Describe the Devil

Recently I was watching the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which is one of my favorite movies. During one scene in the movie, Ulysses Everett McGill, who is played by George Clooney, gives a description of the devil. Ulysses responds to a question by Pete, played by John Turturro:

Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.

Ulysses Evertt McGill

Clooney’s character gives a description that is part of folklore and often presented in art. The problem is that nowhere in the Bible does such a description exists. The only comparable passage where the image could have been generated from is found in Revelation 12.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.

Revelation 12:3

Caution must be used here since we know that the book of Revelation is attributed to a man whose name is listed as John and at the start of the book it indicates that this is a vision. This would mean that a lot of imagery is used in this portion of Scripture so a literal interpretation is very unwise.

Another perception of the devil is that it is a fallen angel. This concept can be attributed first to the Book of Enoch which presents the idea there are fallen angels. While the Book of Enoch was rejected by both Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries, the idea that fallen angels exist did not go away. Add to this two passages from the Gospels, first Luke 10:18 where Jesus is speaking and says, “He replied ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.'” Along with Matthew 25:41 which is part of Jesus explaining the separation of sheep and goats on judgment day, “Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. All these combine to create a description of the devil as a fallen angel and the leader of the other fallen angels.

The imagery and perceptions from this imagery has led to a lot of confusion concerning the devil. Confusion with a limit of certainty. Much like the difficulty of describing God, creating a description of the devil, Satan, Lucifer, or any other name assigned is fraught with difficulty. There are only fragments of insight contained in Scripture. Yet I am willing to provide a little speculation here.

The image which is the strongest for me is that of a tempter. We find this presented in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus being tempted by Satan, we see that a figure comes to Jesus and attempts to take him off his planned ministry course by the trappings of success as described by humans. Three different attempts are recorded, and Jesus successfully avoids the temptations of humanity’s definition of success. The image of the tempter also occurs at the start of the Bible in Genesis 3. Although this account does not state it is Satan tempting Eve but instead says it is a serpent which has come to be thought of as Satan.

I would argue that this “tempter” is not really a being at all. Instead, I believe that the temptation to get off course is from within our very selves. This is the aspect of our humanness which we allow to lead us to make unhealthy decisions. Decisions which have a negative impact on our lives and the lives of all around us. It is the part of us which feels that our ways are better than the ones God presents before us. This is the aspect of our free will which creates negative instead of positive.

This leads me to state that I believe a description of the devil is only obtainable in imagery. This imagery is our attempt to describe the aspect of our thoughts which led us to be tempted to act irresponsibly or in a manner counter to God’s nature.  

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