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The Person of Satan according to the Orthodox Church (Part I)

By Alexander Schmemann

The “modern man,” even an Orthodox, is usually quite surprised when he learns
that the baptismal liturgy begins with words addressed to the Devil. The Devil
indeed has no place in his religious outlook; he belongs to the panoply of
medieval superstition and to a grossly primitive mentality. Many people,
including priests, suggest therefore that exorcisms simply be dropped as
“irrelevant” and unbecoming to our enlightened and “modern” religion. As for
the non-

Orthodox, they go even further: they affirm the need to “demythologize” the
New Testament itself, to “liberate” it from an antiquated worldview—of which
“demonology” is precisely an essential expression—which only obscures its
authentic and eternal message.

In fact, the Orthodox Church has never formulated a systematic teaching


concerning the Devil, in the form of a clear and concise “doctrine.” What is of
paramount importance is that the Church has always had the experience of the
demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge
has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if
not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational. And the demonic and, more
generally, evil are precisely the reality of the irrational. Some theologians and
philosophers, in an attempt to explain and thus to “rationalize” the experience
and the existence of evil, explained it as an absence: the absence of good. They
compared it, for example, to darkness, which is nothing but the absence of light
and which is dispelled when light appears. This theory was subsequently
adopted by deists and humanists of all shades and still constitutes an integral
part of our modern worldview. The remedy against evil is always seen in
“enlightenment” and “education.”

Such however is certainly not the understanding of evil in the Bible and in the
experience of the Church. Here evil is most emphatically not a mere absence. It
is precisely a presence: the presence of something dark, irrational and very real,
although the origin of that presence may not be clear and immediately
understandable. Thus hatred is not a simple absence of love; it is the presence of
a dark power which can indeed be extremely active, clever and even creative.
And it is certainly not a result of ignorance. We may know and hate. The more
some men knew Christ, saw His light and His goodness, the more they hated
Him. This experience of evil as irrational power, as something which truly takes
possession of us and directs our acts, has always been the experience of the

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Church and the experience also of all who try, be it only a little, to “better”
themselves, to oppose “nature” in themselves, to ascend to a more spiritual life.

Our first affirmation then is that there exists a demonic reality: evil as a dark
power, as presence and not only absence. But we may go further. For just as
there can be no love outside the “lover,” i.e. a person that loves, there can be no
hatred outside the “hater,” i.e. a person that hates. And if the ultimate mystery
of “goodness” lies in the person, the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a
personal one. Behind the dark and irrational presence of evil there must be a
person or persons. There must exist a personal world of those who have chosen
to hate God, to hate light, to be against. Who are these persons? When, how,
and why have they chosen to be against God? To these questions the Church
gives no precise answers. The deeper the reality, the less it is presentable in
formulas and propositions. Thus the answer is veiled in symbols and images,
which tell of an initial rebellion against God within the spiritual world created
by God, among angels led into that rebellion by pride. The origin of evil is
viewed here not as ignorance and imperfection but, on the contrary, as
knowledge and a degree of perfection which makes the temptation of pride
possible. Whoever he is, the “Devil” is among the very first and the best
creatures of God. He is, so to speak, perfect enough, wise enough, powerful
enough, one can almost say divine enough, to know God and not to surrender to
Him—to know Him and yet to opt against Him, to desire freedom from Him.
But since this freedom is impossible in the love and light which always lead to
God and to a free surrender to Him, it must of necessity be fulfilled in negation,
hatred and rebellion.

These are, of course, poor words, almost totally inadequate to the horrifying
mystery they are trying to express. For we know nothing about that initial
catastrophe in the spiritual world—about that hatred against God ignited by
pride and that bringing into existence of a strange and evil reality not willed, not
created by God. Or rather, we know about it only through our own experience of
that reality, through our own experience of evil. This experience indeed is
always an experience of fall: of something precious and perfect deviated from
and betraying its own nature, of the utterly unnatural character of that fall
which yet became an integral and “natural” part of our nature. And when we
contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly
cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all “reductions” of evil to
neat and rational theories. If there is one thing we learn from spiritual
experience, it is that evil is not to be “explained” but faced and fought. This is
the way God dealt with evil. He did not explain it. He sent His Only-Begotten
Son to be crucified by all the powers of evil so as to destroy them by His love,
faith and obedience.

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This then is the way we must also follow. On this way we inescapably meet the
Devil at the very moment we make the decision to follow Christ.

The Person of Satan according to the Orthodox Church (Part II)

In the baptismal rite, which is an act of liberation and victory, the exorcisms
come first because on our path to the baptismal font we unavoidably “hit” the
dark and powerful figure that obstructs this path. It must be removed, chased
away, if we are to proceed. The moment that the celebrant’s hand has touched
the head of a child of God and marked it with the sign of Christ, the Devil is
there defending that which he has stolen from God and claims as his possession.
We may not see him but the Church knows he is here. We may experience
nothing but a nice and warm family “affair,” but the Church knows that a mortal
fight is about to begin whose ultimate issue is not explanations and theories but
eternal life or eternal death. For whether we want it or not, know it or not, we
are all involved in a spiritual war that has been raging from the very beginning.
A decisive victory, to be sure, has been won by God, but the Devil has not yet
surrendered. On the contrary, according to the Scripture, it is when mortally
wounded and doomed that he stages the last and most powerful battle. He can
do nothing against Christ, but he can do much against us. Exorcisms therefore
are the beginning of the fight that constitutes the first and essential dimension
of Christian life.

We speak to the Devil! It is here that the Christian understanding of the word as,
above all, power is made manifest. In the desacralized and secularized
worldview of the “modern man,” speech, as everything else, has been
“devaluated,” reduced to its rational meaning only. But in the biblical revelation,
word is always power and life. God created the world with His Word. It is power
of creation and also power of destruction, for it communicates not only ideas
and concepts but first of all spiritual realities, positive as well as negative. From
the point of view of a “secular” understanding of speech, it is not only useless, it
is indeed ridiculous to “speak to the Devil,” for there can hardly be a “rational
dialogue” with the very bearer of the irrational. But exorcisms are not
explanations, not a discourse aimed at proving anything to someone who from
all eternity hates, lies and destroys.

So many Christians are convinced that there is nothing basically wrong with the
world and that one can very happily accept its “way of life,” all its values and
“priorities,” while fulfilling at the same time one’s “religious duties.” Moreover,
the Church herself and Christianity itself are viewed mainly as aids for achieving
a successful and peaceful worldly life, as spiritual therapy resolving all tensions,

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all conflicts, giving that “peace of mind” which assures success, stability,
happiness. The very idea that a Christian has to renounce something and that
this “something” is not a few obviously sinful and immoral acts, but above all a
certain vision of life, a “set of priorities,” a fundamental attitude towards the
world; the idea that Christian life is always a “narrow path” and a fight: all this
has been virtually given up and is no longer at the heart of our Christian
worldview.

The terrible truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians simply do not
see the presence and action of Satan in the world and, therefore, feel no need to
renounce “his works and his service.” They do not discern the obvious idolatry
that permeates the ideas and the values by which men live today and that shapes,
determines and enslaves their lives much more than the overt idolatry of ancient
paganism. They are blind to the fact that the “demonic” consists primarily in
falsification and counterfeit, in deviating even positive values from their true
meaning, in presenting black as white and vice versa, in a subtle and vicious lie
and confusion. They do not understand that such seemingly positive and even
Christian notions as “freedom” and “liberation,” “love,” “happiness,” “success,”
“achievement,” “growth,” “self-fulfillment”—notions which truly shape modern
man and modern society, their motivations and their ideologies—can in fact be
deviated from their real significance and become vehicles of the “demonic.”

And the essence of the demonic is always pride, pompa diaboli. The truth about
“modern man” is that whether a law-abiding conformist or a rebellious non-
conformist, he is first of all a being full of pride, shaped by pride, worshiping
pride and placing pride at the very top of his values.

To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence


one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire “worldview” made up of pride
and self-affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God
and made it into darkness, death and hell.

And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection,
this challenge. “Breathe and spit upon him!” A war is declared! A fight begins
whose real issue is either eternal life or eternal damnation. For this is what
Christianity is about! This is what our choice ultimately means!

~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, “Preparation for Baptism,” in Of Water


and the Spirit, pp. 21-30