We Are What We Eat: The Word of God vs The Word of the World

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nWhen we read a Gospel lesson like Luke 8:26-39 , the Gadarene Demoniac, we can easily get the impression that demons commonly haunt the earth and that demon possession is the most frequent problem confronting humanity.   And that would be our impression if the only Scriptures we ever heard was the Sunday Gospel lessons of the Orthodox Church year.  Yet if we study the Scriptures we note:

The word “demons” appears only 4 times in the entire Septuagint (Old Testament).  However it appears 35 times just in the 4 Gospels – but then only 6 times in the rest of the New Testament.

The word “demon” appears only in the book of Tobit in the Old Testament.   It appears 21 times in the 4 Gospels but nowhere else in the New Testament.

The notion of being “possessed by demons” – occurs only in the New Testament – 4 times in the Gospels and once in Acts.

Demon possession is not mentioned in the entire Old Testament and in fact demons are almost never mentioned in the Old Testament.  So, when we come to the Gospels and suddenly demons seem commonplace, we can ask: What happened?  Why do demons suddenly abound?

One thing that does happen in Israel is the invasion of pagan deities.   Following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Israel came the arrival of pagan Hellenism – Greek paganism which was the bane of Israel in the time of the Maccabees.  Then the pagan Roman Empire conquered Israel.  Pagan temples and pagan signs emerged everywhere in Israel.   The Jewish people readily  accommodated to this reality,  even some accepting  these gods/deities in their midst, but these gods were considered to be nothing more than demons by faithful Jews and early Christians.  Demonic influence spread throughout Israel with the influence of pagan Greek and Roman culture.   What we see in the Gospels reflects this concern – that people were being made sick by becoming accustomed to pagan religion, and making demonic ideas part of their daily existence.  Demonic influence and demonic possession took over the region as the Jewish people adapted to their political and religious reality and then even adopted some of these pagan Greek ideas.

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In the Gospels, however, the demons themselves acknowledging the Lordship of Christ.  These demons and the people they possess are telling Israel to return to and be faithful to the God of their ancestors.  The people’s inability to recognize that The Lord is not just like one of the many gods was making them all mentally and spiritually ill.   God was no longer the Lord of their lives, but rather they  saw all gods as equal and thus all gods as demons.  So they became possessed by demonic thinking.  Jesus may have been very critical of Pharisaic Judaism and the religion of the temple priests, but He was not telling them paganism is a better alternative or a more acceptable alternative.  Jesus came to rid the people of all false beliefs including wrong Jewish ideas as well as the pagan gods and demons.

In Deuteronomy 32, there is a song which Moses taught the people of Israel, rebuking them for their faithlessness, which says in part that

Jacob ate his fill;

Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked.

You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!

He abandoned God who made him,

and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.

They made him jealous with strange gods,

with abhorrent things they provoked him.

They sacrificed to demons, not God,

to deities they had never known,

to new ones recently arrived,

whom your ancestors had not feared.

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;

you forgot the God who gave you birth.   (32:15-18)

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It was because the people forgot the Lord that they began to worship the pagan deities or demons.  In our Gospel lesson, note that the man from whom the demons had been exorcised exactly did not forget God:

Now the man from whom the demons had departed begged Him that he might be with Him. But Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” And he went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.

Note well that usually Jesus tells those whom He heals not to say anything to anyone, but here He commands this man living outside of Israel to proclaim what God has done for him.  Perhaps when Christ is in Israel, Jesus feared that people would only misinterpret his powers as being demonic (Matthew 10:25, 12:24), whereas in the land outside of Israel, which was full of idols/demons, He wanted them to proclaim the one God above all the idols/demons.

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We might also think about  Adam and Eve trying to hide from God after sinning.  Instead of coming to God for healing, they fear God will judge them and so they try to avoid God.  This is exactly like the demons in the Gospel behave.  They have no love for God, only fear.    “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!”  The demons too want to hide from Christ precisely because they don’t love Him and they don’t want to have to bow before Him or to be embraced by His love.

“. . . the demons are violent and destructive, seeking  injury and death of the human person; Jesus’ actions are liberating, restoring humans to tranquility and communion with self and others.”  (Willard Swartley, COVENANT OF PEACE, p 98)

The demonic is visible wherever people are seeking destruction and injury for their fellow humans – the endless list of terrorists and murderers who attack children in school or worshipers in a synagogue.  Or who send pipe bombs to politicians.   It is Christ who brings sanity to us and tranquility and communion with God.  We need to see the violence in our society for what it is.  Like in Israel of 2000 years ago, all kinds of demonic ideas abound in our midst and our making us and our country insane.

But what to do, respond with more violence?  As Christians we are called above all to be a people of prayer.  To recognize that these people possessed by violence and demonic thoughts are still part of us – both human and American.  We have to work to exorcise the demonic influence in our country through prayer and fasting.  That’s exactly what our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us (Mark 9:29).

“The possessed and insane individual remains a brother who has even a greater need not to be held in contempt or rejected, but on the contrary to be loved and helped since he finds himself in a condition of great suffering.  As St John Cassian teaches:

‘We shall not only never despise them but we shall even pray ceaselessly for them as for our own members and suffer along with them from the depths of our being and with all our hearts (for when ‘one suffers, all members suffer’ [1 Cor 12:26]).’

The Christian should feel bound up with their destiny, believing that his own spiritual destiny is linked to theirs, as each member of the body is linked to every other member.

‘We cannot possibly attain to perfection without these members or ours, just as we read that our forebears were unable to arrive at the fullness of the promise without us.  As the Apostle says concerning them: ‘All these who were approved by the testimony of faith did not receive the promises, since God had provided something better for us so that they would not be perfected without us.[Hebrews 11:39-40]’

… It is quite evident that in the eyes of the Fathers the possessed remains a complete human being, for even though the demon occupies his body and soul, he continues to carry intact within him the indelible and unalterable image of God which constitutes his true being, his profound nature, and indeed his very humanity.  In the face of this, possession is only an accident, a superficial deformity.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING, pp 60-61)

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Rather than seeing these American terrorists as “them”, we need to realize they are us and we as a culture have allowed these demonic ideas to become part of our lives.  We all need to repent and turn to the Lord.   There is a writing attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt which says:

“The Word of God is God.  And the word of the world is world.  There is a great difference and distance between the Word of God and the word of the world and between the children of God and the children of the world.  For every begotten offspring resembles its proper parents.  If, therefore, the offspring of the Spirit gives itself over to the word of the world and to earthly matters and to the glory of this age, it is stricken with death and perishes, whence it came into existence.  For, as the Lord says, he is ‘choked and becomes unfruitful’ (Mk 4:19) from the Word of God who is surrounded by the cares of life and who is bound by earthly bonds.  Likewise, one who is possessed by the fleshly desire, that is, a man of the world, if he desires to hear the Word of God, is choked and becomes like someone irrational.  For being accustomed to the enticements of evil when such men hear about God, they are burdened by boring conversation and their minds are bored.”     (Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES, p 230)

Many are bored with hearing the Word of God and only want to hear the word of the world.  They read and listen to their political extremist talk show hosts and web pages.  They have filled their heads and hearts with demonic thoughts – “the word of the world” – and that is why they behave like the violent and destructive demons of the Gospel.

We also see in this why it isn’t enough for any individual just to change their mind, for they are not just acting alone but as part of a greater world experience/power.  “The word of the world” is greater than any one individual, it is all around us just like the ocean is to all the creatures that live in it.  We can’t just shake it off or get out of it.  This is why we need to read the scriptures and to pray and attend church and worship God.  It is why we need Holy Communion, the sacrament of confession, prayer and fasting.

Renouncing Satan – Embracing Christ

Kenyan Catechumens renounce Satan.

The following exhortation is found in some Orthodox books preparing catechumens for reception into the Church on Holy Saturday.   These words are said to the catechumens on the evening before their baptisms/chrismations.  They are final instructions to remind the catechumen what they have agreed to live and do as a result of their choosing to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate All Saints Day in the Orthodox Church, we are reminded that all of us are called and baptized to be saints, God’s holy people.  This requires much from us. 

“This marks the conclusion of your catechesis. The time of your redemption has come. Today, you are about to sign a contract with your faith in Christ. The paper, the ink, and the pen are your conscience, your tongue, and your new habit of life. Therefore, take heed as to how you inscribe your confession. Do not go astray from it, lest you be deceived. They that are about to die put their affairs in order and they designate heirs to their possessions, this one this, and that one that. Well, tomorrow night you are to die to sin. So now put your affairs in order and perform your renunciation as a testament. Assign the devil as heir to sin. Leave to him your sins as his ancestral inheritance. If any of you possesses anything of the devil in his soul, let him cast it at him.

He who dies no longer has authority over his possessions, so let not anyone of you have anything of the devil in his soul. And in so doing, stand and hold out your hands as though being examined by angels.

Let nothing of the devil’s affairs be hidden by you.

Let no one hold on to enmity;

let no one harbor anger;

let no one stand with dissimulation;

let no one listen with hypocrisy.

Cast at the devil all filth and superfluity of evil. You stand here as captives, for such as you does Christ buy back. As each of you sees and hates the devil, so shall each of you blow on him. Enter within your conscience; examine your heart; take heed to what each one has done. If there is anything contrary in you, spit it out with that act of blowing on the devil. Let there not be here any Judas of hypocrisy! Let no one have any doubts about the Mystery. The Word of God examines our hearts, as it is sharper than any two-edged sword. Now the devil has taken his stand in the west, as he grinds his teeth, pulls his hair, wrings his hands, and bites his lips in rage; he laments his loss and loses his faith over your freedom. Now Christ stands before you, over opposite the devil, so that as you renounce him and blow on him, you may take up war against him.

In the west the devil has taken his stand, where is the beginning of darkness. Begin to renounce him and blow on him! Then turn about to the east and align yourselves with Christ. Let no one despise him; stand ye with fear! The present matters are all fearful and awesome. All the powers of heaven stand present here. All the angels and archangels are invisibly writing down your utterances.” (Services of Initiation into the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, pp. 150-151)

Why We Don’t Fear Satan

This blog concludes the blog Demonic Possession as a Physical Ailment.

Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou says spiritually we don’t fear Satan precisely because we do have a fear of God.   This fear of God, however, is not a cringing in terror in the face of an unpredictable power, but more awe and respect for the Creator.

“But the fear of God is not a paralyzing or timid fear. On the contrary, fear of God pushes us to do good, to repent and become more like Christ. This kind of positive fear is aptly expounded in the second-century Christian work, The Shepherd of Hermas: “Fear,” said he, “the Lord, and keep His commandments. For if you keep the commandments of God, you will be powerful in every action, and every one of your actions will be incomparable. For, fearing the Lord, you will do all things well. This is the fear which you ought to have, that you may be saved. But fear not the devil; for, fearing the Lord, you will have dominion over the devil, for there is no power in him. . . . For fears are of two kinds: for if you do not wish to do that which is evil, fear the Lord, and you will not do it; but, again, if you wish to do that which is good, fear the Lord, and you will do it. Wherefore the fear of the Lord is strong, and great, and glorious. Fear, then, the Lord, and you will live to Him, and as many as fear Him and keep His commandments will live to God.”   Unfortunately, in contrast to the teaching of Hermas, there are many Orthodox Christians who live in fear of the devil, demons, magic, and curses. This displays a terrible lack of faith. Such fear is contrary to God’s providence . . . contrary to spiritual knowledge. The teaching of Hermas is echoed by many other Fathers: the demons have no power! They can only tempt and frighten, and have no power other than what God permits. This is made abundantly clear in the many accounts of exorcism in the Gospels. The demons fear Christ. They also fear the saints. They should also fear us, rather than us fearing them. There is no dualism in Christianity; God and the devil are not two equal powers playing with humanity like pawns in a chess game. Fear God, and the devil will fear you!”

Papavassiliou goes on to quote St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite (d. 1809AD):

“Why do you fear the Devil, O Christians? He cannot force you to do anything. The Devil should, rather, fear you, not you the Devil, for you are clad in the armor and panoply of God; you have as a sling the sign of the Precious Cross, with which, and from a distance, you can smite all of the demons; you wield, as a two-edged sword, the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the demons fear and at which they tremble. As for you, if you are willing to keep the commandments of the Lord, and to be the true friends and soldiers of the Heavenly King, you will have no need of magic or any other device of the Devil, and you will trample on him with your feet as though he were a beast, a little sparrow, a scorpion, or an ant. ‘Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.’  [Luke 10:19] Hence, if you will, the Devil can become so small and lowly that he resembles an infant; and again, if you will, the Devil can become so mighty against you that he roars like a fearsome lion and seeks to devour you.”   (Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle Loc. 1567-89)

Demonic Possession as a Physical Ailment

The Gospel lesson in our current lectionary for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 8:28-9:1 in which Christ encounters two men possessed by demons.   At the time when the Orthodox Gospel lectionary was being formed, a story of Christ exorcising demons must have been very popular.  For in the current lectionary, the parallel version of this story from Luke’s Gospel (8:26-39) is read also on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost.   Since we have a lectionary that repeats every year, it is interesting that they thought this miracle important enough to proclaim twice during the church year in which there are only 52 Sundays, and we actually hear only 1/7 of the Gospels if we attend only on Sundays.  The Luke version is slightly different than the Matthew version (one instead of two demoniacs), but both have a heard of pigs running over a cliff and all drowning.    Here is the version from Matthew’s Gospel:

At that time, when Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their   neighborhood.  And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.

Reflecting on demonic possession, Jean-Claude Larchet writes:

“St. John Cassian provides precise indications as to how the devil acts in certain cases of possession and shows how this is analogous to certain processes due to physical causes.  When an unclean spirit makes its way into those organs in which the soul’s vigor is contained, [it] imposes an unbearable and immeasurable weight on them, and overwhelms the intellectual faculties and deeply darkens their understanding.   We see that this sometimes also happens through the fault of wine or fever or excessive cold or other unfavorable conditions that are externally caused. The devil, who had received power over the blessed Job’s flesh, did not succeed in bringing this upon him,  having been forbidden by the command of the Lord, who said: ‘Behold, I hand him over to you; only spare his soul’ (Job 2:6). That is to say, only do not drive him mad by weakening his soul’s abode, and do not obscure the understanding and the wisdom of the one who withstands you by suffocating the governance of his heart with your weight.”   (Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, p 48)

A fascination with demons, even with exorcisms of demons, can itself be spiritually unhealthy.  In the baptism exorcism, in one of the prayers the priest says, we show our utter contempt and disdain for Satan by referring to the Gospel lesson of the demoniac and the herd of swine:

Acknowledge the vanity of your might, which does not even have power over swine. Remember Him Who, at your request, commanded you to enter into the herd of swine.

We remind Satan in almost taunting fashion to remember the events at Gadara – we tell him to remember how powerless he was then and always continues to be in the face of Christ.  Satan is not God’s opposite and equal, and has no power in himself.  We who have been baptized can show our contempt for Satan by ignoring him – for sometimes in giving attention to satan we give power to him as well.  But Satan has been rendered powerless by Christ.

Larchet is pointing out that even the Patristic writers acknowledge that demon possession often has no other manifestation than symptoms related to physical diseases.  Some of these symptoms of demon possession according to St. John Cassian really are the end result of drunkenness or a fever or even of unfavorable weather conditions.     We do need to keep in mind that the Fathers of the Church did not attribute every human problem and ailment to demons.

Below is the entire prayer excerpted above – one of two prayers in the baptism service in which the priest directs his words/prayer to Satan: banning him from the catechumen who is about to be baptized and declaring Satan powerless because of Christ Jesus our Lord.

God, holy, awesome and glorious, Who is unsearchable and inscrutable in all His works and might, has foreordained for you the penalty of eternal punishment, O Devil. The same God, through us, His unworthy servant, commands you, with all your hosts, to depart from him (her) who has been newly sealed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true God. Therefore I charge you, most crafty, impure, vile, loathsome and alien spirit, by the power of Jesus Christ, Who has all power, both in heaven and on earth, Who said to the deaf and dumb demon, “Come out of the man, and do not enter a second time into him:” Depart! Acknowledge the vanity of your might, which does not even have power over swine. Remember Him Who, at your request, commanded you to enter into the herd of swine. Fear God, by Whose decree the earth is established upon the waters; Who has made the heavens, and has set the mountains with a line and the valleys with a measure; and has fixed bounds to the sands of the sea, and a firm path upon the stormy waters; Who touches the mountains and they smoke; Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment; Who spreads out the heavens like a curtain; Who covers His exceedingly high places with the waters; Who has made the earth so sure upon its foundations, that it shall never be moved; Who gathers the water of the sea and pours it out upon the face of the whole earth: Leave, and depart from him (her) who has made himself (herself) ready for Holy Illumination. I charge you by the redeeming Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by His precious Body and Blood, and by His awesome Second Coming; for He shall come quickly to judge the whole earth; and He shall chastise you and all your host with burning Gehenna, committing you to outer darkness, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

Next:  Why We Don’t Fear Satan

The Limited Power of Satan

St. John Damascene (d. 749AD) is perhaps known for having written a summary of Christian theology and beliefs (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith), which was in fact his own synthesis of the Patristic writers who came before him.

St. John describes how Satan and demons came into existence and his description of the existence of evil reflects the commonly held views of his day.  Satan is NOT God’s opposite and equal – far from it.  Satan and demons have no power except what god allows them to have (One can think of the Gospel lesson of the Gadarene swine where the demons have to ask permission of Christ to leave the man they had possessed.  The demons do not even have power over swine, as is stated and prayed in the pre-baptismal exorcism prayers).

Why does God give Satan permission to do anything?

This has to do with God’s own respect for the free will He has bestowed on some of his creatures including both humans and angels.  Neither humans nor angels are automatons – preprogrammed beings that have no choice in what they do.  We can freely choose good or evil, just like the angels.  However in terms of having power over our lives, Satan and demons are limited by what God allows them to do, AND by our own cooperation with them.  For neither Satan nor angels can make us do anything either.   They cannot violate our free will.  The will of God and the will of any human are thus both limitations put on the power of the Evil One.

St. John Damascene writes:

“Among the angelic powers the chief of the terrestrial order, the one to whom God had entrusted the task of looking after the earth, was not evil by nature, he had not received any trace of evil from his Creator. He was good. However, he did not maintain the light and honor that God had given him. By a deliberate act of his own free will he rebelled against the Creator. He turned his face away from goodness and fell into evil. Evil in fact is merely the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. A host of angels placed under his command followed him in the fall. Despite their angelic nature, they also freely plunged from goodness down to evil and became wicked. The devils cannot do anything against us without God’s permission. But with God’s permission they are powerful. All wickedness, all the passions are inspired by them. But listen: God allows them to suggest sin to a person, but they cannot force him to do it. We ourselves are responsible for accepting or rejecting their seductive suggestions.”    (Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, pp. 127-128)

In every Orthodox Baptism, we pray over the baptismal candidate:

O Lord of Sabaoth, the God of Israel, Who heals every malady and every infirmity:  Look upon Your servant; prove him (her) and search him (her) and root out of him (her) every operation of the devil.  Rebuke the unclean spirits and expel them, and purify the works of Your hands; and exerting Your great power, speedily crush down Satan under his (her) feet; and give him (her) victory over the same, and over his unclean spirits.  (3rd Exorcism Prayer)

May we all be so victorious over the Evil One.

The Gadarene Demoniac

At that time, when Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their   neighborhood.  And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.   (Matthew 8:28-9:1)

A totally modern commentary on the exorcism of the legion of demons says:

“Jesus asked the man his name, and he replied, ‘Legion,’ the same word for a division of Roman soldiers. Scholars note that a legion consisted of around two thousand troops, and there would have been several legions around the Decapolis. It’s interesting that in the story, the demons beg to stay in the area. Nearby was a ‘band’ of pigs, band being the same word used for a group of military cadets (and no, we aren’t suggesting it’s okay to call police officers ‘pigs’). The demons asked to be sent among the pigs, another symbol of uncleanliness. (Jews did not touch pigs.) Jesus invited the Legion to enter the pigs. And the pigs, specifically numbered at two thousand, ‘charged’ into the sea to their deaths. And none of the listeners could have missed the subversive poetry, remembering the legion of Pharaoh’s army that charged into the sea, where they were swallowed up and drowned (Exodus 14).

[Footnote:  The pig was also the mascot of Rome’s Tenth Fretensis Legion stationed in Antioch (Carter, Matthew and Empire, 71) It’s interesting to note the places where Jesus drove demons out of people: often in the temple and in the militarized zones. The words ‘come out’ that usually accompany an exorcism are the same words with which Jesus exorcized the temple, calling the money changers to ‘come out’ because they had made a market of God’s temple and marginalized visiting Gentiles.” (Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, pg.115)

Begone Satan! Worship the Lord, and Fear only Him.

Sermon notes on  Matthew 4:1-17 (NRSV)

[4:1] Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Notice it is the Holy Spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.  We instead pray for ourselves as Jesus taught us, “Lead us not into temptation.” 

Jesus is led by the Spirit – follows the Spirit to his confrontation with the devil.  We want to avoid the devil – to avoid the fight that we must engage in if we meet him?  We would rather avoid the fight than do the battle in order to triumph over him.

The devil is portrayed as nothing more than “the tempter” which is very consistent with the Old Testament vision of the devil.   We are monotheists – there is no equal and opposite to God.  Satan is not a god, nor a god equivalent.  We are not Ditheists – there are not two competing gods, one good and one evil.    And it is not the case that the good Creator God is distant and far removed from the creation which is ruled by an evil god.  These ideas were all clearly rejected by the Church through history.  Satan, the devil, has very limited powers and can do nothing on his own.  He asks Jesus to grant permission that he go into the herd of swine – as we note in our Baptism service, Satan does not have power even over swine.  In the exorcism, we spit in Satan’s face.  That is how little we care about him.

We are not to fear Satan, we are to fear God.  We spit on Satan.

Satan can tempt us, which he does to Jesus.

Jesus’ response to Satan is interesting.   Jesus quotes scripture (“it is written”), but note Jesus does not say we live by every word of scripture.  He says we live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Scripture bears witness to Christ, but Jesus is the Word of God incarnate.  We do not obey a book, but rather we pay attention to whom the Bible bears witness and to whom the bible points us. 

Sometimes we misunderstand what is meant by “the Word of God” or the bible is the Word of God.  The bible bears witness to Jesus Christ who is the Word of God.  We follow the living God to whom the bible points and whom the bible reveals.  We do honor the Scriptures as God’s Word – we carry the Gospel in procession in Church, but it is a symbol bearing witness to the reality of Christ.  God’s Word is not contained in the scriptures, the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.

[5] Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Even the devil can quote the Bible – or read it.  What Satan cannot do is understand the scriptures, nor do they bring him to faith in Christ.  Satan reads the written words, but cannot comprehend the message of the Scriptures.  He is a literalist in his reading, but cannot comprehend about whom the Scriptures speak.

Jesus rebukes the devil by counter-quoting scripture.  We are not to take scripture verses out of context.  We need to comprehend the entire message of Scripture, unlike the devil who can only quote verses, but can’t put the verses together to form the entire picture being offered by God in His self revelation.

[8] Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The devil is deluded.  He believes he has such power over all the kingdoms on earth, that they are his to give away, like toys.  The devil is so deluded about himself, that he thinks Christ should worship him!  Satan fails to recognize His Lord but thinks himself greater than God! 

It is worth contemplating the notion that all the kingdoms of the world and all of their splendor are Satan’s – at least so he believes.  While we might think – yes this is true of the Roman Empire, the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, Islamic Empires –  Satan claims that ALL of the kingdoms of the world are his – this would include the United States and all its splendor.  We can ask ourselves – what kingdom do we serve?  God’s or Satan’s?  God’s or ours?  No exceptions were made by Satan about any kingdom.

Jesus dismisses the devil with a word as he has no power in the presence of Christ.  So too we who have put on Christ in baptism have power over the devil and there is no reason to fear him.   What then is our response in the face of temptation?

To turn to God and ask for His mercy and forgiveness and deliverance from such evil..

 [17] From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Theodicy II

Death being destroyed
Death being destroyed

This is the continuation and conclusion of my blog Theodicy.   I left off in the last blog commenting on how science and technology have given us a very different – truly global  – perspective on the world and how this has changed our understanding of evil.

So how do these changes in perspective or paradigm shape our understanding of Satan and of God?

It seems to me that one thing the modern worldview can actually embrace is that the power of Satan has been shattered.   A global view of the world enables us to foresee many natural events in the making and thus reduces our tendency to blame Satan for what is simply happening naturally on earth.   A global satellite view enables us to see human actions in the making as a result of human effort – not some sudden and surprising act of Satan.    We Orthodox sing that we now see the “devil’s delusion destroyed” in the Resurrection Tone 3 “Lord I Call” verses.

Sadly despite Christianity announcing the end of the Satan’s kingdom many in the Christian world still seem to fear nativity4aSatan as much as or even more than they fear God.  On the other hand the modern/scientific world simply scoffs evil into non-existence, and yet today even the most hardened atheists still speak about evil. We recognize it when we see it, even if we don’t attribute it to a personal power known as Satan.  The fact is by accepting a scientific paradigm we in effect diminish Satan’s power in the world; we realize he simply isn’t very powerful at all.

It also seems to me that our modern paradigm has the tendency to push us toward a more “deistic” understanding of God: We don’t want to attribute to or blame God for every natural disaster which indiscriminately kills the good and the evil. So we are more hard pressed how to account for all the “evil” that goes on in the world, except by ceding ever more power to Satan which is really the opposite of what our Orthodox hymns claims is happening in the world as a result of the resurrection of Christ.   Constantly blaming “Satan” for all the world’s problems really is a form of denying that the resurrection has made any difference in the world – for it says Satan/evil is as powerful if not more than ever.

St. John Chrysostom was writing at a time when Christianity was on the ascendency in the world. The Roman Empire (which they thought was the most powerful empire on earth and which they assumed controlled the civilized world) had embraced Christianity and so it seemed as if the Kingdom of God was in control of the world. Chrysostom could not imagine God allowing the Roman Empire to be defeated by a superior military power. In his commentary on the Psalms he actually notes that there was some spiritual advantage to the Jews being held in exile/captivity as they Arius1stEcumencame to rely on God instead of on human military power for survival and salvation. St. John seems to think his own flock’s faith is weak because they no longer know persecution and defeat. He is assuming however that it is a Christian emperor and Christian Empire which assures the peace which God’s kingdom brings.

Chrysostom assumes that the sign of God crushing Satan is the Empire’s embrace of Christianity. That God might cut asunder this marriage or allow the Empire to be crushed by another military power (and different religion!) seems beyond Chrysostom’s purview. Later Byzantines were utterly dismayed at the rise and success of Islam as they could not imagine God or the Theotokos abandoning their God protected empire. And yet Allah “out-generaled” the Theotokos and the God-loving Byzantine army and the God-protected Constantinople were defeated by armies following a foreign God and were swept away in history.

In all of this, I see Christianity (or maybe Christianity outside of Orthodoxy) as no longer looking to a national/imperial power to uphold the peace of God which comes through Christ. Islam on the other hand has not yet come to believe this. They still see military might and violence as a necessary means to attain the peace which Islam promises (they much more rely on earthly power to achieve what they think is God’s goals). Islam has not (in their own eyes at least) as of yet suffered such a catastrophic military defeat as to cause them to abandon the notion that imperial power is the way to establish God’s will on earth.

USAFOn the other side of this, it seems possible to me that increasingly Americans do believe military power is the way to defeat Satan on earth and thus Americans (especially conservative ones) think increased funding to the military is always correct. But one Byzantine Emperor (I think Justinian) boasted his armies would defeat Satan. We find that idea ludicrous, and yet in recent years America’s leadership used that same kind of language – our enemies are Evil, but our military will defeat Evil.

I am offering only a stream of consciousness here and not drawing any hardened conclusions.   We Christians face the task of explaining how if God is good and all powerful, and if Christ came destroying the power of death, evil and Satan, why is there still evil in the world?   Why do we attribute so much power and blame on Satan, when we also say in prayer that Satan doesn’t even have power over swine?

We would do well to make the Gospel stories central to our lives, proclamation and ministry to show the world how Christ makes a difference in history and in our lives.    In the baptismal exorcism, we spit toward Satan to show our fearless contempt of him – we treat him as the nothing he really is rather than magnifying him into the world’s second greatest power.

Christ, Not Hell, Has the Final Say About Sinners

This blog is the 2nd in a two part post script to the series on hell; this blog is the conclusion to  Hell, It’s No Place to Go.    This post script followed the blog  Orthodox Hymns on Hell.     If you want to read the entire series, it all began with the blog “Hell, no?”   

XCenthronedWe may very much want certain people to be consigned to hell for all eternity for the harm and damage they have done to people in this world.   It is comforting to many to think that in the end God is going to clean up all of the evil messes humans have caused by holding all evil doers completely accountable for their deeds.    That idea of retributive justice gives us a sense that what we do In the world truly matters to God and it can give us some sense that suffering in this world will be shown to have meaning in the world to come where the wicked get their comeuppance and the meek inherit the earth.  It helps us balance the evil we see all around us knowing that though evil people may escape judgment in this world, they do in the world to come have to answer for what they did.   This helps many to find meaning in a fallen and even tortured world knowing that evil does not triumph in the end.

However in Christianity we also see God at work giving meaning to a fallen and tortured world by resurrecting Christ from the dead.   Evil does not triumph nor have the final say.  On the cross, Christ forgives his tormentors, and then is raised from the dead trampling down death, the means used by a wicked world to try to destroy Him.   Torture and execution do not bring an end to Christ’s mission or message – the Church is the witness to this fact.

Many non-believers point out that if the threat of hell is the only thing that deters believers from doing evil, that does not speak well of those who believe in God.   For they would say many who never believed in God or hell have done good things and have avoided doing evil to others.    Is it really the case that believers have so little love for God and His goodness that unless God threatens us with hell we would be purely evil?  If preachers did not threaten believers with hell would they never wish to follow the Gospel command of Jesus to love God and love neighbor?    At least in

Orthodox Exorcism in Kenya
Orthodox Exorcism in Kenya

Orthodoxy, Satan is not recognized as being more powerful than the Church.  In the baptismal exorcism, the Orthodox believers command Satan to leave the baptismal candidate and never meet or influence him/her again.  Satan is said not even to have power over swine (referring to the Gospel lesson in  Matthew 8:28-32 in which the demons have to ask Christ for permission to depart as they have no power to do so on their own in the presence of Christ).  The believers  even spit on Satan to show their fearless contempt of him.    If the baptismal prayers mean what they say, and if we believe what they proclaim, we have power over Satan, not he over us.   We are quite capable of commanding him to do our and God’s will, and he must obey the godly command as he is not so powerful as to resist God.

 Nowhere in the Scriptures is evil or hell said to have such power over us that we can’t resist them no matter how much they may terrify us.   As the Patriarch Abraham tells the rich man in the Parable of Lazarus – if they don’t believe Gods promises found in the Scriptures, the threat of hell is not going to have any impact over their behavior and choices (Luke 16:19-31).   [And, note, this Gospel Lesson is a Parable of Jesus used for didactic purposes, not virtual tour of hell.]

If in the end, everyone is predestined by God’s choice to heaven or hell, or if in the end everyone is simply forgiven, then what difference does our behavior make in this world since all is simply fore-ordained by God and He will judge or forgive by His predetermined will not according to what we have done?  In the Q’uran God creates hell from the beginning and promises to sentence sinners to hell for eternal physical torture – God will keep them alive just to torture them.  But this is an Islamic idea, not the Gospel’s.    The Christian Scriptures present hell as having been created for Satan (Matthew 25:41), not for humans and God is presented as finding no pleasure even in bringing about the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11), let alone condemning them to their eternal punishment.  God sends His TheotokosWarrenSon into the world to save the world, not to justify sending unbelievers to hell even though their unbelief condemns them.

The Christian idea of “hell” is surely better represented in that tradition which says hell is our personal choice to be excluded from the presence of God – hell is our own refusal to love God and/or to love neighbor.  God will be everywhere present when His Kingdom comes – even in hell.  Christ according to Tradition has already filled hell with Himself.     But for those who hate God, the very presence of God will be torture.   It will be God’s love, not His hatred which they will find so horrible.

The Scriptures do offer to us that God is merciful, faithful, wise and just.  The Scriptures do tell us that our behavior and choice – virtue or vice as well as repentance and forgiveness – matter in how we will be judged by God on Judgment Day.   But the Tradition suggests God will simply allow us to have our own way.  Either we will chose to be in God’s presence and realize this as heaven or we will be so repulsed by God’s love as to live in total and tormented isolation from all else in the universe.

 We Orthodox do believe with the New Testament that death is the final enemy of God to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).  Hell – eternal damnation – is not the final victory over sin and sinners.  The final victory belongs to Jesus PaschaChrist the Conqueror triumphantly trampling down both death and Satan while shattering the gates of hell which had held death’s captives.    Hell itself is emptied by Christ – He liberates all of those bound in hell and thus empties hell of its prisoners and its power and thus takes away the sting of death and shows hell does not have the final word on anyone including sinners.  Christianity celebrates the victory of Christ over sin, death, Satan and hell; it doesn’t proclaim hell’s eternal power, rather it celebrates the final destruction of all that hell represents and proclaims that Christ is risen leaving not even one dead in hell.  There is no place in God’s universe where God does not reign supreme.   Take a look at Revelations 20:11-15, below.   The sea, death and Hades all give up the dead they are holding, and these dead are judged by God.   But then note – it is Death and Hades which are then thrown into the lake of fire to be destroyed – no mention is made of Death or Hades being kept as permanent states of existence.  [Here too I would note the language and imagery being used is very symbolic and figurative – Death and Hades themselves are anthropomorphized.   This is not intended to be a photographic image of the end, but it is a descriptive one.]  

Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.  And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Expelling the Demons in our Lives

Sermon notes for 5th Sunday after Pentecost:    (Matthew 8:28-9:1)

[8:28] When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. [29] Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” [30] Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. [31] The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” [32] And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. [33] The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. [34] Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.  [9:1] And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.

We can note the contrasts from the beginning and end of the Gospel Lesson:

At the beginning, there is a road that no one could pass through because of these two demon possessed and violent men –  even though apparently knowing about the threat of these men, Jesus goes that way anyhow.   By the end of the lesson, it is the demons who are seeking to get away from that place, and then the locals send Jesus away.      In the beginning of the lesson everyone is afraid of the power of the demons, by the end of the lesson everyone is afraid of the power of Christ which overcomes demons.

Suddenly they shouted:  Anyone who has been around the mentally unbalanced knows how terrifying it is when they begin to shout as they become a very loud menace.   If you haven’t had that experience, just think about how loud one mall but crying child can be in church, or in a store.

The demons which have terrorized everyone who tried to pass that way, are terrified at the appearance of Christ  (“Have you come to torment us before the time?”)

Christ is clearly not afraid of the power these demons or the threat of the demon possessed.  The demons want to leave, but they know they have no power or no permission to do anything when confronted by Christ the Lord.  So the demons have to ask permission to leave.   Demons have no influence over us, except that which we let them have.   In the Baptismal service in the opening exorcism, we say of Satan that he has no power even over the swine.  Evil is not as powerful let alone more powerful than God.  And we certainly know that the demons begging to enter the swine represents a specially Jewish mockery of the demons, for swine are an unclean and unacceptable animal for Jews.  And even these dirty swine are spooked by the demons and jump to their death – even swine want nothing to do with demons.

Jesus was not afraid to go where others were afraid to travel.  He was not afraid to confront other people’s demons.  And for us Christians there is great hope for healing in this if we are tempted by evil thoughts, evil memories, evil imaginations, and we have become afraid to confront these demons in our lives:  things we did in the past and have suppressed their memories, things that happened to us in the past and still haunt us, temptations and sins that we have been afraid to confront. 

Christ is willing to confront and exorcize all such demons and to forgive all our sins and to grant healing to our souls, hearts, and minds.   Christ is not afraid of the haunts of demons.  And we are to submit every aspect of our lives to the Lordship of Christ:  to invite him into the deepest and darkest recessions of our souls, minds or hearts, to drive out every evil and unclean thought.

This expelling of the demons we cannot do alone.  And surely we know the stories in the Gospels where the disciples failed to expel demons when requested to do so.  Christ said prayer and fasting were needed to uproot such demons.  But we also know we are not required to face these demons alone, and shouldn’t.  We are to walk this path with Christ, and He is present with us in His Body, the Church.  We have in the Churchall manners of support:  our fellow Christians, our godparents, monks,  the priest, and the Saints to walk those difficult paths and to go to those places in our hearts and minds and souls where we are afraid to go.  We have confession as a weapon against such demonic influences.  We have Holy Communion and the reading of the Word of God to bring the light of Christ into the dark places of our lives.

May Christ our true God expel and exorcise any kind of demon from your lives – every spirit of darkness, evil thought and memory, any demonic temptation or fantasy.    May all demonic powers be crushed beneath the sign of the cross.