Is the devil beyond redemption?

  • Question from MF, USA

    Why don’t we pray for the devil to convert? He’s a creature just like us, a sinner just like us. If we could prevail on him to rethink his life’s course, it might take a huge weight off the rest of us. I can’t see how including the devil in our daily prayers wouldn’t be a good idea. After all, we are supposed to love our enemies.

    This idea has been put forward before; in its earliest form by one of the first Christian apologists, called Origen (c.185-254AD). Among many innovative ideas, Origen proposed that Christ’s death was sufficient to renew all things. Therefore at the final restoration (‘apokatastasis’ in Greek), even the devil would be restored to an original, good state.

    Not surprisingly Origen’s proto-universalism led to him being regarded as a heretic by later thinkers. But the restoration of the devil is a theme often picked up in Christian thought, so nineteen centuries after Origen, Frederick Buechner wrote: “If there is suffering life in Hell, then there must also be hope in Hell, because where there is life there is the Lord and giver of life… It seems there is no depth to which [God] will not sink. Maybe not even Old Scratch will be able to hold out against him forever.” [Wishful Thinking, Mowbray 1994, p43]

    However, such sentimentality overlooks some crucial aspect of what exactly ‘the devil’ is. Firstly, the presupposition in MF’s question is that ‘the devil’ is a creature “just like” human beings. That is never attested to in Scripture or Christian theological tradition. The longstanding idea that the devil is an angel gone awry; a rebellious creature who ‘fell from grace’ in a cosmic war before creation, is an indicator that whatever ‘the devil’ is, it is not the same sort of creature as human beings.

    A second point to make is brought out clearly by British theologian Nigel G. Wright in his book, ‘A Theology of the Dark Side’. Without repeating too much of what Wright writes, he points out that the mythological ‘pre-mundane’ Fall of Satan has very little Biblical evidence to back it up. However the danger of creating a ‘back-story’ for the devil is that in doing so such a thing is given a certain amount of legitimacy.

    Wright argues that “The use of personal language about the devil is problematic. It personalises the devil and therefore gives him a dignity he does not deserve. To refer to the devil as ‘he’ or ‘him’ confers upon the devil a form of language that strictly speaking refers to persons who are made in the image of God… Nothing in the Bible suggests the devil was made in the image of God. This is exclusively referred to human beings. Not even the angels are described as being in God’s image.” [op cit. Paternoster Press, 2002, p.28]

    If satan is not a person, that does leave the question of what ‘the devil’ is and how it crept into God’s good and ordered creation. There are a number of theories concerning this, ranging from ‘a discreative force’, through to the ‘nothingness’ that God spoke into intruding onto existence and disrupting it.

    Whether Wright is wholly correct in wanting to totally depersonalise satan is debatable, but he does make the clear point: evil, whether located in ‘satan’ or not, has no legitimate right to exist. It is the duty of Christians to oppose the things that run contrary to God’s intentions, while battling to save those things that are definitely redeemable.

    Thanks for your question MF.

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