The Devil: Know Your Enemy

Good Wins>Saint Michael  by Guido Reni
Good Wins>Saint Michael
by Guido Reni

Take the devil as a metaphor for the shadow side of human nature or as a supernatural being-either way; it is good to know your enemy.

I just finished Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and couldn’t help but think: they sound just like the devil, who Jesus described as, “A liar and the father of lies” and as one who “comes only to kill, steal and destroy.”

But wait, isn’t “kill” the same as “destroy”? Not really. A man may be killed, but still be remembered fondly by his loved ones; he may even be a hero. To destroy him is to treat him as if he never existed at all.

That was one concept employed in totalitarian societies-human beings have no intrinsic value. Your enemies have no value, of course, but neither do your allies, nor even your family members-all are expendable with less regret than you might feel after swatting a mosquito.

Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel is criticized for her phrase “the banality of evil.” We don’t want monstrous evil to be banal, i.e. uninteresting, unoriginal and dull. We want monstrous evil to be spectacular, bizarre and astonishing.

Having attended several exorcisms, I have to agree with Hannah, evil is boring. It is S.O.S., Same Old Stuff, over and over and over. “I am the best, I am right, I am the most powerful, fear me.” That about sums it up, and then it manifests in variations on those themes, which variations some people find interesting, but I do not (growling, rolling on the floor, vomiting-my dog does all those things.)

But why is it even mildly surprising that evil is boring-how could evil be creative?

The devil in the Bible started out as a high angel. But that wasn’t good enough for him, he wanted to be the best. “But you said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isaiah 14) Evil feels entitled to control everything, through force or fraud.

The seeds of self-destruction are already present in totalitarian societies and in the devil, because the single-minded, uncreative, let’s face it-stupid-drive to lie, kill, steal and destroy-is unsustainable. We humans may have a dark side, but we also have a (much stronger because open and creative) light side and we will not tolerate evil forever.

Better, of course, to never let it get a toehold in the first place. What are the warning signs? What is written on the devil’s calling card?

Human beings have no value.

 I am the best. I am right, I am the most powerful, fear me.

 When you hear this, when you detect this whiff of sulphur, remember it is rising straight from the pit.

M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil



  1. I was always curious about the “father of lies” comment, when exactly did the devil lie in the bible? Even if we consider the snake in the garden of evil to be the devil (and that’s a big if) the snake still delivers on his promise.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m sure you would agree that the most effective lies contain a lot of truth. Even better>use actual truth but twist its application in such a way that you have successfully deceived. In the garden the serpent says, “You will not die! (Literally true-spiritually false) Then he says God is basically selfish because he doesn’t want you to know what he knows. Remember it wasn’t the Tree of Knowledge it was the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not having that knowledge made Adam and Eve innocent as puppy dogs.

      Then look at Jesus confrontation with the devil-the devil starts off with a challenge, answered by a scripture, then the devil uses a scripture in a twisted way. He finally loses it and says “I’ll give you everything if you will bow down and worship me.” His main motivation=me, me worship me.

  2. Neither of those two examples make him a liar though. In the first, which I again raise my objection that the serpent is not the devil, he merely tells them that they won’t die. Which is true since the implication of God’s command is that even touching the tree will result in their death.

    The second example has even worse consequences: the devil is merely quoting god’s words, explaining to Jesus that his torment in the desert is of his own doing. Further that last temptation is puzzling because if the devil is lying it’s obvious that Jesus would know he’s lying and thus his last temptation is not a temptation. If he isn’t lying, and it is a real temptation then why does the devil have such power over the kingdoms of earth? (neverminding the logistical impossibility of his location)

    I just don’t see where the phrase “father of lies” can get legitimately applied to this character.

    1. What is a lie? Is it not the attempt to deceive? When people have lied to you, has it not been a power play? An attempt to deceive you? And unless you are six years-old, I imagine some have succeeded in deceiving (lying to) you.

      For example, I remember a certain liar who always deceived me with THE TRUTH. Where were you so late? At my mom’s. Sure enough-and in his mom’s backyard he met his little band of drug dealers to pass out supplies and do whatever drug dealers do. Did he lie?

      I suggest you read M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie (I think its online) I agree with him, “I know now that one of the characteristics of evil is its desire to confuse.”

      As for the devil/serpent>take it as a metaphor of Jung’s shadow side of human nature if you don’t like the devil as a being. We have all attempted to deceive, and I hope, repented of doing of that.

      1. I’m sure some people have lied to me, I don’t see how that matters except to establish that I know what a lie is, which I do. In the garden it’s god that splits the hair according to Gen 3:3. The serpent explains that if Eve eats from the tree she will gain knowledge that god has. Where in any of that is a lie?

        Your friend’s lie is a lie of omission, he didn’t give you the information that you were really asking. In that respect it’s the same as what god told Adam and Eve if you want to claim that god meant a spiritual death which he withheld from them for whatever reason.

        You misconstrue the serpent/devil thing: we get that idea from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

      2. The serpent is a figure in many ancient spiritual stories (epic of Gilgamesh, Australian aborigines) as is the tree of life. I ‘construe’ it as a symbolic guardian between the spirit world and the physical world which some ancient stories say is either a cave or at he base of the tree. The devil as a horned, hoofed dude is from medieval times, the bible never says any such thing. It says he is an angel of light.

        What is the lie in the garden? “God is not good. He does not have your best interest in mind.”

        As for what type of lie my friend told, it is summed up in “the attempt to deceive.”

        Human evil always contains a lie, even if it is only the lie we tell ourselves in order to carry it out.

  3. My point is that the devil cannot be considered the father of lies, as there is no lie being made. If anything the lie told in the garden is, “if you eat of this tree or touch it you shall surely die.”

    1. And my point is that the attempt to deceive IS the essence of a lie. His attempt to deceive was to imply that God is not good. Since I believe that God is good, I see that as a lie. If you not believe in God or if you believe that God is not good, then, of course, you see no problem with what he said.

      To me, it is the lie that is repeated a thousand times a day in one form or another.

  4. I don’t read the serpent that way. The only thing he did was point out that god wasn’t being honest with regard to what would happen if they ate the fruit.

    The essence of a lie, if you want to get philosophical about it, is to represent what is fact as fiction or the reverse. God said that if they ate of the tree they would die, they did and did not die. The serpent pointed that out. Your assertion that the serpent was saying “god is not good” seems to be a bit of a leap within the confines of the story.

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