The devil isn’t fashionable any more. Behaving diabolically seems as popular as ever, but the devil? He’s just a figment of fevered religious imaginations. You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t subscribe to that view. I would much prefer to believe that the devil doesn’t really exist, that evil is an abstraction, only of use to those who write tabloid headlines; but I can’t. Evil exists: it is intelligent, personal and dangerous. When St Paul wrote about our having to do battle with the elemental spirits of the universe, he was using the language of his day to express a conflict that will go on until the end of time.
There are two points to grasp. First, the devil may be a fallen angel, but he is still an angel of light. If we were to see evil for what it truly is, none of us would be seduced by it. But we don’t see evil for what it is most of the time. We see something attractive, that has the appearance of good, and we fall for it. Secondly, the battle against evil has been won and the devil is vanquished. Our problem is how to reconcile these two apparently contradictory notions without giving way to either fear or presumption. To Catholics I would say that prayer and the sacraments are the ordinary means of ensuring that we remain spiritually alert, but we have to be perpetually on guard, aware of the deceits that can affect us.
Whenever we have important decisions to make, about our own lives or the lives of those who are dear to us; about the politicians who will serve in government or the way in which public funds will be spent; about the use (or abuse) of the earth’s resources; we need to keep in mind that we cannot simply assume we are doing the right thing. Christianity is full of paradoxes, and one of the most sobering reminders comes from St Paul who, when he wanted to do the right thing, often found himself doing the very opposite. Sobering, yes, but also encouraging: God made a saint of Paul. He can surely make saints of us, if we let him.