Religious Beliefs

How is the devil significant for Christians?

The English word “devil” comes from the Greek diabolos, meaning “one who throws something against”—in short, a disruptive power or presence. In the Gospels, Jesus deals with many such presences. Sometimes the presence is associated with a physical disease, sometimes with what seems to be a form of psychosis. There is a subtle distinction between a devil and an evil spirit, the latter being a soul gone awry under the influence of the former. According to tradition, the only difference between an angel and a devil is that a devil has made a choice that caused the loss of divine grace. Lucifer, “Bearer of Light,” is the name of the angel who first separated himself definitively from God and got the name Satan or “adversary.” Others are said to have followed his example and joined an army of malevolence under Satan’s lead.

In one of the few remaining mythological elements in Christian tradition, Satan does battle against the forces of good represented by the Holy Spirit. At the end of time, Satan and his minions will suffer crushing defeat. Homage to the devil remains a feature of folk traditions among Christians in many parts of the world. In a mountainside cave in Guatemala overlooking Lake Atitlan, for example, locals still show interested visitors the remnants of chickens sacrificed to “the Prince of the World,” represented oddly by a stone cross on the wall. This is not the same as Satanism or devil worship as such, but an acknowledgment of the continuing presence of evil in the world. Popular lore has cloaked the devil in red, given him horns, a pointed tail, and a pitchfork, but imagery of that sort does not have biblical roots.


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