SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

It’s characteristic of modern and post- modern societies to have sympathy for the Devil. There’s no evidence for such a thing in medieval society, where the power and destructiveness of the Prince of evil is off-limits, except to the damned. In the early modern era Christopher Marlowe created a sympathetic but terrible Mephistopheles in his Faustus, as Goethe also did,albeit in a different way, in his  Faust 200 years later. In my own time sympathy for the Devil and for his followers is common. Although the span of my life has contained numerous appalling examples of the power of evil, from Hitler to ISIL, our culture has moved away from any serious philosophy of good and evil towards a view that these absolute categories are not very helpful in preventing evil actions. Something less ambitious, capable of seeing some wrongness in even the best people and some good even in the worst, with a corresponding lack of conviction about the value of punishment, has been more common

Mephistopheles by Mark Antokolski
Mephistopheles by Mark Antokolski

In this culture the idea of a punishing God makes no sense. If there is a God, which many doubt, then surely he/she is responsible for everything including the evil and has no right to punish. God’s love is emphasised by theologians at the expense of his judgement. Punishment of evil however was one of the ways in which people imagined God taking responsibility for his flawed creation. Modern theologies often seem to present a well-meaning God who wrings his ineffectual hands while evil continues.

Jesus was quite aware that human beings create their Gods; he himself imagined a Heavenly Father who loved his creation, yet punished those who worked against his wish to perfect it. Jesus’ teaching about punishment is probably the most direct and extreme in the bible. Again and again he sets out his view of God’s rescuing justice, and goes on to imagine his punishment of those who oppose it. God’s commandment is clear and strict; those who have disobeyed it can find forgiveness and turn their lives around but those who never turn are warned they are heading  for hell. Fire, darkness and separation from all good are included in Jesus’ imagining of God’s judgement. Death is the cut-off point. The rich man who ignores the poor man at his gate gets off with it in life but in death he is punished apparently without mercy. Those who have done nothing for the least important of their brothers and sisters, are permitted not to do so in this present age, but in the time of the great judgement they are cast into outer darkness, apparently without promise of parole.

Jesus never luxuriates in this sort of scenario, but simply mentions it as if were a thing that all should know. Of course he is talking in picture language about God, but the picture itself is clear: believing in the God of Jesus means believing in clear commandments, with rewards for obedience and penalties for disobedience. This may seem extreme to people who want to be more forgiving towards human evil than Jesus was.

The rich man in hell, Lazarus with Abraham
The rich man in hell, Lazarus with Abraham

I happen to imagine, that the purpose of God’s punishments is restoration. They are designed to burn out the evil from human souls, as they are in Dante’s Purgatory. Like Dante however I also believe that there are those who will continue to refuse all goodness and may be headed for what the book of Revelation calls the second death, that is utter extinction.

But about Jesus saving us? I’m sure he wants to rescue us from evil and that God’s love in him can enable us to turn our lives around. But I don’t think he rescues us from the consequences of our wrongness, either in this world or the next, and there’s no evidence that Jesus thought differently.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting conclusion, raises questions worth pondering. Salvation continues to create problems in my thinking. I don’t have Aunt Ethel’s certainty, nor do I want it! You raise the question, “What constitutes salvation?” I don’t know any more, I’ve grown less rather than more certain as to its meaning. Which is why I also agree with your other post where you ask the government to help you obey God’s command!

    Like

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