The Devil in Religion and Society
Dr. Thomas Wagner / Protestant Theology
Photo: UniService Transfer

Where the demonic has its seat in our lives

Thomas Wagner on the origin of the devil in religion and society

He has horns, a tail, a red upper body, and his animal extremities are often surrounded by fire. In this way, or something similar, demonic beings have been understood as underworld dwellers since as early as the 3rd millennium BC. Then, in the late Old Testament period (6th-4th century B.C.), there is a phase in which the underworld is interpreted as irrelevant. This changes again with the adoption of the Hades motif in times of Greek domination over the Near East. Concepts of hell in Christianity can then follow on from this motif. In films of the 20th and 21st century they are omnipresent. We speak of the devil, Satan or Lucifer, a once fallen angel who has accompanied us humans since time immemorial, who frightens us and yet is so important to us. Dr. Thomas Wagner, private lecturer in Protestant theology and expert in the Old Testament knows more about his history, which is still visible in the public sphere today.
In the Old Testament, the devil is not yet so evil. He is an angel who embodies an aspect of God that is problematic for man, namely that of supervising and punishing. Only in the New Testament is he clearly evil.
"The devil first appears in Job 1 and 2 and is portrayed there as a spy," the theologian begins, "who observes people's behavior unnoticed and then passes on his findings to God." At the same time, he says, one must always view the story in literary terms, because the story of Satan, who ultimately inflicts suffering on Job, is a frame story added later, through which God is exonerated. Originally, Job directly attacks God as the cause of unfounded suffering.

Where does the devil actually come from?

"The devil is a variant of a figure that appears in all ancient cultures and embodies evil," Wagner explains. "Our German term borrows from tiufal, which appears in Gothic as diavulus, in Latin as diabolus, and in Greek as διάβολυς. There is no direct reference to the biblical scriptures at first. In the Hebrew scriptures, Satan - the term is to be translated as 'adversary' - is depicted as one of the sons of God. The devil is an underworld creature that comes from Germanic mythology and has been identified with the biblical Satan."

A prodigal son of God?

So is the devil a prodigal son of God? "One might think so," Wagner begins, "but at the very beginning it was not so. The origin of the development is to be sought in the religion of the time of the 8th or 7th century BC. During that time, the stars in the lower sky, that is, what we see when we look up, were considered to represent deities. Each deity was assigned a star and the deceased ancestors were also visible up there. This classical phenomenon is identified in the Hebrew Bible with the 'host of heaven' and the deity title 'Yahweh zewa ot`, that is, the Lord of Hosts, as it is called in the German translation." The concept of a circle of sons of the gods, known in the Northwest Semitic tradition as early as 2000 B.C., was transferred to this host of heaven in later times. In the further course of religious history, with the tale of the fall of the angels, the idea of underworld beings who can enter the human world was transferred to a part of the sons of the gods. In this development the priestly authors of Genesis 1 had a decisive share, since they reported in their creation narration that the habitat of humans is permanently closed before the cosmic chaos. But how should one now explain the suffering of mankind? Here the figure of the devil as one of the sons of the gods becomes important again. "In the intertestamental period there are sons of gods, whom we then call angels. They are identified with Greek lesser deities, be it Eros or Nike, which we know classically as winged human beings. That's how angels are then portrayed," the scientist explains. "And then there's a rebellion against God! The sons of the gods ask God about why they should serve humans when they are the direct sons." The sons of gods set themselves apart from God's rule with their actions against humans and tried to bring humans under their control. "With the temptation of Jesus, as it is described in the synoptic gospels, the transformation then came to an end. Here Satan is already portrayed as God's antagonist and lord over the demons."

The third cosmic space

"In the Christian figure of the devil, throughout the cultural history of the Occident, different concepts are united to explain the origin of the evil that influences human life," he continues.  "All these concepts build on the idea that there is a third cosmic space next to the life world of God, that is, heaven, and the biosphere in which we humans exist. This is understood as the underworld with its then again individual places. Over it rules a deity - be it in the Semitic cultures Ereškigal, or in the Indo-European ones the devil - who sends out his servants, i.e. the demons, into the biosphere to transfer people to the underworld." Whether the demons act through deadly diseases or as wild beasts that tear at humans, he said, special attention should be paid to the fact that the respective causes of human suffering lie outside of human action and, accordingly, humans bear no responsibility for the existence of evil.


A collage on the theme "Devil" by Jana Fischer

Lucifer, the evil morning star

The name Lucifer in Latin actually means "light bringer". So where does the connection with the devil come from? "In Latin tradition, the figure is considered to be the embodiment of Venus, that is, the morning star. This is considered a rising star, which naturally goes hand in hand with the observation of morning light. This idea is also biblically documented in Isa. 13-14, but there it has a negative connotation. It is associated with the king of Babylon, who tried to become the son of the gods." In the intertestamental literature, this idea is then associated with the 'fall of the angels,' so that the figure of the morning star is understood as an angelic figure turning against human beings, he said. "Jerome, in the Vulgate, that is, the Latin translation of the Bible that shaped European cultural history from the early church to the early modern period, eventually translates the Hebrew word helel ('morning star') as Lucifer. This predetermined the identification of the figures then associated with the devil, especially in circles that opposed the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Cathars." As early as the First Book of Enoch, a Jewish scripture of the 5th/4th century B.C., it was further observed that the angels all lived in remote heavenly regions. It was only with the incorporation of Greek conceptions of Hades in the centuries that followed that the concept of the underworld as the dominion of the devil returned to the biblical tradition.

There are spheres that man cannot perceive

But does the devil really exist or is he only a component of an outdated world view? "Even the ancient cultures of the Near East knew that there were spheres that people could not perceive, or if they could, then only temporarily," says Wagner. In one of the books of wisdom, the so-called Kohelet from the 3rd century B.C., it is already reflected on the fact that man's ability to perceive is limited and that he lacks an overview. "Despite all the attempts, many of them successful, to understand causalities, to determine influencing factors and thus to be able to forecast processes, we humans are repeatedly faced with the problem that our knowledge is limited and that we are unaware of impulses that trigger such processes." As a result, he said, there is still a need today to be able to personalize this limitedness of human life. "If we then think about demonic beings," he continues, "the same thing actually happens, that beings are on the move on this earth who are in this demonic or also divine sphere that we just can't perceive." This ability of people to be able to look or hear into another sphere and perceive the divine world in this way stops biblically in Persian times, but is still an exciting theme today, he said, and the entire science fiction field is based on it.

The devil reminds us of our finiteness

The devil sets limits and reminds us of our finitude. In terms of Christian or more Abrahamic religions, the scientist agrees. "The devil is then to be seen as a being that will at some point confront man with suffering, that is, bring pain, and the fact of death is thus personified at the same time."

The stone demon above the entrance

Although people have always feared him, we see representations of the devil on many churches and cathedrals. Says Wagner, "The representation of devils and demons has its permanent place in the medieval tradition at the portals of churches." They are visible, but at the same time immovable, he says, and man merely feels their effect. "The awareness of the existence of evil is there," Wagner says, "and if we think about that being at the portals of churches, that means, after all, that the space behind is protected from these beings."
The tradition of brick demons over entryways persisted into the late 19th century. "We still find that today," says the Solingen native. "If you walk through Wuppertal's Nordstadt, you'll see quite a few Gründerzeit houses with these demonic figures carved into their portals, for example in Neue Friedrichstraße. The image of a demon is inserted into the thresholds of the house so that no one else can stay there."

The devil: primal fear with an important function

According to a survey of 1003 people in Germany in March 2019, 26 percent believe in the existence of a devil. Is this still a human primal fear in the 21st century? Wagner sees it more as a popular explanatory pattern, because "his work can, after all, be associated both with catastrophes and with human misconduct." From an anthropological point of view, he says, this is problematic in that the personal responsibility of human beings is in fact negated by this idea.
The devil has always had an important function in human existence, and this begins as early as Persian times. "At the moment when in Persian times, so to speak, the human living world is sealed off from the chaotic, which comes from the underworld, the question already arises as to where evil still comes from?" explains Wagner. "And the only cause of evil that could then still exist would be God himself." To get around that, he says, a new world emerges around God in the biblical world. The sons of the gods revived heaven. They took on a messenger function and were able to fly back and forth between the cosmic sky and our living space. "This story, that they fell and competed with humans, that they brought the negative back into creation, testifies to the fact that our way of dealing with suffering, unfortunate experiences and catastrophes is such that we look for explanations!" It is something typically human, he said, to give responsibility away, but at the same time it prevents us from becoming aware of our responsibility to the extent that we follow it up with consistent actions.
Wagner sees one of these responsibilities, which cannot be attributed to the devil, in the recently survived natural disaster that destroyed parts of NRW for years. "If I try to explain this theologically, that we see here again the intrusion of a systemic evil, then we point away from the fact that we bear responsibility for the change of this earth."

Uwe Blass (conversation of 07/28/2021)

Dr. Thomas Wagner teaches Old Testament in Protestant Theology at the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies.


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