Have we Christians -- Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, all of us -- pretty much removed Satan (the devil, Lucifer, Old Scratch, Beelzebub) from our theology as we focus instead on grace, love and hope?
And, if so, is this a major mistake?
Richard Beck, who teaches psychology at Abilene Christian University, thinks so and tries to make that case in his new book, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted.
First, is Beck right that we've scratched Old Scratch? Well, not exactly. We don't talk about him as much as previous generations, perhaps, but go to "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" on the Vatican's website and you'll find several references to Satan, including this: "Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called 'Satan' or the 'devil'."
Satan also shows up in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is our collection of creeds running from the Apostles' and Nicene creeds to more modern statements of faith. In the Larger Catechism, for instance, followers of Jesus are told that the First Commandment forbids "all compacts and consulting with the devil, and harkening to his suggestions."
We say: Charlottesville reveals the weeping wound of racism. What do we, the American Catholic faith community, do next? Read the editorial.
And the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that "the liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers" results "in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin."
So at least in various official church documents, the devil hasn't vanished. Nor has Satan been edited out of the Bible.
In fact, Beck goes so far as to insist that "A Jesus who isn't engaged in conflict with Satan isn't the Jesus of the Gospels. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil's work." And who (or what) is this Satan? Beck again: "Biblically, Satan names that which is working against God and God's kingdom in this world."
That's a fairly broad, impersonal description of what some people picture as the guy in a red suit with horns on his head. And it's hard to imagine that anyone who reads a newspaper, watches TV or has an internet connection could deny the reality of evil.
The question that Beck raises -- pretty much leaving the answer to the reader -- is whether this evil is personified or simply the dark forces that drive mass murderers, terrorists, thieves and adulterers.
I was a bit surprised a few years ago when I interviewed the man who for several years was the pastor of the Lutheran church near Wichita, Kan., regularly attended by the man who became the infamous BTK killer. Between 1974 and 1991, BTK murdered 10 people, all the while being a municipal employee and a church stalwart.
I asked the pastor, Mike Clark, whether his experience had changed his views about evil. Yes, he said. He used to avoid those sections of the Bible that talked about the devil. But he had looked evil in the eye and become convinced that Satan was a personified evil.
Beck goes too far toward that view for my tastes. But I think he's right that Christians are called to grasp the nature and reality of evil. We have to know evil's power of seduction, its siren call to embrace the darkness.
Only then will we be able to acknowledge that evil is not just in others. It is, in fact, something of which each of us is capable. What else is the account of human history if not overwhelmingly a list of crimes and evils committed on one another?
We really don't need Satan as an explanation. The old squealing prophet Jeremiah had it right: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?" More than that is a search for scapegoats.
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at email@example.com.]
Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Bill Tammeus' column, "A small c catholic," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.