Reading: Luke 4.1-13 - Jesus is tempted in the wilderness
Note: This sermon was prepared for Lent 1, but on reflection, I decided not to preach it. It opens up many controversial lines of thought, which are best explored in a more leisurely way than a sermon permits. It needs to be read, and discussed, rather than simply spoken from a position of 'six feet above contradiction'. See the sermon I actually gave at this link: https://tomkennarsermons.blogspot.com/2022/03/bread-and-circuses.html
Today, as we enter the season of Lent, our Gospel reading confronts us with a great battle between good and evil – personified as Jesus and the Devil. I have preached many times on the meaning of the tests which the Devil threw at Jesus – so if you want to get under the skin of those challenges, I suggest you buy one of my books(!) because today I want to look at another aspect of the story, which I’ve only touched upon in the past.
There are not many Bible passages which give prominence to the Devil – but this is undoubtedly one of them! So I want to focus on the person of the Devil himself. You may like not like what I’m about to say. In fact, you may chose to stone me to death as a heretic. But I’m going to say it anyway. Here it is… I don’t believe in the Devil. There, I’ve said it. You don’t have to agree with me. I’m not God, and like all of us, I see only through a glass darkly. I might be wrong. But I don’t believe in the Devil. (I can feel the brains of my clergy colleagues doing somersaults now. They are saying to themselves “there he goes again, being all controversial!”)
For me, there is a logical inconsistency about the whole idea of a Devil. My argument goes something like this: “if God is, as we believe, all powerful and all loving, why would he give an evil angel free reign to wander the earth, tempting people away from God’s love?”. An all-powerful God could snap his fingers and lock up such a Devil in a second. God is either all-powerful, or he is not God.
And if God should choose to let the Devil roam free (sowing discord, hatred and conflict all around him) what does that say about the nature of God? It paints a picture of God which I don’t recognise – a God who is prepared to let evil walk among us, is not a God of love, but something else entirely, something actually not Godlike at all.
To the logical inconsistency I propose, some might offer a counter, in the idea of Free Will, first expressed coherently by St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine taught that we have free will, so that our love for God will be real, genuine and chosen. If we didn’t have free will (as Islam teaches, for example); if everything which happens, or every choice we made was God’s will, not ours, then we would be no more than puppets. We would be characters in a great soap opera in the mind of God, with God as writer, director and producer.
So, some theologians will argue that if free will is the law for humans, why not also for the angels? But there is a logical inconsistency in this argument too. It’s incomprehensible to me that any angel, who had spent even a moment in the presence of God, should ever imagine that he could ever conquer God. Such an idea would be pure fantasy, and entirely unattainable.
So, for me, the Devil is not real. He cannot be, if God is anything like the God we believe the Bible reveals to us. The Devil, then, is a metaphor. He is a literary personification of the evil that human beings do.
And, following on from that belief, I’ll go further and say that there is no such thing as evil. Evil is not an actual thing. It is not a spiritual force, lurking in dark corners, reaching out its tentacles into our minds, tempting us to do horrible things, or luring us away from God. There are no ‘evil places’ in the world. When people say they ‘feel the force of evil’, what they are feeling is the power of their imagination. For, again, if God is the creator of everything as we believe and sing, then (logically) if evil exists as an actual thing God has created it, or at the very least permitted it. Again, that’s logically nonsense. The most sensible thing we can say of the ‘force of evil’ is that it is somewhere where the omni-present Spirit of God has not yet been revealed or recognised.
According to the writer of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. He examined his work, when it was complete, and he pronounced it Good. What he didn’t say is ‘most of it is good – apart from those little bubbles of evil floating around over there. What a shame I’m not powerful enough to wipe them out’. Again, either God is the God we sing about and praise, who created all things and pronounced them good. Or he is something else – a less powerful God, who is powerless to intervene, to stop the Devil prowling around like a roaring lion. A tin-pot God. Or the dualistic God of songs like Chris de Burgh’s ‘Spanish Train’ – an equal of Satan, who can be tricked into giving up souls.
There is one argument which gives me pause, however. It’s the argument that Jesus himself appears to have believed in the Devil. If Jesus believed in the Devil, why shouldn’t we? It’s a powerful question, isn’t it?
But I say we need to understand that Jesus spoke constantly in parables and metaphors. When, for example, he said that we would one day see the ‘Son of Man coming on the clouds’ and that ‘every eye would see him’ – did he really think that he was going to ride on a fluffy white cloud across a flat earth? So, when he ‘cast out demons’ from people in conditions we recognise today as medically diagnosable, did he simply use the language about demons, prevalent at the time, because he needed the sick people around him to trust that their healing was real?
And what of his temptation in the desert – the topic of today’s Gospel? There were no witnesses to this event. The only way that the Gospel writers could know what happened is from Jesus’ own lips – there were no disciples present.
So, when Jesus (undoubtedly) related how he wrestled with the kind of ministry he would exercise, I suggest that he used the image and metaphor of the Devil to tell the story. How can any of us describe the internal mental processes we all go through – except by using metaphor and simile? When John Wesley, for example, described feeling ‘strangely warmed’ by the Holy Spirit, do we think his core body temperature went up? Or do we understand such descriptions to be pictures, metaphors, devices to connect our intellect with our emotions?
I hope that these thoughts have helped you to ponder one of the most unhelpful bits of theology that Christians tend to carry around with them. You see, if as I propose, the Devil is not real, but only a metaphor, what does that say about the evil acts that human beings do? It is not the Devil which has caused Vladimir Putin to invade his neighbour, but rather it is Putin, acting out of his own free will, who has done it. Praying against the Devil ‘in the power of the mighty name of Jeeesus’ might make us feel good (like we’ve done something) – but it does nothing to address the reality that people do evil things. Neither do such prayers feed and clothe the refugees pouring over the borders of the Ukraine.
Jesus calls us to action. Our battle is with real principalities and powers, like Putin and so many other tyrannical warlords, oligarchs and monopolists around the world. The principalities and powers against which we labour are the force of the choices made by greedy, power-crazed people. The darkness, the evil, which surrounds them is metaphorical.
But the Love of God is real. The power of the Holy Spirit is omnipotent and omnipresent. Creation is Good, and God loves all his children. That is the message of the Gospel, which we proclaim. That is a message which will transform the world. But only once we stop blaming the Devil, certainly stop fearing him, and start plugging into the real power, the transforming power, of the Love and the Teachings of God. Amen.
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