In a compelling TNG episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise is captured and electronically tortured by a chief Cardassian. Picard finds underneath the tyrant’s powerful exterior a frightened, abused little boy with a massive inferiority complex.
The tyrant gives Picard a choice: If he agrees to say there are five floodlights beaming in his face when actually there are only four, his torture will stop. If he holds to the truth, his torture will continue. Fortunately, Picard is rescued by his crew before caving in and betraying the truth for the sake of comfort.
Toward the end of the episode, however, Picard admits to Counselor Troy that he was about to “say anything” to stop his electronically induced torture. And, perhaps most interesting, Picard adds that, after suffering intense and prolonged abuse, he really began to believe that he saw five lights instead of four.
This is a telling psychosocial comment about how perceptions can change with the oppressive influence of an evil power that’s not in a person’s best interests.
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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic 1886 novella written by the Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson. The tale illustrates what later would be described by psychiatrists as sociopathy (or psychopathy).
In the novella the once honorable and philanthropic Dr. Jekyll becomes absorbed with the problem of good and evil. To gain esoteric knowledge he divides his nature by drinking a concoction. This transforms him into the purely evil Mr. Hyde, with moments of reverting to the sunnier side of Dr. Jekyll. He desperately tries an antidote but eventually the dark side overtakes his personality. He finally commits suicide in what he believes is his last humane act.
We’ve probably all encountered a person or two (male or female) who reminds us a bit of Dr. Jekyll. They can seem quite intelligent by forwarding clever (if morally twisted and self-serving) rationalizations of their harmful behavior.¹ Or they may use fancy, pretentious language to try to cover up their abuses and to elevate themselves in the eyes of others. But once one gets wise to their upsetting combination of half-truths, outright lies and betrayal, one might never want to deal with such a person again.
¹ God fearing people do not call that “intelligence” but evil, which at bottom is just stupid.
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Most religious and mythological traditions attest to the reality of demons. For the most part, demons are regarded as dark, evil spiritual beings whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc on individuals and the world.
In Hinduism, demons appear in the Puranas as Rakshakas (evil beings capable of shape-shifting) and tramp souls. Also in Hinduism the, at one time, god-like asuras of the Vedas devolve into demonic spirit beings which, the mystic Sri Aurobindo says, try to place false and harmful ideas into the minds of impressionable, vulnerable human beings.
In Tibetan Buddhism, immediately after a person dies a priest reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead aloud over the dead body, instructing the departed soul how to avoid different spiritual lights and deceptions that demonic beings use to try to trick the deceased into falling into another earthly incarnation. And Mahayana Buddhism portrays many hells, each presided over by horrific entities
In China demons are thought to be able to inhabit dead bodies and haunt various places, both inside and out.
Demons in China… are capable of animating dead bodies, haunting cemeteries, cross roads, and the homes of relatives. Some live in Hades…others inhabit the air. Many are hungry ghosts, the spirits of those who have had no proper burial or who have no decendants to feed them sacrifices.¹
Traditional Roman Catholicism doesn’t envision the demon in terms of a psychoanalytic, physiological id or Jungian shadow archetype, as is fashionable in some circles today. Instead, traditional Catholicism makes no bones about the belief in demons. The Prayer Against Satan and The Rebellious Angels, published in 1961 by order of H. H. Pope Leo XIII refers to various “spirits of wickedness,” “diabolical legions” and “infernal invaders” that are to be driven away with the help of this solemn prayer.
Contemporary Catholicism, however, is incorporating secular and psychiatric perspectives on demons, but arguably in a clunky manner that seems to conform to ancient and medieval styles of analyzing issues. This shouldn’t be surprising as certain aspects of Catholic theological discourse borrow from Aristotelian and Thomist analytical categories and modes of analysis. And as history suggests, deeply entrenched patterns of thought and practice usually take time to be positively redirected.
In secular society alleged demons are often described as nothing more than a product of the imagination, hallucinations, an arrested or disturbed personality, mutated chromosomes, or the much debated idea of chemical imbalances. Along these lines the Catholic Catechism makes a sharp distinction between “the presence of the Evil One,” on the one hand, and current understandings of mental illness on the other:
The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.²
In contrast to the arguably underdeveloped either/or perspective outlined above, a more productive and responsible approach would intelligently consider different perspectives — physiological, psychological, cultural, transpersonal and spiritual — using as many of the analytical tools that are available to us in the 21st century.
Having said that, we should also keep in mind the very real possibility that God could permit a fundamentally good and ‘well adjusted’ person to be afflicted by evil, as we find, for instance, in the Old Testament Book of Job.
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¹ S. G. F. Brandon, A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, p. 230.
² Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1673.
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The definition of evil is informed by one’s core beliefs, and different kinds of arguments try to explain its existence.
Some materialists and scientists scoff at the idea of evil as if it were an antiquated legacy from a superstitious past.
Violent criminals are usually described in the news in psychiatric terms. Murderers are often reported as having a mental illness instead of being possessed by the devil. However, sometimes callous murderers are called “monsters” so the idea of evil can creep in to our essentially scientific worldview.
Meanwhile, savage tyrants and warlords are often viewed through a historical or, perhaps, political lens.
Evil in Christian theology
A basic theological distinction exists between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil includes “acts of God” such as floods, earthquakes and avalanches. Moral evil is a conscious human choice to turn away from God’s will and participate in some action harmful to self and possibly others.
Duns Scotus classified “intrinsic evil” as acts that are inherently evil and accordingly prohibited. But intrinsically evil acts are not evil because they are prohibited.
In Christian theology evil is often seen as a necessary component of God’s plan of salvation. Here one accepts as an article of faith that God permits evil for some greater good, beyond the comprehension of mere mortals (see Isaiah 55:8-9).
A Christian school of thought, begun by Irenaeus and popularized by John Hick, argues that evil is permitted, but not caused, by God. Why, one might ask, would an all-powerful God permit evil? According to the Irenian school, the answer lies in the idea of ‘soul making.’ A soul freely choosing to abstain from evil is of greater value than one that automatically avoids evil like a programmed robot. The free soul apparently better glorifies God than would a sinless automaton.
Although evil may ravage, test and torment good souls living on earth, the true goal of our finite, earthly life is to be made worthy of eternal heavenly life. According to this perspective the evils of the world act as a crucible. Souls not succumbing to but resisting evil are purified and strengthened toward the good. Evil, then, is necessary. It acts as a kind of hammer that pounds out the soul’s impurities.
God permits some evils lest the good things should be obstructed.
Another Christian argument, influenced by Plato‘s idea of the Forms, is given by St. Augustine. Augustine sees evil as a privatio boni—the absence of good. According to this view, since God is good, evil must be where God is not present. Therefore God doesn’t create evil. It’s a choice. But the theological debates get complicated here, and some ask whether Augustine’s theodicy holds up for both natural and moral evil.
Different branches of Christianity hold different views about what happens to evil souls in the afterlife. Some Churches damn sinners eternally. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that some souls are predestined for hell. Meanwhile, some contemporary Christians pray for the liberation of souls in hell while others do not.¹ And the Catholic Purgatory is neither heaven nor hell, but a difficult preparation for heaven.
Evil in non-Christian religions
Evil in Islam is similar to that of Christianity. But for Muslims it is evil to suggest that Christ is one with God (John 10:30). And the prohibitions in the Koran differ from those of the New Testament. Notably, killing is permitted in the Koran in some circumstances (see http://www.yoel.info/koranwarpassages.htm and http://www.islamreview.com/articles/jihadholywarversesinthekoran.shtml), whereas the very thought of killing is denounced in the New Testament. Many branches of Christianity do, however, entertain the idea of a Just War.
In Hinduism a different view of evil is presented. Evil is permitted to maintain a proper balance of sacred heat or power (tapas) within the universe. Aspects of Hinduism speak to the reality of hell for evildoers. But evil in Hinduism is mostly viewed in terms of personal ignorance and spiritual development, making hellish punishments temporary instead of eternal.
According to this perspective, the evil soul reincarnates on earth until it is cleansed of the ignorance that influenced it to commit bad deeds. This differs dramatically from the Catholic view that souls in hell are eternally damned and, strangely enough, would never want to leave. Unlike the Christian, the Hindu aspires to transcend apparently relative ideas about good and evil through an experiential knowledge of universal truth.
Accordingly, the goal of Hinduism differs from both Christianity and Islam. For the Hindu, heaven is a halfway house on the road to ultimate realization. The reincarnating soul may enjoy periodic visits to different heavens but, though the round of rebirth, it eventually transcends all heavens and ultimately achieves the greatest good of the Brahman. A similar but in some ways different view of evil is presented in Taoism.
An interesting but often overlooked question is whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu heavens and hells are identical in character. The celebrated Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade notes that heavens and hells are described differently among world religions. But do they all feel the same? We can’t really know but my guess is NO.
Most cultures around the world at some point in history have seen evil as a cause of mental or physical illness. This view is prevalent in Shamanism. And some religious writers, such as the Catholic, Michael Brown, say they feel the presence of evil almost anywhere.
And on the inferiority of evil as compared to good, W. H. Auden writes in A Certain World:
Good can imagine Evil; but Evil cannot imagine Good.
¹ See this excellent discussion: http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=329730
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In Norse mythology the Fenris is a giant, evil wolf born of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. All the Norse gods fear him, and with good reason.
The Fenris is finally destroyed by Odin’s giant son Vidar.
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In Christian theology felix culpa (Latin: happy fault) is a term referring to original sin. While sin is regarded as detestable, the belief that it compelled God to bring Jesus into the world for salvation makes it, for believing Christians, a happy fault. In like manner, the cross, once a symbol of horror and persecution in ancient Rome, now has a holy and magnificent meaning for believing Christians.
Christianity’s ability to turn negatives into positives is consistent with its overall theology, where evil is said to be permitted by God for a greater good. In Jungian depth psychology this is similar but not identical to the idea of enatiodromia ( “things turning into their opposite”), a dynamic implied by the surviving fragments of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus.
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In the popular sense of the term, the idea of the fallen angel denotes something gone wrong with a person or with a purely spiritual being who freely chooses to reject and, therefore, oppose God’s will.
Myths, stories and artistic representations about fallen angels abound. John Milton (1608 – 1674) in Paradise Lost imagines legions of Satanic angels who rebel against God. Massive wars break out, and St. Michael leads the Lord’s Angels, who must overcome ingenious contraptions built by Satan and his fallen army. While St. Michael is prominent in the battle, the final victory is reserved for Christ. So St. Michael stands aside as Jesus defeats the evil army.
Traditionally, we find the notion of the fallen angel in Jewish and Christian lore, and some argue that a very similar idea is found in Hinduism. For in Hinduism the asuras are described as benevolent spiritual beings in the Vedas that devolve in subsequent Hindu scripture to become demons.
In Islam the personification of evil is Shaytan. In the Koran God commands Iblis to bow down before Adam and serve mankind but through his pride Iblis refuses. God allows Iblis to tempt mankind until Judgement Day, at which time he will be cast into hell. In Islamic thought Iblis is often seen as the master jinn, the head of demons allowed to torment humanity. But there is no concept of the “fallen angel” in the Islamic tradition.
To this coolguymuslim adds:
There is no such thing as a fallen angel in Islam. No doubt, in Islam, Iblis a.k.a. Satan is a jinn and he is most evil. However at the same time, he never is nor was an angel. Angels in Islam do not have free will and they cannot disobey God. In terms of Iblis, he used to be a rightous slave of God so much so that he was elevated to the level of angels before he refused to bow down, however, he was never an angel. Jinn, on the other hand, do possess free will and there are good and evil jinn just as there are good and evil humans.¹
Some believe that the powerful “Sons of Man” mentioned in the Old Testament are Fallen Angels. And some contemporary writers believe that aliens are really fallen angels (while others say they are not).
In the fictional Star Wars films, fallen Jedi - like Darth Vader – could be taken as a rough parallel to the idea of fallen angels, mostly because both good and “dark side” Jedi possess paranormal powers and psychic abilities.
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The legal tests for determining heretics were both irrational and in many cases, predetermined by ludicrous experimenter bias. And in many cases the authorities of the day were legally permitted to seize property formerly owned by someone branded as a heretic.
Under Torquemada (1420–1498) a horrific total of 2000 heretics were burnt at the stake, all on one occasion.
The Inquisition began around the 12th century and extended in various waves within Europe until finally abolished in Spain in 1834.
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According to this view, possession may be temporary or permanent.
Exorcism prayers and rituals of various complexity were developed over the centuries by the Catholic Church to repulse what are regarded as spiritual attacks from Satan. One example of an exorcism prayer is Prayer Against Satan and the Rebellious Angels, published by order of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII.
The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung used the term ‘possession’ to describe the unhealthy influence of an archetype on the ego. Jung’s discussion of the archetypes includes the idea that many are equivalent to the pagan gods which are lesser than God.
The claims of contemporary psychiatry complicate the idea of possession. Materialist psychiatrists no doubt would look to delusional systems possibly rooted in faulty brain functioning as an explanation for the belief in possession.
It’s also possible that faulty brain functioning and spiritual attack go hand in hand. Just as a hacker finds weak spots within a computer’s operating system, the devil, one could argue, exploits physiological vulnerabilities within human beings.
Add to this, report errors, suggest edits or voice your opinion by leaving a comment
(1) Sin is an ancient Mesopotamian moon god, also called Nanna. His cult was most prominent at the Sumerian cities of Ur and Harran. Bestowing light in the dark, Sin maintained justice through the night hours.
(2) In Catholic theology sin is any thought, speech or action that results in a transgression against the law of God, where one chooses to enact one’s personal will in conflict with God’s.
St. Augustine is often quoted by Catholic writers when trying to explain sin:
Something said, done or desired that is contrary to the eternal law.¹
The general concept of sin is widespread but treated differently among world religions–e.g. transgressing God’s decrees (Judaism, Islam), acting against the cosmic order or Will of Heaven (Taoism), or harmful action arising from ignorance (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism).
Contemporary thinking people believing in God and the importance of acting ethically are faced with a dizzying array of prescriptions on how to do the right thing and not sin. When all is said and done, it seems the most sensible approach to living right and avoiding sin is to follow one’s own lived experience and reflections upon it.
Many, however, seem unable to act as mature adults and prefer to allow some perceived authority, distant or near, to guide them on how to best live the life God gave them.
This arguably schoolboy and schoolgirl approach to ethics may afford psychological comfort (through a ready-made personal identity and sense of community) for those unable or unwilling to embrace the degree of freedom and responsibility involved in making up one’s own mind. But in the long run it seems immature and, indeed, unworthy of our potential as human beings created by and forever journeying toward God.²
¹ St. Augustine, Con. Faust 22.27 cited in Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn, 2009, p. 850.
² See comments on this complex issue.
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