Harrowing Of Hell
June 6, 2021

A Treatise on the Devil

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

The devil shows up in scripture today. He is going by Beelzebub, which is sort of a great word, even though it is the name of Satan. It rolls off the tongue…  Beelzebub. I’d like to invite you all to say it with me, but that might be a little weird in a church. Sometimes I call my dog Minnie Beelzebub, particularly when she’s noshing on her squeaky ball as I’m trying to write a sermon. “Keep it down over there, Beelzebub.”

So, we’re going to look at the devil today and why he is an important part of God’s divine economy. I use the words divine economy, as a different way of saying the Kingdom of God, because the word “economy” suggests balance, and proportionality, and maybe even mathematics. I suppose when you talk about the devil it’s no surprise that you run into mathematics. I always suspected the devil had something to do with math.

It is important to start this conversation by acknowledging that most of us don’t believe in the devil, per se. We probably wouldn’t take a hard line at dinner party if the topic came up. That said, most of us can sympathize with Flip Wilson when we do something, and we’re not quite sure why we did it, we may be tempted to say: “The devil made me do it.”

That’s the crazy thing about the devil, he occupies the place of half-belief, he lives in the space of half-truth. The DNA of the seeds the devil plants are half-truth, half-truth, half-truth.

The devil shows up first as a serpent in the garden of Eden. There, with Adam and Eve, he plants the first seeds of half-truth as he spoke with Eve about the fruit hanging on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the fruit that God told Adam and Eve they should not eat, and if they do, they will die. But Satan says, “No, that’s not the case, if you eat it, you will not die…” That’s half true… What the devil left out is “right now.” You will die, just not “right away.” So, they ate the fruit, and they did not die… right then. But they did become dislocated from a place of love, ruled by eternity, to a place of fear, ruled by death.

What does that mean: “ruled by death?” It means in that moment death became the canvas onto which Adam and Eve and all of humanity painted their mortal life. Death becomes the end for everyone, which also means death becomes the great equalizer for everyone. And because death felt so final, death became something to be feared. And also, because death was the great equalizer, against it, people sought to differentiate themselves as a way of qualifying their value and worth; to justify their existence and make meaning of their life against a pending and unpredictable death.

And so, things like competition, and status, and progeny, and stuff, became the tools used for differentiation; the paint, if you will, that splattered meaning upon the canvass of death. In this way, the devil tricked humanity into thinking more about fear and mortality, than love and eternity as they once had in the garden of Eden.

Later in the Bible we see how this plays out in the Book of Job. There we again encounter Satan, whose name is translated as the Tempter. It turns out he is an acquaintance of God’s, and a resident in the Kingdom of God. Why that would be is a question we’ll deal with in a minute when we get back to Kingdom math.

Here is how the story goes: God and Satan are walking through the halls of heaven and God looks down upon earth and God says to Satan: “Look at my servant Job. See how faithful and devout he is.” And Satan responds: “Of course he is. You have blessed him with everything. It is easy to faithful when you have that kind of life.” So, God says to Satan: “You can tempt Job to disavow me however you like, but you cannot kill him.”

And so, Satan uses physical suffering, and the dissolution of stuff, and the death of family members, and the loss of status to tempt Job to renounce God, to tempt Job to prioritize the things of his life, above his faithfulness to God. And he will not do it. Job remains faithful.

Next, we find the devil in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tempting Jesus to disavow God. And the way he does this is the way he does everything, with half-truths. He quotes the Bible half-way; he promises Jesus a kingdom, a priesthood, power, yet all limited by the boundary of death. Jesus’ response to the half-truths with full Biblical truth remaining faithful to God, as Job remained faithful to God. That the response to temptation: faithfulness to God.

Jesus then goes on to teach that we are eternal beings, and that death in no way changes our relationship with God. As a result, then, wisdom would dictate that we prioritize our relationship with God over the things that we had prioritized as points of differentiation between us and others in a life bounded by death. Or as Paul might say: Now we know that “death no longer has dominion over us” (Rom 6:9 para).

Which leads to another significant insight around Jesus’ presence in the world: he teaches that love is the corollary to fear. That love is the opposite of fear. That love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). That love is of God, and love never ends (1 Cor 13:4).

And so, Jesus goes directly after the devil. Jesus robs the devil of the myth of death, and Jesus makes the devil’s tool of fear obsolete. Resurrection and eternal power of love are the tools Jesus gives to fight the half-truths of the devil. In a sense Jesus came into the world, found the devil, and bound him up.

I’ll let today’s Gospel explain what I mean. Today Jesus tells us a parable of a house and a strong man and an intruder. What is easy to miss in this parable, because of our cultural value around property and being strong,  is that the house, in this case, is the devil’s lair, and the strong man is Beelzebub, himself. Jesus is the intruder who breaks in and binds him up. Jesus breaks in to offer us a different story, one not based on the fear of losing our property, or our power, or our status, or even our life; he tells us a different story, a story of true community, and love,  and the freedom of eternity.

And then he gives us two examples of how to bind the lying half-truths of Beelzebub. The first lie is exposed when Jesus’ mother and brothers come to take him home. You see, in the days of Jesus, people were part of tribes, and it was the tribe that gave protection, and identity, and meaning against the backdrop of death. Within the tribe, there was mutuality and communal responsibility. So, when the Scribes saw Jesus flouting social norms, they called his tribe to come and get him.

But Jesus rejects this tribal authority because it strikes against the deeper inclusive reality of the Kingdom of God.  He asks: “Who are my mother and brothers?”  And then he answers: Those who live in the kingdom of God. Those who do the will of God. Those who choose the laws of love and eternity over the limitations of fear and death. “Those are my brothers and sisters and mother.”

Which brings us to the second lie Jesus binds. In this sentence: “Those are my brothers and sisters and mother,” Jesus does something quite remarkable, he disavows the division of gender hierarchy. He adds “sisters” to the equitable family of God’s divine economy.         

And so, with that, we now return to math and the necessity of the devil as part of God’s divine economy, The Tempter is a necessary integer in the economy of God as an instigator of choice. Christian theology doesn’t balance out without the agent of temptation there to delineate right from wrong, there to accentuate the borders between the kingdom of me and the Kingdom of God. The devil is a necessary algebraic variable, if you will, to balance out a world where there is love and eternity, and fear and mortality.

And since love and eternity are so much greater than fear and death, God adds the Tempter as an X-factor, as the agent of invitation to us, you and me, between faithfulness to God or fear for our own lives splattered upon the canvass of death.

In God’s divine economy we need fear to inspire love. We need death to expose eternity. We need the Tempter to invite us to consider what we really think and believe about God. That said, the devil is a small player in this economy. He is mentioned only 77 times in the Bible under a multitude of names, while God is mentioned 3930 times.

Beelzebub is a small player because Jesus bound him, though, it must be noted, that Jesus didn’t muzzle him. Satan is still there, on his chair, spouting and spitting lies into the air. And in the cacophony, some lying words stick in the minds of those who have yet to decide on love and eternity over fear and mortality.

We see how this plays out in the Epistles where the devil gains the status of Ruler of the world (1 Jn 5:19). Pretty big time, until you realize that the world being talked about is the one that exists in the recesses of our individual egos; where the devil stalks the halls of our self-centeredness, stoking the embers of our fears and anxieties with half-truths.

His goal is always the same, a world divided. That is the devil’s ambition because it strikes at the very core of our Trinitarian, relational God. And yet, God abides the devil, even includes him, to make space for love and the necessity for our freedom to choose it. There is a bigger game afoot, and our active participation in it is directly proportionate to our faith in God.

So, here I’ll end this limited exposition on the devil by leaving you with a warning: Watch out for half-truths. Whenever you experience fear, or whenever you have angst about your mortality, stop, and ask yourself: “Am I being tempted into the recesses of my ego? Am I being tempted to do something that is good for me, irrespective of what it means for someone else? Am I being tempted? Am I being tempted?”

If the temptation, in any way, springs forth from fear, and leads to division, then consider the cacophony of half-truths that may be bombarding you, then bind them with your faith as you seek love and pursue eternity.