Satan before the Lord (c. 1750), by Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1765) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Satan was silly enough to actually think that he could entice Jesus to sin and diversion from His ministry. He was too ignorant in his evil irrationality to know that his scheme was doomed to failure from the beginning. We give the devil too much credit. He is an idiot and simpleton as well as a “bad guy.”
I say he’s stupid. How else should we describe a creature who was present with God as His highest angel, yet chose to give that up and rebel? I can think of nothing dumber and more ridiculous. The devil is more pathetic than anything else. He hates when people don’t cringe in fear before him (assuming they believe in him in the first place).
Craftiness or cleverness is not at all incompatible with monumental stupidity. Stalin and Hitler possessed both qualities in abundance. Hitler made very basic military errors: such as trying to fight on two major fronts (east and west) at the same time, and attacking Russia as winter approached (the same grave mistake that Napoleon had made some 125 years earlier).
In 1942: the same year that the great apologist C. S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, he also wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost (on Milton’s 17th century epic poem on the devil and angels). In that work he wrote:
[I]t is a mistake to demand that Satan . . . should be able to rant and posture through the whole universe without, sooner or later, awaking the comic spirit. The whole nature of reality would have to be altered in order to give him such immunity, and it is not alterable. At that precise point where Satan . . . meets something real, laughter must arise, just as steam must when water meets fire.
What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all . . . He says ‘Evil be thou my good’ (which includes ‘Nonsense be thou my sense’) and his prayer is granted.
(London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1942, ch. 13 [“Satan”], 95, 99)
This sounds to me exactly like a “simpleton” and “fool.” Nothing is more foolish and absurd than rebellion against God. The very definition of “fool” in the Bible is a person who either doesn’t believe in God, or who doesn’t follow Him as their master. I don’t care how high the devil’s IQ is! What good is it, seeing where he will end up?
“Stupidity” as I use it includes a moral judgment. I’m not just using it to denote mere “lack of knowledge” or analytical ability. This is the biblical perspective on wisdom and knowledge.
I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to deduce that the penalty for continued rebellion against God was bound to be extremely severe. Satan should have recognized that his estate was far less glorious than what he had in heaven with God. But evil is irrational by its very nature. People (and demons) who have lowered themselves want nothing more than to drag others down with them.
Our culture defines “intelligence” strictly in terms of IQ and number of big words mastered and college degrees, to the neglect of moral, spiritual, and prudential elements. I much prefer the terms “knowledge” (gnosis) and “wisdom” (sophia), as I think these are the more biblical (i.e., culturally Hebrew / Jewish) categories of classification. The Bible directly links up wisdom and righteousness in passages such as James 3:17 and Proverbs 2:7, and knowledge and righteousness in, e.g., 1 Corinthians 13:2, Proverbs 1:7 and 30:2-3.
The devil thinks, but he doesn’t “understand.” He may be “smart” in terms of brain power, but he is a fool. His moral decisions have led to nonsense. The biblical definition of a “fool” is one who has rebelled against God, and who has a contempt for righteousness. In other words, I’m using “stupid” as synonymous with “foolish” or “ludicrous,” not with reference to mere intellectual capability only.
As another humorous aside (in keeping with the present theme), after the above paragraph, I checked my word count and it was “666” . . .
Seriously, though: some readers at this point may be thinking, “it’s fine to mock the devil, but it’s no joke how he persecutes Christians!” I don’t mean to make light of that at all, but here is how I personally approach it in my own walk with our Lord.
My wife Judy and I have often noted how bad things started happening when we were setting out to do something that is in God’s will. It’s almost a running joke with us: “oh, that old devil is after us now, huh?, because we decided to [do so-and-so].” We pretty much laugh it off, mock the devil, and proceed on our path, exactly as we had intended. We’ve come to recognize the silliness and utter predictability of his attacks.
In that sense, there is wisdom, I think, in derisively dismissing the devil with a ho-hum attitude (the exact opposite of what the devil desires). His old, tired, droningly repetitious antics are completely to be expected and therefore a big yawner. The fact that his opposition ploys have no effect whatever on our plans, and that we are not daunted and reduced to abject fear by his attacks, no doubt drives the devil nuts. And that is reason enough to approach him in that way. The Bible states, after all: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7; RSV).
The devil is a pathetic joke and a cosmic fool and failure. We don’t need to go along on his ridiculous ride to hell. He was defeated by our Savior Jesus on the cross. We need to be aware of that and confident that we’re already victorious.