From Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages
Evil is real and immediate. On March 8, 1980, the Los Angeles Times reported the activities of the convicted murderer Steven T. Judy:
The brutal murder that made today Judy’s last day to live occurred around 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday, April 28, 1979. Terry Lee Chasteen, 23, was taking her children – Misty Ann, 5, Steven, 4, and Mark, 2 – to the babysitter en route to her job at an Indianapolis supermarket when she was flagged to the side of the interstate highway by a man indicating there was a problem with her car. It was Judy, just five days out of jail after posting $750 bond on an armed robbery charge, playing the role of a good Samaritan. But while pretending to help, he covertly disabled her car completely and then offered the family a ride. The ride ended at White Lick Creek just off a roadway where he raped the woman and then strangled her with torn bits of her clothing. When the children began to scream, Judy silenced them one by one in the river.
On April 29, 1981, the Times reported the conviction of Lewis Norris, aged 33, and his partner, Lawrence Sigmond Bittaker, aged 40:
The Norris-Bittaker case included some of the most shocking testimony in American criminal court annals. From June to October, 1979, it was brought out, the two prowled the South Bay area and San Fernando Valley in a sound-proofed van they called the “Murder Mack.” The five known victims ranged in age from 13 to 18. The young victims were forced to submit to repeated rapes and other sexual outrages, which in two cases lasted for two days. Some were forced to carry air mattresses and torture paraphernalia from the van to grassy knolls in the mountains above Glendora, where four of the victims were slain. The killers ripped the girls with pliers, beat them with a sledge hammer, drove icepicks into their skulls, and strangled them with wire coathangers. In the case of the first victim, Lucinda (Cindy) Schaefer, 16, who was kidnapped as she walked from church to her Torrance home, Norris and Bittaker rejected her plea to be allowed to pray before they killed her. They immediately began throttling her with a wire coathanger.
Real, absolute, tangible evil demands our consideration. It threatens every one of us and all of us together. We avoid examining it at our grave peril. And on no account may we ever trivialize it. Unless the devil is perceived as the personification of real evil, he becomes meaningless.
The heart of evil is violence. In Violence and Responsibility, J. Harris defines violence as that which “occurs when injury or suffering is inflicted upon a person or persons by an agent who knows (or ought reasonably to have known) that his actions would result in the harm in question.” Suffering is an aspect of pain, which has three distinct components. The first is the cause of pain, whether natural or deliberate violence. This action of causing harm is the active evil: it is here that Satan dwells. The second is the pain strictly defined as an acute physical response to sensory stimula. Pain in this sense is morally neutral: it can be constructive if it warns you that your foot is burning. The third is suffering, which is a response to pain that includes terror, anxiety, alarm, and fear of annihilation. Suffering is passive evil, the result of active evil.
Violence can be defined as the evil infliction of suffering. Some instances of causing pain – for example, the surgeon’s knife – cannot be classified as violent because the intent is to heal, not to cause suffering. The conscious and deliberate inflicting of suffering is the heart of violence and of moral evil. “Natural evils” such as floods and muscular dystrophy are also examples of violence. They cannot be dismissed as morally neutral or as logical necessities in the cosmos. If God is responsible for the world, he is responsible for these natural evils and the suffering they entail. The doctrine of double effect cannot relieve God from responsibility. “Double effect” is the distinction between what a person strictly intends by an action and what that person foresees as its probable results; for example, if a person sees two people drowning at the same distance away, he may swim out to save one, intending what is good for him, while knowing that the other will probably drown. The limitations of “double effect” are clear from another example: a person who sets off a nuclear war with the intention of freeing the world from injustice. It seems impossible that an omniscient God does not intend what he knows absolutely will result. God knows, surely and clearly, that in creating the cosmos he creates a cosmos in which children are tortured.
Today two currents of belief run counter to one another. One of the currents is carrying us away from a sense of evil. The vague egalitarianism of our day insists that no qualitative standards exist. If no standards of value exist beyond personal preferences, then nothing is really good or really evil – including the actions of Norris and Bittaker. The other, opposite current is a renewed awareness of evil, sometimes linked with a revived interest in the devil. One element in this current is the growth of evangelical Christianity, though this has been offset by a growing skepticism among Roman Catholics about the existence of the devil, in spite of the cautions of Pope Paul VI. The renewed awareness of evil derives from the events of the twentieth century. Since 1914, world wars, rootlessness and crime, concentration camps, totalitarian states, the genocide of Jews and Cambodians, and widespread starvation in a world of riches have pulverized the assumptions of secular progressivism. Warplanes, missiles, and napalm are physical concretizations of the demonic in our day. The horrors of the twentieth century have provoked a reevaluation of assumptions of progress and an increased readiness to believe that evil is radically inherent in human nature and perhaps in the cosmos.
The devil is rooted in a perception of this radical evil. To suppose belief in the devil outdated and superstitious is false. The question to ask about any idea is not whether it is outdated but whether it is true. The notion that new ideas are necessarily better than old is an unfounded and incoherent assumption, and no idea that fits into a coherent world view can properly be called superstitious. Those who believe in the devil without fitting this belief into a world view may be superstitious, but those who have a coherent structure embracing the concept are not. Superstition is any belief held by any individual who has not fit that belief into a coherent world view. This definition varies from the usual dictionary definition of superstition as belief founded on ignorance. The dictionary definition does not work, because one man’s ignorance is another man’s wisdom. Jesuits hold beliefs that Marxists deem superstitious; Marxists hold beliefs that phenomenologists hold superstitious, and so on forever. No one has valid claim to absolute or objective knowledge.
Prior to the question of whether the devil exists is the question of what the devil is. The method used in this book to answer the question is the history of concepts, which is an effort to examine the bases of historical thought, to construct a coherent system of historical explanation of human concepts, and to validate that system as at least equally sure as scientific systems. In outline, the method begins, as all systems must, with epistemological skepticism, the understanding that nothing at all is known, or can be known with absolute certainty. The single exception is Nietzsche’s es denkt: something is thinking. Absolute knowledge is not attainable. We can attain a lesser degree of knowledge from experience. But this kind of knowledge is private, not necessarily validated or socially accepted. By comparing our experiences with others’ and learning from them we can eventually construct knowledge, publicly validated knowledge. If any supposed knowledge, is not validatable within a coherent system, it is not knowledge at all but superstition. All of us are superstitious some of the time, and some of us are superstitious all of the time. Knowledge can be called knowledge only when it is part of a coherent world view. Many coherent thought systems have existed and do exist; their relative value can be judged according to the breadth of their ability to accommodate phenomena. Copernicus’s solar system is better than Ptolemy’s geocentric world, not because Ptolemy’s is incoherent but because Copernicus’s can embrace the phenomena more easily and simply. But no knowledge is available by which to judge any system absolutely.
Certain systems work best with certain problems. Some questions are treated best by physics, some by poetry. The best system of defining and explaining such human constructs as the Constitution or the devil is the history of concepts. The system is best because it rests upon the fewest unproved assumptions, embraces every human concept, and does so with the greatest economy consistent with a full explanation. The definition it offers is at once the broadest and the most coherent. Other approaches to a definition of the devil are solipsism, a priori reasoning, and ecclesiastical or other ideological authority, but each has a validation problem. Why should anyone accept your view of the devil, or your uncle’s, or your pastor’s, unless it fits into a coherent pattern? The historical definition, on the other hand, should be acceptable to every ideological point-of-view. Protestants, Roman Catholics, atheists, Muslims, and Marxists should be able to agree as to the general lines of the development of the concept (naturally disagreement will exist on details). The devil is what the history of his concept is. Nothing else about him can be known. The history of the concept of the devil reveals all that can be known about the devil, and it is the only way that the devil can be known (in the sense of knowledge) at all. One may then decide to believe in the devil or not, or to use the concept to illustrate some other point altogether – Marxists, for example, will be interested in it only as it illustrates social history. But everyone ought to be able to agree on the historical definition of the devil.
The history of concepts observes individual perceptions of the devil; it describes these perceptions constellating as they acquire social validation and become knowledge; it shows these constellations growing in time, gradually excluding the eccentric and forming the boundaries of a tradition; and it perceives the tradition as always unfinished (so long as anyone has a direct perception of evil). The concept is four-dimensional, seen throughout its entire existence in space and time up to the present.
The history of the concept of the devil has deep implications for historical theology. In themselves God, angels, and the devil have no history, for if they do objectively exist, historians cannot get to them in order to investigate them. Historians can only establish the human concept of the devil. But theologians, as opposed to historians, want to ask whether the historical concept of the devil corresponds with reality or at least is consistent with reality. Like historians and scientists, theologians are aware that they cannot obtain knowledge, that their own perceptions are private, and that whatever systems they devise or accept are, like all other systems, precarious. With these reservations in mind, the theologian begins with an assumption (all theological, historical, and scientific systems are built on assumptions) that the human mind can obtain at least some knowledge about God and the devil that transcends merely human perceptions. The history of concepts provides the theologian with the only coherent picture of the devil that is demonstrably consistent with historical reality. Historical theologians may personally assent to the historical tradition or reject it, but they cannot meaningfully define the devil in terms foreign to it.
Historians draw the lines of a concept’s development without making any kind of statement about its religious truth; historical theologians use these lines to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate developments, lasting ideas from those that will not fit permanently into the tradition. The idea of the development of doctrine has its difficulties; we no longer expect the clear answers that J. H. Newman expected. The possibility that the entire tradition is objectively false always exists; no tradition based upon false assumptions has any validity. But the only way the devil can be defined is through his tradition, and when the tradition becomes too intricate, incoherent, or off the track, then it becomes untrue. Yet if the tradition is false, then we have no idea about the devil at all, and any statement made about him is philosophically and literally meaningless. Wrongly used, the method might produce a tautology: we believe because we believe. But the validation of the belief is not the belief itself; it is, rather, the demonstrable tradition of what the community in space and time has believed, combined with a critical attention to eliminating distortion and unnecessary detail.
The theological alternatives to belief in tradition as a vehicle of truth, other than skepticism, solipsism, and tautology, are (1) empirical observation, which cannot be applied to beings such as the devil that are normally unobservable by the senses; (2) democratic scholarly consensus, which is always shifting; (3) reliance upon scripture alone, itself based upon undemonstrable assumptions that scripture is both objectively true and only source of revelation; (4) dialectic applied to revelation – the scholastic method – which itself changes through time both as to its interpretation of scripture and as to the function of its logic; (5) authority of ecclesiastical office through apostolic succession, again based upon undemonstrable assumptions. Only the historical approach is verifiable by and acceptable to those of any persuasion that is not doggedly irrational.
Today we have more reason than ever to be concerned with evil in that we seem to be standing at the end of time. In the nineteenth century people could assume that though things might go wrong occasionally and temporarily we had time to resolve the difficulties and eventually make things right. Marxists and other secular progressives could assume that the future would bring a better world. But now we have run out of time. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues began the end of time, and of secular progressivism. After ten billion years we, in our century, have begun the process of putting an end to evolution, to progress, to life. Only by grappling with evil now, with clear sight and with courage, can we have any chance of avoiding the ruin that looms.