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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Logical arguments against the devil's existence: (1) the empirical argument

In my discussions with Christadelphians (and reflection upon my own past way of thinking), my perception has been that Christadelphians widely consider belief in a personal, supernatural devil to be intellectually bankrupt. This doctrine is seen not only as primitive (an objection by no means limited to Christadelphians) but also as logically incompatible with basic biblical doctrine concerning both God and humanity.

Personally I prefer to approach theological subjects biblically rather than philosophically. Nevertheless, as I have reflected upon three logical arguments that have been repeatedly raised against the devil’s existence, it has occurred to me that these arguments are largely self-defeating. I hope that you will find the following reasoning helpful to you in formulating your own worldview.

  1.  The Empirical Argument

One argument that has been used to show that the devil is illogical may be termed the empirical argument: none of us have observed a supernatural personal being tempting us; therefore such a devil does not tempt us. It should be apparent that, stated so baldly, this argument is self-defeating. If this logic disproves the devil’s active existence, it also disproves the active existence of angels, the Holy Spirit, and even God. One could say, none of us have observed angels protecting us; therefore angels do not protect us. None of us have observed God working in our lives; therefore God is not at work in our lives.

In the first place, this argument is wrong to assume that just because you or I have not experienced the activity of God, the Holy Spirit, angels, or the devil in an observable way, neither has anyone else. Even more problematic is the fallacy that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. As theists we do not refuse to believe in God because He does not make Himself visible to us. Why should we deny the devil’s existence because he does not make himself visible to us?

Another version of this argument relies on the testimony of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness. If this devil is understood to be a personal being, then the encounter was vivid and empirically verifiable: the devil and Jesus engaged in dialogue, and the devil demanded worship from Jesus which implies he was visible. If the devil is personal then according to this template he ought to be both visible and audible when he tempts a person. Indeed, Hebrews 4:15 has been described as a guarantee that Jesus was tempted in the same way you and I are. Since we don’t have visual and auditory encounters with a supernatural personal tempter, neither did Jesus.

In fact, Hebrews 4:15 does not say that we are tempted in all points like Jesus was, but that he was tempted in all points like we are. Besides this exegetical misstep, the argument is again self-defeating. On any reading of the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus was not tempted in the same way you and I are. Have you ever been tempted to turn stones into bread? Have you ever been tempted to commit an act of worship and thereby achieve world domination? I very much doubt it. You would have to admit, I think, that Jesus’ temptations were not only quite unlike yours and mine; they were completely exceptional, and unmistakably supernatural in character. Yes, in their scope Jesus’ temptations not only matched ours but far exceeded them.

The bottom line is that Jesus’ overt, visible encounters with the supernatural were exceptional and not characteristic of ordinary human experience. The fact that angels did not publicly announce my birth does not persuade me that angels do not exist. The fact that the Holy Spirit did not descend on me like a dove at my baptism does not persuade me that the Holy Spirit does not exist. And the fact that the devil does not speak to me audibly or whisk me to the top of high buildings does not persuade me that the devil does not exist. All this convinces me of is that every aspect of Jesus' life was far more momentous than mine; indeed that Jesus is an absolutely unique member of the human race (a point which was not lost on the spirit world).

As such, the fact that we do not experience encounters with the devil in the same way Jesus did is no reason for us to dismiss or radically reinterpret the empirical evidence for the devil's activity which is contained in the Gospel narratives - and probably based ultimately on Jesus' own eyewitness testimony.

In summary, the empirical argument against the devil’s existence is not only unconvincing; it has more in common with atheistic materialism than a Christian worldview.

We will look at two other logical arguments in the next two posts.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One

If you grew up anywhere in the English-speaking world and have had even the slightest exposure to organized religion at some stage of your life, there is an excellent chance that you are familiar with The Lord's Prayer as it appears in the King James Version. You have almost certainly heard it; you have probably recited it; and you may well have memorized it.

The ending of the prayer runs like this: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen." (Matthew 6:13 KJV)

It might surprise some readers to know that analysis of ancient manuscripts by textual critics has revealed that the prayer in Matthew probably originally ended with 'deliver us from evil'; the rest was likely added at a later stage because "it was felt that this ending was too abrupt and negative."1 (See also the abrupt ending preserved in Luke 11:1-2).

Our main focus here, however, is on the line, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." If you read this text in various modern translations, you will see that the majority of them translate the latter clause, "but deliver us from the evil one" (NKJV; NRSV; NIV; NET; NLT; HCSB). Some of these include 'from evil' as a marginal rendering. The ESV and NASB retain the KJV rendering 'from evil' but include 'from the evil one' in the margin.

Why is it that the majority of translators and commentators2 today favour the reading, 'the evil one'? Are they simply biased by their belief in a personal devil, as a Christadelphian recently suggested to me? Or does this translation reflect the results of careful, responsible scholarship?

Ayo notes that "virtually all the Greek patristic writers" (that is, Christian writers in the earliest period of the church after the apostles) saw a reference to the devil in this verse.3 Now, post-apostolic church tradition generally carries no weight with Christadelphians, and might be discounted as 'biased' in the same way as modern translations. However, before we thrust aside the patristic testimony, we ought to remember that we are much further removed from New Testament Greek than they were.

From a grammatical point of view, both translations are possible. Matthew 6:13b in Greek reads, alla rhusai hemas apo tou ponerou. The crucial grammatical observation is that poneros ('evil') has the definite article, the Greek version of the word 'the'. The definite article in ancient Greek does not correspond exactly to the word 'the' however. It can perform many different functions; Wallace devotes 86 pages to this part of speech in his Greek grammar!4 One of these functions is that of a "substantiver" meaning that it can transform various parts of speech into nouns. Poneros is properly an adjective; yet in this verse the article transforms it to be a noun. But what sort of noun is it? Is it a definite noun referring to a particular individual called 'the evil one'? Is it a generic noun referring to any 'evil one'? Or is it an abstract noun referring to 'evil'? The answer is that grammatically, it could be any of these; and if it was the latter, we would best omit the definite article from our translation. Hence, "the Evil One", "the [generic] evil one" and "evil" are all, grammatically speaking, legitimate translations of this Greek phrase.5

There is an interesting literary parallel in a rabbinic prayer recorded in the Talmud which reads thus:
May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, and God of our fathers, to deliver us from the impudent and from impudence, from an evil man, from evil hap, from the evil impulse, from an evil companion, from an evil neighbour, and from the destructive Accuser, from a hard lawsuit and from a hard opponent, whether he is a son of the covenant or not a son of the covenant! (b. Ber. 16b)
In this prayer all three possibilities are explicitly mentioned: various types of evil men, two more abstract concepts (evil hap and the evil impulse), and the destructive Accuser (i.e. Satan). This serves as a reminder that the various interpretive options are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and that within an ancient Jewish context it was customary to pray for deliverance from various kinds of evil. Which of these possibilities, however, is most likely the primary referent of ho poneros in Matthew 6:13?

There is one other grammatical point which is helpful although not decisive. The verb rhuomai (to deliver or rescue) occurs 12 times in the New Testament with an indirect object from which someone is delivered. It is always linked to its indirect object by means of one of two Greek prepositions, ek or apo, which in this case both mean 'from'. In Matthew 6:13 the preposition is apo. If we look at the other 11 instances in the New Testament, we find that ek is usually used for deliverance from things (Romans 7:24; 2 Corinthians 1:10; Colossians 1:13; 2 Timothy 3:11; 2 Timothy 4:17; 2 Peter 2:9) whereas apo is usually used for deliverance from persons (Romans 15:31; 2 Thessalonians 3:2). There are two possible exceptions to this pattern and one clear exception. In Luke 1:74 ek is used where the indirect object is "the hand of our enemies." This is personal but it is not necessarily an exception because the immediate referent is 'hand', a thing. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, the indirect object is a thing, "wrath to come." There is textual uncertainty about the preposition here because some manuscripts have ek while others have apo. If apo were the original reading then this would be an exception to the pattern. The one clear exception is in 2 Timothy 4:18, where the indirect object is "every evil deed" but the preposition is apo. There is nothing like a rule of grammar stating that rhuomai + apo implies a personal indirect object, but the pattern of usage nudges the balance of probabilities toward the reading, 'the evil one.'6

The decisive factor, however, must be the context. If we look at the broader context of Matthew there is no clear use of ho poneros (with article) to refer to evil as an abstract noun (either as in 'evil' generally or 'the evil impulse' specifically). Such a reading is possible in Matthew 5:37, but the meaning of ho poneros is disputed here too with most modern translations opting for 'the evil one.' ho poneros does refer to evil abstractly elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 6:45; Romans 12:9). Within Matthew there is one use of ho poneros which most likely refers to 'an evildoer' in a generic sense (Matthew 5:39), though here too some scholars take it as a reference to the evil one.7 There are at least two uses of ho poneros to refer to 'the Evil One' in an individualized sense (Matthew 13:19; 13:38). That ho poneros in Matthew 13:19 means 'the Evil One', an epithet for the devil or Satan, can be ascertained by comparing it with the parallel accounts of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). In Matthew 13:38 ho poneros is identified as 'the devil' in the immediate context (v. 39). In both of these texts 'the Evil One' is evidently either a person or a personification, and not a generic or abstract noun, since the Evil One is described as 'coming and snatching' the word away, and as a father to the wicked. This "Evil One" thus figures prominently in Jesus' teaching in the Gospel of Matthew.

There are a number of other New Testament instances of ho poneros which virtually all modern translations (including NASB and ESV) render 'the evil one' (John 17:15; Ephesians 6:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 1 John 2:13-14; 3:12; 5:18-19). The KJV follows an abstract reading in Ephesians 6:16, 2 Thessalonians 3:3, John 17:15 and 1 John 5:19, but in the other passages even it reads 'the wicked one', indicating virtual unanimity among major English translations. John 17:15 is particularly noteworthy since, like Matthew 6:13, it occurs in a prayer of Jesus. Note also that the context of both Ephesians 6:16 (v. 11) and 1 John 3:12 (vv. 8, 10) imply an identification of ho poneros with ho diabolos, the devil.

The decisive point supporting the rendering 'the evil one' is the need to read the Lord's Prayer in light of the wilderness temptation accounts. The petition, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the] evil [one]" draws on Matthew 4:1-11 in which Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Chase argued that every clause of the Lord's Prayer is clarified when read in light of the temptation narrative, and that "It is difficult to imagine that the analogy between the two breaks down in the last clause, and that the prominence of the tempter in the history has no counterpart in the Prayer."8

In view of the above evidence, it is best to understand ho poneros in Matthew 6:13 as synonymous with ho diabolos just as in Matthew 13:19 and 13:38-39. The grammatical and contextual evidence leads us to the conclusion that Jesus actually instructed us to pray for deliverance from the individualized 'Evil One.' This leaves open the question of whether he understood the devil to be an actual personal being or a personification. In my papers The Devil in the Wilderness and The Enemy is the Devil I have argued at length that the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself) intended to convey to their audiences that the devil is a supernatural personal being. This conclusion is supported by an overwhelming majority of modern New Testament scholars.

If we don't share Jesus' view that there is a real, external enemy who seeks to turn us away from God, it seems inevitable that we will fall short of his admonition to "pray in this way" (Matthew 6:9). On the other hand, if we appreciate the reality of this enemy and all the forms of evil that characterize his dark domain, we will pray earnestly for deliverance, taking heart in the fact that Jesus has already overcome him and broken his power (Hebrews 2:14).

1 Bruner, F.D. (2004). Matthew: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12. Eerdmans, p. 315.
2 See for example Bruner (op. cit., p. 314); Carson, D.A. (2010). Matthew. In The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Matthew-Mark. T. Longman and D. Garland (Eds.). Zondervan, p. 208; Evans, C.E. (2012). Matthew. Cambridge University Press, p. 148.
3 Ayo, N. (2002). The Lord's Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman and Littlefield, p. 95.
4 Wallace, D.B. (1996). Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, pp. 206-291.
5 Wallace himself argues based on the relationship between the wilderness temptation narrative and the prayer that tou ponerou here refers to the evil one, the devil (op. cit., p. 233).
6 This analysis has been made by scholars such as Zerwick, who notes that the same general pattern holds in the Septuagint (Zerwick, M. (1963). Biblical Greek: illustrated by examples. Gregorian Biblical Bookshop, p. 29).
7 Bruner, op. cit., pp. 248-250.
8 Chase, F.H. (1891). The Lord's Prayer in the early church. Cambridge University Press, p. 105.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

False signs and wonders: by whose power?

In the next couple of posts I'm planning to offer some preliminary observations on a couple of topics which are peripherally related to the biblical doctrine of Satan.

On a few occasions, the Bible refers to the ability of wicked people to perform signs and wonders. For those of us who are prepared to take the biblical testimony at face value as an authoritative record of historical events, prophecy and teaching, this begs the question, by what power were and are these deceitful wonders performed? For Christians who acknowledge the existence of supernatural forces of evil headed by Satan, a logical explanation of such phenomena exists: it is Satan who empowers these wicked people. For Christians (such as Christadelphians) who deny the existence of any supernatural evil beings, the only possible explanations are (1) that these miracles were performed by the Holy Spirit, and therefore caused directly by God; or (2) that these miracles were merely illusions and had no supernatural content whatsoever. As we go through the instances in Scripture, we will investigate whether either of these explanations is credible.

Narrative Examples

One well known instance concerns the confrontation between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh in Egypt. God gives Moses and Aaron the power to perform wonders before Pharaoh and induce plagues. In the first case, Aaron turns his rod into a snake (Exodus 7:10). Pharaoh's wise men, sorcerers and magicians also manage to turn their staffs into snakes, "by their secret arts" (Exodus 7:11-12). The superior power of God is demonstrated in this case, not by exposing the Egyptian magicians as illusionists or frauds, but by Aaron's snake devouring their snakes. The account is thus best understood as reporting that Pharaoh's magicians were actually able to turn their staffs into snakes. In like manner, Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate the plague of turning water into blood and of mass-producing frogs (Exodus 7:22; 8:7).

However, Pharaoh's magicians are unable to replicate the miracle of the gnats, which they confess is due to "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:18-19). Their inferior power is further demonstrated when they themselves are afflicted in the plague of boils (Exodus 9:11). In short, the Torah clearly distinguishes between the superior power at work in Moses and Aaron and the inferior power at work in the Egyptian magicians, but does not offer any distinction between the reality of the Egyptian magicians' miracles and those of Moses and Aaron. The text gives us no reason to think that the rods were replaced with snakes using sleight-of-hand or any other non-supernatural means. The plain meaning of the text is that the Egyptian magicians were able to perform certain miracles. They obviously did not do so by God's power; by what power then did they do so?

A second instance is found in 1 Samuel 28:7-19, where Saul consults a medium who succeeds in bringing up the deceased prophet Samuel as an 'elohim'. Supernatural activity is undeniable here, since Samuel prophesies. Was the medium empowered by the Holy Spirit to resurrect Samuel or otherwise induce his presence? (Nothing in the text suggests that this was a resurrection, and the fact that only the medium could see Samuel suggests otherwise.) Samuel rebukes Saul for "disturbing" him, which is odd language if this were in fact a divine miracle. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that God would implicate Himself in the work of a medium, given the strongly worded condemnations of such activity in the law of Moses (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6; 20:27). The best interpretation from the text itself is that the medium did supernaturally bring up Samuel, but by a power other than God's.

A third instance is found in the account of 'the Adversary' (Hebrew ha'satan) in Job 1-2. In this case the miracles are not necessarily performed by a wicked human; most scholars are agreed that the satan here is a supernatural being (and not necessarily a wicked one). Christadelphians, however, have tended to identify the Adversary with some sort of human agent. What is clear from this account, however, is that the Adversary had supernatural power to cause calamity (although this power was subject to and constrained by God). In Job 1:12, God tells the Adversary, "Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand." We then read of the Adversary departing from the presence of the Lord, and thereafter of calamities befalling Job's household. These included natural disasters, which no human hand could have caused. Indeed, the idiom of stretching out one's hand is used throughout the Old Testament for causation of supernatural events (Exodus 3:20; 7:5; 7:19; 8:5; 9:22; 10:12; 10:21; 14:16; 14:26; Joshua 8:18; Psalm 138:7; 144:7; Jeremiah 6:12; 51:25; Ezekiel 6:14; 14:9; Zephaniah 1:4; cf. Acts 4:30).

In Job 2:7, after the Lord tells the Adversary, "[Job] is in your hand" but constrains him from killing Job, the text explicitly says that it was the Adversary who "struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." This again implies supernatural activity on the part of the Adversary. If the Adversary was a human being, we are left to explain how he came by this supernatural power. It was permitted and constrained by God, and thus Job's trials could be ascribed to God in an ultimate sense (as in Job 42:11). However, the Adversary was motivated by an overzealous desire to find fault and induce Job's destruction, which makes it hard to believe that God granted him supernatural powers especially to enable his persecution of Job.

A final historical instance of miracles performed by wicked people is the account of Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-11. The narrator of Acts (Luke) twice tells us that this man had amazed the people of Samaria with his magic. His reputation was such that he was known as the Great Power of God. "Magic" here refers to occultic arts, and not to harmless conjuring tricks like those of today's popular magicians. Luke says nothing that gives the impression that he doubted the reality of Simon's magic. However, since Simon subsequently tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles and was struck blind for it, the implication from the context is that God was not really the source of his power. This suggests a source of supernatural power other than God's.

In summary, we have found biblical testimony to supernatural acts being carried out by persons opposed to the will of God. The implication is that there is a source of supernatural power which is opposed to the will of God. However, this does not represent a clash between two equal and opposite powers; instead, the power opposed to God is far inferior to Him in strength, and seemingly cannot even be exercised without His consent. Indeed, the exercise of supernatural power by wicked people is the exception rather than the rule. In many cases, those opposed to God are utterly impotent (the classic example, perhaps, being the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:17-40).

Prophetic Examples

Deuteronomy 13:1-3 commands the Israelites not to listen to prophets or dreamers of dreams who practice idolatry, even if the prophet gives a sign or a wonder which "comes to pass." In other words, the Law of Moses specifically legislates for the possibility of ungodly prophets who are nevertheless able to perform signs and wonders successfully (which requires supernatural power). The stated rationale for such cases is that they are occasions of testing from the Lord, which might suggest that such prophets derive their power from God. However, the idea that God might give the Holy Spirit to idolatrous men in order to test His people is difficult to reconcile with His revealed character. In a narrative that is somewhat analogous in 1 Kings 22:19-23 (though there the prophets prophesy falsely), the Lord allows a 'lying spirit' (clearly not the Holy Spirit) to enter into the mouth of Ahab's prophets.

The possibility of false prophets performing signs and wonders, first stated in the Law, is picked up in later biblical prophecies. In the Olivet discourse, Jesus warned, "For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24). The qualifying adjective "great" implies some reality to these signs and wonders; although they lead astray, they are not empty of power. The same phraseology is used in Acts 6:8 to describe the works of Stephen who was "full of power."

The same idea appears in Paul's prediction of the "lawless one" in 2 Thessalonians 2:9: "The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders". Here, the lawless one's activity is explicitly connected with that of Satan (who was posited at the beginning to be the immediate source of supernatural evil powers wielded by humans). Secondly, it is evident that this individual possesses great power, which in the context of 'signs and wonders' is evidently supernatural power (as opposed to political power, for instance). The signs and wonders are identified as "false" (pseudos), but this cannot mean they are empty of real power (which would contradict the previous assertion). Rather, it means that they deceive and lead astray (cf. vv. 10-11) in contrast to divinely ordained signs and wonders which impart truth and inspire faith.

This idea appears again in Revelation. The two-horned beast in Revelation 13:13-14 is said to perform "great signs" by which it deceives those who dwell on the earth. Again, the signs are not devoid of power but are "great"; their falsehood lies in their motive. A specific example of one of these signs is given: "making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people". The symbolic nature of Revelation does not take away the clear implication that this wicked entity wields supernatural power; and indeed this text sheds light on the kinds of 'signs and wonders' referred to in Matthew 24:24 and 2 Thessalonians 2:9. In Revelation 16:14 we again have "demonic spirits, performing signs" and in Revelation 19:20 a reiteration of the false prophet's work of performing signs to deceive people.


In both narrative and prophetic portions of Scripture, we encounter the idea that real, supernatural signs and wonders are sometimes performed by ungodly people. If there are no supernatural evil beings then such phenomena are explicable only by attributing them directly to the hand of God, which creates serious philosophical problems. A better explanation is to attribute them to supernatural evil forces operating under the dominion of Satan; forces which oppose God's will but, paradoxically, are constrained by that same will, and can be used by God for good ends, such as spiritual growth (as in Job's case) or the judicial hardening of the wicked (as in the apocalyptic false prophet). 

The idea that God may be responsible for all evil in an ultimate sense but not in a direct sense is something most Christians assume within their worldview. For instance, if you were severely injured in a car accident or a natural disaster, you would probably experience a crisis of faith because you would hold God responsible in an ultimate sense: after all, He is omnipotent and yet He allowed it to happen! On the other hand, it is unlikely that you would hold God responsible in an immediate sense, as though He caused the car accident or natural disaster by direct intervention. In many cases, it is possible to understand the immediate cause of such events in purely naturalistic terms. However, as we have seen, the Scriptures testify that in at least a few cases, there are events which demand an immediate cause which is supernatural and yet incompatible with God's character. Such phenomena thus provide implicit evidence for the existence of supernatural evil being(s).