The reality of evil

It seems Doctor Luke believed in the devil.

We live in a time when anything to do with the spiritual is regarded as a bit on the fringe. Belief in God is tolerated, but seen by many as a private oddity, an old fashioned eccentricity, based not in scientifically proven reality but rather in the realm of fantasy. Belief in the devil, in a person named Satan, is seen as equally fantastical by many, although most people seem able to accept that evil exists in the world and is hard to explain. Fantasy, of course, is a very popular pursuit in our day, but it is not regarded as real, even if it is an exciting way to look at the world. The devil, Satan, is for many people part of the fantasy world view – interesting, exciting, scary – but not real. People who regard the devil as real are often seen by secular Westerners as at best gullible, at worst mentally unstable.

But look at this description by Luke of an encounter between the devil and Jesus:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
(Luke 4:1-13 NIV)

Why does Luke, an educated man, speak about the devil in this way, as though he is real? Is Luke writing figuratively? Is he just a product of a superstitious but ignorant age? Is he just reporting a popular myth about the preparation of Jesus for ministry? Did people really believe in the existence of an evil personality known as Satan? Are we to believe the same, if we are followers of this man called Jesus?

Luke at no time questions the truth of this story, which he knew only second or third hand, since it was not something he had witnessed himself. Only Jesus himself can have been the source this story, since it would appear that he was the only one present during the events described. So Jesus came back from a period of forty days in the wilderness and at some stage told his disciples about the time that he had been out there. Jesus said that the devil, the one called Satan, had tested him. No doubt he was tested in more ways that just what is here recorded, but three areas of temptation have come down to us, tests in the area of physical need, rightful worship and supernatural power.

As a follower of Jesus I accept these statements of Jesus as a statement of truth. If Jesus says that the devil spoke to him and tested him, I believe it. Although this may appear to some to be foolishness, faith that is blind, I see it as simply a faith based worldview. The existence of a spiritual world which is beyond what we can see and measure empirically cannot be disproven, any more than it can be proven. There is evidence both for and against. We can choose to believe that it is there or choose to believe that it is not there. Both positions require faith. We decide with which side to agree depending on who we choose to believe.

I choose to believe Jesus, a person who existed in history and who exists, I believe, just as much today in the spiritual realms. I choose to believe him purely because of who he was, and what he did, and ultimately because he rose from the dead. Jesus said that he spoke to a person called Satan who tested him. I believe therefore that there is a person called Satan, whose desire is to pull us away from God, a person who strikes us when we are at our weakest, a person who speaks to us in various ways, a person who is often attractive and rational and who offers solutions to our situations that often appear quite sensible. This is the person I see testing Jesus in this story. And this is the person who tries just as hard to turn me away from God.

It is a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding what is happening to us. It is a worldview that Jesus taught his disciples when he related for them his experiences in the wilderness. HIs disciples learnt something of the spiritual realms and the strategies of Satan through this account, and we can learn something too.

To follow Jesus, to believe in him, means believing in a spiritual reality that contains forces of evil which can impact us in many ways, and can tempt us powerfully. It does us well to study Jesus’ response to evil, to the devil, and to try to respond, when we are tested, in the way that Jesus did.

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