Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?

Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)? February 1, 2014

Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?

Recently I spoke on the phone with a thoughtful, reflective evangelical Christian who read my new book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press, 2013). I had sent him a copy but hardly expected him to read it—especially so quickly. The man has no degrees in theology but has read a lot of theology over the years and is more knowledgeable about the Bible and theology than most people. And he’s very perceptive. I asked him how he liked the book. After a compliment he said “It seems modern theologians have had very little to say about the devil.” I mumbled something about him being right about that but mentioned that Tillich talked about “the demonic.”

His comment (which may have been a question, too) stirred some thoughts in me. How many good books on Satan have I read? Not many. Hardly any. What role does Satan play in Christian theology—outside of the strictest fundamentalist circles? Hardly any. How often is Satan mentioned in sermons or Sunday School lessons or Christian conversation? Rarely. The lingering question is whether this is right or wrong? Have we American Christians neglected Satan? I am told by missionaries to and from Africa, for example, that Satan plays a big role in African Christianity. Who’s right? They or us?

Now, just to be clear, I’m talking here about mainstream evangelical Christianity in North America. And I’m talking about a “personal devil,” not the devil as a personification of collective evil—which is how most liberal Protestants think of Satan when they read about him in Scripture. “Mainline,” liberal Protestant theologians may talk more about “the demonic” today than conservative Protestants, but they mean a personification of evil (a la Walter Wink).

I suspect that one reason Greg Boyd, a brilliant theologian, is not taken as seriously as he should be by many evangelicals is his obvious, “up front,” blatant belief in a very personal, very real, very active Satan who has great power in the world. And he believes in “spiritual warfare,” something that scares most evangelicals (to say nothing of mainline, liberal Protestants!).

My sense is that if you attend a cross section of evangelical churches (most varieties), a different one every Sunday for a year, you will hear very little if anything about Satan, the devil or even “the demonic” in those terms or any terms. If you peruse the shelves of Christian bookstores you’ll find very little mention of the subject. And yet, ironically, the New Testament is full of Satan! He’s a major character in its story of God, Jesus and us.

Few evangelicals will outrightly deny the reality of a personal power of evil called Satan or the devil. When you ask people many say “Oh, I read The Screwtape Letters years ago.” But you get the sense they (average  North American evangelicals) haven’t given the subject any thought since then (if even then). (I suspect many people read Lewis’s classic much as they read his fiction.)

I’ll freely admit my own guilt and complicity in this neglect. I grew up on a form of evangelical life that made Satan very prominent and lived in fear of him and his power—even though pastors, evangelists and Sunday School teachers often said “Greater is he that is in you….” I just wasn’t so sure about that because of how much they talked about the devil and his power—sometimes more than they talked about Jesus!

In the church I grew up in we all knew a local woman who was said (even by my parents) to be demon possessed. They called her “Tootsie” and she would occasionally show up at church and sit in the back row. I clearly recall seeing congregants (including my parents) surrounding her after church and laying hands on her, praying for her, and hearing her speak with a very strange voice not her own—a deep, growling voice that did sound other-worldly. To the best of my knowledge she was never “delivered.” But I was scared to death of her.

I probably got my life’s fill of “Satan” and “the devil” during the two years I (reluctantly) taught at a large charismatic university founded and led by a healing evangelist. Especially the evangelist’s son (who often led chapel) and many chapel speakers “spoke” to the devil a lot. “Satan! Get your hands off God’s people!” On and on in that vein. By the time I left I felt that Satan was getting more attention than he deserved there!

I suspect many evangelicals in North America have simply over reacted to the over emphasis on Satan and demons in certain circles around the fringes of evangelicalism. And, really, the main reason I’m talking about this is to raise a question about that—our tendency to over react to extremes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But does it ever occur to us that our almost total silence about Satan, the devil, actually drives some people into the arms of churches that go to extremes by, for example, specializing in exorcisms of Christians?

Personally, I have made an adult lifelong study of Hitler and Naziism and am convinced there is no other explanation for his power than Satan and demons. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying “The devil made him do it.” I’m saying he had an uncanny ability to seduce people into evil that they otherwise would not have done. But, of course, at some point he gave himself over to that power of evil, allowing himself to become Satan’s instrument, and the people who supported him and carried out his evil plans were also volunteers. But I would say they all let down their guard and allowed themselves to be influenced by Satan.

This perspective on it “fits” the biblical story, especially Jesus’ own teaching about Satan. Jesus had more to say about the devil and demons than anyone else in Scripture.

While I do not want anyone to start “seeing demons on doorknobs” (as an old saying goes), I do think we evangelical Christians need to rediscover a healthy, biblical perspective on Satan—as a personal power of evil who is the ultimate liar and seducer who, when we don’t beware, uses our weaknesses to his advantage.

I’ll end this on a more controversial note, but this is what I believe. I think Calvinism tends to downplay the reality and power of Satan by reducing Satan to an instrument of God. Luther said that “The devil is God’s devil.” Calvinism generally agrees with that. The idea is that God alone is sovereign so the devil must somehow be an instrument of God in the “big plan” to glorify himself.

As I read the New Testament, however, Satan is no instrument of God but God’s enemy (and ours). In order to avoid dualism, many intellectual Christians have abandoned Satan altogether or absorbed Satan into God (or at least God’s will and plan). I, too, want to avoid dualism, but I don’t know how or why Satan is real and powerful and “the prince of this world.” All I can say with confidence is that he is a conquered enemy of God who is still causing a great deal of chaos. Why God allows it, I don’t know. That’s God’s business. That he will eventually take away all of Satan’s power and free us from his influence lies at the heart of biblical hope.

I also hope that someday I will meet “Tootsie” in heaven. Jesus is Victor!

Browse Our Archives