How much influence does the devil really have?

Before I address this subject, I want to talk a bit about my personal background and how it leads to this topic. I grew up reading a lot of writing from the Word-of-Faith branch of Pentecostalism, which places heavy emphasis on spiritual warfare. The devil was portrayed as a major agent behind humans’ immorality. A lot of emphasis was placed on the need for Christians to exercise their authority over the devil to be freed from sin.

As I entered my early adult years, my faith started going through a major overhaul. It was not a rejection of everything I had known before. Rather, it was a diversification into doctrines of other types of Christianity. Interestingly, my background in the Word-of-Faith movement helped me understand some of the things I later came to believe.

But one thing I noticed was that, as my theological overhaul unfolded, I thought about the devil less and less. I wondered whether that was a good or bad development. On one hand, I thought it may be a good thing in the sense that, the less you think about something, the less you give it a sphere of influence. But on the other hand, I wondered if I was failing to recognize a serious threat to myself or others, thus yielding to complacency. However, I believe I have come to see why my attention on the devil has declined so sharply, and that, at least in my own situation, it is not a bad development at all.

I have put a lot of emphasis on Book of Romans in this blog. By doing so, I am not encouraging people to only read Romans and ignore the rest of the Bible. Rather, I am highlighting Romans because there are themes which cannot be found anywhere else in the New Testament, and I really feel that this should be appreciated. Most of the unique teachings in Romans have to do with human nature, and how Christ’s death and resurrection are related to human nature. This is significant because in other parts of the New Testament, Christ’s death is emphasized primarily as a substitutionary atonement for sin or a fulfillment of prophesy.

So, while we’re comparing different parts of the New Testament, let’s look at how many times the devil is referenced in each book. I have obtained the reference counts from Biblegateway.com, searching the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Occurrences of the word “devil”:
Matthew (6)
Luke (7)
John (3)
Acts (2)
Ephesians (2)
1 Timothy (2)
2 Timothy (1)
Hebrews (1)
James (2)
1 Peter (1)
1 John (2)
Jude (1)
Revelation (5)

Notice that there are zero references in Romans.

Now, here are occurrences of the term “Satan”:
Matthew (3)
Mark (5)
Luke (5)
John (1)
Acts (2)
Romans (1)
1 Corinthians (2)
2 Corinthians (3)
1 Thessalonians (1)
2 Thessalonians (1)
1 Timothy (2)
Revelation (7)

Just one reference in Romans. We’ll talk about that one reference later.

Now, here are occurrences of the word “demon”
Matthew (18)
Mark (16)
Luke (25)
John (6)
1 Corinthians (3)
Galatians (1)
1 Timothy (1)
James (1)
Revelation (3)

No references in Romans.

This is rather astounding in my opinion, because Romans deals with very heavy and serious subjects involving sin, spiritual death, addiction, and rebellion against righteousness. If you talk to most fundamentalist Christians about these same subjects, they will mention the devil very often, speaking of the devil’s grip on humanity, demons that need to be cast out, how the devil is laughing at us, and so forth. But Paul managed to address these same subjects without dragging the devil into them. Given that Romans has the deepest perspective on human nature that I have found in the Bible, I think that the devil is much less involved with humanity than what Christian Fundamentalism leads you to think. Most of the personal problems that people encounter are due to inherent issues embedded in human nature, not the direct influence of the devil.

The only reference to the devil in Romans comes in the final chapter:

Romans 16:20 – “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

This single reference to Satan in Romans speaks of his ultimate defeat, not his dominion.

Some of the more liberal types of Christianity have criticized what they see as excessive focus on the devil in fundamentalist teaching. In response, some progressive Christians have proposed that the devil is not an actual entity, but rather just a personification of evil. I still think that conclusion is too much of a stretch. There are extremes of evil which I do not believe come from human nature alone. I think the New Testament identifies some situations that indicate involvement from an evil supernatural entity.

One such situation is demon possession, which is described in Luke 8:26-29,

“Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)”

As described in this passage, demon possession involves extremely erratic behavior, not everyday problems.

Another situation where the Bible suggests involvement of the devil is when a person makes a deliberate rejection of Christ, knowing in their heart that Christ’s message is true but refusing to accept it.

John Chapter 8 records a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees,

“’[Jesus stated] You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (John 8:41-44).

The Pharisees were not skeptics of religion or people raised in another religion. Instead, they believed in the God of the Old Testament, and they knew the prophetic writings that spoke of Christ, but they refused to accept Christ because He criticized their hypocritical lifestyles. These are the people whom Jesus said were children of the devil.

So, in summary, I do believe there are situations where there is demonic influence, but I think it is less pervasive than what Fundamentalists have depicted. Earlier I mentioned the Pentecostal writing on spiritual warfare that I read growing up; I still believe that knowledge about our authority in Christ is important because one day we could find ourselves in a situation where there’s a demonic presence. However, I do not recommend looking for the devil everywhere as that can lead to unnecessary anxiety or an obsessive-compulsive approach to spiritual warfare.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s