Who needs the Devil?

Here’s another question I threw at one of my grade school religion teachers:  what if the devil ceased to exist?  My teacher assured me that that would be a very good thing, which wasn’t my question.  I wasn’t able to state my question clearly at the time, so I’ll do it now.  It seems that our biological and psychological urges plus free will plus original sin (explaining the lack of original grace) are an adequate explanation for sin.  No doubt fiendish temptations exacerbate the problem, but they don’t seem to qualitatively alter it.  It would seem that, even if the devil and his minions ceased to operate, there would still be lies, theft, cruelty, adultery, usury, and war.  While there are supernatural virtues that require divine indwelling, as far as I know there are no preternatural vices that require Satan.  Without devils, demonic possession would stop, but that’s presumably a pretty rare occurrence anyway.

We know it was the devil who tempted Eve and Christ.  Do we need Satan to explain how someone not suffering from original sin could be tempted into evil?  It would seem not, since the devil himself didn’t need any help in his fall.  As far as I can tell, knowing about Satan is something we only need in extraordinary circumstances.  Perhaps Satan has never even bothered to tempt me personally, seeing that ordinary human weakness is doing well enough, but I should be prepared in case this should ever change.  Have I missed something?

15 Responses

  1. Do we need Satan to explain how someone not suffering from original sin could be tempted into evil? It would seem not, since the devil himself didn’t need any help in his fall.

    I’m no theologian but I was under the impression that there is a significant ontological difference between mankind and the angels.

    As you imply, if a tempter is needed for a fall then who tempted Satan? There is a danger of infinite regress. I conclude from this not that Satan is unnecessary for the fall of man but rather that the fall of an angel is of a different quality from that of a man.

    My conclusion is not really any more logical than yours but it is, I think, more in keeping with the traditional teaching of the Church.

  2. Hello Dandy Highwayman,

    I’m not sure if this issue has been addressed by the tradition. Everyone agrees that the serpent gave Eve the idea of eating the fruit, but I’m not sure that means that she couldn’t have decided to do it on her own. You may be right about unfallen angels being in a different boat from unfallen humans, but I don’t see how having a body would make one less prone to temptation.

  3. My take – part of our purpose here is to exercise our free will and choose Christ. How can we honestly choose unless we have both choices in front of us? Whether there’s a need for a devil or not, there’s a need for opposition: good as opposed to evil. Without this, there is no free will. The devil fills that role and is part of the plan.

    CS Lewis had a thought about tin soldiers, if I remember correctly; God created us to be His children, not His automatons.

    So that’s LDS theology, anyway. I don’t know how that fits into Catholicism, not being a Catholic =), but I’m curious to see.

  4. I’m not a Catholic either. I agree with Zach’s take, but am also not a member of the LDS church. My doctrine may be a little foreign to some, but here’s how I’ve thought of it.

    I believe that Satan rebelled before Eden, and that we existed in spiritual form prior to this age. Satan’s rebellion drew many away so God, rather than destroy all He doubted, decided to separate human beings from heaven in order to force a decision out of everyone.

    After Christ’s return, I think we go back to that spiritual state. As a result, fleshly temptation is removed and we live in a world empty of any will to evil.

  5. This is an interesting question. Reading Maistre’s St. Petersburg Dialogues/Enlightenment on Sacrifices, one of the startling things is how he gives a long dogmatically Christian explanation for the constant suffering under deadly sin that rules on Earth without any role for Satan.

    Indeed, he mentions Satan exactly once in the book, to say “Milton has put some beautiful lines into the mouth of Satan, who howls of his appalling degradation. Man also could suitably and wisely speak them.” (i.e. Paradise Lost ix.163-167) Ouch.

    So too, Dante thought of Satan as bound in ice, impotent to tempt anyone, yet the world is still a sin-saturated mess.

    I’d be interested in further reflection on this matter, but it really is outside the domain of political philosophy. Traditional Christian authoritarianism merely requires innate sinfulness to be true, which seems empirically demonstrable.

  6. To be utterly redundant to creation – unnecessary, unavailing, unimportant: this is surely what it means for the brightest of all the angels to have fallen.

    If Satan is part of the Divine economy, then the suffering of his victims is part of God’s plan – and in such a case, God would not be a loving god, but a mercenary one.

  7. Satan is source of the sin. To separate sin from Satan is like separate effect from the cause. To be tempted is not the same thing as to succumb to temptation.

    Adam and Eve choose to accept temptation, thus to actualize sin. Even a sinless person have possibility for sin. It is free will that choose to actualize or not to actualize possibility of sin. Christ was tempted as well.
    Possibility for sin comes from free will, while sin itself comes from Satan.

    To say “Perhaps Satan has never even bothered to tempt me personally” is contradictio in adjecto.

  8. I find ‘sin’ very difficult to understand, and the idea that Satan is the source of sin is worth thinking about.

    If I understand you, the cause of the sin is the choice made by the sinner. That seems fair, and it gives a sharp edge to the idea of Satan as the source of sin.

    Drawing a distinction between the source and the cause is very helpful.

  9. Hello Wrangel,

    I would like to understand this better: “Possibility for sin comes from free will, while sin itself comes from Satan.” Sin itself is the choice to do evil, and so would seem to lie in the will. I don’t see why I need Satan either for me to experience temptation or for me to decide to succumb. I see Satan as the “source” of sin only in the contingent sense that he played a role in making the Fall happen (But even here, isn’t it possible that Adam and Eve would have sinned on their own anyway, just a little while later?), and original sin has facilitated every subsequent sin. Satan is not the source of sin in the way that God is the source of being and goodness, in that every instance of these things must have its origin in Him.

    I can tell that you see Satan playing a more central role in each sinful act, so I’ll ask everyone again: how would the world be different if Satan were to cease to exist tomorrow?

  10. Hello homesteadtheatreofwords,

    I think we must not say that God could not accomplish His ends without Satan, but I wouldn’t rule out the idea that God has chosen to use Satan’s transgression to work some ultimate good.

  11. If there is one thing Satan is notorious for, it is the telling of a lie, the art of deception.

    While there are numerous forces that constantly work against a man (biology, weakness, sin, etc), I believe that Satan works to convince man that he does not need to resist the forces working against him, but that life is better if he embraces those forces.

    That simple seduction can lead a man to choose death over life.

  12. Well, perhaps there is misunderstanding in here, in some segments.
    Sin is choice to do evil, but choice as actualization of possibility of the sin.
    We all have possibility to commit murder(for example), but few of us are really tempted to commit murder. Goal of temptation is actualization of that possibility. Some people actually succumb to that temptation, thus making sin of murder.
    Without temptation, there would not be actualization of potential for sin.

    Source of temptation is Satan (and his daemonic hierarchy). As such he is active force.
    Seems that you, perhaps, have “deistic” idea of Satan as “prime mover”, not as an active spiritual force. However theological works that I have read confirm stance that Satan and demons are active spiritual forces, who tempt men to commit sin and they are doing it constantly.

    As for Adam and Eve, they wouldn’t sinned if they were not tempted to sin. And we know who tempter is.

    As for question: “how would the world be different if Satan were to cease to exist tomorrow?”, perhaps best answer is in the Book of revelation.

  13. All right, so the difference between us is that you think a person cannot experience a temptation to sin without the devil’s prompting, whereas I do. For example, the pleasure of eating seems sufficient to explain the temptation to gluttony. The vision at the end of the book of Revelation is certainly qualitatively different from our current life, but I’d always assumed that this is less because of the end of Satan’s rule than because of the beginning of Christ’s. Perhaps you would say that these are two different ways of saying the same thing, but they seem distinct to me

  14. St Augustine

    Sicut naturarum bonarum optimus creator, ita voluntatum malarum justissimus ordinator” De Civ Dei XI 17

    [As He is the best Creator of good wills, so He is the most just exploiter of evil wills]

  15. Forgive me for commenting on an old post, but I feel that some here may be interested in my admittedly basic understanding of the Eastern Orthodox perspective of sin and the role of the Enemy. Orthodoxy distinguishes between sin, passion, and virtue with the former and the latter being spiritual matters. You said that the pleasure of eating, you feel, is sufficient temptation to gluttony. I think that the knowledge of gluttony is the source of the temptation towards it, and that the pleasure of eating in and of itself is a neutral passion. Consider the fruit that Adam and Eve had partaken of that was forbidden of them: the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

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