The head of the International Association of Exorcists, Father Gabriele Amorth, has recently written that, while we may think of the Harry Potter books, and even of the practice of yoga, as more or less innocuous pastimes, they are in fact intrinsically evil, because the Devil himself is at work in them. Most of us think of such claims as utterly farfetched and bizarre, and rightly so, but they do raise the question of whether an entity such as the Devil actually does exist.
Satan, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, the Father of Lies. This is an entity that has long struck fear in the hearts of devout Christians, and in many others as well. But the question of whether or not he (to use the masculine pronoun for simplicity’s sake) truly exists as a separate, identifiable, free-standing, if evil, being still remains. Or is he instead the psychological embodiment, the dark symbol of all those negative forces and tendencies that are hidden at some level, buried deep within the unexplored and uncivilized parts of our psyche?
The concept, or if you prefer, the identity of the Devil cannot itself be explored without also inquiring into the notion of evil. As seen above, we can hardly even begin any examination of Satan without also making reference somewhere to the words “darkness” and “lies,” which stand out in stark contrast to the notion of light and truth, those appellations so often associated with God. All this brings to mind the ancient Zoroastrian belief in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the quintessential light and dark twins of that ancient faith. Many mythologies, in fact, talk about a Creator God, who brings the world into being by somehow giving birth to a set of twins, who are separated at birth or otherwise set apart, one of whom brings light and life into the world, and the other of whom is the bearer of darkness and death. These two then go on warring “until the end of time.”
But if this analysis sounds too academic, somehow too antiseptic almost, in any discussion of evil, we can think of it in another way: no matter how good or how moral we may normally think of ourselves, given a moment of utter honesty, could each of us not also conceive of ourselves as capable of committing deeds which might include us among the worst of humanity? Can we not, for example, in the sheer folly and senselessness of youth, let us say, and within the all-encompassing ignorance of cultural conditioning, brainwashing, if you will, imagine having joined the Nazi Party during the Third Reich? Or, if that is too evil even to consider, what of this? Who could not see himself as capable of striking out in rage and a desire for vengeance under “the right circumstances” of a loved one grievously harmed or killed by another? Indeed, as has been pointed out by more than one person in history, to be human is to be at some level capable of doing all those things which human beings have in fact done throughout the ages, from the most sublime to the most horrific.
In this sense then, there is no evil in the world except that which is created by humans. Erupting volcanoes are not evil, nor are devastating storms or floods, or killer droughts, or ravenous tigers, or grizzly bears. Yet all are more than capable of killing, more than able to inflict their degree of panic and horror and chaos on the world. But still, we do not think of them as evil. We might say, “that was a devil of a storm,” but the vast majority of people acknowledge this only as metaphor, as a manner of speaking. No one takes it literally, with the exception perhaps of the most outré, the most fringe of elements within religions, people who make connections between disastrous events and punishment by God for perceived sin on the part of humanity, or portions thereof. And is that condemnation itself not also a form of evil in its own right? One way or another, it turns out that it is only human beings who can actually bring about evil, and only humans deliberately inflict pain and cause death “for the sheer hell of it.” And if this is so, does that then not suggest that Satan, the personification of evil, could also be the projection of the worst in the human psyche?
When I was a young monk many years ago, each evening we would gather together in the candle-lit chapel for Compline, the last of the so-called offices of the daily liturgy of the Catholic Church, and the cantor would intone (in Latin, though here translated) the following hymn: “Brothers, be sober and watchful! For your adversary, the Devil, like a roaring lion goes about seeking whom he may devour. Resist him steadfast in the faith.” I remember this because it has always stuck me as odd that the Devil was being compared to an animal, a devouring lion in this case, whereas we have just posited that animals cannot themselves be evil (as much as they may be killers). Maybe the message we young monks were supposed to get out of this prayer was that Satan was the embodiment of the “animal part” of our humanity? This surely would fit in with Christianity’s bias for spirit, and its animus against, or at least mistrust of, the body.
But none of this negates the fact that there really is evil in the world. What, for example, of violent rape, or of torture for whatever purpose, or acts of terrorism, which is killing for the sake of ideology, or of state-sponsored killing, or killing simply for the sake of killing, as some seem capable of doing? And yet, as horrific and as abominable as these acts surely are, does it then follow that we must necessarily posit a single Evil Entity, a Prince of Darkness, who rules over and creates pain and lies and chaos?
There is no doubt that ours is a bifurcated world of opposites, where we are forever faced with the duality of choosing good or evil, right or wrong, that which is light or that which is dark, or at very least the appropriate over the inappropriate. We must face the fact that most of us, most of the time, choose some of this and some of that. This is the human condition. It could be that what this points to is that the good is represented by God, and the evil is represented by Satan. In this regard, the God we are speaking of is what might be called the more limited sense of the meaning of that word, and ought not to be confused with the Unnamable Spirit, about whom so little can be said because most things we wind up saying, due to the limitations of language, fall into mere categories, and when it comes to the All Absolute categories are entirely irrelevant. The “God” that we usually mean when we so name him, though, is a different matter. In this more limited sense, we are talking about the manifested part of the Unmanifest Being, the God of laws and of do’s and don’t’s, the namable God whose characteristics we can list.
God (in this more everyday sense) can then be thought of as the embodiment of all that is positive in the world of opposites, and Satan can be conceived of as the embodiment of all that is negative. In this sense, if you believe in (i.e., if you “give reality to”) God, then you also believe in (i.e. “you give reality to”) Satan, as well. It could even be said that Satan cannot “exist” without God, just as God (again in the normal meaning given to that word) cannot “exist” without Satan. Or we can put it this way, that some dark, evil Principle, however we may choose to name it, in some way exists and counterbalances a light-filled and loving Principle. Still we must add that, having said all this, it is always better to follow and to focus one’s consciousness on the light-filled and loving (i.e. on God, if you will) than on the dark and the evil (i.e., Satan), as God is a far surer path to the realization that, in any final and ultimate sense, neither actually exists at all.
In the end, inasmuch as within the context of our normal, everyday lives, and given our usual state of consciousness, God and evil do actually exist, we all know people who could be called good, and some who can be called bad, or even evil. The same can even be said of places, by the way. I once visited the notorious prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (now a museum) called “Tuol Sleng,” where Pol Pot’s henchmen murdered thousands of innocent people. I could barely remain for more than a few minutes within those walls, there was such a vibration of agony and terror that permeated and emanated from every molecule of the building. I had to go outside and compose myself, in fact. Later on, I went back in and made myself walk through the entirety of the place because I felt I needed to honor those who had died there. But in my memory this will always remain an evil place.
So, can it be said that Satan exists as the personification of all that is dark and horror filled in our binary existence, just as God does as the embodiment of all that is good and light filled? If you believe, yes, both do exist. The names they are called are in the end not that important, and indeed they change from one culture to another. No culture and no religion has a monopoly on these things. Each religion (each mythological story, if you will) helps describe and fill out our knowledge of otherwise elusive and enormously complex principles of being, which cannot ever ultimately be fully and completely explained. The converse is also true, that is, that these entities do not exist, not as stand-alone beings at any rate, if at some unfathomably profound level, you “know” they do not. The Lord Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, was able to overcome all of his temptations and achieve Enlightenment, because he realized that everything he saw was nothing but a phantom and an illusion.
In this sense, the question of the existence of Satan, or ultimately of the God of most religions, makes little difference. This is not the statement of an atheist, or even of a cynic, but instead of one who affirms that Spirit fills all, everything and every place. Even Tuol Sleng, where evil also reigns. The Unnamed Divine Spirit cannot not be in any place, although there are some locales, and even some people, where his presence is profoundly hidden. Ultimately, what must be done is to see into and beyond the appearance of good and evil, beyond Satan and even beyond everyday notions of God, to where there is nothing to see, to where sight and even understanding are no longer applicable. There, as The Buddha knew, these phantom images disappear like dew on the summer grass. Here there is nothing left but light, and then not even light, but a thing far greater, so great that all we can do is wonder in awe, and ultimately in the silence that is beyond all expression.