Satan’s Changing Faces

May 12, 1996




Satan’s Changing Faces

If you are visiting this morning, I need to explain that you have arrived at the end of a three-part series of sermons on the evolution of Satan or the devil in Christian writings. I have mentioned already that the Christian world is divided as to whether the devil is a literal personality or simply a metaphor for evil so vast and terrible we think it must have a source somewhere outside of ourselves. Protestants disagree: Billy Graham is sure the devil exists because, as he puts it, “the Bible tells us so,” but Bishop Spong of the Episcopal church would say there are all sorts of things in the New Testament which reflect the culture of the first century and that the idea of a literal devil is nonsense. Among Catholics, Pope Paul the Sixth once declared his belief in a personal devil in these words [Nov. 1972]: “We know that this dark and disturbing spirit really exists, and that he still acts with treacherous cunning.” But many in his own church disagree. Seattle University’s Jesuit theologian, Father John Navone, writes: “Evil is unquestionable. But whether Satan merely represents it or is a superhuman person is an open question….No up-to-date theologian believes that Satan is a person.” So no matter whether you consider the devil a literal personality, or simply a way of personifying evil, you will have plenty of respectable company among people who claim to be Christian.
I mentioned in the first sermon on this topic that I grew up in a world where people believed in a literal devil who was always going to “get” mischievous children unless they behaved. My own first speculation that the devil might be an invention of the human mind came when I was about ten years old and discovered Scandinavian mythology quite by accident. I checked out a library book with all sorts of exotic names and pictures in it — a book I would have dropped like a red hot coal if someone had told me it was Norse mythology. Not knowing that, I thought it was the most fascinating collection of stories I had ever seen. And in those stories I met evil with a different face and a different name: the mischievous but very clever and interesting Norse god, Loki, took my fancy right away. Odin was wise, and Thor with his great hammer was powerful, but Loki — Loki was unforgettable. His ingenuity, his eternal pranks, gave me my first hint of how a culture different from the one I grew up in might personify evil. There isn’t time on such a morning to talk more about the Norse religion (which still fascinates me after all these years) or religions in Asia and Africa and the myths they created to give a face and a name and a personality to evil. I choose to limit myself, instead, to three very different ways in which the Christian world has looked at Satan. One comes to us from a 13th century Italian Catholic, another from a 17th century English Puritan, and still another from three 20th century American writers.
The great Italian poet, Dante, gave the world the most repulsive image of Satan I have ever read. Some of you will remember that in his Inferno he pictures hell as a series of falling circles, each worse than the one above, dropping through fire and filth down to the ultimate corruption. The poet makes his way through crowds of tortured souls until he arrives at the bottom of the pit to face Satan. It is a frightful place, what Dorothy Sayers calls in her own translation of the Inferno “the great/ Fundament of the world.” If you know the crudest meaning of that word, then yes, that’s what Dante meant. The most surprising thing is that this “bottom of all guilt” is a lake of solid ice. Most of us, influenced by the metaphors of the New Testament, expect fire — but in the Middle Ages many thought frozen cold was a better symbol for the ultimate separation from God and goodness. Some of you will recall how Robert Frost caught up both symbols in a little poem called Fire and Ice: “Some say the world will end in fire,/ Some say in ice./ From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire./ But if it had to perish twice,/ I think I know enough of hate/ To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.”
Cold, settled, frozen hate — this is Dante’s image of evil. Here, at the last remove from God, all feeling is frozen. Those who would not be captured by love are now caught forever in its opposite, the eternal cold and isolation of pure ego. And in the center of that icy pit is Satan. Unlike the mobile Satan I dreamed about as a child, a form of evil which could slip noiselessly in my bedroom or along behind me on a dark street, this hideous thing in Dante’s words “stands still/ Fixt in the self-same place, and does not stir.” Three faces — a mock Trinity — adorn his hideous head. Six bat wings, like enormous sails, fan the stale air into icy winds. From all six eyes of the three heads this repulsive creature weeps tears mixed with bloody froth and pus, Dante’s way of symbolizing that although he cannot repent he can suffer eternal anguish. This “great worm of Evil,” as Dante calls it, “is covered with thick shaggy hair, all matted and frozen, the “gross Fiend and Image of all Evil.”
To understand why the great Italian poet makes evil so gruesome and so static, we have to remember the intention of his epic. It is a voyage of self-discovery, a journey into consciousness, a trip each reader is expected to take into the depths of her own heart. So Dante’s Satan is not a tempter that can move freely about, but rather the true revelation of what our own evil would look like if we could see it as it is — an image not of what comes to us, but of what we come to. For me, this is the worst of all the faces of evil men have imagined, the truth beyond which there is no more truth, the idiot and slobbering horror we might see if ultimate evil did not disguise itself with clever rhetoric. Dante’s long poem is really a medieval sermon; he thought that a glimpse of evil’s ugly deformity would suffice to make even the worsat of us retrace our steps toward the warmth and light and love of God. He has pictured the ultimate nightmare of the self that will not love.
It will probably be a relief to you that humanity left this grotesque image behind. Three hundred years later, another great poet — English this time — pictured the face and form and character of the devil quite differently, influenced by a verse of poetry from the Jewish prophet Isaiah (14:12): “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” We now know that Isaiah was writing about a king of Babylon and not about the devil, but the verse was misunderstood and became part of Christian mythology. And now, instead of a dragon or serpent or grossly hideous monster locked in ice, we have an image of fallen brightness, framed in the melody of lovely sounds: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning.” John Milton picks up that picture of a bright fallen angel in his 17th century poem, Paradise Lost. Even in Hell Milton’s face of evil still shines with the transcendent brightness of heaven where, in the “happy realms of Light,” he outshone myriads of others like himself. Much of that former glory remains.
And the comfort, after Dante’s nightmare distortions, is that this Satan seems almost human despite his giant size. He walks, talks, worries, rationalizes — much in the manner of people we know. His handsome face has been scarred by the thunderbolts of God’s anger, true enough, and “care sits on his faded cheek,” but the marks of his rebellious battle only touch him with exotic beauty, like the dueling scar on the face of a German university student. And when he tries three times to speak to his fallen comrades who rebelled with him against God, he is choked up each time by his compassion for them and we almost forget that we are reading about evil incarnate. We identify with a defiant rebel who has heart enough to feel the desperate plight of those who joined his cause and lost.
Much more importantly, where Dante’s devil was locked forever in frozen cold, Milton’s devil walks and flies about with ease. In fact, although Milton’s God has gone to great pains to secure Hell, Satan flies out of it with no trouble at all on his very first try. The whole system of Paradise Lose demands this, of course, because where Dante’s devil was an image of that ugliness to which the loveless heart may come, Milton’s devil is an image of the aggressive tempter, of the eternal coming of temptation into the human heart. So his Satan has to be free to move from place to place, as in that Epistle of Peter which sees the devil as “walking about, seeking whom he may devour.” And so, across the dark and whirling commotion of Chaos and old Night, swooping in cosmic circles down through the universe to the ball of Earth, Milton’s Satan comes — always on the move.
We understand it when this devil is “in pain” and “rackt with deep despair,” because we have known both moods. And when he is defiant, we have to confess that despite our logic against it, we rather like defiance on so colossal a scale. All this, at least, is within our ken. With this fallen angel, this son of the morning driven out of the brightness of heaven, this grand rebel who can talk and reason, weep and joke, we feel far more at home than with Dante’s vast non-human image of corruption. The face of evil has dissolved now into something considerably more appealing.
And in our third, and so far final, stage that face grows more appealing yet. Modern literature moves a giant step in the direction of amiability, taking its cue from still another Scripture in which Paul writes (2 Cor.11:14) that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” The masquerade, in recent fiction, takes the form of a rather cocky but altogether charming gentleman who plays clever tricks in a business suit and all in all is more like a sophisticated con man than a frightful demonic force. English poets like Southey and Coleridge paved the way for it in the 19th century with verses like this: “From his brimstone bed, at break of day,/ A-walking the Devil is gone, / To look at his snug little farm of the world, / And see how his stock went on.” Nothing very frightening about that. A gentleman farmer looking over his pasture, checking accounts.
And the German poet Heine [ , Robin] pictured much the same sort of affable Satan: (The English translation is stiff but the sense comes through) “I call’d the devil, and he came, / And with wonder his form did I closely scan;/ He is not ugly, and is not lame,/ But really a handsome and charming man. A man in the prime of life is the devil, / Obliging, a man of the world, and civil;/ A diplomatist, too, well skill’d in debate,/ He talks quite glibly of church and state.” You see, of course, what has happened. Dante’s obscenity, too horrible almost for sight, has vanished. Milton’s magnificent fallen rebel has disappeared. The new face of evil is urbane and polished, with only a devilish twinkle in the eye to give away his origins. In the language of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.” (III,4,l47)
There is time to mention quickly three examples of this face from 20th century American literature. In Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” a farmer says he is desperate enough to sell his soul to the devil, and so next day, “about suppertime, a soft-spoken dark-dressed stranger drove up in a handsome buggy and asked for Jabez Stone.” This devil is disarming. If he wears black, at least he is polite. None of that old medieval business about whether he has hoofs or horns or carries a pitchfork for tossing sinners into the fiery coals. This devil one might meet in an office, a schoolroom, a church.
Mark Twain sketched that same face when in a short novel called The Mysterious Stranger he has Satan’s nephew appear to three boys as an almost irresistibly attractive visitor. In Twain’s word, he has “new and good clothes on, and was handsome and had a winning face and a pleasant voice, and was easy and graceful and unembarrassed.” He talks “alluringly,” Twain writes, and the boys feel quite at home with him. In fact, every time he comes near them they tingle deliciously all over their skins.
In the musical comedy, Damn Yankees, the main character, Joe Boyd, does notingling but he is not alarmed at all when the devil appears to him under the name of Applegate, a prosaic enough surname until one recalls the old story of the forbidden fruit and the gate it opened. There is a little eerie music to help the audience catch on when Applegate appears, because except for wearing bright red socks he looks like a million other slight men who are dapper dressers.
And so the great dragon of the Biblical book of Revelation, the giant worm of Evil of Dante, is now a relic of vanished thought. Lucifer, son of the morning, Milton’s fallen archangel, belongs to a time before we began to read the Bible with critical skill, and before the insights of psychology suggested Satan might not be nearly so remote nor so easy to identify as we had imagined. The face of evil for the 20th century is deceptive: debonair, pleasant, familiar — for all the world like faces in the neighborhood. Do you remember how many times you have read some neighbor or co-worker’s description of a serial rapist and murderer or a mad bomber or an assassin in a MacDonalds or a Scottish schoolroom that to all appearances he seemed as nice as anybody else on the block? Evil with faces like our own….do you suppose that in this history of our ways of imagining the devil we have slowly but surely come ever closer to the truth?

We are forever asking, Eternal God, to be protected from
someone or something outside us. Protect us, we pray
this morning, from ourselves…..from the greed or envy or
hatred that rises up out of the darkness of our own hearts,
and which we are so reluctant to acknowledge as our own.
From this self, preserve us, we ask in
the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.