From his rebellious debut to modern day, the devil has always been a political figure.
In the most recent presidential debate, Trump was unusually literal in demonizing his opponent, at one point calling Clinton “the devil.” While such rhetoric is foreign to presidential debates, it is commonplace in many conservative Christian communities, where liberal political leaders are often suspected of being the Antichrist. And while their readings of biblical prophecy are questionable at best, my research on the devil has convinced me that they are not completely on the wrong track: The devil has always been right at home in the political world.
The devil has always been right at home in the political world.
The title of my book, The Prince of This World, refers to an epithet that Jesus twice uses to describe the devil in the Gospel of John. It jumped out at me as a possible title because my project was to demonstrate that the devil was not solely a theological symbol, but also a political one. Though he is undoubtedly a rebellious prince, insubordinate to his rightful ruler, God, nonetheless he remains a prince.
It would be easy to dismiss this as mere imagery, but to do so would be to misunderstand the devil’s place within the worldview represented by the New Testament writings. The devil is of course not simply identical with human rulers, but he does engage in a rule that is not merely metaphorical or symbolic. In the world of the Gospels, he asserts control over individual human beings. As with most rulers, this control is mostly mediated through subordinates (demons), but on important occasions it can be more hands-on. For instance, in two of the Gospels (Luke and John) he personally possesses Judas Iscariot and incites him to betray Jesus.
More notably, the devil confronts Jesus in person at the beginning of his ministry, confronting him with “temptations” that are at once religious and political: to cast himself down from the Temple, inducing God to rescue him publicly, and to bow down and worship the devil, in exchange for all the kingdoms of this world. Jesus of course rejects both temptations, citing Scripture to undermine the devil’s arguments—but at no point does he dispute the fact that the devil actually is in a position to hand over the kingdoms. And that makes sense, because if the devil were simply bluffing, then it would not be a temptation at all.
My political reading of the devil makes The Prince of This World in some sense a work of “political theology,” but my demonic starting point forced me to rethink many of the key claims of that ill-defined and controversial discipline. First of all, I broke with the axiomatic equation between God and the earthly ruler, because in the texts I was investigating, the appropriate theological parallel with the earthly ruler was the devil—and both were envisioned as in rivalry, or at least serious tension, with God’s claims to rule the world.
I broke with the axiomatic equation between God and the earthly ruler, because in the texts I was investigating, the appropriate theological parallel with the earthly ruler was the devil.
This shift in perspective led me to see that the core question of political theology is not that of sovereign emergency powers, but the deeper and urgent question of legitimacy. What a political theologian needs to ask is not where we find the sovereign who decides the state of exception, but how political and ideological systems legitimate themselves in the face of the suffering and deprivation they permit and even directly cause.
The traditional way of posing this question of legitimacy from the theological side is the problem of evil—namely, the attempt to reconcile God’s omnipotence and benevolence with the stubborn persistence of evil and injustice in the world. In this form, though, the question is stated much too abstractly. The biblical traditions are not concerned with evil and injustice in general, but rather with evil and injustice that challenges God’s key historical relationships: to the people of Israel and subsequently to Jesus and the Christian community. Accordingly, in the book I try to show how the idea of a cosmic rival to God grows out of durable tensions in the political theology of the Hebrew Bible and then to trace how Christianity took up and further complicated this ambiguous and dangerous concept.
One of the most common answers to the problem of evil is to claim that God created us as free agents, and that necessarily entailed permitting some evil to occur. If we were incapable of evil, we would not be truly free. This argument effectively blames creaturely freedom for the existence of evil, and this leads to a new conceptual role for the devil. As the first creature to rebel against God, he is effectively the creator of evil—all the more so given that his temptation of Adam and Eve leads all human beings, in the medieval Christian view, to be born with a predisposition toward sin. Henceforth, creaturely free choice can only ever choose wrongly.
And now we come to the second half of my title “this world.” In the biblical context, it referred to the world “here below,” which had not yet been fully transformed by God’s redemptive work. In the context of my book, it refers to this present-day world of ours, which legitimates itself almost exclusively by reference to freedom. In modern ideology, the free consent of the governed grounds the state, while the market draws the best possible outcomes out of the free decisions of its participants. When we critique these institutions, it tends to be in the name of freedom, which is an unquestionable value.
If I am correct that the modern world inherits the Christian concept of freedom, however then that means that we are all stuck in the vicious circle as the devil, able to use our freedom only to further inculpate ourselves. Why are our political institutions so corrupt and ineffective? Because voters elect the people who make them that way. Why is our economy so unjust and self-destructive? Because we all choose that system every day through our consumer choices. In these and many other examples, freedom serves less to enhance our dignity or express our creative potential than to render us blameworthy—all while letting the rulers of this world off the hook. In short, we are all devils now.