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Friday, 14 October 2016

An hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and his disciples about the devil

Introduction

Almost three years ago I wrote an article entitled The Enemy is the Devil: The parables of Jesus and Christadelphian satanology. This article offers a detailed critique of the Christadelphian doctrine of the devil based on three parables of Jesus: the parable of the strong man (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21-22), the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:2-9, 13-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15) and the parable of the tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). I am disappointed that to date, I'm not aware of any Christadelphian having responded to this article, despite some robust interaction on some of my other writings on the subject of the devil.

If I were to rewrite the article today, I would make a few changes in light of my further studies on the subject of 'New Testament Satanology' since it was written. For instance, I would give Jesus himself more credit for the distinctively Christian idea of Satan, rather than suggesting it was an idea 'adopted' from Second Temple Judaism with only minor refinements. I maintain, however, that the term הַשָּׂטָן in Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2 and its translation ὁ διάβολος in the Septuagint form the definitive background for New Testament Satanology, mediated through development in beliefs about cosmic evil in Second Temple Judaism.

What I would like to do in this post is to illustrate anew the basic argument of the article by means of an hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and his disciples based loosely on the parable of the tares in Matthew 13. It is not intended to be flippant or to make fun of Christadelphian ideas about the devil but rather to convey what I believe are prohibitive hermeneutical difficulties that arise when one presupposes a Christadelphian understanding of the devil while reading these parables. Hence, the dialogue is a rhetorical construct illustrating a reductio ad absurdum argument.

The Dialogue

Jesus: Here's another parable for you. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he said, 'No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'

Disciples: Explain to us the meaning of this parable.

Jesus: Well, you see, it's an allegory. Each aspect of the parable is a metaphor for something in real life.

Disciples: We understand, Lord. Now if you can just explain to us what each metaphor represents, we'll be all set.

Jesus: No problem. The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

Disciples: Okay Master, that all makes sense. There's just one thing we aren't clear about. You said the enemy is a metaphor for 'the devil'. But what is 'the devil'?

Jesus: Why, it's a figure of speech; a metaphor!1

Disciples: Rabbi, let us see if we have this straight. In this parable, the sower, the field, the good seed, the weeds, the harvest and the reapers are all metaphors for concrete realities, but the enemy is a metaphor for another metaphor?

Jesus: It's a subtle concept, I know. Perhaps I can explain it another way. The devil is a symbol for sin.2

Disciples: Okay, let's just check if we have all this symbolism correct. The good sower symbolizes the Son of Man.

Jesus: That's right.

Disciples: The field symbolizes the world.

Jesus: Correct.

Disciples: The good seed symbolizes the sons of the kingdom, and the weeds symbolize the sons of the evil one.

Jesus: Absolutely.

Disciples: The harvest symbolizes the end of the age, and the reapers symbolize angels.

Jesus: Just so.

Disciples: And the enemy symbolizes... another symbol?

Jesus: I can see you are still struggling with this concept. Let me try one more time to express it to you. The devil is an elaborate parable.3

Disciples: Lord, are you saying that in this parable, each element symbolizes a concrete cosmological reality, with the exception of 'the enemy', which symbolizes another parable?

Jesus: I know it sounds confusing, but just keep thinking about it and it will start making sense.

A few minutes pass with the disciples deep in thought.

Disciples: Master, forgive our impudence - we're just thinking aloud here. Since all other elements of the parable symbolize concrete realities, and since the other characters working in the field (good sower and reapers) symbolize good supernatural beings ('the Son of Man' and 'the angels'), would it be reasonable to interpret the evil sower as symbolizing an evil supernatural being called 'the devil'?

Jesus: No! Your reasoning is not nearly subtle enough. In a future lesson I will clear this up using a picture of the final judgment which features the victorious coming of the Son of Man with his angels and the downfall of the devil and his angels (cf. Matt. 25:31-46).

Disciples: That sounds straightforward enough. We have a group of good angels led by a personal cosmic ruler (the Son of Man). Presumably, then, the second group consists of bad angels led by a personal cosmic ruler (the devil)?

Jesus: Again, no! You are correct that the first group are good angels led by a personal cosmic ruler. However, the second group are not actually angels but human 'messengers', and they are led not by a personal cosmic ruler but by a metaphor.

Disciples: So, Master, to sum up the general principle of interpretation: if we hear you talking about what sounds like cosmic dualism - good and evil supernatural beings opposing each other - we are to interpret the good supernatural beings literally but the evil supernatural beings figuratively?

Jesus: Correct. The fundamental presupposition is that evil supernatural beings do not exist, so you have a mandate to steer clear of any interpretation of my words that might suggest otherwise.

Footnotes

  • 1 'The "devil" is in fact a figure of speech, a metaphor. It is a symbol of sin in its various forms, whether in individuals or in human organisations, all of which tend to work against the will of God.' (Christadelphian Bible Mission Correspondence Course, Lesson 9: Bible Teaching about the Devil, p. 2.)
  • 2 'The devil is a symbol for sin like Uncle Sam is a symbol for the United States. God made sin look like an evil and powerful being in order to show how powerful it is. There is no fallen angel devil.' (Dawn Christadelphian Bible Course, Part 1, Lesson 30.)
  • 3 'The subject of Satan and demons – or the devil and his angels – must be thought of as one elaborate, sustained New Testament parable.' (Watkins, Peter (1971/2011) The Devil - The Great Deceiver. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 34.)

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