Here’s our first question for tonight: who is the devil?
A lot of us in the modern world have this image of a red figure with horns and a tail wearing a cape, maybe trailing fire. We think of the name Lucifer and of a story of an angel who rebels against God and is thrown out of heaven.
This picture has nothing to do with anything. I just thought it was funny.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but most of that does not come from the Bible. Actually, most of the narrative we’ve heard around this character is straight out of John Milton’sParadise Lost. It is there, and not in the Bible, that we hear of the fallen angel named Lucifer.
In the Bible, we get a few different references—to ha’satan, the tempter, in the Hebrew Bible; to diabolos, the slanderer, in the New Testament. In popular Christianity, this becomes the devil, the personification of evil, a character who works continuously to lure people away from God and toward hell.
Ever heard the phrase “The devil made me do it”? Even if you might never utter that phrase, we all have ways of rationalizing or shifting blame when we do something wrong. Especially when we do something that doesn’t fit with the kind of person we think we are or want to be, we grasp for some justification—and what could be more convenient than a supernatural devil whose sole aim is to cause us to do bad things?
Now, I do not disbelieve that demonic powers exist. I’ve seen and heard enough strange things to hesitate when I want to dismiss the validity of accounts of demon possession or demonic influence—but we’ll save that for another time. For now, I want to suggest that when looking for the devil, often we don’t need to look very far.
We can turn on the news and hear of another tragic victim of gun violence—devil. We can walk through a homeless shelter and see the ravages of poverty and addiction—devil. If we’re really brave, we can look in the mirror and admit to our own sinful nature—devil.
The demonic, the hellish, can be found in other people, in systems of injustice, and in ourselves. It would be easier to blame the guy in the red cape.
Here’s our second question for tonight: what is hell?
I don’t have time to get too far into this, so I’m going to draw briefly on a book Rob Bell put out a few years ago called Love Wins. This book caught a lot of flack, but Bell didn’t really say anything new. Rather, he pointed out that a lot of popular conceptions about hell are relatively recent developments, and he went back to the Bible and to early theologians’ interpretations of hell.
Bell goes through the Bible and pulls out every mention of “hell”—and, much like the devil, it turns out that a lot of the mentions are more ambiguous than we might expect. In the Old Testament, we hear about sheol, a word for the grave or a place of the dead. The exact nature of this place is murky, but what we do see is that God is present there and has power there.
In the New Testament, there are a few different words that get translated as “hell.” The one I want to talk about is gehenna. This word refers to the town garbage pile. Bell remarks, “Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar with. So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere…’”
What we don’t see is a clear description of the kind of thing we hear about in popular Christianity—a place of eternal conscious punishment where bad people and unbelievers are sent after death. Now, I am not saying there is not a hell, just that our modern ideas about it might be too narrow. Just as there are devils among and within us, hell is not necessarily something reserved for life after death. Here is a story that Bell shares to give an example.
“I remember arriving in Kigali, Rwanda, in December 2002 and driving from the airport to our hotel. Soon after leaving the airport I saw a kid, probably ten or eleven, with a missing hand standing by the side of the road. Then I saw another kid, just down the street, missing a leg. Then another in a wheelchair. Hands, arms, legs—I must have seen fifty or more teenagers with missing limbs in just those first several miles. My guide explained that during the genocide one of the ways to most degrade and humiliate your enemy was to remove an arm or a leg of his young child with a machete, so that years later he would have to live with the reminder of what you did to him.
Do I believe in a literal hell?
Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.
We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.
We can use machetes if we want to.”
If we want hell, we can have it. We can use machetes if we want to.
Have I thoroughly depressed you now?
Don’t worry. It’s about to get better.
March 31 was Easter Sunday. The next day, Easter Monday, is in some traditions a time of celebrating what in Latin is called the Risus Paschalis, or the Easter laugh. It was especially appropriate that this year, Easter Monday was April 1, April Fool’s Day.
In some traditions, one aspect of the resurrection is that Easter becomes a huge joke on the devil. The devil thought he had won when Jesus died on Friday. But then Sunday came. The devil did not get the last laugh.
Peter Abelard was a theologian who lived in the 11th and 12th century, and he wrote 15 hymns for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Each ended with this stanza:
Grant us, Lord, so to suffer with you
that we may become shareres in your glory,
to spend these three days in grief
that you may allow us the laugh of Easter grace.
One of my favorite movies is Steel Magnolias. The colorful cast of thoroughly Southern characters includes M’Lynn, played by Sally Field, and her daughter Shelby, played by Julia Roberts. Shelby has severe diabetes, and after the birth of her son it rages out of control and eventually claims her life. After the funeral, M’Lynn and several of her close friends are walking through the cemetery when M’Lynn bursts into a grief-stricken tirade of sobs and shouts.
“I wanna know why. I wanna know why Shelby’s life is over. I wanna know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was. Will he ever know what she went through for him?”
Her friends look on, dumbfounded. Then M’Lynn’s grief turns to anger.
“I just wanna hit somebody ‘til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!”
In a surprising turn of events, the sweet but sassy Claree springs into action. She grabs the well-loved but ever-ornery Ouiser Boudreaux and shoves her toward M’Lynn.
“Here! Hit this! Go ahead, M’Lynn! Slap her!”
Ouiser shoves her off, “Are you high, Claree?!”
The confusion that was already present during M’Lynn’s outburst is even more bewildering now, but something has changed. Suddenly, all the women fall onto each other, laughing, crying, in a hysterical tangle of grief and joy.
It is a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing that grief and laughter should be so closely tied together. But thank God for that, because in there somewhere is a ray of light, a laugh of grace.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters that can be a little disorienting to read. The premise is that Screwtape, a demon, is writing letters of advice to Wormwood, a young devil new to the ways of tempting humans away from God. Screwtape offers his wisdom and experience to Wormwood as he seeks to follow the will of “Our Lord Below”—the devil—in the fight against “the Enemy”—God.
At one point, Screwtape addresses laughter. Although he says that sometimes derisive laughter can be a useful tool for them, in general is should be avoided. “Laughter…does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.”
Hell is serious, and whether we are talking about hell here and now or hell in the hereafter, we should take it seriously. But we must also remember that the devil does not get the last laugh.
Another preacher once told a story of some prisoners in a POW camp during a time of war—I couldn’t track down the original story, but I’ll share the general idea anyway. The prisoners were being held, but they had one thing that gave them hope: they had a radio. One day, news came over the wire: the war was over, and the prisoners’ side had won! However, their captors had not yet gotten the news, and so they carried on business as usual, and the prisoners remained in their jail. But a fundamental change had occurred. The prisoners were no longer afraid. They celebrated the victory and ran around the camp cheering for joy. They laughed in the faces of their captors. Though the gates remained barred and the prisoners remained inside, they were free.
Whether it is the devil in another person, in a system or in ourselves, often what truly cripples us is our fear. But when we remember that we are free—to do evil or to do good—we can make that choice. We can choose fear or joy. And laughter can help.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Harry Potter series. In one of the books, these magically endowed minors at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry meeting a strange magical creature called a Boggart. No one knows what a Boggart really looks like because it takes on a different form depending on who sees it. The Boggart takes the shape of whatever your greatest fear is. What might your Boggart look like?
Here is how the young witches and wizards are taught to defeat the Boggart. With a wave of their wand, they are to cast a spell: Riddikulus! But the spell won’t do the trick by itself—you have to finish off the Boggart with laughter. You do this by imagining the object of your fear transformed into something funny—so one boy sees a dreaded professor clad in his grandmother’s clothes; another sees a giant spider stumbling around on roller skates; a girl turns a huge snake into a jack-in-the-box. The laughter overwhelms the fear.
I am not going to sit here and blithely tell you, “Laughter is the best medicine.” I hope I have not come across as diminishing the reality and seriousness of the demonic and the hellish. Evil is very real and very present. Laughter will not undo the work of those machetes in Rwanda.
But maybe if we laughed together more, we wouldn’t want to pick up a machete. Real laughter—not the nervous, superficial kind—builds bridges. To really let loose and release a belly laugh—that requires knowing the people you’re laughing with, trusting that they can handle it if you have a weird laugh or snort or something ridiculous. How many people can you laugh like that with? What if we could laugh like that with our enemies? Could we dare to be so free?
There still plenty of stones I left unturned about the nature of the devil, of sin and of hell. But for me, it boils down to this: am I brave enough to face the demonic and the hellish in my own heart? Most days, I am not. But just as we are free to do good and to do evil, we are also free to confront the hells in our communities and in ourselves without fear, because God is with us. We have the weapons not of guns and swords but of song, of dance, of laughter, and of love. These are not tools of denial, and they may not banish our grief but might simply intermingle awkwardly with it. But where laughter and tears become indistinguishable, something both terrible and beautiful is born.
And maybe one day, we will see the devil and we will laugh him down—because in the end, he’s really just a red cow.
Sarah S. Howell