Is There Really a Devil?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William P. Saunders

We hear so much about angels these days. What about the devil?—A reader in Spotsylvania

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts, "Behind the disobedient voice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called 'Satan' or the 'devil'" (No. 391).

Throughout Sacred Scripture, we find mention of Satan, the devil. The word Satan comes from the Hebrew word <satan>, meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make up trip and fall, the one to turn us from God. The word devil is derived from the Greek <diabolos>, meaning an accuser, a slanderer. Other synonyms for Satan in Sacred Scripture are the Evil One, Beelzebub, the Accuser, the Tempter, the Great Dragon and the Ancient Serpent.

We believe that in the beginning, God created Satan as a good angel: the Lateran Council IV (1215) stated, "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing." These angels irrevocably chose through their free will to rebel against God and not to serve Him. For this rebellion, they were cast into hell. Sacred Scripture attests to this belief. Our Lord, speaking of the final judgment, said, "Then (the Son of Man) will say to those on His left, 'Out of My sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'" (Mt 25:41).

St. Peter wrote, "Did God spare even the angels who sinned? He did not! He held them captive in Tartarus (the term in Greek mythology to indicate the place of punishment in the underworld)" (2 Peter 2:4). St. John added, "The man who sins belongs to the devil, because the devil is a sinner from the beginning" (1 John 3:8).

In sum, God created the devil as good, God punished him for his sin and God allows his present activity. The Catechism admits, "It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but 'we know that in everything God works for the good with those who love Him" (No. 395).

Our Lord identified Satan in various ways. He called Satan the Prince of this World: Satan uses material things to distract us from God. He tempts us to adore the material, the sensual and the powerful rather than to adore God. He lures us into a sense of false security of thinking we can build our own little kingdom here and now without any need of God.

Jesus referred to Satan as the Father of Lies. The devil perverts the truth, as he did with Eve. He fills our minds with doubts. He provides all the rationalizations why something is right, even though our Lord and the Church teach it as wrong.

Satan is the Prince of Darkness. He lurks about and is crafty. He fills us with the pessimistic thoughts, the bad thoughts, the hateful thoughts. He shows us all the hurts, frustration and troubles of this world and of our own lives, hoping to lead us to despair.

Finally, Jesus called him the Murderer. The devil seeks to kill the grace of God in our soul and then take our soul to hell.

Given these titles and roles, it is little wonder that Christian art has depicted Satan as an ugly, horrible beast with horns. Even in the morality plays of the Middle Ages, Satan could appear in disguise but was always recognized by his limp, a sign of his fall from heaven.

Nevertheless, we are confident that the power of God will always triumph over that of Satan; good over evil and love over hatred. St. John reminds us, "It was to destroy the devil's works that the Son of God revealed Himself" (1 Jn 3:8).

We take the presence and power of Satan seriously. We continue to ask the candidates in our baptismal liturgy, "Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?" We must make that rejection every day. If Satan tempted our Lord in the desert, he surely will tempt us. He knows how we are weak and when we are vulnerable. St. Peter warned, "Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Pt 5:8). Moreover, when we do commit sin, we must sincerely repent of it and seek forgiveness, never allowing Satan to gain a foothold into our lives.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen provided us with a keen insight into Satan. "Do not mock the Gospels and say there is no Satan. Evil is too real in the world to say that. Do not say the idea of Satan is dead and gone. Satan never gains so many cohorts as when, in his shrewdness, he spreads the rumor that he is long since dead. Do not reject the Gospel because it says the Savior was tempted. Satan always tempts the pure—the others are already his. Satan stations more devils on monastery walls than in dens of iniquity, for the latter offer no resistance. Do not say it is absurd that Satan should appear to our Lord, for Satan must always come close to the godly and the strong—the others succumb from a distance."

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the October 27, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.