The Devil, Satan, Old Scratch, Old Nick, Lucifer…He has many names, but is he real? Can educated people living in the 21st century possibly believe in such a thing? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia became a bit of a laughing stock a few years ago when he admitted in an interview that he believes the devil is, “a real person.”
For instance, popular blogger Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist,” wrote, "Scalia believing in the devil? Not as a metaphor, but as a physical being? Seriously?! It's frightening to me that anyone would believe that." Of course Justice Scalia probably doesn’t mean what Mehta thinks he means.
When Christians say they believe in a personal devil they don’t mean a funny fellow with horns, red tights, and a pointy tail any more then they believe that God is a kindly old man with a long white beard who lives in the sky. Misunderstanding and caricature certainly play a role in the incredulity many people have to accepting the idea of a devil, but I think much of it can be traced to a general skepticism modern people have towards spiritual realities. Our default belief is to say that only the physical world is real. If we say we believe in God, however, we admit that there is more to the world than meets the eye.
We have to get one thing straight though, God alone is uncreated. God has no opposite, and none of his creatures is equally bad as he is good. C.S. Lewis writes, “No being could attain a ‘perfect badness’ opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself), there would be none of him left.” The Church teaches that the Devil is a created being—an angel to be precise—a spiritual entity in rebellion against its creator who maliciously seeks to oppose the work of God in the world.
This article of faith actually makes compelling sense of the world. Our newspapers and history books are full of horrific stories of war, genocide, and unspeakable human cruelty. All around us it seems as if there is a malicious evil power at work in the world. Perhaps no example is more startling than the rise of National Socialism and the resulting holocaust that occurred in Germany, one of the world’s most cultured and advanced civilizations.
If you think the devil is a naïve and simplistic fairy tale, perhaps you should ask yourself if you are not the one being naïve and simplistic? Can such obvious evil as the holocaust be explained merely in terms of social and psychological dysfunction?
As Christians we have even more reason to believe that the devil is real. Not only has the Church throughout history warned us about him, but Jesus did too! In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells a story about a man who sows good seed in his field. However, during the night when everyone is asleep an enemy creeps into the field and sows wild seed among the wheat. The wild seed is often translated as weeds or tares, but the Greek word more precisely refers to a ryegrass called Darnel. Darnel is a weed that is poisonous to eat and that is nearly indiscernible from wheat until it is mature. The situation described by Jesus here is actually not an unusual one. Many commentators point out that in agrarian societies such as Jesus’ own, it is not uncommon for vandals to seek to undermine the crop of their enemies or competitors by sowing bad seed in their fields.
Why does Jesus tell this story? The main focus of Jesus’ ministry was to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven—the long awaited time where God’s righteous rule would be established on earth—was now at hand.
In this chapter in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells many parables to explain to the people the nature of the Kingdom. One thing that Jesus wants us to know is that although the Kingdom has been inaugurated in his coming, there is a gap between its beginning and the time of its ultimate consummation. There is a period of sowing and growth before the harvest.
Jesus actually gives us an explanation of this particular parable. He tells us that the field is the world, and the one who sows the seeds is the “Son of Man,” Jesus’ favorite designation for himself. The enemy that sowed the wild seed is the devil, the enemy of God’s Kingdom. The seed that the Son of Man sows is the Children of the Kingdom, the Church, but Satan has sown his own seed in the same field, and these seeds are his own children.
We shouldn’t imagine that Jesus is saying that these people are literally Satan’s offspring, but rather they are the ones in whom Satan’s evil seed has been sown. No one was created to be a weed, and in fact most of us are a mixture of wheat and weed. There is wheat that is slowly becoming weed and weed that is slowly becoming wheat. St. Augustine writes, “There is this difference between people and real grain and real weeds, for what was grain in the field is grain and what were weeds are weeds. But in the Lord’s field, which is the Church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and what was weed turns into grain, and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.”
Just prior to this passage, Jesus told a similar parable about a sower sowing seed under a variety of different conditions. In that parable, the seed was “the word of the Kingdom.” Similarly we can say that just as Jesus sows the word of life in the gospel of the Kingdom, Satan sows his own poisonous lies.
Those in whom Satan’s lies have taken root are his children just as those in whom the gospel has taken root are children of God.
Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees by calling them “children of the devil.” The reason is that although they claimed to speak for God, they were really serving the devil in opposing the truth. Just as Satan comes on as an angel of light, so do his children often come on as truth tellers or even servants of God. Like Darnel, they may appear as wheat, but by their fruit you shall know them.
In Jesus’ parable, the slaves of the householder suggest that the weeds be pulled up and destroyed, but the householder says that is better to let them grow together, lest in pulling up the weeds the wheat be uprooted too. Throughout history there have been misguided attempts on the part of human beings to take it upon themselves to root out evil from the world. Examples include Inquisitions, witch trials, and even ethnic cleansing.
The problem is that, because of the weeds in our heart, our attempts to act as judge are all too likely to be oppressive, playing into the devil’s plan to disrupt and destroy God’s Kingdom. Even as we speak a fanatical, jihadist, sect of Islam has gained control of Mosul, a city in Iraq, and is attempting to purge it of infidels by driving out Christians, all under the pretense of serving God.
Throughout Church history this parable has been used to condemn the execution of those who were considered heretics. For instance Martin Luther said, “This passage should in all reason terrify the grand inquisitors and murderers of the people, where they are not brazened faced, even if they have to deal with true heretics. But at present they burn the true saints and are themselves heretics. What is that but uprooting the wheat, and pretending to exterminate the tares, like insane people?”
Only God is righteous enough and wise enough to judge. Only God’s word is sharp enough to divide even spirit from soul, and joint from marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
C.S. Lewis has said that there are two errors that we are prone to fall into when it comes to the Devil. One is to ignore him, and act as if he doesn’t exist, but the other is to take an unhealthy interest in him, seeing his handiwork under every bush, obsessively seeking to root him out, and living in constant fear and anxiety about him. The devil is equally happy with both errors.
Jesus’ council to us is to not be anxious or afraid but to have patience and resist the temptation to pull out the weeds. Although our enemy currently sows mischief and confusion, his doom is sure. Christ has already vanquished him through his death and resurrection, and his servants—the wicked powers and principalities—have been disarmed and unmasked. They may do harm in the present, but they cannot ultimately frustrate God’s Kingdom. On the day of the great harvest all the forces of evil will be thrown into the fire and destroyed once and for all.