The Devil Part 1: The Rise and Fall of Belief and Religion


This lecture might seem a bit of a swerve in our series, as we have been dealing in a rational manner with the irrational topics of religion and religious belief that are considered weightier.  But the topic of the Devil, while raising smiles among the secular, is truly a serious one. The devil has a story that reveals concerns about human nature, god, the cosmos and human society with each era.

The Old Testament devil was originally considered a watcher and an adversary for the human race.  He was obedient to god and under god’s power.  The devil rose to more prominence with the New Testament.  The gospel writers, beginning with Mark, began to depict the devil as a powerful adversary of both god and Christ.  By the time of Revelation, John completed the earlier description of the conflict between Jesus and the devil as a cosmic battle between the forces of salvation and the forces of evil.  During the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian, undertook to describe the nature of both angels and devils, and credence in the reality of the devil was very high.

Belief in and fear of the devil rose to an apotheosis in the 16th and 17th Centuries, which was also the period of the witch hunts in Europe, and on a lesser scale, in Colonial America.  The Enlightenment of the 18th Century saw a rise of both skepticism and naturalistic thinking, and the concept of the devil waned. 

After a brief moment of glory during the Romantic period of the early 19th century, when he was equated with Prometheus, the devil continued his long, slow decline.  The modern era, and the publication of Darwin’s Evolution of Species in 1859, accelerated the loss of faith in Satan altogether.  Yet opinion surveys in the United States around 2000 found that a majority of our population claimed belief in the devil. I say claimed, because there are sociologists who make a case that people claiming to credence in god, the devil, heaven and hell and so on, are actually affirming their group identity.  They are really stating that they are good and moral citizens.  The scholars may be correct.  My earlier lecture in Atheist Sociologies showing the rapidly growing decline of faith in the United States seems to indicate that people have less belief in religion with all its accompanying myths.

So why did we humans believe in the devil in the first place?  Today, the mention of Lucifer provokes sniggers among secular thinkers.  But let us not forget that in a time without science, the devil helped explain the world, with its innumerable moral and physical evils that at times threatened to overcome the human race.  The devil was a concept that developed and declined over a period of two thousand years.  Such a paradigm helped resign people to the presence of evil in the world created by and watched over by an all benevolent, all seeing, and all powerful god.  Satan was a vague image for some time, until the gospel writers and the theologians fleshed him out, much in the manner Christians and church doctrine fleshed out the image of Jesus Christ, who may or may not have been a historical being. (See Biblical Criticism)

There is no question about the devil among non-believers, of course.  They embrace the concept that Satan was a symbol, a metaphor for the evil in the world, which is, as we have said, both moral and natural.  We shall see how the cruelty and murder of so-called heretics and witches surged as faith in the devil rose.  As the unchurched view the past, such wickedness done in the name of casting out the devil and his evil cohorts merely increased the sorry state of the human condition.

One important thing to keep in mind while we traverse the centuries’ historical development of the devil is that intelligent and rational people of an earlier time believed in Satan.  He was a given in pre-modern Europe.  Such a paradigm was the way their thinking was ordered, the Weltanschauung or world view.  Lucifer was factored into their conceptual approach.  How much all people believed in him, particularly intellectuals, is a debatable and regrettably unknowable question.  The philosopher, Charles Taylor, has argued that it was “virtually impossible” not to accept a religious interpretation of the world in the pre-Enlightenment age.  He points out that in such a culture, evil spirits were not only credible, but a source of genuine anxiety.  There was nothing theoretical about them.  They were, says Darren Oldridge, objects of real fear, of such compelling fear that it wasn’t possible to entertain seriously the idea they might be unreal.  Belief in the devil was both rooted in complex philosophy and theology and in the areas of everyday life.  Such beliefs shaped the contours of pre-modern thinking. 

People believed in the devil as they believed in god.  Indeed, not to believe in the devil was not to believe in god and the scriptures.  It is quite obvious to the modern mind where this sort of ordering of the perimeters of supernatural belief would lead with the coming of science and naturalism.  If there was no devil, there would also be no god.

The Old Testament and the Early Church

It may be a surprise to some raised in the Judeo- Christian tradition to learn that in most of the Hebrew bible the devil is not the leader of a host of evil spirits or angels, who wage perilous war with god, heaven and human beings.  The devil’s first appearances in the Old Testament are in the Book of Numbers and in Job.  He was a messenger, or adversary, one of those spirits called the Satan. If a Satan appeared in a story, it was to help give an explanation for obstacles or reversals of fortune. Satans were part of god’s workforce, or staff, or royal court.  Satan may have been a kind of spy, who observed humans and reported back to god.  In the Job story of the Old Testament, the satan tells god that he has returned from roaming the earth.  God boasts of his loyal human worshipper, Job, and agrees to allow satan to test Job’s faith.  But Satan must strictly observe the limits god has set on him with regard to Job.  He may not kill him, as it is god who will ultimately return Job to health and prosperity after the many adversities he had allowed Satan to perpetrate on the faithful Job.

It is in the apocryphal books of the Bible that the appearance of Lucifer, another name for Satan, appears, in the Jubilees and in Enoch.

Luther is also mentioned in Isaiah, who speaks of a “son of the dawn, brought down to darkness to the depths of the pit.” A strange account in Genesis 6 talks about angels, sons of god, lusting after human women; and taking on human bodies, mating with the mortal women, producing a race of giants.  Later stories claimed the half-angelic children became demons, corrupting the earth.  In the Book of Chronicles, Satan is given the role of the sinister figure who put the idea of taking a census of the people into King David’s mind.  Obviously a census would help with collecting of taxes.  The people thought such a procedure was a huge evil and staged a revolt. The depiction of Satan in the Old Testament can be seen as vague and undeveloped.

It would not be until the war in heaven described by John in the New Testament that we begin to see what would become the standard account of the devil’s origin.  Historically, such a cosmic war reaches far back beyond the Judeo- Christian Bible to the Third Dynasty of Ur in Sumeria, about 2100 B.C. The story of Huwawa and Gilgamesh is part of a large tradition of combat myths in the near East.  Neil Forsyth, in his The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, 1989, has written a well researched and accessible history of Satan’s or Lucifer’s origin in the combat myth.  I think Forsyth’s cogent and highly original account of such myths and their connection to the tale of Satan’s expulsion from heaven, is extremely helpful in understanding how far back the origin of Satan extends. 

The combat myth would culminate in the brilliant Milton poem, “Paradise Lost,” 1667, with an evil but compelling and heroic Luther leading a band of rebellious angels in a violent but unsuccessful war against god and his hosts. But of that, more later. 

Elain Pagels, in her Origin of Satan, 1996, has worked out a thesis that convincingly demonstrates that the most frequent use of the term devil in the world of the ancient Israelites appeared when the writers of the time spoke of other Jewish sects, rather than foreign enemies.  The groundwork was laid early for the New Testament gospelists of a later date to cast the label of the devil unto the Jewish majorities who opposed the fledgling Christian movement.  The Christians began as a Jewish sect, one in a weak and suspect position vis-à-vis mainstream Judaism.  Opposition was a spur to the Christian group to abandon Israel and to begin to forge its own moral identity and a distinct religious tradition.

We can see that the concept of a Jewish identity, common to members of mainstream Judaism, was not enough for distinctly Jewish, but minority, sects such as the ancient Essenes, who insisted on purity and moral uprightness. Essene literature demonizes its fellow Jewish majority and follows the familiar Near Eastern combat myth pattern.  Essene thinking emphasized the cosmic war of god and his human and angelic allies against Satan, or Beliar, along with his human and devilish allies.  Pagels humorously states that if Satan had not already existed in Jewish tradition, the Essenes would have had to invent him. 

Scholarly tracing of the background for the Old Testament and other Jewish traditional material is invaluable, because it not only helps to establish the long combat tradition concerning the Devil but sets the stage for the internecine conflict between the emerging Christian sect and mainstream Judaism.  The practice of calling Jewish believers who differed from one’s own beliefs, devils and evil ones, was well-established. We can follow the origin of the story of Satan’s combat against god and trace its development in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Before we move on to the four gospels , since this is a series of lectures and discussions about unbelief, it is of interest that there was a significant group of monotheistic Jews, frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, who did not believe in the devil.  They were the Sadducees.  The Sadducees declared there was no resurrection and no angels or spirits.  It was too early in the history of Christianity to begin to consider such ideas as heresies.  That would come later, and it would be lethal.  But with the  Christian gospel writers who composed their works from around 60 or 70 CE, to 90 or so CE in the New Testament, we can see the tensions involved with different belief systems.  In Acts, 5:33, we are told of the implications of the Sadducean doctrine.  The Sadducean priests imprisoned the Apostle, Peter, along with other Christians and a so-called “Angel of the Lord” appeared to release the prisoners.  The priests were, the Acts relates, cut to the heart by this experience and resolved to murder the apostles. It is obvious none of the sects or established religious communities had much tolerance for differences in beliefs and practices.

Paul wrote the earliest surviving Christian texts, which were letters to the various Christian denominations.  His letters were earlier than the gospels.  The earliest Christians believed there would soon be an apocalypse when the evil in the world, Satan and the humans following him would be overthrown.  Paul described the devil as the “god of this world.”  Jesus’ deeds were seen as acts against Satan, according to many contemporary scholars.

The New Testament at first preserved the distinction between pagan and other evil spirits, according to Jeffrey Burton Russell.  However, the writers soon began to present them, the pagan spirits and the evil spirits both, as members of a single confederacy.  Says Russell: “They moved in the direction of consolidating the diverse demons of Near Eastern and Jewish tradition into one host under Satan’s power.” 

Elaine Pagels has brilliantly charted the course of the four gospel writers and their reshaping and retelling of the Jesus myth.  Mark was the earliest writer of the gospels that were included in official versions of the New Testament. He wrote his work around 70 CE, or a few years earlier.  Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels around twenty years later and John was the last, 90 CE to 95 CE, possibly in Alexandria.

Mark wrote during or after one of the greatest disasters suffered by the Jewish people. There had been a Jewish rebellion, and the Romans had thoroughly defeated it. In 70 CE, the Romans entered the Temple in Jerusalem, sacked it for its gold, and destroyed it into rubble.  The Jewish world was shattered.

Mark wrote concerning this calamity. It is clear that he shared the conviction of many of Jesus’ followers that Jesus had predicted the disaster.  He also helped perpetuate the myth of Jesus’ prescience, by ostensibly quoting what Jesus had said concerning the Temple’s destruction.

What is most interesting in all four accepted gospels is that every one of them progressively downplays the Roman responsibility for the death of Jesus.  Each one takes the position that Pontius Pilate was a weak governor and it was the Jews who wanted Jesus dead. Pilate, they claimed, tried to get out of crucifying Jesus, but the bloodthirsty Jews would not accept anything but the death of Jesus. Such a picture of Pilate is belied by historical records.  Pilate was a cruel and despotic governor of the Jews and was called back to Rome on that account, after which he falls from history.  But Mark, a member of a minority sect, is eager to blame the Jewish majority, quick to show the Romans that Christians are no threat to Roman rule.  His concerns are conflicts between his own group of Jesus followers and the majority Jews who reject the small sect’s claims about Jesus.

Mark attempts to clear Jesus’ reputation as a seditionist, deserted by his own family and followers.  This early gospelist writes of Jesus’ life and works and his conflict with the devil as the struggle between good and evil in the Universe.  From the moment Jesus was baptized, Mark insists that God anointed Jesus to do combat with the forces of evil in the world. He explains how Satan and his demons retaliated against god and tried to destroy Jesus. It will surprise no one that Mark claims Jesus won.

Matthew and Luke, not only elaborate, but as Pagels states, heighten Mark’s narration of the three temptations of Jesus by the devil into a drama, which, of course, Jesus wins.  Then Luke carries the gospel combat a step further- he states outright that the devil returned in person in the form of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and led to his death. Every one of the New Testament gospel writers depict Jesus’ execution as the culmination of the fight between good and evil, god and the devil, which began with Jesus’ baptism.

Mark emphasizes Jesus’ ability to conduct exorcisms, casting out the devil from sick people.  Early church exorcisms tried to convince both the exorcist himself, and certainly the one to be exorcised, that the ritual and words used were the exact copies of Jesus’ procedures, thereby making the practice more efficacious. Mark relates other miracles, attempting to demonstrate Jesus’ power to all readers and listeners, but recounting the exorcisms is particularly important to Mark. 

We can see in the four gospels the institutionalizing tendencies of the early church which helped make it such a powerful religion. This institutionalization would contribute to the procedure of labeling influential sects, such as the Gnostics and the Manicheans, as heretics and allied with the devil.  We shall see the charge of alignment with the devil continue into the Reformation and assume more lethal aspects.  The custom was not begun in the Reformation but was a practice of long duration.

Four representative communities can be observed by reading the four gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. 

Each community of Jesus’ followers was attempting to be separate from, but non confrontational with Rome. At the same time, the small Christian groups were disassociating from mainstream Jewish societies and attempting to forge new communities with identities of their own.  Matthew’s group was in competition with the Rabbinic Pharisees who wanted to replace the ruined Temple with the Torah at the center of their faith.  Once again, in Matthew, we see the Christian viewpoint that it is the members of the Jewish establishment who were the enemies of Jesus.  Luke may have been a gentile, writing particularly for the gentile community.  Luke claims that the Jewish majority has lost its claim on god’s covenant by rejecting the Messiah and that god had then offered that covenant to the gentiles.  Luke is very open about Jesus suggesting that the group who arrest him, composed of “chief priests, scribes, and elders,” is in league with the Evil One; Jesus calls this evil one the power of darkness.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends out 70 apostles to heal as he does and to proclaim his message. When they return, successful, Jesus says: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.”  He additionally comments: “I saw Satan fall like lightening from the house of heaven: Behold, I have given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions and upon every power of the enemy.”

Some scholars, such as the British classicist, Fergus Millar, think part of John’s account of Jesus’ arrest is closer to fact than some of the other gospel renderings.  But let me emphasize that the arrest and trial of Jesus may well be a fiction.  Jesus may not even be a historical person. 

The controversy runs on and on, if you recall my earlier lecture on biblical criticism or have read that section on

John claims that Satan himself caused Judas’ treachery.  Earlier, Jesus tells the Jews who had stopped believing in him that they are of their father the devil, that the ruler of this world is the evil one, and so on.  John is likely writing ten years after Luke.  Most scholars who believe Jesus was a historical person rather than a myth, do not think Jesus spoke in such strong words.  Rather, John’s Christian group, around 90 to 100 CE, was in a bitter conflict with the Jewish majority in its city and John’s community was most likely expelled from the Synagogue. John’s gospel reflects his anger.  John tells a heightened story of full cosmic conflict between the light and primordial darkness.  Biblical scholars have noted that with each telling of Jesus’ story, from Mark to John, Pilate gets more mellow, the Jews more bloodthirsty, and the devil emerges as being in some sort of alliance with the Jews. It is the devil who engages in a heightened cosmic battle with Jesus.

Elaine Pagels explains that the gospel writers were trying to solidify group identity.  But what they also helped to do was shape the self understanding of Christians in relation to the Jews for over 2,000 years.  At this time, 70-100 CE, the Christian movement became largely gentile.  Such ideas of cosmic conflicts in which Jesus prevailed not only defined issues for the fledgling Christian communities but comforted and gave them courage that they would prevail.

We can see that during the short period between Jesus’ putative crucifixion and 100 CE, the devil’s had expanded and became definitive.  It is interesting that Satan would take on more definition during a time of political unrest.  We shall see this phenomenon again, as I have mentioned, during the Protestant Reformation.  The devil will be given a heightened identity and become more fearsome than during the period of self definition attempted by the early Christian church. But the church was no longer, by about the 4th Century, a small and persecuted sect. In its first few centuries, the church,  like the devil, became widespread, powerful and fearsome.  The devil rose with the rise of the Christian religion.

Going forward with the rise to power, the early church fathers not only had to create and solidify doctrine that would help with instructing members of the new and growing Christian church, they also had to identify and stamp out opposing and threatening beliefs.  These beliefs were identified with heresy, and the Church made sure that the faithful would be wary of adopting them. The apostle Paul never knew Jesus but he was a convert who was very important for helping disseminate Christianity. His epistles to different congregations are some of the earliest writings about Jesus and Christianity, earlier than the gospels.  Paul, formerly a member of the Jewish mainstream, had a dramatic conversion, well known by now, on the way to Damascus, somewhere between 33 CE and 36 CE.  Falling from his horse, he saw a light that temporarily blinded him and he heard a voice asking him why Paul persecuted him. He identified that voice as Jesus’.

Paul was a great evangelizer and carried Christianity to many formerly gentile areas. As the church spread to gentiles it began to pick up pagan influences that created subtle and not so subtle changes.  Some would say that incorporating pagan gods, spirits and customs helped the church maintain its hold on gentile areas.  At any rate, the pagan incorporation also created an atmosphere in which the church grew in unpredictable ways.

One of the ways in which Christianity grew was in a collection of sects and beliefs which are classified under the rubric of Gnosticism.  Henry Chadwick, the church historian, has called the struggle, then the battle against Gnosticism, the “most decisive battle in church history.”  The outcome came with victory for the institutionalized church.

Gnosticism was very important as it held great sway in the early Christian world.  It had unique ideas about the nature of god, the devil and the creation of the cosmos.  Unfortunately for the Gnostics, they were focused on inner light and wisdom.  They were too individualized to institutionalize successfully.  But their ideas about god are really fascinating because they managed to deal with the difficulty of evil in the world that Christianity has been unable to deal with successfully down to the present day.

I have always thought of Gnostic ideas as very sensible, for a religion, which I never consider sensible. But some of the Gnostic ideas are rather clever in the way they deal with the problem of evil.  Their myth is very involved, and we don’t have time to delve into it very deeply this evening. 

The core of their belief system was that the god of the Christians was not to be identified with the true god.  Through a series of mishaps, the world had been created by an imperfect being, ignorant, but possibly ignorant and malevolent.  Christ had come to give humans redemption. It seems that given the absence of knowledge of evolution and the natural workings of nature and the cosmos, Gnostics developed the interesting concept of a false god, or the demiurge, who had created this world of moral and natural evil.  Such a concept also took care of the question that Christians are still unable to answer- why do we have two worlds, in one of which we stumble along without much true guidance and then go on to punishment or reward in an afterlife, another world?  It makes no sense.  I have dealt with these difficulties in an earlier lecture entitled arguments for and against the existence of god and there is an essay and a book list under What is Atheism?

One group of Gnostics called Ophites, believed that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was really Christ and not Satan, who had come to save Adam and Eve from the tyrannic, flawed god. Christ brought men and women to true knowledge in the world.  It was about this time that the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who was originally merely a talking snake, a memorable counter-intuitive concept, took on a weightier role.  John’s was the only gospel to identify Satan as a serpent. Not only the Gnostics, but the early Church Fathers were forced to deal with Satan’s nature, and they had very little solid information from Christian writing and folklore.  The nature of the devil was vague and quite undeveloped, as we have mentioned. 

The 2nd century Marcion, a wealthy and for a time, influential, Gnostic, compiled the first canon of Christian literature, but left out the entire Old Testament, as having been influenced by the false god.  The Gnostics also believed in dealing with the issue of transcendental perfection- they stated that the real god did not lack anything, was perfection in itself, and so did not need to create a world of any kind. Many of the Gnostics did not acknowledge the true god as a creator at all. Christians still struggle with their embrace of a contradictory doctrine.

A late revival of Gnosticism was Manichaeism.  Its leader was Mani.  The Manicheans maintained that having been brought into existence by the evil god, all material things were evil.  We would not have access to many Gnostic writings but luckily, during a crackdown on so-called heretical works by the bishop, Athanasius, in 367 CE, the Gnostic works in a monastery’s library were buried at Nag Hammadi in Egypt to keep them from being destroyed.  They were discovered in 1945 and many translations continue to appear, shedding light on how varied Christian beliefs were from the earliest days until the third Century or so. 

Origen, Irenaeus and other important Church theologians began to slowly and painfully lay out church doctrine and beliefs for their members.  It was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430 CE, a former Manichean, who stated that god was the supreme good, that his creation was all good, and evil was the absence of good.  It was important to deal with the John Gospel, which identified the devil as “evil from the beginning” of time.  Such an idea made it seem as though god had created evil. 

Augustine tried to locate the cause of our fallen world in man’s already wicked nature when the devil approached him.  Such a stance made the devil less powerful.  Everything in god’s cosmos, stated Augustine, will fit, due to god’s goodness.  If there is something evil in the cosmos, such as the devil and the inner nature of some humans, such evil will fail as it is actually part of god’s great purpose.  Satan was not very powerful in Augustine’s theology and Augustine shrewdly depicts man as often divided in himself.  Augustine’s theology is very complex, but our perusal of a small portion of his attempts to deal with the Manichean heresy is sufficient for our purposes this evening.

Before we leave the early Christian church and its vision of the devil, we need to discuss the all-important doctrine of salvation.  By the end of the theological debates, most Christian thinkers decided the devil would not be saved at the Last Judgement. Remember, the Gnostics offered people access to the secret knowledge and practices which would free their souls from the flawed and evil material world.  The church had to deal with such an attractive alternative salvation from another sect. Church thinkers maintained that Christ died to “buy back” or redeem men and women.  But Irenaeus, in around 180 CE, stated that the so-called ransom had to be paid to the devil, as it was Satan who held the souls of humans captive and seduced them into sin.  Jesus was the ransom.  But some church fathers, including Augustine, very critically and importantly, decided the so-called ransom was not paid.  They maintained that god had tricked Satan into believing that Jesus was mortal. 

When Jesus was resurrected, the devil went unpaid, while at the same time salvation was assured for humans.  Augustine coined the title for this ruse, calling it “The Devil’s Mousetrap.”

We shall now move to the medieval world and its vision of the devil.  We are leaving the end of an era that had culminated in a very powerful church by about 360 CE, a church which stood at the very heart of the Roman Empire and was the ruler of thousands of souls.  The devil, too, seeking to lure men away from the church and god’s salvation, had become a very powerful figure.  The church had taken on a tendency, since the dangerous threat from Gnosticism, to see different opinions as heresies, dangers that must be stamped out.  The Church Triumphant hastened to quell any differing theological position by identifying it with the devil.  Such a stance brought on many bloody persecutions.

The Devil in the Middle Ages

As the Christian Church assumed importance, so did the figure of Satan, or Lucifer. Around 1100 CE, questions began to arise about the reality of spirits.  Aristotle was the well-known and important 5th Century Greek philosopher, and his work was reintroduced into Latin Europe during the 12th and 13th Centuries. The dialogue concerning spirits picked up weight as Christian theology progressed.  I want to begin this portion of the lecture with Thomas Aquinas because as with Augustine and Greek philosophy in the 4th Century, Aquinas was the most brilliant and influential member of Scholasticism, the primary philosophical school of the Middle Ages.

Aquinas attempted to reconcile what were known as the truths of reason (as expounded by Aristotle) with the truths of faith.  His influence lingers today.  Aquinas developed several systematic so-called proofs of the existence of god.  Our interest is primarily in his putative “scientific” description and classification of angels, devils and the immortal soul.  Aquinas’s complex theological system did not really require Satan’s existence.  This church theologian’s less well-known treatises spell out his reservations fairly clearly. Aquinas admitted that some Aristotelians did not accept the reality of angels and demons; he even once asserted that Aristotle and his students never mentioned them. 

However, Aquinas had to deal with the idea of Christ’s death being a ransom owed to Satan in return for releasing humans from bondage to him. We have just seen that the church fathers claimed the devil was then tricked by god.  The trick, if you recall, or the “Devil’s Mousetrap,” involved Christ turning out to be god’s son and thus immortal, cheating Lucifer of both Jesus’ death and the human souls that he had in his possession.  Aquinas leaned very heavily on Anselm’s thought on the ransom.  Anselm was an earlier churchman and theologian who did not like the idea of ransom being paid to Satan, or the story of god “tricking the Devil.”  Anselm believed such a narrative was undignified- he thought that the all-powerful god should not be depicted as practicing deception.  He resolved the problem by saying that humans, tempted by Satan, had fallen into an imbalance of justice and had to right it in some way.  But since we humans owe everything to god, we have nothing extra to proffer. We cannot repay the debt.

Neither can god, as then there would be no restoration of justice.  It is humanity who must pay, or rather, a god/man must pay.  Christ’s so-called passion is offered to god by a god/man.  With this argument, Anselm had managed to go beyond Augustine’s position.  Since no Christian explanations about the cosmos, Christ, humans, the devil, or anything else are rational to atheists, I hate to use the word resolve.  But that is exactly what Anselm did, logically speaking.  The idea of Christ’s death was resolved as a sacrifice, not as a ransom.  Anselm also elevated Satan into a relatively powerful position.  Aquinas followed Anselm’s concept closely.  In Aquinas’s thinking, salvation involved satisfaction offered to god; the Devil never had any rights to us in the least.  We may use the term ransom, or redemption, Augustine stated, as long as we understand that it was to god that Christ paid our debts and not to the devil.

We are about to finish with the philosophical discussions of the churchmen, and move onto the role of Satan, or Lucifer, in the minds of the common people, in the arts, folklore and literature of the Middle Ages.  But first, I would like to go over the issue of the resolution of many doctrinal issues by the church establishment, especially during the very influential Lateran Council of 1215 CE.  The Lateran was a crucial conference because the Church was once again dealing with a popular heresy that had Gnostic roots.  From about the 11th Century onward, the church was threatened with many heretical sects.  In fact, there was a resurgence of such sects, and the church eliminated them in the most violent manner.

The most consequential group was the Cathars, who had their own ecclesiastical structure, and their own Bishops and ministers.  In the 12th and 13th Centuries, they established communities in Southern France and Italy. The Cathars revived the belief that the world had been created by an evil god and that this malign entity was locked in combat with the true god.  Since all material things were created through the evil being, the things of the flesh were inherently wicked and the spirit could only be freed by renouncing the things of this world.  Here is an account from a possible former member of the Cathars in 1210 CE: “And, they say, Lucifer is the god, who, in Genesis, is said to have created heaven and earth, and to have accomplished this work in 6 days. They explain that Lucifer fashioned the body of Adam from the clay of the earth… and for him, Lucifer made Eve, in order to cause him to sin through her…”

The Cathars revived a fear in the church that Satan was loose in the world and yet another unorthodox vision of the devil was being revived. The establishment church had little trouble accusing the Cathars of being in league with Lucifer. In about 1147 CE, as the church grew more violent against the Cathars, the monk, Heribert, claimed that when Cathars were arrested, no chains could hold them as it was the devil who set them free.  More shameful yet was the behavior of the composer prioress Hildegarde of Bingen, who preached against the Cathars.  She of course was born too early to see the violence unleashed against women said to be in league with the Devil in later witchcraft trials and executions. 

It is very disheartening to see a woman much touted by present day feminists maintaining such superstitious prejudice and going out of her way to preach it.  Hildegarde had a so-called vision linking the Cathars’ rise to Satan’s release from the bottomless pit of hell. 

The Inquisition was set up in the late 12th Century to first indentify and then convert Cathars, or else burn the stubborn at the stake.  Such a violent campaign was preached against these poor heretics that in France in 1244 CE, 200 Cathars were executed.

There are several excellent books, which can be found in the bibliography on, The Devil, on the subject of the many lesser known sects and heresies from the 1200’s into the 1500’s.  At this point, I would like to take a little time to mention a very good book by Raul Vaneigem, titled The Movement of the Free Spirit, 1994.  Vaneigem was one of the principal theoreticians of the French Situationists of the 1960’s and 1970’s and a defender of a free and self-regulating social order.  The Movement of the Free Spirit, published by the prestigious Zone Press, talks about the Cathars and other unknown sects, but Vaneigem’s emphasis is on various sects which were part of the Movement of the Free Spirit in Northern Europe. The Movement is hardly mentioned by most of my references, but these sects were dedicated to free love, solidarity and community.  They opposed the established power of state and church, and some of them were extremely anarchistic.  They also opposed the market imperatives of the new economics which were just emerging during this turbulent transitional time.

The church, as was its usual practice, was eager to equate the Movement with the devil and stamped the members out.  Vaneigem also details the Movement of the Free Spirit ‘s similarities with the anti-system rebellion of the 1960’s in Europe and America.  His book is very illuminating in terms of the threat to human autonomy posed by the heavy hand of the newly empowered church and state in the Middle Ages.  He presents the Free Spirit as preparing the way for all unbelieving through its challenge to conditioned minds and governed behavior.  Inquisitors said that many members of Free Spirit thought they were gods.  Indeed, is that not what we secular people seek to become- our own gods and arbiters of social justice and personal identity?  Here is a quote from the book.  “The Ultimate Disgrace is aptly revealed in the title of “Creator” applied to a god who has created or fathered from his own substance a universe in which his creatures, deprived of his resources, begin in a state of total deprivation and progress toward nothingness. A desert valley irrigated with tears is a rather pathetic creation.  It is not difficult to understand how the men and women who tried to establish a paradise on earth, here and now, saw themselves as superior to god.”  I think that most of the secular community will agree with Vaneigem’s commentary on the creator and his putative creation.  Naturally such movements were wiped out by the established church.

One wishes, when contemporary thinkers laud the functionalism of religion, people hearing such opinions will remember that many religions not only war against other religions, but will also torture and kill other fellow believers in their own congregations who maintain different beliefs from the mainstream.

Our most important theme tonight is that as the church grew in power, Lucifer grew in potency also.  The establishment made an attempt to settle things at the Lateran Council of 1215, as I mentioned a little earlier.  The Council addressed the features of the Cathar heresy, and came out with the following pronouncements: The true god created all things from nothing. The devil and the other demons were created good in their nature, but made themselves evil by their own free will. The human race sinned in yielding to the devil’s temptation.  At the Resurrection and the end of the world, all persons shall receive their just deserts, the evil suffering eternal torment with the devil, the good enjoying eternity with Christ.

Pronouncements and arguments such as these from the church fathers and theologians were very weighty, but the common people, artists and writers built up an image of the devil that was somewhat distanced, somewhat skewed, from church pronouncements.  We have spoken about the growth of the concept of the devil during the transitional culture of the Middle Ages as the church established itself and became more powerful, and it is important to keep in mind that the devil, as well as other church doctrine, continued to evolve.  Ordinary citizens had their own ideas of Satan.

Satan began to be pictured as either a human or imp in Byzantine times and in the West also, and the image persisted.  Then in England and Germany, the devil began to be a composite of human and animal.  The devil took on aspects of the grotesque in the art of the 15th and 16th Centuries by Bosch, Bruegel, the van Eycks and other important artists.  In some of the art of the time, the devil frequently has a tail, horns, and might be colored black or red.  He is also depicted, as a serpent, dragon or other animals. By the 15th Century, though, no matter what the church fathers maintained concerning the devil’s subordination to the forces of good, the devil was portrayed and thought of by many, as powerful and dangerous. In the illuminated 15th Century manuscript of the Duc de Berry, he is shown crowned.  He is still depicted as grotesque, but he is very much a potent figure, secure in his evil kingdom.

The literature of the Middle Ages showed a commanding and impressive, but of course, negative devil.  The plays of the time depicted demons in 4 distinct genres of the morality/demon plays so popular then.  The lowest of the types was slapstick, then broad satire encompassing the lower demons, then satires of demonic human behavior, and finally elevated irony concerning the devil. Plays such as these were popular until about the mid 16th Century. I will only cover one other aspect of literature and the devil in the Middle Ages because of lack of time this evening. 

Dante’s (1265-1323) great poem, The Divine Comedy, was written in the last fifteen years of his life and is interesting for its vision of the devil, as well as its depiction of hell, which is complex.

It is a masterpiece, but apart from the beauty of the language and the music of the verses, I have always found it, despite my work in Italian literature, repellant in its religiosity and its punishment of many of Dante’s political enemies. It is composed very brilliantly and intricately, its cosmos in a series of concentric spheres, with earth at its center, the heavens above; and in the middle of the earth, Dante places hell, and at the center of hell is Lucifer, who is imprisoned in ice and darkness.  Each circle of hell represents a narrower and darker place. As the reader descends, the sinners’ transgressions are more grave and their punishments more harrowing.  God is light and air and the reader has moved further from him and heaven in the course of the poem.  Finally, Lucifer is encountered, and he is a fearsome but unheroic figure.  He lacks dramatic action, which is Dante’s way of showing him to be negation and lack of being.  His buttocks are stuck in ice and the weight of the world presses down on him.  His legs protrude in the air.  The icy lake which imprisons him is pure immobility.  He is what Muchembled calls “a towering mass of moribund matter.”  The once beautiful angel has become an ugly, pathetic creature through his pride in defying his creator.  He has three faces, and six wings that cannot fly.  He perpetually chews on Judas, Cassius and Brutus while crying tears of frustrated rage.  Dante has created a disturbing vision- the king of hell and the damned is a prisoner himself.

Scholars have pointed out that the many depictions of the devil were also inversions, or reflections of the real world and the changes taking place in medieval society.

The changes created great anxiety in people and the devil was an effective symbol to receive those projections and fears. Robert Muchembled has some interesting and very cogent ideas concerning what those changes were.  Towns were emerging with their conveniences, but attendant evils.  It was a period of great consolidation of power, not only by the church, but also of the state, and the two were seen in tandem. Laws of the state and church doctrine were both being consolidated.  It was the long period of the civilizing process of the West. There were new ways of seeing the human body, the world and the ways by which societies could be bound together, states Muchembled.

The true issue was power, whether ecclesiastical or civil.  The devil enshrined in hell was not only a mirror of the king’s sacred position or the state’s civil power, but was also a fearful symbol, reflecting the ordinary man’s anxiety about being swallowed up by such all-encompassing power structures.  It was the birth of a triumphant culture, which, says Muchembled, externalized individual guilt, moral and religious in origin, into a global interpretation defined by a sense of superiority and expansion.  Europe moved away from an enchanted inertia and adopted a hierarchal social model around a god more powerful than the terrible Lucifer.  But the anxieties of ordinary people during this time of extreme change were quick to fasten unto an ever more powerful Lucifer, who had not lost his hold on the people’s imaginations, despite church teaching to the contrary.

And then, more disquieting events began to take place, the most significant being the Reformation and the challenge to the Church Triumphant.

Video of Lecture: The Devil, Part 1, The Rise and Fall of Belief and Religion

Lecture: The Devil, Part 1, The Rise and Fall of Belief and Religion

Video of Discussion: The Devil Part 1, The Rise and Fall of Belief and Religion

Discussion: The Devil Part 1, The Rise and Fall of Belief and Religion


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