You probably won’t get much out of this post without reading the two previous ones, so I urge you to do that before reading this one.
Someone asked me, in response to my recent post about Satan, what practical difference Satanic realism (belief that Satan is not merely a symbol of human evil but a real being independent of any creature’s mind or will or actions) makes.
That’s one reason I posted the next post–about the Episcopal bishop who, in her sermon, interpreted the “spirit of divination” in the slave girl in Acts 16 as a good gift of spiritual awareness wrongly cast out by Paul because of his narrow minded, bigoted ignorance.
IF you do not believe in Satanic realism, then much of the Bible has to be interpreted non-literally in ways that distort its meaning. Occultism, for example, becomes neutral or good or myth. Satan is a very significant character in the biblical narrative; to reduce him to a mere symbol or myth leads to (or is a symptom of) a naturalizing (de-supernaturalizing) of the biblical narrative and worldview.
But also, denying or neglecting Satanic realism, in my opinion, leaves some aspects of human experience inexplicable. Much evil in the world, in my opinion, cannot be explained solely by means of human sin.
I realize some will ridicule me for this, but I step out boldly anyway…. I have read many books about Hitler and Naziism and watched many documentaries about it. It is my firm conviction that, in light of the biblical story (which absorbs the world for me), some involvement of Satan better explains what happened in Germany and countries under its control during the 1930s than appeal solely to human initiated evil. I am NOT denying that humans were responsible; I am NOT saying “the devil made them do it.” I am arguing that the evils perpetrated then and there are so egregious, so irrational, so shocking, that they seem to transcend merely what a few fascist megalomaniacs could accomplish without supernatural help. And the Nazis did appeal to pagan, occults forces and powers to help them.
Both Jesus and Paul referred to Satan as the prince of this world (world system) and of the powers of the air (again, world systems) that it’s difficult to deny that they believed Satan has much power. I agree with C. S. Lewis and most other Christians who write about this, however, that Satan has no power except that humans give him by cooperation with his impulses. I do not believe, for example, in demonic possession of true Christians or of infants.
When I look back at what happened in Germany in the 1930s (and in certain places in the U.S. after the Civil War and up through the lynchings of blacks afterwards and for decades) I “see it as” instigated and empowered by Satan and powers under his leadership. That in no way undermines the responsibilities of those who perpetrated those deeds; it only says, as the Bible clearly does, that there are supernatural powers of temptation and ability that are evil and invisible. The human beings who cooperate with them, voluntarily come under their influence, act out their deeds, are fully responsible.
When philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about “radical evil” in the world many of his colleagues said he had slobbered on his philosopher’s robe. In other words, they attributed it to his old age and possible senility. I expect some people who read this to accuse me of diving into irrationality, mythical or magical thinking, etc. Or–worse (!) fundamentalism! At my age and station in life, I really don’t care.
So what do I suggest churches and church leaders do about Satanic realism? First, bring it back into the church. Teach even moderate-to-progressive Christians about Satan’s intentions and works. Hold a teaching series on Satan using The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis or any number of other sane Christian thinkers. I strongly recommend I Believe in Satan’s Downfall by Michael Green. It’s the best book on Satanic realism I have ever read. Second, develop a biblically-based practice of “spiritual warfare” that strictly avoids magic (thinking Satan can be warded off or defeated by saying the right words or gestures or actions). Third, emphasize that Satan, though real and dangerous, is a defeated enemy. He is not more powerful than God. His eventual total defeat is guaranteed by the cross and resurrection. But, admit that, in the meantime, in the “time between the times,” he is real and powerful and God is counting on us to help minimize his power in the world–through prayer and obedient living.