Satan Didn’t Make Me Do It

Gustave Doré illustration for Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

Depending on who you listen to, Satan prowls Earth’s surface, lives in the White House, lurks in Hell, or doesn’t exist.

About Satan and devils in general, I think C. S. Lewis made a good point:

“…There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight….”
(“The Screwtape Letters,” Preface, C. S. Lewis (1942))

I like most of Gustave Doré’s work. That’s his illustration for Canto XXXIV of Dante’sDivine Comedy,” Inferno.

Pictures, Symbols, and Reality

I also like some ‘religious’ art. But Bernhard Plockhorst’s “Guardian Angel,” and Bernini’s statue on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, don’t show angels the way they really are.

The first angels in Christian art we’ve found so far are in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in use from the late 2nd to the 4th century.

In art, they started looking like young men with wings. By the 19th century they looked like young women with wings.

They all look a bit like the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Nunut as shown on Tut’s pectoral plaque.

‘None of the above’ show what Satan or angels look like. No picture can. It’s a point René Magritte made in his “The Treachery of Images.” It is not a pipe. It’s a symbol, a realistic picture of a pipe. (July 17, 2016)

Angels are “spiritual, non-corporeal beings” with “intelligence and will,” persons who are as real as we are; but with no bodies. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 328336)

Our word for them, “angel,” comes from Old English engel and Old French angele.

Those languages got it from Late Latin angelus, “messenger;” and that comes from Late Greek ἄγγελος, ángelos. The word goes back at least to Mycenaean Linear B, where it’s pronounced a-ke-ro; or thereabouts.

“Angel” is their job. They’re messengers, agents, for God. By nature, they’re spirits. (Catechism, 329)

“Your Mind Couldn’t Grasp It”

Tissot’s “Abraham and the Three Angels” shows pretty much what Abraham saw: three men. (Genesis 18:2)

One of them was God. The other two show up a little later, in Genesis 19:1, they’re identified as angels, and that’s another topic.

As for why the Almighty looked like one of three men: I suspect part of the reason is what George Burn’s character said in “Oh, God!”

“I don’t like to brag, but if I appeared to you just as God—how I really am, what I really am—, your mind couldn’t grasp it.”
(God, in “Oh, God!” (1977) via Wikiquote)

More seriously — I think part of 1 Corinthians’ discussion of love says how well we see ‘big picture’ realities at this point:

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”
(1 Corinthians 13:12)

Folks had mirrors when 1 Corinthians was written; dark pools of still water for most, mirrors made from metal, glass, or stone if they could afford it. Glass-coated mirrors were an emerging technology then.

Stone and metal mirrors were far from perfect. As a Wikipedia page put it, “…they often produced warped or blurred images….” And that’s yet another topic.

Getting a Grip About “Sin”

In my experience, folks can mean quite a few things when they say “sin.”

When I’ve got my head screwed on straight, I mean an act which offends reason, truth, and God. (Catechism, 18491851)

Having a good, or bad, feeling about something may mean that it’s good or evil: or not. Emotions are part of human nature. They’re not good or bad by themselves. What matters is what we do about them, how we use our reason and will. (Catechism, 17651770)

I try to avoid (self-)righteous outrage about whatever’s upsetting me at the moment.

When I succeed, it’s no great virtue. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, still enjoy rock music, became a Catholic, and that’s yet again another topic.

The point is that I’ve been on the receiving end of moral panic too often to assume it’s necessarily reasonable or justified.

Knowing history helps.

That picture, from Martyrs Mirror, shows a November 13, 1554 execution. Ursula Werdum and her sister Mary Beckum were killed for being Mennonites. There was a war going on at the time, with the usual tensions.

As I keep saying, I do not miss the ‘good old days.’ (November 6, 2016)

Free Will and Options

Satan is not God’s evil twin. God’s God, everything and everyone else is a created being. (Genesis 1:1; Catechism, 279, 285)

God is the Almighty, infinitely good, and “a mystery beyond words;” beyond time and space, and “here” in all places and all times. I do not fully understand God. I cannot. (Catechism, 206, 230, 268, 284, 300, 385, 639, 647648, 2779)

God created Satan and all demons, which brings me to the downside of free will.

I can decide what I do or don’t do. I can accept or refuse truth. That freedom includes responsibility for consequences of my decisions. (Catechism, 144, 150, 17301742)

As long as I am alive, I can change my mind: repent after I have refused truth or chosen a wrong action. After I’m dead, my options are limited. I can choose life with God, or — not. (Catechism, 393, 10211022)

I’m not sure what “repenting” virtue would be called. In my considered opinion, that’d be daft. But the choice is possible.

Satan Has Limits

John Martin's Pandemonium, 1841, Web Gallery of Art, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

Satan and other demons are angels who said “no” to God’s will. The choice was/is theirs: willingly serve God, or willingly reject truth and their intended roles. Once they decided, their choice was irrevocable. (Catechism, 391395, 414)

The problem isn’t “a defect in the infinite divine mercy.” It’s tied in with the nature of their existence.1 (Catechism, 393)

This should be obvious, but trying to make deals with or control demons is a very bad idea and we shouldn’t to it. (Catechism, 21162117)

Demons want us to get involved in their revolt against God. (Catechism, 414)

I don’t see a reason to oblige them, though.

Satan is powerful — but is only a creature, and has limits. “He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign.” (Catechism, 394395)

Flip Wilson made “the devil made me do it” a national catchphrase in the ’70s, but didn’t invent the idea. I mentioned Genesis 3:12 last week. (November 6, 2016)

The whole meltdown is in Genesis 3:1213. You know how it goes: Adam blames his wife and God, Eve blames the serpent, and we lose the lease to Eden.

Human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and we still try blaming others for our own faults. That’s probably what made Flip Wilson’s line so funny.

Psychological projection,2 conspiracy theories, and scapegoating; not so much. But I’ll leave that can of worms for another day.

More about faith, facts, and making sense:

1 St. John of Damascus, about Satan and demons:

2 Giambattista Vico apparently identified what we now call psychological projection in 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach said we made God in our image, and Sigmund Freud related projection to his psychoanalytic theory. That’s a vast oversimplification, and still another topic.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Satan Didn’t Make Me Do It

  1. Well, Brian H. Gill, this is a very good article. My own addition to this conversation is anecdotal. Demons, I believe, can’t feel hate…or happiness…or any other thing. They live in an emotionless vacuum. Even their thoughts are disrupted by their inability to connect the thought to the feeling. They are in no way stupid, but any attempt at feeling, throws them to the edge of insanity. To persist in efforts to feel..drives them mad! Yet, as eternal beings…they bring this chaotic madness with them into your presence. Most sin knowingly committed is some random act of madness.

    • Thank you, kitty watson. About your addition: it seems reasonable, and at least somewhat consistent with what St. John of Damascus wrote. I’m putting an excerpt at the end of this reply.

      I think this “madness” is among the top reasons that the Church’s instructions regarding Satan and demons in general is to avoid contact. My own, happily-limited and mild, experience; and everything I’ve read; indicates that it is very excellent advice.

      This is a topic which I plan to raise again. When, I have no idea.

      Thank you again, for taking time to comment.

      St. John of Damascus, about Satan:

      “…he did not sustain the brightness and the honour which the Creator had bestowed on him, and of his free choice was changed from what was in harmony to what was at variance with his nature, and became roused against God….”

      “…For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light. For goodness is the light of the mind, and, similarly, evil is the darkness of the mind….”

      “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” Book II, Chapter 4. Concerning the devil and demons. St. John of Damascus; translated by E.W. Watson and L. Pullan. (from )

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