“Daddy, Is the Devil Real?” A Response

“Daddy, Is the Devil Real?” A Response September 9, 2014

A few weeks ago, a reader sent me a post from a blog on the progressive Christian channel and asked for my opinion. The post is called Daddy, is the Devil Real? The author, Morgan Guyton, explains that the devil came up during scary story telling with his sons, and that his five-year-old asked if the devil was real, and that he said yes, which very much concerned his son. Guyton explains his belief as follows: 

I really do believe that somebody’s out there who’s behind the world’s evil. People really do seem to get possessed by something that baits and prods them into doing evil. When someone becomes a regular practitioner of evil, it seems to make the most sense to see them as being imprisoned or captive to one who is pure evil. We can’t just be reasoned out of doing evil. It’s not just a matter of getting the right explanation and changing our behavior. We need to be delivered from evil once we’re in its clutches.

To be honest, I’d be more scared of the world if I didn’t believe there was a devil. Because we have had some hideous things happen in our world. During the dirty wars in Latin America in the eighties, military torturers did incredibly horrendous things to other peoples’ bodies. Now, in Iraq, the ISIS terrorist group is literally crucifying its political opponents. If that kind of behavior is natural to humanity, then our world is an incredibly scary place. I have to believe that it isn’t natural, that there’s an evil one who possesses people, and that most importantly, they can be delivered from this possession and have their humanity restored.

None of this actually follows. People do not “seem to get possessed by something that baits and prods them into doing evil.” People can be reasoned out of doing evil. As for why people do bad things, we can examine that through psychology. These things aren’t mysteries.

As for me, I would find the world several magnitudes more scary if I thought there was a devil and his demons roaming about possessing people. People who are possessed can’t be reasoned with. People who are possessed are doing evil under the control of an incredibly powerful evil force rather than for human reasons that we can study, understand, and try to counteract. I don’t just find this so much more scary because I’m an atheist—I found the idea incredibly frightening as an evangelical Christian too.

As an evangelical Christian who believed the devil was out there possessing people, I found the world a very scary place indeed. It was frightening to think that our president, or our senators, might be controlled by the devil. When I became an atheist this fear disappeared. The world was still a place where many people do bad and even cruel things, but there was no longer a malevolent force out there orchestrating evil. When I tried to understand the world and the people in it on purely human and earthly terms, I found it both easier to understand and less frightening.

The author may find that his experience is different from mine, but he needs to own it as his individual experience and not something that can be generalized.

And then we come to the last paragraph.

Isaiah came into the room while I was typing this . . . . Isaiah said he was still scared from the story last night. So I tried to explain things a little better. I said the devil is the little voice in your head that tries to get you to do bad things when you really don’t want to. Like when you lose your temper and throw toys at your brother. So whenever you have the thought that you’re so angry, you just want to hit somebody, that’s the devil talking. Just tell him to shut up and go away because you belong to Jesus. He kind of grinned a little bit. He said that the devil sometimes tells him to punch himself. And I said I was pretty sure that Jesus didn’t want him to do that. So we got through it. His first encounter with the devil at age five. Thanks to his tone-deaf, spooky story telling daddy. I think it ended well enough though.

I rather think not. I remember what it was like to be a small child terrified of the devil. I’ve written about this on several occasions. I feel a lot of empathy for Isaiah, and I’m afraid that his father has just set him up for a great deal of fear. I’d challenge Guyton to read what I’ve written on the subject, especially my first post on the subject, before being so glib about his son’s fears.

To be perfectly frank, what Guyton is teaching his son about the devil and demons is actually more extreme than what my conservative evangelical parents taught me.

My parents taught me that demons could and did possess people, yes, but they also taught me that Christians could not be possessed. My parents taught me that the devil was real, yes, but they also taught me that he was too busy with the affairs of world leaders to bother with me or our family personally. My parents taught me that demons were real, but they also taught me that demons could not get through the hedge of protection prayed around our house unless we let them through with things like rock music or Harry Potter books.  In contrast, Guyton is teaching his son that the devil himself enters his head and talks to him. This is infinitely more scary.

And lest Guyton point to his wife telling his son that God is “bigger than everything else and filled with love,” I should point out that my parents taught me that too, and it failed to keep me from being terrified of demons. I’d read Acts 19:13-16, after all, and the idea of demons possessing the unbelievers around me was terrifying enough on its own. I’m stunned that Guyton considers himself a progressive Christian and is nonetheless teaching his young children a more regressive idea of the devil than my conservative evangelical parents taught me.

Now I am not saying that teaching a literal devil out there on the prowl will frighten every child in the way it did me. Guyton wrote that as an adult he finds a world without a devil more frightening than a world with a devil, and it may be the case that some children do not find the idea of a literal devil and a demonic realm frightening. We need to be careful about generalizing from individual experiences. What my experience tells me is that at least some children do find the ideas of a literal devil and literal demons incredibly frightening. Given Guyton’s portrayal of his son’s reaction, it sounds like he may be one of these children.

The reader who send me this post put a question to me:

Do you think you can be a Christian and teach about the devil and not scare children? Or do you think the Christian message is inherently more fear-based than liberal believers will admit?

I think it’s worth remembering that Christian teachings on the devil have varied greatly over time and between denominations. Not all Christians believe there is an individual called the devil out there orchestrating the world’s evil and speaking inside of people’s heads. Some view the devil as a sort of metaphor.

Now, do I think it is possible to be a Christian and teach about the devil and not scare children? Well, it’s hard to prove a negative, but at the moment I can’t think of a way to teach that an individual devil exists, or that demons possess and tempt people, without scaring children. After all, I was taught that God was more powerful than the devil, that demons could not possess Christians, and that our home was surrounded by a hedge of protection created by prayer, and I was still quaking-in-my-bed afraid of demons.

Finally, do I think the Christian message is more fear-based than liberal believers will admit? I would put it differently. I would say that many liberal believers have a more fear-based belief system than they realize. I don’t think the Christian message necessarily has to be fear-based, but sadly it too often is—and children often bear the brunt of this.

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