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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.

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