Thursday 27 July 2006

Do you believe in the devil?

I posted on this topic a while back, and you can now vote on it in Jim West’s poll.

Karl Barth once remarked that it is impossible to “believe in” the devil, since the devil deserves only an attitude of utter disbelief—we do not believe in him, but against him. Barth was right: if you want to “believe in” something, it’s much better to believe in God! And belief in God is itself also a denial and rejection of the powers of nothingness and of all the dark glory of their parasitic pseudo-existence.


Anonymous said...

Barth had a very good point but sadly so much of popular christianity is riddled with a non-biblical duotheism. It is alarming how many modern christians have a lived theory of providence that is essentially devil-focussed.

Anonymous said...

The devil cannot be a person, because a person is constitutively rational, relational, creative, while the devil is inherently irrational, anti-relational, chaotic and destructive. The devil is not nothing, but the devil is a nothing, indefinable only by negatives. So you cannot believe in the devil, only against non-him.

And, with Robert Jenson, "having said that, we have probably already said rather more than we should," adding only that "The ontological question about the devil can only be, What ails him?"

byron smith said...

Do you have the Barth reference? When I gave my theodicy and eschatology paper, I got a few questions about the devil and would love to include some reflections in an updated version.

guanilo said...

The really amusing thing for those of us who take seriously the use of non-exclusive language for God is this: what pronoun do you use for the devil? Satanself?

Good thing demonology doesn't figure into my project vary largely.

guanilo said...

Argh. "very largely." This is what proof reading a book will do to one's editorial anal-retentiveness.

[always hit preview!]

Anonymous said...

Byron: one of the sections where Barth has an extensive commentary on the devil and demons is in CD III/3, pp. 519ff. Theological exorcism, says Barth, " msut be an act of the unbelief which is grounded in faith." (521).

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Ray -- that's the passage I had in mind as well.

In the same place, Barth says: "We cannot believe in the devil and demons as we may believe in angels when we believe in God. We have a positive relationship to that in which we believe. But there is no positive relationship to the devil and demons.... We can know about them only in such a way that—as and because we believe in God and His angels—we oppose to them the most radical unbelief. They are the myth, the myth of all mythologies..., the lie which is the basis of all other lies" (III/3, p. 521). So to believe in the devil is to believe in a lie!

Ap said...


I think a better term would be Barth's "impersonal person."

As for the question, "Do you believe in the devil?" The question is usually interpreted as "Do you believe the devil exists?" So I guess I have to say yes.

Anonymous said...

Jesus believed the Devil existed,

so I take my cue from my Lord Jesus.

the devil most certainly does exist..and is afraid of the followers of Jesus.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anon -- "Jesus believed the Devil existed". Yes, that's true. But it might be helpful to distinguish between the things that Jesus "believed" as part of his faith, and things that he "believed" merely as part of his first-century worldview. For instance, as part of his general worldview Jesus would also have "believed" that the earth is at the centre of the cosmos, that the world is only a few thousand years old, etc. But obviously such general "beliefs" or assumptions have nothing to do with Jesus' faith or his understanding of God.

So perhaps it's worth asking the question whether belief in demons was somehow part of Jesus' faith or message -- or whether (like his contemporaries) he simply presupposed the activity of demons as part of his general worldview.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if I agree with you ben when you say Jesus would have "believed" that the earth is at the centre of the cosmos or that the world is only a few thousand years old, etc. Jesus existed within the Trinity when the world was created, would he really believe the world to be a few thousand years old, or that the centre of the cosmos was the earth?

Caleb said...

//The devil is not nothing, but the devil is a nothing, indefinable only by negatives. So you cannot believe in the devil, only against non-him.//

You'll excuse me, but this is a prime example of theological double talk--bullshit language. My concern is not so much your theological/philosophical view regarding Satan, but the sheer obscurity of your language.

I come from a Pentecostal background, which is riddled with theological naivete. This is true of the evangelical world at large, which is growing by leaps and bounds among lay people. I'm concerned for my fellow evangelicals and their intellectual development. How are we as theologians helping to advance the conversation among laity when we use this type of arcane rhetoric? Communication is key--clarity is key--in doing public theology. And if our theology is not public, then what is the purpose of theology at all?

Obviously when a wide-eyed lay person asks whether you "believe in the devil" he mans "do you believe that the devil is a being?"; "does he possess the quality of existence?"; and you know perfectly well that's what he means. Why not just answer the question bluntly?

Sorry. I'm venting. This has been on my mind for a while :}

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