We don’t need to fear the devil but we should understand who he is. Here are the basics.
I was 8 or 9 when a girl I greatly admired in elementary school set me straight on the devil.
One day at recess, to impress her, I told her my very own theological theory: The devil couldn’t possibly exist because God wouldn’t create something evil, and God created everything.
I was waiting for her admiring agreement, and was shocked to see her become visibly upset.
“Then the Bible is lying!” she said. “Do you think the Bible is lying?”
I didn’t say anything, and she calmed down slightly. She was still mad though, and said, “God created you and you sin. That’s because he gave you free will. Well he gave the angels free will, too. And the devil used his to sin.”
And with that, she brilliantly gave the answer, in nascent form, to four common myths many people hold to this day about the devil. Let’s take them one by one.
The first myth is that the devil doesn’t exist.
According to the Bible, the Catholic Church, and every major religion — not to mention the common sense knowledge that shows up in pop culture, movies and television — the devil does exist.
Demons are an inescapable part of the Old Testament.
The Creation story starts with the story of Adam and Eve, and their sin — their fall from grace. At the center of that story is the devil, who lies outright to Eve to get her to give up her friendship with God.
The Old Testament later gives us the names of three demons — Lucifer, Asmodeus and Satan — so we know that there is not just one devil, but a number angels who chose to oppose God.
The New Testament mentions the devil more, not less. Battle with demons is central to Christ’s mission.
The First Letter of John goes so far as to say, “The reason the son of man appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
As the Gospel of Matthew puts it, “They brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.”
Note that the Gospel sees that “those oppressed by demons” and “epileptics” as separate categories — this wasn’t just a primitive understanding of disease. It was the devil.
It still is. “Look around us — it is enough to open a newspaper,” said Pope Francis; “we see the presence of evil. The Devil is acting.”
So what is the devil? “He’s not like a mist — he’s not a diffuse thing — he is a person,” Pope Francis said in December. What kind of person?
Second myth: The devil is the opposite of God.
Catholics do not believe that there are two “superpowers” in the cosmos —God and the devil, like the light and dark side of the force. Rather, we believe there is only one power — Almighty God, who is all-good, and the creator of everything, including the devil.
So why is there a devil at all? The Compendium of the Catechism, promulgated in 2005, explains.
“Satan and the other demons,” it says, “were angels, created good by God. They were, however, transformed into evil because with a free and irrevocable choice they rejected God and his Kingdom, thus giving rise to the existence of hell” (No. 74).
God is love, and he created the universe out of love. All of the creatures show his love, but only two kinds of creatures can love him back: Angels and human beings. Angels are spiritual creatures, acknowledged by nearly every religion and every culture in history. Like us, they have reason and will — the ability to think and to choose. That means they can love.
It also means they can choose not to love.
We human beings live in time, and if we choose not to love God, our choice plays out in slow motion, through the decisions and actions of a lifetime. Angels live outside of time, in eternity. If they chose not to love, that was it: They rejected God in the eternal “now” of heaven and entered the eternal darkness of hell.
The third myth: The devil wants to possess me.
Watching television and movies you might think that the devil’s greatest desire is to possess people. Not so.
Yes, the devil is real, and yes, he wants to see you damned to hell, but it’s not about you. He doesn’t love you. He doesn’t like you. He doesn’t even hate you. He doesn’t give a damn about you (language which is truly appropriate here).
He just hates God, and he wants to hurt God the only way he can.
He knows how much God loves you, so he tries to hurt God by hurting you.
Now, there really is such a thing as demonic possession.
Diabolic activity generally falls into one of four categories, an exorcist I interviewed told me. The mildest forms are infestation (of a place or object) and obsession (involving intense temptations). Worse is oppression —an external attack by evil spirits on a person. The rarest and most serious form is possession. “Full possession means the devil takes control over the consciousness of the person,” the exorcist said. “It uses the mouth of the person to speak. It uses the hands and legs of the person to do violence.”
There are three kinds of exorcisms. First is the liturgical exorcism that is incorporated in every baptismal ceremony.
Second, there is so-called private exorcism, or simple exorcism. It is as simple as the words, “Be gone, Satan.” St. Faustina would send the devil away with a sign of the cross.
The third kind of exorcism is the solemn, “public,” or formal exorcism. This ritual is only carried out with the specific authorization of a bishop. It’s a serious matter. An exorcist told me he only works with victims who have been given a clean bill of health from a psychiatrist and medical doctor. He doesn’t perform exorcisms on those who merely suffer from mental illness.
So, possession is real. But it is also rare. It doesn’t happen without someone actually agreeing to it in some way.
Exorcists told me that dabbling with witchcraft is the most common way it begins. But another way it can happen is the same way it begins in movies from The Exorcist to Netflix’s new Verónica: Ouija boards. These devices are attempts to directly communicate with evil spirits. Don’t do that.
Why is possession rare?
Because the devil knows he doesn’t need to bother with possession. We give ourselves to him in ordinary ways without all that effort, through sin.
“Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself,” says the Catechism. “It causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.”
The devil doesn’t want you, but he wants to make sure God doesn’t have you. The easiest way to do that is to tempt you to sin.
The fourth myth is that the Devil can make you a rock star.
There are all many stories about people selling their souls to the devil to get special abilities: We get riches, supernatural powers, or guitar skills. The devil gets us.
Victims of demonic activity know the truth. The devil may make glamorous promises, but what he delivers is regret and self-loathing.
Compare two recent depictions of the devil: Fox television’s Lucifer and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
In Lucifer, the Devil is a dashing Los Angeles nightclub owner with a devilish grin.
In The Passion he is creepy and gloomy, strangely attractive and repulsive at the same time. That’s more like what he’s really like.
“I’m convinced that one must never converse with Satan,” said Pope Francis. “If you do that, you’ll be lost. He’s more intelligent than us, and he’ll turn you upside down; he’ll make your head spin.”
The devil offers easy pleasures, but never keeps his promises. He can’t. Only God can give you what you need.