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Jesus rebuked him
and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him
and with a loud cry came out of him.
(Mk 1:25)

Satan and the Devil

We need a healthier theology of satan. Rather a strange thing to say! Can there be a theology of the devil? Perhaps not in the strict sense. Theology after all is meant to be words about God (Theos-God; logos-word). However in the wider sense of the word (theology as a view of something through the prism of faith) we need a theology of the devil. Why?

Because for the most part, today, the devil is either naively ignored, as some dark superstition from the past, or is falsely attended to, as some underworld force that can throw little girls into mustard-spitting convulsions, as in the infamous movie, The Exorcist. Indeed, most people today do not even believe in the devil, either as a person or a force. What is to be said about the devil?

The kingdom Jesus preaches is about coming together

The gospels name the forces of hell in two ways: sometimes they speak of the devil (diabolus) and at other times of satan (satanus). Are the terms synonymous? Not exactly: Diabolus means to divide, to tear apart; whereas satanus, most curiously, means almost the opposite, it connotes a frenzied, sick, group-think that accuses somebody or something. In essence what the gospels tell us is that the powers of hell, satan and the devil, work in two ways: sometimes they work as the devil by dividing us from God, each other, and from what is best within us. Sometimes they work in just the opposite way, as satan. Here they unite us to each other but through the grip of mob-hysteria, envy-induced hype, and the kind of sick unity that makes for gang-rapes and crucifixions.

And at the root of both lies the same thing, envy. It is no accident that, among the ten commandments, only envy has two inscriptions against it. Jealousy is the devil’s tool and satan’s weapon. Through envy, the devil works at dividing us from each other. From envy we get the kind of paranoia, jealousy, sense of being wronged, and bitterness that dissipates families, communities, churches, and whole nations. The devil tears us apart. Satan, using the same weapon, works differently. As satan, envy unites us so as to put us into the frenzied, mad pitch of the lynch mob, the crowd hell-bent on crucifixion. Satan uses envy to pit the crowd against an outsider.

Thus, the devil causes us to be distant and distrustful of each other, whereas satan causes us to be caught up in a sick unity that comes of scape-goating, vicious gossip, and the kind of group-hysteria that leads to blood-letting. The devil is always using envy to divide the house, whereas satan is always using envy to gear the whole house up for a crucifixion.

In Jesus we see the opposite. The first word out of his mouth (“metanoia”) is a word uttered against the power of the devil: be un-paranoid, do not let envy and suspicion divide you from each other, God, and what is highest inside yourself! Everything else Jesus says and does is intended precisely to lead us beyond division, dissipation, and being apart from each other. The kingdom he preaches is about coming together (the opposite of the devil).

As well, nearly everything that Jesus says and does is anti-satan. He resists always the amazement of the crowd, group-hysteria, and the type of hype (even when it is in his favour) that wants to over-exult someone and kill someone else. He, himself, always drew his vision and energy from a deeper source, his Father’s will; known, not through group-think, but through deep interiority and prayer inside one’s own heart. It is no accident either that Jesus so often warned: “Do not be amazed!” and that when he looked for guidance he lifted his eyes towards heaven, not towards the crowd. He knew the dynamics of Satan. When crowds are under the grip of amazement there is very thin line between wanting to make someone their King and wanting to crucify that same person.

In the novels of Czechoslovakian writer, Milan Kundera, there is invariably one major character, often an artist, whose role it is to resist something Kundera likes to call “the great march,” namely, a group-think that inflames itself through moral  rhetoric and then sets off marching on some kind of crusade. For Kundera there is always something frightening, blind, indeed satanic, in any “great march,” no matter what the cause. When group energy takes over, he fears, there will soon be a crucifixion done in God’s name. Jesus, its seems, agrees.

The devil and satan are real. We should not be naive on this score. But the real danger is not little girls writhing on a bed and throwing up mustard. Rather it is our hearts writhing in a paranoia and a jealousy that tears us apart from each other and crowds writhing in a sick energy that wants, in God’s name, to spill some blood.

Ron Rolheiser


Used with permission of the author, Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser. Currently, Father Rolheiser is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio Texas. He can be contacted through his web site, www.ronrolheiser.com.

Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go http://www.ltp.org