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March 11March 11
“The devil made me do it.”
Those who are old enough will remember that that was a favorite line by Flip Wilson, a popular comedian back in the 1960s and 1970s. When he was playing his character Geraldine, it was, “The devil made me buy this dress.”
He, of course, was playing for laughs, but at least there was an acknowledgment that there is such a thing as a devil. Actually, there are many devils. Unfortunately, too many people in our society today don’t believe that.
During Lent, our Church suggests that we meditate on the four last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. We do not jump from death to heaven, as many people seem to think. There is God’s judgment and there is a hell.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “Immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (#1035).
We don’t know which humans are in hell, but we do know that it is populated by demons. These were originally angels, created by God along with the other angels. God gave them free will and, led by Satan, they used that free will to reject God and his reign. Satan wanted to be like God, a desire reflected in the words of the tempter’s first words to Adam and Eve: “You will be like God” (Gn 3:5).
Poets have tried to describe Satan and his demons, sometimes with contradictory descriptions. Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (published in 1308-1320), for example, describes him as hideous, while John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) portrays him as charismatic. Of course, in actuality, as a fallen angel he is a spirit.
Although Satan and his devils cannot “make” someone do something evil, they do tempt us. No one is exempt; he even tempted Jesus (Mt 4:1-11).
Perhaps the most engaging account of devilish temptation ever written is C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942). The book consists of 31 letters from an elderly devil named Screwtape to a younger devil, Wormwood, on the art of temptation. Lewis tried to show the immortal consequences of seemingly small and insignificant choices.
When the book was first published, some critics accused Lewis of giving the impression that God and Satan were equal and independent powers, which he tried to clear up in a later printing. As the Church teaches, Satan was created by God and not equal to him.
Lewis was asked if he really believed in the devil. He replied, “If by ‘the Devil’ you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly ‘No.’ There is no uncreated being except God. God has no opposite.”
He continued, “The proper question is whether I believe in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us. These we may call devils. They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved. ‘Devil’ is the opposite of ‘angel’ only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man. Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite not of God but of Michael.”
And what do the devils tempt us to do? To sin, of course, because sin is an offense against God, the devils’ enemy. As the catechism says, “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (#1849).
Of course, we don’t usually think that we’re offending God with our minor sins, which is why they are called venial. It’s difficult to commit mortal sins because it requires grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent. Habitually committing venial sins, however, can smooth the way for us to commit mortal sins.
When tempted, we must learn to say, “Begone, Satan.” May we have the strength to do just that.
—John F. Fink