call as followers of Christ, and out of true love for neighbor, to make that number as few as possible.
FATHER HOFFMAN, O.P. (1913-1998), was ordained a priest in June 1941, taught physics, mathematics and moral theology. FATHER COLE, O.P., is professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.