Better the Devil You Know?

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Irish Proverb.

The problem arises when we each know a “different devil.” Today there is often a wide conceptual chasm amongst Christians of good faith regarding the nature and reality of Satan. Some see Satan as a rebelliously angelic “who,” while others see Satan as a non-ontological “what.”

Is Satan an evil angel of hostile intent projecting his evil onto humankind, or is the devil an amalgam of humankind’s evil natures which are projecting themselves onto an archetypal image Satan? Simply put, is the devil a dark cosmic angel acting UPON humankind, OR is the devil a dark cosmic dynamic acting WITHIN mankind?

And does it matter?

Must we, as the body of Christ, have uniformity in our beliefs about “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 12:9) to still effectively resist the fallen powers as the body of Christ?

Or, can we cordially disagree on Satan’s ontology, while still sharing a cohesive and coherent theodicy which allows us to function together in a spirit of unity? Can we still disagree on this topic without calling the other side deceived, blind, primitive, stupid, or superstitious?

Can we tenderly apply John Wesley’s sage advice to “think and let think,” especially in this particular area in which diverse beliefs don’t necessarily malign God’s character or nature?

Can we all agree, in a spirit of unity, to join together to recognize, resist, and rebuke all forms of darkness, despite our disagreement as to the precise nature of the source of that darkness? If the devil I know is an ontological “who,” while the devil you know is a non-ontological “what,” can we still give each other the elbow room to fight the devil that THEY know rather than the devil WE know?

I think we can, and I think we should.

Let me start off with a broad functional definition of the devil which I think is true regardless of whether we view Satan as a “who” or as a “what”:

“There is a spiritual force of darkness in the world which has become ‘uncoupled’ from, what English mystic William Law described as, ‘God’s unchangeable and immutable will-to-all-goodness.’ This force has become ‘disjointed from’ and ‘hostile toward’ both human and divine control. It is a dark and destructive force working ‘within’ the human dynamics of internal emotion and internal thought. But, this darkness is also a force working ‘without’ to varying degrees in exacerbating external events, stimulating natural disasters, cultivating destructive diseases, and catalyzing violent circumstances. It is a force of sinister and self-centered suggestion, a force of debilitating oppression, and a force which sows ongoing deception and discord. This force appears to act on its own initiative, sometimes appearing arbitrary in its actions and at other times appearing pre-meditated and intentional.”

Now, if we can all agree on this basic premise stated above, does it still remain all-important whether this force is acknowledged by us as a “subjective-who” or an “objective-what?” If we are vigilantly committed to recognizing this darkness, diligently devoted to resisting it on every level, and wholeheartedly dedicated to praying for divine light to enter, expose, and then cure it—– then can’t we defer the issue of precise ontology until later, much later, in the endless embrace of eternity?

If we were currently fighting a thickly armored army of spiritual darkness whose faces and forms were covered up with thick metal body-armor and cast iron face-masks, would it really matter if later, post-battle, we found out that what we were fighting were robots under the armor rather then living beings? Probably not. It would be far more important to simply join the field of battle together NOW.

It’s so instructive that the New Testament NEVER asserts that Jesus came to destroy the devil, but RATHER that “the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil.” That suggests that agreeing on issues of “satanic ontology” are less vital than agreeing on issues of “satanic activity.”

So, when we drain the cosmic swamp of all the “works of the devil,” works which Jesus as “the son of God came to destroy” (1 John 3:8), then what/who do we have left as the source of those works? Is Satan an ontological angel seeking human harm and rebellion against divine rule, or is Satan the personification of a spiritual pathogen infecting individual and corporate humanity, a pathogen which is capable of projecting psychic destruction of all kinds out into external creation.

Well, perhaps, as long as we each steadfastly resist and rebuke the works of darkness, aka the works of Satan, according to our respective levels of faith, then the precise nature of Satan himself/itself becomes less essential.

In other words, if we can all agree on what the works of Satan ARE, and that we can ALL, both individually and corporately, resist and rebuke them by fervent prayer, passionate virtue, and daring deeds of loving kindness, THEN the nature of Satan as a “subjective-who” or an “objective-what” simply becomes non-vital.

We can certainly speculate on each possibility, research each possibility, pray about each possibility, then make our best call as to which possibility best fits our own faith and personal cosmology, and then let that conclusion be our well-considered view of it. Let’s just simultaneously afford each other some cosmic elbow room to process this particular issue differently, each according to our own Spirit-quickened consciences.

The works of the devil we all should agree upon in broad and clear terms, but the precise ontological nature of the devil himself/itself need not require absolute uniformity of belief. Amongst Christians of good faith today, there are just too many differing world-views, cosmologies, epistemologies, and metaphysics to make such uniformity on the highly speculative ontology issue feasible. Thus, we afford some flexibility. We can to modify the Irish Proverb, better focus instead on the works of the devil which we all DO know RATHER than the precise ontology of the devil which we DON’T know (at least not with absolute empirical certainty).