As humans, we have the desire to do good, but cannot always find the ability or capacity to do so. To this end, we walk upon the earth where a constant battle plays out in our hearts and souls. The goal is to eventually get rid of evil in our lives. But we fall down constantly and have to deal with the effects of sin as a result. Often, we attempt to give these struggles a personification.
We call him the devil or Satan.
In the first episode of The Story of God (Season 3), host Morgan Freeman takes a look at who exactly the devil is and has been made out to be over the centuries. There are some major differences between religions, yet there is one common reality: nobody wants to be filled with evil. There’s something about the light that has the ability to penetrate darkness and yet overcome it (see John 1:5).
Freeman takes a look at three religious groups – namely, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism – and sees that the groups look at the devil in very different ways. For the Christian, Satan is the prince of demons and is one to avoid. Jesus himself was tempted by the devil in the Gospels as he fasted for 40 days and nights. When one is weak and hungry, there is a tendency to do things that are not in one’s best interest (example: those Snickers commercials on television). Monks at a 5th century monastery recreate Jesus’ struggle daily in the Judean desert as they fast and constantly battle with the devil for their lives. To them, death with faith is better than life with no faith. Thus, a living faith in God is critical in order to ward off Satan.
If it turns out that people are filled with demons and such, they must be removed to avoid the controlling influence of evil. In the Catholic church, this means exorcisms (prayers to the soul who needs help) must exist. Freeman interviews an individual who had gone through five years of exorcisms to rid himself of the struggles he was facing. It was interesting and reminded me of watching an individual be healed of demon possession while I was at a Christian festival three decades ago.
But in some faiths, the goal is to win the devil to our side. Buddhists think in this fashion, struggling to convince his minions to become good via offerings that will tame their minds. To this end, a person becomes their own enemy and their own protector. Hindus focus on elevating their spirit above all over tendencies. In their view, there is no such thing as 100% evil; a speck of light exists somewhere in a person. Thus, there is no true devil.
Satan is a finite being through the Christian tradition, having been thrown to earth after he attempted an overthrow of God’s throne (see Isaiah 14:12). As a result, he can only be in one place at one specific time. I get frustrated with people who constantly blame the devil for all of their individual problems when there are more than 7 billion other people on Earth—as if our struggles demand his personal attention. It’s likely one or more of his minions—CS Lewis discussed this quite eloquently in his novel The Screwtape Letters. Satan exists—and our job as followers of Jesus is to resist his (and other demonic) advances, knowing that in the end, the result of the battle has been determined. Spoiler alert: The good God wins. Light overcomes darkness every morning with the rising of the sun, a subtle reminder to each of us to keep struggling on. And we will look up and keep doing just that.
Season 3 of The Story of God continues on National Geographic each Tuesday at 9 PM/8 CT.