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Does the devil exist?

Does the devil exist?

The existence of the devil is a belief held by the three major monotheistic religions as well as some other religions. However, along with Enlightenment and the following shift in thinking towards naturalism, the existence of the devil was and is being denied in a similar way to the existence of God. Yet while God’s existence is by many still being regarded as a possibility (e.g. among agnostics) or acknowledged, the existence of the devil is often utterly denied even among those who still concede the existence of God as a, however improbable, possibility. In other culture areas such as rural regions of Africa, South America and Asia, the belief in the devil is still widespread.

This gap between the belief of three major religions and commonly held assumptions of many Westerners gives rise to the question what evidence can be found for or against the existence of the devil. This short essay seeks to shed some light on this issue from a philosophical standpoint.

In the first section, I shall, based on Scripture, define what I mean by “devil”. The second section gives an overview of possible lines of argumentation based on the definition from the first section. The third section deals with the argument of special evil, the fourth with the argument of demonic possession and the fifth with the argument of miracles performed by the devil.

1. What is meant by the “devil”?

According to Holy Scripture, the devil is

  • A being created by God (Ez. 28:14)
  • A angelic (spiritual) being, i.e. without a body (2Cor. 11:14; Ez. 28:14 in conjunction with Hebr. 1:14)
  • A being that can influence humans (Lk. 22:3)
  • A fully malevolent being, seeking both to jeopardize God’s works as well as harm or even destroy humans. “Fully” means that there is not a single moment in which the devil does not pursue evil goals. (Ez. 28:16; 1Pet 5:8; Eph 6:11)
  • The chief of a host of beings that share in the attributes (1) to (3), yet lesser in power and knowledge (for these I will use the term “demons”). (Rev 12:7)

In the following sections, I will use the terms “devil” and “demon”/”demons” interchangeably, because they only differ in an attribute that is not crucial to the arguments presented here.

2. Possible lines of argumentation for the existence of the devil

If one chooses to examine the question whether or not the devil exists, one is confronted with the same difficulty as with the question of God’s existence. The devil’s putative spirit nature allows no direct observation, but necessitates indirect evidence to be gleaned. This evidence must be of universal and observable quality, i.e. it must be acknowledgeable by any human no matter his faith. Religious scriptures are to be considered only in so far as they contain reports of eyewitnesses of putative evidence for or against the devil’s existence.

However, the causal connection between observable evidence and its cause (the devil) cannot be stated with absolute certainty as long as other explanations are possible. Therefore, we must work with probabilities. The probability (P) of the devil existing (labeled “D”) would be high if there is at least one evidence for which the devil’s existence is a better explanation than the devil’s non-existence (“N”). On the other hand, D would be low if there were no evidence for which D is a better explanation than N is. Notice that P(D) can neither be 1 nor 0, because a complete verification or falsification is impossible (analogous to the existence of God).

The evidences I shall consider here are:

  • the evidence of special evil (section 3)
  • the evidence of demonic possession and (section 4)
  • the evidence of miracles performed by the devil or his demons (section 5).

All three are observable. The question is whether D is a better explanation for at least one of these pieces of evidence than N.

3. The argument of special evil

Humans do evil. That is a commonly agreed upon reality. It is sometimes suggested, especially by Christians, that for some kinds of evil deeds mere human will and “ingenuity” are not sufficient. In these cases, which I call “special evil” (SE), it is suggested that the devil inspires humans to do utter evil. I define special evil (SE) as follows:

Special evil is evil breaking through all normal limits of conscience. If respect of moral limits occurs, it does so for merely strategic reasons.

It is commonly agreed upon that humans have a will of their own and can (relatively) freely decide to perform evil by themselves. According to this assumption, the participation of the devil in evil actions performed by humans would be unnecessary.

However, at a closer look, evil performed by humans varies greatly in its extent. There is the lie a child tells its parents; later on, the child is ashamed for it, the effects minor (at least in most cases and even if they are major, then the child did not normally intend them). Even the motivation to lie may have elements that are not evil (such as the fear of being told off). In other words: The child has a functioning conscience. For all that, the lie remains evil. On the other hand, we have evil actions such as the Nazi crimes or ritual abuse done by Satanists that are unspeakably cruel and contain a terrifying perfidy and sangfroid. Here, we have no identifiable good element in the motivation to perform these evil actions, nor are the effects minor, not even by chance. Often, the persons performing such actions don’t show any signs of remorse. This has led some authors to speculate that this kind of evil is not merely human, though performed by humans; according to them, it is inspired and reinforced by an evil force greater than humans, viz. the devil or his demons.

Is D then a better explanation for SE than N?

The baseline of this argument is that conscience normally prevents humans to do special evil, though it does not always keep them from doing evil. If there is a conscience, it will sooner or later alarm the person that he or she is on an evil way and stop the person from going further. For example, a bank robber might not listen to his conscience regarding the idea to rob a bank; he might, however, refrain from killing a bank employee because his conscience tells him so. Special evil would not stop here; it would kill the bank employee just for the sake of killing or would only keep her alive if it served its long-term goals, but not for a remorse. If a human being performs special evil, his conscience must either be dead or overruled and his “ingenuity” to do evil complemented by a much more wicked force than himself.

Now with the lack of conscience being the hallmark of SE, every human act in which conscience is overruled would have to be explained by demonic instigation. This is a strange notion even at first glance. Moreover, conscience is sensitive to cultural and individual influences. What for somebody is an unthinkable violation of his conscience might for someone else just be tolerable. And what do we really know of people’s motives for doing evil? Saul persecuted and killed Christians believing he was serving God. Many Nazi henchmen seemed to be just normal people acting out orders. As long as “conscience” is so fuzzily defined and open to ample debate, the argument remains problematic.

But still, can we not say that D is a better explanation for SE than N? N would necessitate mere human wickedness to be the sole cause for blatant evil. Does this kind of evil not align better with D?

Psychology has coined the term “sociopath” for people who act without remorse because of a psychopathological issue (Stout 2005). No mentioning is made about occult forces driving people to be so. That is a hard blow for the argument of special evil. According to the sociopath notion, no demonic influence is needed to make people unscrupulous (though a demonic influence can never be excluded). For the time being, therefore, we cannot say for SE that it is better explained by D than by N.

4. The argument of demonic possession

The argument of demonic possession goes as follows: There are incidences of destructive human behavior that sit ill with any kind of psychological interpretation (PI). D (perhaps alongside PI) is offered as an explanation and D (or D + PI) is a better explanation than merely PI without the involvement of demonic powers.

The crucial question here is whether any one event of human behavior can be found that is better explained by D than by PI alone. There are many accounts of humans behaving as if “demon-possessed” (so the interpretation). The question is whether such an interpretation fits better with the facts than N. What is needed, for example, is a set of symptoms similar to the ICD classification of diseases. The goal of having such a set of symptoms would be to be able to say “If symptoms X, Y and Z occur, it must be demonic possession and cannot be a naturally explainable issue”. The psychotherapist Samuel Pfeifer points out, however, that traditionally all attempts to pinpoint demonic possession via certain symptoms has failed (Pfeifer 1987). Even among the Biblical accounts there is a wide range of symptoms that can hardly be bundled into a tangible disease pattern:

  • Living among the tombs (Mt 8:28)
  • Fierce physical power (Mt 8:28)
  • Turning people mute (Mt 9:33)
  • Turning people blind (Mt 12:22)
  • Convulsing people (Lk 9:42)
  • Demons speak through people and recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Mk 5:7)
  • Giving people the power of divination (Acts 16:16)

How could one find a reliable, common pattern among these? The first problem is that the demons operate so differently in these passages. The only common denominator of all of these characteristics is that they’re “unusual”. Additionally, every one of them, except the divination, can be explained by natural processes. A mentally ill person could live among the tombs if she chose so. Fierce physical power is what epileptics develop during their seizures. Muteness can have biological causes as much as blindness and convulsion. The people shouting around Jesus’ identity make a better case. Still, this isn’t much good for a universal argument, because some demon-possessed people are reported to have been mute. Additionally, recognizing Jesus as the Son of God is not possible nowadays, for he is not here anymore in physical shape. And finally, one might argue that recognizing Jesus as the Son of God could have been something done by any person who had deeper knowledge of Scripture.

So we can hardly say that D offers a better explanation for these “symptoms” than N. Only divination breaks ranks and should better be treated as a miracle (see next section).

We see that even a superficial observation of the argument from demon-possession unmasks problems so great that this argument, however promising at first glance, is not suitable.

5. The argument of miracles performed by the devil

As we have seen, the other arguments provide rather weak evidence for the existence of the devil. The following argument, however, will do better, perhaps surprisingly so.

This argument is about miracles. I take for granted that miracles happen and have happened. Miracles are defined here as events that would not take place if all things exclusively followed the course of natural laws.

The attempt to take miracles as evidence for the devil’s existence may surprise some readers, because miracles are usually ascribed to God and were often used to provide evidence for God’s existence (Swinburne 1996). However, from the Judeo-Christian vantage point, miracles can also happen through the devil or his demons. A famous example is given in the book of Exodus, where Moses is being opposed by two Egyptian sorcerers who imitated some of his miracles, obviously empowered by another source which is generally identified as the devil (see Ex. 7:10-12). In the New Testament, too, some authors warn of seduction coming through miracles being performed by the devil (e.g. 2Thes. 2:9).

I am very much aware that the issue of miracles is itself subject to debate. It would simply go beyond the scope of this present essay to deal with the question whether or not miracles can happen or if miracle accounts indeed represent miracles. In the present context, I will simply assume that miracles have happened and still can happen. The question at hand is therefore: Are there miracles for which the devil’s existence is the best explanation?

5.1 Criteria for the discernment of divine and satanic miracles

This, in turn, raises the question how to discern between miracles performed by God and miracles performed by the devil. Based on propositions (3) and (4), I suggest the following criteria:

  1. A miracle is performed by God if on the long run it promotes the glory of God.
  2. A miracle is performed by the devil if on the long run it is detrimental to the glory of God.

The “Glory of God” is a relatively abstract term and must be substantiated. As a practical approach to a definition, I suggest the following points:

As a result of a miracle, the glory of God is being pursued if…

  1. The person subject to the miracle and/or other persons witnessing the miracle begin to seek God or deepen their seeking of God (e.g. in prayer or by reading religious scriptures) as an implication of the miracle.
  2. The person subject to the miracle and/or other persons witnessing the miracle trust the Bible more after the miracle than before.In order to do that, a divine miracle also has the following attribute:
  3. A divine miracle is designed to bring about faith in the Biblical God.

To make more clear what “detrimental to the glory of God” means, I suggest the following inversions of conditions i) to iii):

  1. The person subject to the miracle and/or other persons witnessing the miracle seek other spiritual entities than God in contradiction to the compelling implications of the miracle.
  2. The person subject to the miracle and/or other persons witnessing the miracle turn to unbiblical beliefs as a result of the miracle alone.
  3. A satanic miracle is designed to bring about unbiblical faith.

I intentionally formulated these contra-conditions as positives contraries to i)-iii). It is not enough to just negate the sentences i) to iii), because humans have a free will and can still walk away with no change after being recipient of a miracle (see e.g. Luke 17:17-18). So if, for instance, an atheist would be miraculously healed by divine intervention, he could remain unmoved in his atheism without compromising the divine authorship of this miracle. He does not believe more in God after the miracle or take the Bible more seriously, but he does it in contradiction to the implications of the miracle. The major implication would be that atheism (and the underlying materialism) cannot be true, because otherwise a miracle could not happen[1]. If he, however, began to get involved in New Age angel-worship, this would be evidence that the miracle is not from God, but from the devil who seeks to distract people’s attention from God. Worshiping angels rather than God is in this case a contradiction to the implications of the miracle, because if angels (as created spiritual beings) exist, a creator (God) must exist, who is clearly greater than all angels. It is illegitimate to worship the angel and ignore God who created the angel and thus empowered it to do the miracle. The same is true of all other (created) spiritual beings.

What about condition v)? Clearly God’s goal is to lead people to trust the Bible more[2], not to turn to unbiblical teachings. If a miracle leads to someone believing such teachings, it cannot be from God. For the worst thing that can happen as a result of a God-ordained miracle is that the person in question changes nothing about her attitude. Turning to unbiblical beliefs without additional intervention of unbiblical teachers is a sign that the wonder cannot be worked by God. One might conceive a situation in which a divine miracle happens and a person, seeking to make sense of it, listens to a Hinduistic explanation given by a Hindu preacher. Then the effect lies with the additional influence of the preacher. If, however, a person turns away from the Biblical God solely on grounds of the miracle itself, there is little room to argue that the miracle itself led the person away from Biblical faith, because of condition (iii).

An example: An atheist has a near-death experience. This experience includes him (resp. his soul) hovering over the hospital bed and seeing himself lying in the bed and the present people around him. He also senses a strong and warm light around him and a deep peace that “all will be good” after death. The atheist afterwards becomes an author telling people that they shouldn’t be afraid of death, without mentioning God’s judgement as depicted in the Bible (e.g. Rev. 20:12-15). This is a clear violation of Biblical teaching. Would God work such a miracle? Clearly not. The reason why the miracle brings about unbiblical faith is that it is designed to do so (condition vi). No one could reasonably conclude from such experiences that for the unrepentant there will be a judgement after death. This would be different if, for example, the person experienced a terrible hell-like scene and would therefore afterwards warn people and invite them to believe in Christ.

5.2 Tracking Jannes’ and Jambres’ master: proof of the devil’s existence qua miracles

So, are there miracles matching proposition a) in conjunction with the conditions iv) and v)? For if one single miracle can be shown for which the above mentioned propositions are true, it would be evidence in favor of the devil’s existence.

I will show now that the miracles done by the Egyptian magicians in the account of the book of Exodus are –granted the account is true – is such an example.

For the reader unfamiliar with the Bible, I will shortly recapture the plot. Moses and Aaron are called by God (“Yahwe”) to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. In order to do that, they go the Pharaoh, who held Israel captive and in slavery, and ask him to let their people go. To underscore that this is God’s claim, Moses does a miracle: He thrusts his staff to the ground, whereupon it changes into a serpent. The Pharaoh summons his “magicians”, in Second Timothy called Jannes and Jambres[3] and they do the same. However, Moses’ staff devours the other staffs. This “miracle-contest” goes on for some time with several wonders until the Pharaoh’s sorcerers can’t reproduce Moses’ miracle of creating gnats out of dust.

Here we clearly have condition b) fulfilled. Moses’ wonders are designed to underscore a righteous divine claim. The sorcerers seek to diminish God’s glory, for they oppose the claim by trying to show that in order to do such miracles, one does not need the support of a God named “Yahwe”, and that therefore Yahwe cannot be the supreme God. More even, implicitly the magicians endorsed belief in other spiritual entities than God (condition iv) and at the same time promoted unbiblical teachings (condition v). The biblical text says that they did the miracle “by their secret arts”, which apparently means occult rituals. Occult rituals by definition include invocation of spiritual forces other than God, a thing that God in the Bible forbids[4]. Clearly, the sorcerers tried to show that their arts were equal or greater than Moses` way of performing wonders. If, for example, the sorcerers’ serpents had eaten up Moses’s serpent, one might think that occult rituals are superior to faith in the biblical God. Then the magicians would have reinforced unbiblical belief in occult powers. It goes without saying that their miracles were designed to do exactly that (condition vi).

So, if the biblical account is true, we have our piece of evidence. As the sorcerers’ miracles cannot be explained by natural means and can, due to their moral and theological impetus, not be viewed as an act of God, the only remaining explanation is that they are authored by the devil. Therefore, the Egyptian sorcerers’ miracles provide good evidence for D, because N would leave open the question where the magicians’ power to perform miracles came from.

The evidence from miracles could be underscored even more if recent accounts of structurally alike miracles can be found, especially if they are “non-contest miracles”.


Bibliography

Beaudoin, John: The Devil’s Lying Wonders. Sophia (2007) 46:111-126

Pfeifer, Samuel: Okkulte Belastung im Spannungsfeld von Seelsorge und Psychiatrie (factum Februar 1987)

Stout, Martha: The Sociopath Next Door (Harmony 2005)

Swinburne, Richard: The Existence of God (Oxford University Press 1996)


[1] Again, I intentionally leave aside a discussion about what evidence for a miracle is compelling and just presuppose that real miracles happen and cannot be explained by any means of natural laws.

[2] I take the Bible to be God’s word in the sense of the Chicago declaration.

[3] 2 Tim 3:8

[4] Lev. 19:26

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