July 22, 2008

Invoking the Devil

This lovely valley, dedicated to agricultural use, is Armageddon. It's a real place, sometimes called Megeddio or Megeddo, in modern Israel. Many prophets, purportedly including Jesus, have predicted that this is where the final battle between God and Satan will take place. Many people today do not realize that Armageddon is a real place and not some kind of metaphor.

Some strains of various religions (most prominently in the U.S., certain kinds of evangelical or millennial Christianity) place emphasis on a Manichean view of the universe -- the dialectic of opposites, the titanic struggle between Good and Evil in which Good will triumph in the end. I can understand the appeal of such a vision of the world.

But I have always wondered, myself, why it is that people who say Good and Evil will eventually come to an ultimate showdown are convinced that Good will win. There is no readily-apparent reason to believe that Good is stronger than Evil or that more people really are good than evil, or that the forces of Good are somehow smarter or better-equipped than the forces of Evil. If anything, it seems that the Good forces would be more likely to restrain themselves from engaging in certain kinds of tactics, but Evil would lack such compunction.

A friend, a long time ago, also wondered how we would know that God was good, and not the evil one -- what if Satan was really the good guy, and we've been lied to by the Great Evildoer who has cleverly depicted himself as the good guy? How would we really know, if we'd been told from birth that God was good when in fact he was evil? A very effective way for evil to propagate itself, after all, would be to masquerade as the good.

Now, if you're like me and you've dispensed with actually believing in such matters, these are relatively idle amusements for your mind. But there are plenty of people who really believe in this stuff. And to them, the idea that maybe they've been worshipping the Evil One all along is deeply disturbing. So is the possibility that Evil might triumph over Good in the final days. And perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea that they might have a hand in making something like that happen, if only inadvertently.

Which is what makes the first story on this episode of This American Life so compelling. As a boy, David Maxon was raised a good Christian and sent off to Bible camp. There, he was told that the Devil is real and powerful, that the Devil tempts people and gets them to do evil, that the Devil will come when called or invoked, but that good Christians could resist and withstand the Devil's temptations and lures. He felt strong in his faith, so he challenged the Devil to appear. No sooner had he done this than lightning struck one of the camp buildings. Two of his young friends died.

He felt responsible -- he had summoned the Devil, and almost as soon after he did it, his friends had been killed by lightning. If you've ever been close to a lightning strike, it's even more impressive and overwhelming than it seems from far away (and from far away, it looks like an awesome and overwhelming thing indeed). It's a power that comes from seemingly nowhere, in an instant, with the power to kill and engulf something in flame. That lightning should invoke fears of the supernatural is only natural.

Again, if you're like me, you understand that lightning is not a bolt cast from the heavens by an angry or arbitrary deity. Nor is it the Devil flexing his muscles to impress a terrified young boy. It is a random force of nature, terrifying to be sure, but not an intentional act of anyone or anything.

But young David Maxon had been at Bible camp and there, the well-meaning ministers and counselors had filled his head with all sorts of religious nonsense. So he felt responsible, terribly, terribly guilty. So naturally enough, the ministers and counselors and his parents and anyone else he spoke to about it assured him that no, it wasn't his fault, he hadn't killed those kids, and nothing he had done had led to them dying.

How do you square all those fearsome and scary stories about the Devil, attributing magical powers to invoke him in people, with this sort of thing not being at least in part the kid's fault? If I challenge God or the Devil to strike me down with a bolt of lightning, and immediately thereafter, a bolt of lightning strikes my body and immolates me, we would at minimum have to call that a rather extraordinary coincidence. But you can safely experiment with such a challenge, I dare say, because I've done it many times and not once have I ever been struck by lightning. But then again, I don't really believe that God or the Devil exists, so I think it's a pretty safe thing to do. (Of course, if you do it wearing a tinfoil jumpsuit on a hilltop during a thunderstorm, you might be altering the odds a little bit, and in that case I might suggest that an agency other than the divine -- namely your own stupidity -- might have something to do with the lightning strike thus invited.)

In Maxon's case, he did precisely what his religious instruction said he needed to do to invoke the Devil, and got an immediate, powerful, and deadly result. And the very same people who told him what the Devil was and how the Devil worked immediately told him that what they had just taught him earlier that day was wrong and no, it wasn't really his fault. The seed of disbelief was planted then and there in Mr. Maxon's mind, and now he is not a believer. But more to the point, it calls in to question how much the counselors believed what they were saying. When it suddenly became very awkward to see those beliefs through and condemn this young boy for invoking the Devil, they shrank from doing it.

Which, I will hasten to add, was absolutely the right thing for them to do. Not just because it gave the boy a tool to see the world for what it really is, but because the death of those kids really wasn't his fault. I don't think these counselors and ministers were evil or even immoral people. I think, though, that they weren't really prepared to push their beliefs to their logical conclusion, when presented with extreme circumstances because those circumstances made pushing those beliefs obviously the wrong thing to do.

This brings me back to Armageddon. Specifically, I mean the Battle of Armageddon, the End of Days, the Apocalypse, the Reign of the Beast, Kali Yuga, the Revelation, Judgment Day, the Seventy Weeks, Ragnarök, Zand-i Vohuman Yasht, the Day of Purification, the Coming of Gog and Magog, Qiyamah, the Tribulation. Those sorts of people who make a study of eschatology and believe that such a thing is in our future (usually our imminent future) seem to want to hasten these events; at least they say that's what they want. This isn't just Christians -- Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad openly hopes and prays for the Mahdi to come in his lifetime and vindicate Islam over the whole world, and has attempted to beautify Tehran to make it more welcoming to the Muslim Messiah.

If these folks are sincere, it seems to me that's a terrible thing to want. If they are not sincere, then what are they doing? This is powerful stuff they are playing with -- Mr. Maxon's story is proof enough of that.

If you don't really, really believe in the Devil, then don't teach about him. Don't give little kids ideas that they can't really handle.

1 comment:

trumwill said...

The notion of God and the Devil being muddled is one of the distinctions of historical Gnosticism. In Gnosticism (or at least the better known and acknowledged strains of it) we were created by the Devil and the God from the Old Testament actually is The Devil. The Snake in the Garden of Eden was a protagonist and so on.