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Reflections on the Devil, demons and hell
[Substance of a talk given to an informal group of friends meeting near Brecon in September 2011.]

In turning his spiritual world towards the spiritual world of another, a man encounters the terrible, inspiring mystery ... He encounters ... the authentic image of God in man, the very incarnate icon of God in the world, a glimmer of the mystery of the Incarnation and Godmanhood. And man must unconditionally and unreservedly accept this terrible revelation of God, must bow down before the image of God in his brother. And only when he feels it, sees it, and understands it, will yet another mystery be revealed to him, which demands of him his most terrible struggle ... He will see how this image of God is obscured, distorted by an evil power ... In the name of the love for this image of God that pierces his heart, he will want to begin a struggle with the devil.

Mother Maria (Skobotsova), d.1945 in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Passage quoted by Jim Forest in his introduction to her 'Essential Writings'.

Here is a short anthology of passages in the New Testament which refer to the Devil and to demons:

John 14.30 "I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me."

Matthew 4.1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil ...

Matthew 12.43 "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. 44 Then he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation."

Luke 8.11 "Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved."

Luke 8.30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.

1 Corinthians 10.19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

2 Corinthians, 11.14 even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

Ephesians 6.12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Hebrews 2.14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.

1 Peter 5.8 Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world.

1 John 3.8 He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

James 2.19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder.

This little selection is far from being complete. My main intention in preparing it was just to show that this is far from being a marginal theme. But I think it might have appeared as a rather marginal theme had I prepared an equivalent collection of quotations from the Old Testament. Saul needed the comfort of David's harp because he was troubled by 'an evil spirit from the Lord' (1 Samuel 16, 14); Satan of course makes an appearance in the Book of Job, though there he seems to be on surprisingly friendly terms with God; the gods of peoples other than the Jews are referred to as 'devils' in Deuteronomy 32.17. But in general, the role of demons - important in the New Testament, marginal in the Old - constitutes one of the key areas of difference between the two books.

The Old Testament is the history of a people and of its wars, sometimes civil wars but usually wars with other peoples. The New Testament is also situated in a fraught political situation - the Roman occupation of Palestine. But this is not the centre of interest. In the New Testament the combat is spiritual, it is fought with spiritual forces: 'For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places' (Ephesians 6.12).

In relation to the Old Testament this is a quite revolutionary statement. There is an elaborate demonology in the Jewish Book of Enoch; and in the Book of Wisdom, written in Greek by a Jew perhaps around 50 BC we find the following extraordinary summary of later Christian doctrine: 'God created man for incorruption and made him the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it' (Wisdom 2.23-4). Both of these, however, have been preserved more in the Christian tradition than in the Jewish tradition.

Nonetheless the world of Jesus, the Jewish culture into which He was born, is haunted by demons, unlike the world of Moses, David or the prophets. We might dismiss this as popular superstition (on the assumption, which I don't share, that the notions of the common people are generally stupid) but it isn't challenged by Jesus. Jesus converses with the demons and gives His disciples the power to cast them out. If we think the victims of demonic possession were really epileptics or suffering mental illness we shall have to accuse Jesus of pandering to popular superstitions in a rather spectacular way, with enormous consequences for the subsequent history of Christianity.


Far from correcting popular misconceptions about the nature of mental illness, Jesus and His followers expand the notion of demonic possession beyond the exceptional cases that could be seen as madness or epilepsy to a universal phenomenon. Sin - the everyday sort of sin to which all of us are prone - is seen to be a product of demonic suggestion. And this indeed becomes a cornerstone of the whole Christian system, as when St John, the beloved disciple, the theologian, says: 'The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil' (1 John 3.8). That is a very blunt statement. The whole reason for the appearance of Christ is the works of the Devil - no Devil, no reason for the appearance of Christ, no reason for Christianity. And this despite the fact that the Devil makes hardly any appearance in the Old Testament. Most of the Old Testament passages that are taken to refer to the Devil are allegorical interpretations - even the serpent in Eden is, according to a plain literal reading of the text, simply a serpent, albeit gifted with powers which he subsequently lost. Those who wish to see divine history as a matter of direct relations between God and man, without the intervention of an evil that is non-human and spiritual in origin, are following a pattern established in the Old Testament in preference to the New.


Throughout the Old Testament, the ruler of the world is, incontestably, God. But men defy God and follow the devices of their own hearts. But now Jesus refers to a 'ruler of this world' who quite clearly is not God. This passage (John 14.30) has long struck me as being very important. Those who believe that God is the ruler of the world, or who think this is what is taught in Christianity, often express puzzlement as to why the world is, or appears to be, so badly run. Recognition that the world is ruled by a principle that runs counter to the will of God may not solve 'the problem of evil' since it still leaves the problem of why an omnipotent God should allow this to be the case. But it is at least true to our experience. Every day and in every way we can see a principle of perversity at work in human affairs, so that even actions undertaken with the best intentions can have appalling unforeseen consequences. And it is very rare that those in a position to exercise real power in the world are able to act from motives of unmixed benevolence; or able to find policies that will do good for one section of the population without seriously disadvantaging others.

If we were to confine ourselves to saying that there is a principle of perversity in the world by which evil seems to get the upper hand and the best laid schemes gang aft agley we wouldn't be accused of saying anything particularly outrageous. We are more likely to be accused of uttering clichés. But what Jesus says is that this tendency is not the result of the working out of any impersonal principle, but of the deliberate, willed intention of a spiritual being, a person - 'the ruler of this world'. The 'ruler of this world' has power over the world, but he has no power over Christ. Insofar as we are of the world, he has power over us. Insofar as we are of Christ he has no power over us. That has been a central and unquestioned part of the Christian understanding of the world for well over a thousand years. To most Christians it would have been a statement of the obvious, powerfully expressed, for example, in the formulae for baptism used alike in Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism.

There is indeed a difference between mainstream Christianity and some schools of post-reformation Protestantism. Mainstream Christianity teaches that so long as we are in the world we are of it even if we are also, as baptised Christians, of Christ. Two contrary principles are at war within us and the war continues to our death. The Lutheran/Calvinist tradition teaches that if we are of the elect we are no longer of the world because - even though quite evidently we are still of the world - Christ has saved us, so it doesn't matter. Both sides however share the essential idea that outside the intervention of Christ we are in the power of a spiritual will that runs counter to the will of God.

We may well ask why this should pose problems for us nowadays especially in the light of the terrible events of the twentieth century - the endless wars, the collapse of empires, the displacement of populations, the rise of political movements that promise liberation and end in despotism and terror. Do we really believe - is it psychologically healthy for us to believe - that all this is simply a product of human wickedness?


It seems that even among those who continue to believe in God it has become difficult to believe in the existence of any spiritual beings other than God. We have - instinctively if not as a matter of intellectual conviction - accepted the materialist thesis that the characteristics of personal consciousness - will, understanding, memory - cannot exist independently of the material structure of a brain: 'the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile' to quote a famous eighteenth century formulation (ascribed to Pierre Cabanis, 1757-1808, among others).

Yet the mere fact that we recognise the existence of 'God' (assuming we do) means, in almost every possible understanding of that word, that we recognise the existence of consciousness independent of a material base, even if it is a 'consciousness' very different from our own and strictly unimaginable. By definition the imagination can only be formed on the basis of data supplied through the senses and therefore a spiritual reality inaccessible to the senses cannot be imagined. But once we admit the possibility of a spiritual reality inaccessible to the senses - 'God', for example - we have no reason to exclude the possibility of a multitude of spiritual realities inaccessible to the senses. Indeed that is implicit in the conviction most believers in God have that they themselves will, somehow or other, survive after their own physical death.

While clearly understanding that God is unimaginable and that nothing said about Him can possibly be true (since our saying is dependent on words and words are dependent on the work of the senses) we nonetheless do imagine God and we imagine Him in anthropomorphic terms, as a Person. Indeed the very concept of the 'person' could be said to have developed through the fourth century debates on the nature - the three 'Persons' - of the Trinity. It is of course primarily as the Son, or Word, the second Person of the Trinity, that God can be imagined, and the Fathers of the Church taught that the God of the Old Testament, insofar as He reveals Himself to the patriarchs and prophets, is the second Person, who eventually, through the incarnation, assumed human form and therefore a form in which He can, most easily and legitimately, be imagined. The Father and the Holy Spirit, though, while remaining strictly unimaginable, are still referred to as Persons, a word which carries with a certain amount of what might be called imaginative baggage.

It seems to me that if we accept the existence of spiritual beings other than God - the gods of other religions, the Devil, demons, angels - we are equally obliged to think of them in personal, anthropomorphic terms, simply because it is impossible to do otherwise. But we must equally keep in mind that this imagination is not, and cannot be, true. We imagine the Devil and the demons to be personal, endowed with will, understanding, memory, because it is impossible for us to imagine anything higher than personal consciousness - will, understanding, memory (maybe some readers will recognise in this repetition of 'will, understanding, memory', Augustine's utterly inadequate but nonetheless brilliant human analogy of the Trinity). If we try to imagine spiritual beings as something other than personal we will necessarily imagine them to be less than personal - forces of nature, like gravity, electro-magnetic radiation, the Hegelian dialectic. 'Deliver us from evil' rather than 'Deliver us from the Evil One.'


If we understand the personalities ascribed to spiritual beings as being necessary fictions used to evoke realities that - though real, though ultimately more real than the transitory phenomena experienced through the senses - cannot be expressed any other way, then we may be in a better position to situate ourselves with regard to religions other than Christianity, especially the polytheisms which evoke gods, or spiritual beings other than God. Do we think they're simply false, primitive, superstitious etc, end of story? And we may also be in a better position to understand our own consciousness, or to understand it differently - not as a personality secreted out of our brain cells and locked up in the skull with only the senses as a means of connecting with any reality outside ourselves; but rather as a space that is wide open to the operations of many spiritual influences, which can be understood as wills, working either towards our salvation or our destruction.

I began this essay by stressing the difference between the Old Testament and the New, emphasising that the demons belong very much to the world of the New Testament. But I think this is a useful place now to bring the Old Testament back into the picture, since the early Church Fathers reinterpreted it radically. The political struggles of the children of Israel with their neighbours and among themselves turned into the struggle with the demons that takes place within the individual believer. The point can be made with this little anthology from the Psalms. Examples could of course be multiplied but these are all taken from psalms that are recited daily in the monastic practise of the Orthodox Church - psalms, then, that have been said by Orthodox Christians every day for at least one thousand years, possibly much longer ('Hours' are mentioned in the Rule of St Benedict in the sixth century but I don't know when these particular psalms became a fixed part of the Orthodox practise):


[Psalm 3] O Lord, why are they multiplied that afflict me? Many rise up against me. Many say unto my soul: there is no salvation for him in his God.

[Psalm 37/8] My friends and my neighbours drew nigh over against me and stood, and my nearest of kin stood afar off. And they that sought after my soul used violence; and they that sought evils for me spake vain things, and craftinesses all the day long did they meditate ... For I said: Let never mine enemies rejoice over me; yea, when my feet were shaken, those men spoke boastful words against me. For I am ready for scourges and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare mine iniquity, and I will take heed concerning my sin. But mine enemies live and are made stronger than I, and they that hated me unjustly are multiplied. They that render me evil for good slandered me because I pursued goodness.

[Psalm 62/3] But as for these, in vain have they sought after my soul; they shall go into the nethermost parts of the earth, they shall be surrendered unto the edge of the sword; portions for foxes shall they be. But the king shall be glad in God, everyone shall be praised that sweareth by Him; for the mouth of them is stopped that speak unjust things.

[Psalm 142/3] In Thy righteousness shalt Thou bring my soul out of affliction, and in Thy mercy shalt Thou utterly destroy mine enemies. And Thou shalt cut off all them that afflict my soul, for I am Thy servant.


[Psalm 5] Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of my enemies; make thy way straight before me. For there is no truth in their mouth; their heart is destruction, their throat is an open sepulchre, they flatter with their tongue. Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against thee.

[Psalm 100/101] I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cleave to me. Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil. Him who slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy. The man of haughty looks and arrogant heart I will not endure. I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me; he who walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me. No man who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no man who utters lies shall continue in my presence. Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all the evildoers from the city of the Lord.


[Psalm 16/17] Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of thy wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. They close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly. They track me down; now they surround me; they set their eyes to cast me to the ground. They are like a lion eager to tear, as a young lion lurking in ambush. Arise, O Lord! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by thy sword, from men by thy hand, O Lord, from men whose portion in life is of the world.


[Psalm 53/54] For insolent men have risen against me, ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before them. Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. He will requite my enemies with evil; in thy faithfulness put an end to them.


[Psalm 85/86] O God, insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seek my life, and they do not set thee before them. But thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Turn to me and take pity on me; give thy strength to thy servant, and save the son of thy handmaid. Show me a sign of thy favor, that those who hate me may see and be put to shame because thou, Lord, hast helped me and comforted me.


[Psalm 141/142] In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. I look to the right and watch, but there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me, no man cares for me. I cry to thee, O LORD; I say, Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living. Give heed to my cry; for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors; for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to thy name!


[Psalm 69/70] Let them be shamed and confounded that seek after my soul. Let them be turned back and brought to shame that desire evils against me. Let them be turned back straightway in shame that say unto me: Well done! Well done!



Whatever may have been David's intentions in writing the Psalms, the monks are certainly not engaged in a combat with earthly enemies. And from at least the time of Origen in the third century, the travails of Israel in the historical books of the Old Testament were understood as allegorical accounts of the struggle of the Christian against his or her spiritual enemies. The whole essence of the monk's life is a struggle with demons and we find in the Lives of the Saints that the further the monk evolves along the spiritual path the more acute becomes his consciousness of the reality of the demons.

Thus whether the concept of demons - of a multitude of hostile, personal spiritual beings - is true or not, it has been found to be useful. We know, for reasons I have already discussed, that none of our ideas about spiritual realities can be true in any absolute sense. They are, necessarily, accompanied by a work of the imagination which can only operate on the basis of the senses. It is true that many of the Saints have 'seen' demons but the spiritual realities have no fixed form. God can reveal the demons as ugly in order that we may be repelled by them, the demons may reveal themselves as ugly so that we may be terrified by them. But as Saint Paul has said (2 Corinthians, 11.14) 'even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light' and there are many stories of Saints who have been fooled into worshipping demons who appeared to them in delightful, heavenly forms (which is why the tradition of the Desert Fathers regards all 'visions', even apparently holy ones, with suspicion).

Obviously those whose whole lives are devoted to seeking union with God in prayer find that they face a multitude of obstacles in their own emotional life and in the external pressures of the world. The closer they come to tasting that union the more conscious they are of the obstacles to it - obstacles which might seem to ordinary people like ourselves to be perfectly harmless. They are not normally mighty, magical forces. They are not 'the demonic' in the impressive sense imagined by, for example, Paul Tillich. They are meanspirited and banal - lust, gluttony, pride, sloth - the seven deadly sins, or, as they are discussed in the writings ascribed to Saint John Cassian, the eight passions. The particular genius of C.S.Lewis in The Screwtape Letters was to strip the demonic of its romantic aura and show it in its real, almost frivolous nature. But meanspirited, banal and frivolous as it may be, it is immensely powerful within the individual soul and, multiplied through millions of individual souls and the political structures which are the necessary conditions of our material life it has huge, terrible consequences - war, famine, embargoes that reduce whole populations to starvation, destruction of state structures, bombing of cities. And even, most terrible from the Christian point of view, death itself, since the soul that is under the domination of these meanspirited, banal forces, that is under the domination of the Ruler of this world, cannot attain to Eternal Life, to union with God.


I want to finish by presenting my conclusions in the form of a series of 'theses':

1. As Christians we believe, and should state bluntly, that the spiritual world is primary and the material world is secondary. God - Who, however He can be defined (by definition He can't), is certainly not an epiphenomenon of matter - created the Heaven and the Earth which, however we might define 'Heaven', includes the whole material universe.

2. There is therefore a world of spirit or consciousness that exists independently of matter. Contrary to the materialist view, consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of matter (the workings of the brain). It would be more accurate from a Christian point of view to say (and it should be said bluntly) that matter is an epiphenomenon of Consciousness.

3. It is reasonable to assume that the world of spirit independent of matter is every bit as multitudinous and complex as the world of matter - the world, the Universe, as we experience it through the senses (indeed on my reading the complexities of matter are really complexities of spirit). This is implicit in the idea that it is able to accommodate, one way or another, all the souls of the dead.

4. But since our own ability to speak and reason is based on the work of the senses, which is what we mean by the 'material', it is only very approximately that we can understand or speak about the spiritual world independent of the work of the senses.

5. The world as we experience it through the senses is dominated by a principle of evil. Even the relatively comfortable life we enjoy and which enables some of us with comparative ease to behave decently towards each other, is underpinned by an immense history of war and exploitation. The most ambitious attempt of the last century to build a society free of oppression - Soviet Communism - resulted, for a whole variety of reasons, in a state largely based on terror.

6. Christianity teaches us that the origin of this evil lies not in our own human nature as created by God, but in the spiritual realm. Just as through Baptism we 'put on Christ', that is identify with a spiritual Nature that is other than ourselves, so in our engagement with 'the world' we put on, are under the domination of, the 'Ruler of the World', a spiritual nature that is other than ourselves. We entertain and submit to a multitude of impulses that are harmful to our eternal wellbeing, that prevent us from entering into union with Christ.

7. This way of understanding teaches us that the evil we confront is not to be ascribed to other people, our human enemies, a special category of wicked men and women who exist apart from ourselves. It is a wickedness of which we too are a part insofar as we too are under the domination of the Ruler of the World.

8. Entirely understanding the impossibility of accurately describing or imagining the spiritual world independent of the senses, we call the Ruler of the World the Devil, the impulses that bind us to the world demons, and the inability to enter into union with the heavenly realm (in the Christian understanding, with Christ) Hell.