Good Questions: Are the Devil and Hell real?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

The Bible doesn’t have some definitive chapter explaining Satan / the devil clearly. There are little hints, sketchy images, and stories of Jesus or somebody else in a titanic struggle with something personal and perilous. Children might envision a red guy with a pitchfork breathing fire. But you’d bolt in panic if you were approached by such a creature. The real Satan/devil must look handsome, with smooth words, whispering in your ear precisely what you want to hear. This personal presence is subtle and devious.

If you don’t believe there’s such an entity out there or in your head, you’re not lost – although I think I’d invite you to be very wary… We might wish God had wired the world so that what will ruin us wouldn’t feel so alluring. It’s one more test in the spiritual life; since it’s hard and daunting, that’s why it’s meaningful, and why we need God’s mercy and aid so desperately.

Was Satan / the devil actually an angel once upon a time, one not satisfied with simply praising and serving God, but (as John Milton put it) one who “would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”? In Job, we see Satan as something of a prosecuting attorney, finding fault with people and tattling to God about it. The idea that there’s a force out there drawing out the worst in you: isn’t that very real, and dangerous?

In Jesus’ tussle with the Devil in the desert, the Devil invites him to help himself, and even quotes Bible! Again, the idea that the world is there for me to enjoy for myself, and even religion itself as what can lure us away from God: isn’t that very real, and dangerous?

Three adjectives I’d use to describe this malevolent presence: personal, sneaky, and relentless. Jesus wins the contest with the Devil in the desert, but the Devil slinks off to lie in wait for another day. It’s a lifelong struggle: after President Bush vowed we’d rid the world of evil, Robert Bellah remarked, “How? I can’t rid my own heart of evil.”

Wisest on the Devil is Thomas Merton, who said that what the Devil wants above all is attention, and credit, that the Devil is tickled when people see him behind every rock, and think fearfully about him all the time. Better to focus on God, the good, what is beautiful and holy. The Devil isn’t a deity competing with God. He’s lurking in and out for now, but will ultimately be defeated.

If so, there can’t be a Hell with the Devil lording it over the lost forever. Is there a Hell? If we think of a dark but fiery cavern under the earth’s surface, then no. Hell can’t be a place, but more of an existence – a gulf of separation from God. We’ve all had our glimpses of Hell, haven’t we? The novelist Robertson Davies wryly wrote “I see no reason why hell should hot have visible branch establishments throughout the earth – and I have visited quite a few of them.”

A Good Question is Why would a loving God create and maintain a horrific zone of eternal torment? Why would a loving God allow or even inflict endless suffering? The answer is that God simply would not, and does not; God isn’t a vengeful sadist. Dante’s Inferno pictures a sign at the entrance: “Abandon hope, all who enter here!” – but was Dante mistaken? If God is, and you are, there is hope. Psalm 139 speaks of trying to flee from God, unsuccessfully: “If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there, O Lord.”

So let’s at least ask a Good Question: if there is a Hell, and if there is an all-powerful God whose love is even more relentless than the Devil’s wiles, is there a way out? Which leads us to the even Better Question, Who’s Saved?