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Book Review : Deducing Presence of a Durable Devil

January 08, 1985|CAROLYN SEE

Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Cornel University: $24.95)

"Listen to a story that is giving me a stomachache. I am very worried about this Christ. I would really like to know who his father is. If he is God's child and born of a virgin then we have been badly outmaneuvered, and our success will be but short." It's the devil talking here (in a medieval mystery play), the devil--hard-luck kid of the cosmos, doomed forever to be in a fight with God, or good, doomed forever to be defeated. Or is he defeated?

Arguing from a Christian context, Jeffrey Burton Russell once more debates the problem: If Christ died for our sins, if he gave us "salvation," if he went down between the time of his death and resurrection to hell and harrowed it, taking away the good souls (pagan or not? old Jewish prophets, or who, exactly?), then how come there is still so much evil in the world? And since there is so much evil, Russell suggests, may not God himself be somehow responsible?

"It seems impossible," Russell writes in his introduction, "that an omniscient God does not intend what he knows absolutely will result. God knows, surely and clearly, that in creating the cosmos he creates a cosmos in which children are tortured."

Proving Evil's Existence

The torture of children is one example that Russell uses to prove the existence of evil in the world. Nuclear war is another: " . . . we have run out of time. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues began the end of time, and of secular progressivism. After 10 billion years we, in our century, have begun the process of putting an end to evolution, to progress, to life. Only by grappling with evil now, with clear sight and with courage, can we have any chance of avoiding the ruin that looms."

Russell chronicles more than he "grapples." With a kind of false naivete, or a dogged Philosophy I sense of logic, he argues that we can't really know the reality of the devil but we can, in a sense, deduce his presence, or get a sense of what he might be, by accurately stating what great Christian thinkers have thought about him. Russell traces this history--with staggering scholarship and a clean, clear prose style--from approximately the 6th Century to the end of the 14th; from the writings of the desert fathers to the witch hunters of the Inquisition.

What is evil, to start? Here's an early theory: "The deprivation of being and reality--evil--is analogous to the deprivation of light--shadow and darkness. The devil fell because of his pride, and he led other angels and then people after him. In following him in evil, we turn our backs on what is real and bright and face that which is unreal and shadowy."

Strangely Unsatisfying

So far, so good. But when, how and why was the cosmos created? Why does a good God allow the devil or evil to exist, how does evil and its attraction for humans square with the questions of predestination, free will, God's grace? In other words, what's the game here, and what is our part in it? Did God, for instance, in sending Christ, his son, to be born and die as a man, mean to ransom those human souls already in hell, did he do it as a sacrifice, and if so, why, or was it part of a satisfaction theory (which is too complex to go into here)?

This is a strangely unsatisfying book. The history of how people "grappled" with the problem of evil is fascinating, and Russell is probably right when he suggests that a desert father had just as much of a handle on the problem as, say, a professor of theology today. On the other hand, the reader can't help but notice that confusion reigns straight down the line. The thinkers here appear to be just as out to lunch about the problem of evil as that poor devil in the first paragraph of this review is about the divine nature of Christ.

Russell here suggests that evil equates out to suffering. Other thinkers (St. Anselm, for instance) feel that evil is nothing , again--a privation, a lack of good. But some of the very interesting illustrations here suggest that in the popular mind, evil equates to sin, the seven deadly sins--pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth. But--on the simplest level, taking a nap never hurt anybody, and eating a huge meal doesn't really deprive one of God's grace, does it?

The fact is that the more these thinkers approach the idea of evil, the more they appear to strike out; to be unable to take an idea and follow it to a conclusion, that fits the reality of the human condition. Some of these chapters are extraordinarily interesting, but they are ones that Russell introduces almost apologetically. Anecdotes about the devil's appearance, or the uncanny resemblance of the devil to Santa Claus, or the devil as a submerged image in the great old English epic "Beowulf," all this material is fascinating, although it doesn't pretend to solve the problem of the existence of evil.

Finally one begins to entertain (heretical) thoughts: Who first said God was omniscient? Or even that he was good? Who says that if this world blows up that that will be the end of time? Hasn't Russell noticed that the Earth is just one speck in the cosmos? Suppose there's another theory to explain all of it, something without leathery bat wings, and neither regions, and heaven and hell? This volume, for all its truly incredible scholarship and attention to detail, serves mainly to point up shortcomings in traditional Christian thought.

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