The Evil in This World: ‘The Devil Made Me Do It!’
Editor’s Note: FāVS has launched a new series on The Evil in this World. We see it every day in the murder and mayhem that trouble our lives. The world’s great religions have an explanation for this and different ways to describe the battle between good and evil. Those who do not subscribe to a religious tradition have their own perceptions of evil and good. How does your belief system describe both forces and how does it help you cope with the notion that evil exists in this world? Has your faith ever been shaken by the evil around you?
Commentary by Pete Haug
At least that’s what Geraldine said. Geraldine was one of comedian Flip Wilson’s many characters during the 1960s and 1970s. Getting caught doing something she shouldn’t, she’d roll her eyes and exclaim unforgettably, “The devil made me do it!” Kind of like Eve.
The devil, known by many names, gets blamed for lots of things. From a psychological perspective, “70 percent of Americans” believe in the devil’s existence, reported Scientific American. The article describes how “belief in ‘pure evil’ shapes people’s thinking” and how we respond when “we believe in its existence.” The “central feature” of such belief is the perception that people are born evil and cannot change, i.e., “whether the devil actually exists, belief in the power of human evil seems to have significant and important consequences” for solving real-world problems. I find that scary! Let’s explore why.
What about religions?
What do religions say? Judaism, Christianity and Islam all teach that the devil, known variously as Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, among other names, was once an angel. He rebelled against God. He attempted “to become equal to God” and “was expelled from heaven at the beginning of time,” before God created the material world. As the “personification of evil,” the devil is “in constant opposition to God.”
Accounts of these “events” differ among holy books, scholarly treatises and literature. Satan appears in many places in both Old and New Testaments, always within the context of luring man away from God. My college chaplain often observed, “John Milton should have written the Book of Genesis.” He was referring to what many scholars consider the greatest epic poem in the English language: Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” The poem “concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.”
It opens with a defeated fallen Satan on a lake of fire in Hell, contemplating, then rationalizing, his situation. He boasts his mind is “not to be changed by place or time,” but rather, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” Later he says, “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” The pride reflected in these rationalizations is a metaphor for our own ability to justify the unjustifiable.
This evil protagonist embodies uncompromising attitudes that are alive and well in contemporary thought and society. Satan’s pride blinds him to his own reality, even as he plots the temptation of Eve. One commentator summarizes it this way: “[‘Paradise Lost’] tells the story of the war for heaven and of man’s expulsion from Eden … an ambitious attempt to comprehend the loss of paradise – from the perspectives of the fallen angel Satan and of man, fallen from grace. Even to readers in a secular age, the poem is a powerful meditation on rebellion, longing and the desire for redemption.”
Many of us struggle with submission to God’s will. This idea is contained in “Islam,” the basic principle of which is “absolute submission to a unique and personal god…” The Quran discusses Satan “as a physical being made of fire … portrayed as a rebellious creature, basking in glory of the matter he was made of and showing arrogance to man, who was made of clay.”
Early last century, Baha’u’llah’s son and appointed successor, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, visited Europe and America. “Evil is imperfection,” he said in Paris, continuing, “Sin is the state of man in the world of the baser nature, for in nature exist defects … characteristics of the lower plane of nature. These are the sins of the world, the fruits of the tree from which Adam did eat … When a man is born into the world of phenomena he finds the universe; when he is born from this world to the world of the spirit, he finds the Kingdom.”
“Satan” in the Baha’i writings symbolizes our inclination to turn from God. Satan’s persona is “a product of human minds and of instinctive human tendencies toward error,” according to ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Pride, ego, the “insistent self,” symbolized by Satan, represent baser human instincts. ‘Abdu’l-Baha quotes Baha’u’llah’s teachings addressed to humanity: “Ye are all the leaves of one tree,” not “the leaves of two trees; one divine, the other satanic.” All human beings “are sheltered beneath the protecting mercy and providence of God.”
Identifying “the natural inclinations of the lower nature” as associated with “the will of Satan,” ‘Abdu’l-Baha explains that this lower nature “is symbolized as Satan — the evil ego within us, not an evil personality outside.” He elaborates elsewhere, describing “the evil promptings of the human heart” as “the insistent self.”
So, Geraldine, you may think the devil made you do it — but you’re probably wrong!
Pete plunged into journalism fresh out of college, putting his English literature degree to use for five years. He started in industrial and academic public relations, edited a rural weekly and reported for a metropolitan daily, abandoning all for graduate school. He finished with an M.S. in wildlife biology and a Ph.D. in systems ecology. After teaching college briefly, he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American and private agencies over a couple of decades. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After retiring in 2007, he began learning about climate change and fake news, giving talks about both. He started writing columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and continues to do so. He first published for SpokaneFaVS.com in 2020. Pete’s columns alternate weekly between FāVS and the Daily News. His live-in editor, Jolie, infinitely patient wife for 61 years, scrutinizes all columns with her watchful draconian eye. Both have been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.