By Joshua Penduck
When I was in the church youth group as a teenager, I remember watching a Christian video. In the same genealogy of Medieval morality plays, it would act out the states of different people moments prior to their death. On the one hand you would have those who had either lived holy lives, or had just accepted Jesus as their personal saviour. On the other hand you would have people who had just rejected Christianity, or had lived very sinful lives. (It should be added that there were astonishing amounts of leather jackets involved with this latter category, which indicated that motorcycling was one of those activities which we do in life that echoes rather poorly in eternity.) Thus followed the random cataclysm – nine times out of ten a car accident (never a piano falling on your head, for instance). The victims wake up and behold they are before the pearly gates and the judgment has come for them. If they were found worthy through their acceptance of Christ, Jesus would come and dreamily take them into heaven with the strains of the Hallelujah chorus rejoicing in the background – which indicates that Handel has a rather exalted place amongst the saints. Those who had worn leather jackets, on the other hand, would be greeted by a rather sad Jesus who would turn his face away. At which point a group of devils looking suspiciously like a Finnish heavy metal band would come and grab the poor individuals and drag them to hell. Meanwhile, Satan himself would be standing on the sidelines with his hands on his hips, laughing with evil glee as he heard the screams of the victims.
Has this been the only sketch, it would have made its point. But there were endless repetitions of this sketch from this theatre company, different people and different circumstances – though many leather jackets – and all ending in the same way. And whilst Jesus was passive and bathed in white, the Devil would always be rolling with laughter.
And I couldn’t help but think, ‘Now there’s someone with a lot of job satisfaction.’
Every day seemed to be one of immense joy for him. Every time he discovered someone had rejected Christ and put on a leather jacket, he couldn’t help but laugh a little. Yes, it was laughter at the expense of someone else, but laughter it was. The Devil seemed immensely happy.
You often find this image of the Devil (or devils) in religious artwork: they had a fiendish glee in torturing the souls of their victims in hell. They appear thrilled in what they are doing. Or if he or they are not thrilled, he or they are at least compelling characters. Take Milton’s Paradise Lost: is there a more beguiling figure in it than Lucifer? His figure cuts across as the noble rebel who has cruelly lost his place at the table simply for striving for liberty. He is interesting, full of life, someone you would want to follow, a truly mesmerising figure. Meanwhile, up in heaven God is unreservedly tedious, and infatuated with one of his higher creatures, Christ, at the expense of all the rest. Christ in turn is remarkably lifeless, and appears for all intents and purposes a good-two-shoes, who fights for God the Father out of sheer unreasoned obedience. In the light of this, no wonder a third of heaven rebelled and joined Lucifer! And for me, this is why Milton’s Arianism is a heresy: only a heretical and untruthful form of Christianity could make Satan himself more appealing than Christ!
A laughing gleeful Devil or a noble and compelling Devil are both symptoms of the central problem: they make out evil to be at least in one way life-giving. Any Christianity that gives room for such thinking also falls into a heretical trap.
If, as Christianity claims, God is goodness, truth, beauty, and life itself, there can be nothing more compelling than God. In God is all our satisfaction, all our joy, all our wonder, all our bliss. To know that we are loved by God brings us more fully to ourselves than anything else. This is not a God who imposes himself on us, sucking away liberty, a God who we are in conflict with, but a God who in infinite love every moment sustains our very atoms into existence – whether we accept or reject him. In any representation, Christ should be the most charismatic and beguiling and freedom-loving of figures simply because he is God in human flesh. Therefore, what is against God is also against all goodness, truth, beauty, and even life.
In Christian theology, angels are often seen spiritual intelligences: beings that are all mind without the body to match. In a sense, they are purely rational beings, and unlike humans they are capable of making pure choices. They are most fully themselves, most fully rational, when they find themselves in the fully rational God. In the Christian tradition, for whatever mysterious reason, Lucifer the angel chose to go against the God who created and sustained him. This means that he has turned against his very nature: he has become utterly irrational. He knows he is sustained in existence for each moment by the God who desires that he repent and return. But this is the one thing he will not do. He knows that each day is a mercy that will one day face the judgment. He knows that he will only find happiness in his maker and his maker alone, but his pride refuses even happiness.
If he without happiness, rationality, and is anxious about the future, is there something in Satan that is akin to being depressed? He is in a state of being where whatever he does brings more misery, whether getting up or lying down. He gets no satisfaction, but suffers acute anxiety, for he knows his days are limited. He is not even sad or angry, for at least those are emotions that his maker may also feel. He preys on humanity not out of glee, but because he cannot bear the thought that another being may enjoy the happiness of God whereas he does not (here the analogy with human depression begins to break down). He wishes to suck away their life, their truth, their goodness, their beauty, so that they can share his misery. Not because he wants company – for that would be a good and rational instinct – but because he is embittered and jealous of anything that can accept what he himself has rejected.
I can’t say I am the first to imagine Satan in this way. In Dante’s Inferno, the Devil is described similarly: ‘With six eyes he wept, and down three chubs / Dripped tears and dribble, mixed with blood.’ Here is a being without personality, the angel of pure rationality reduced to bestial urges, condemned by his own pride to live his own existence in a state of utter misery.
There is no laughter here. No nobility. Nothing compelling. Only something to be pitied were it not for the fact that he alone has the capacity to change his circumstance (unlike in human depression)
, and that he preys upon our own happiness for he is irrationally jealous of it.
There are certainly no leather jackets to be seen here.