*Image: The Last Judgment by Jacob de Backer, c. 1589 [National Museum, Warsaw] Detail of the devil:
On the Fascination of Evil
The last essay in Dorothy Sayers’ The Whimsical Christian begins this way: “It is notorious that one of the great difficulties about writing a book or a play about the Devil is to prevent that character from stealing the show.” In many ways, to speak of evil is easier than to speak of what is good. Even though evil is supposed to be precisely the “lack” of a good, something solid surrounds it when we confront it.
Evil always has something “personal” hovering about it. Concerning the Devil, the apostle James simply advises us “to resist him and he will flee from you.” (4:7) If Adam and Eve are any indication, this advice is probably easier said than done. But we deal here with a superior intelligence. We will probably lose any argument. So “resist” or “flee” is good counsel.
Most non-believers, as they see it, do not take the Devil seriously. They find him a rather charming, debonnaire, and witty character. He is suave, sophisticated, and one step ahead of us.
When we meet the wily Satan in the first chapter of Job, he has himself just met a superior being. Satan had been roaming around and patrolling the earth. So the Lord asks him whether he had by chance “noticed” his servant, Job. He is “blameless.” No one on earth is “like him.”
Satan, not to be outdone, replies that the only reason that Job is happy is because God has provided him with all the good things he could want. “No wonder he is well-off,” the jaunty Satan replies. Already here, as the story goes on to show, we have hints that perhaps it was better that we were not given everything from the beginning.
And what more delightful conversation can we find than in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters? The old Devil tells his student devil that the young human atheist, whom they are shrewdly leading to the warmer parts of the underworld, “cannot be too careful about what he reads.”
The devils do not want to lose him because of some stray Christian tractate that he might come across. Actually, the believer is the one who can read most anything. The unbeliever dare not allow a line of argument start into his soul, one that would lead him logically to where he refuses to go.
The Devil is famously called “the Father of Lies.” (John 8:44) We live in a culture that, in many ways, is built on a network of now accepted, logically interrelated lies that we have deliberately put into law, into private and public life, under the name of “rights.” We claim the freedom for ourselves to establish the distinction between good and evil. Abortion is built on a lie, as are gay “marriages” and euthanasia.
Most “aggressive” manifestations of evil in our world revolve around how we come to exist and what we are when we arrive here. We probably should not be overly surprised at this turn of events. A few days after the Irish abortion vote, the Prime Minister insisted that every public hospital must provide abortion. No exceptions.
Are we willing to grant that the battle is over? The Holy Father’s earlier advice about downplaying abortion in the name of some greater causes seems less convincing.
Enormous efforts are made to prevent any showing of what precisely these “lies” entail. We see principles of the most basic order removed or mitigated in the name of protecting these individual and collective lies. The truth is that our souls, especially when disordered, can bear only so much reality. That was the point of Screwtape’s advice about the young atheist. He could not question the lies.
Evil can be both repulsive and fascinating. What is repulsive about it is not always obvious. Indeed, evil must, for its very existence, hide within what is good. To blame God for “creating” evil is tantamount to blaming Him for creating anything. If evil were a “something,” not a lack of something, we could rightly “blame” Him. But it is we human beings who are “fascinated.” We are constantly presented with choices and alternatives that we should not really make. In our very deliberation, we often suspect the presence of a “thou shalt not.”
Pascal’s Pensée #555 begins: “Men blaspheme what they do not know. The Christian religion consists in two points. It is of equal concern to men to know them, and it is equally dangerous to be ignorant of them. And it is equally of God’s mercy that He has given indications of both.”
God is concerned that we know of redemption, of the Resurrection and the Trinitarian God. Not to know these things is not just an indifferent ignorance. It is indeed dangerous if we do not know what we are up against, what we are for, or why evil fascinates.