The Diabolically Ridiculous
“The devil…the prowde spirite… cannot endure to be mocked.” –St. Thomas More
“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” –Martin Luther
“Above all else, the Devil cannot stand to be mocked.” –C. S. Lewis
We live in an age where it is not fashionable to believe in the devil. Perhaps it is because people find it too ridiculous to believe in a diabolical little man in red tights with a Mephistopheles mustache popping about the world and orchestrating all evil. Perhaps some prefer to believe in the devil as a parable rather than a person, better yet a mythological symbol standing for all tragic heroes in their fight against ultimate condescension, unbearable authority, and unstoppable fate. Or perhaps people dislike the concept of the devil because they find that having such a being serve as the epitome and scapegoat for all the evil that exists is too neat, unrealistic, and impossible.
All of these descriptions exaggerate and reinterpret the biblical and traditional understanding of the devil, and while they cloud the issue when arguing for or against the devil’s existence, they are interesting in their own right. I assert that each misconception mentioned earlier contains a partial truth, and when each is understood in light of the others, one gains a more comprehensive understanding of who the devil is. In this paper I aim to highlight the ridiculous, tragic, and evil nature of the devil in order to better comprehend him. Such a comprehension will first, I hope, help us to understand ourselves. Secondly, I hope that it will serve to mock the devil. Above all, the devil despises truth and mockery probably because, when it applies to him, they amount to the same thing. To speak the truth about the devil is to mock him.
What makes the devil ridiculous? To answer this question, another question must be asked: what makes anything ridiculous? Why do people find short, angry children (or men), raging lunatics, or a comedy sketch about bringing a cup of dirt to a science fair funny?¹ In short, it is due to the apparent absurdity of incongruity. When certain aspects of a situation or concept do not match up with the rest of reality but instead seem to fly in its face, and that which would be appropriate is nowhere to be found, there is an instant recognition of the absurd. A couple illustrations will take this explanation where it needs to go. Imagine a very irate chihuahua. What is comical about this creature? It is not that his rage is unwarranted or unjust; that’s as may be. The greatest comic element is his size and the fact that it seems incongruous with his huge ferocity. An angry wolf, five feet high at the shoulder, is something appropriate, serious, and frightening; an angry chihuahua, three and a half inches at the shoulder, is hilarious. (Interestingly, those who actually work routinely with small dogs know that they are the frightening ones.)
Absurdity and incongruity are also evident when they invade ceremony. Funerals are a good example. Whatever else is expected at a funeral, one thing is certain: the dead person should remain dead. If the ultimate incongruity happens and a dead man wakes up at his own funeral and thanks everyone for coming, the end result would be many shocked faces and one ridiculous situation.
The devil is truly ridiculous because he is so incongruous. On the one hand, he is incongruous for the absurd audacity of his rebellion against God as found in the book of Jude: “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, [God] has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…”² Satan was an angel, possibly the highest and most powerful of the angels. Of all creatures, Satan should have understood the power of God the best. He stood next to the omnipotent God yet strove against him, a finite being against his infinite creator. The chihuahua bore his fangs and squeaked when he attempted to growl at his owner.
Furthermore, proving himself to be even more incongruous, the devil rebelled not in a glorious uprising, but rather in a petty response to a perceived insult. Paradise Lost, perhaps the greatest epic poem of all time, speaks of the devil’s motivations:
SATAN, so call him now, his former name
Is heard no more Heav’n; he of the first,
If not the first Arch-Angel, great in Power,
In favour and praeeminence, yet fraught
With envie against the Son of God, that day
Honourd by his great Father, and proclaimd
MESSIAH King anointed, could not beare
Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaird.³
Milton asserts that Satan, the “ingrate, he had of [God] all he could have,” and by envying the eternal Son of God’s position and honor, he considered himself unjustly treated. Thus, the injustice Satan felt he had endured consisted of having to watch a more powerful, glorious, and deserving being than him, a being who was also his creator, be honored and placed in a position higher than Satan’s. Satan begins a schismatic war that rips heaven apart, simply because he felt he had been insulted when the Son of God was honored more than him. Satan is doubly ridiculous because of the size of his person and his motives. A growling chihuahua is a silly picture, but if his motives are noble, he rises above his stature, and one begins to respect the little creature. Contrarily, Satan owns a cause even smaller than himself and thereby strips himself of this right as well.
Due to his actions which are as ridiculous as his plight and his pettiness, the situation the devil ultimately finds himself in is very tragic. In fact, it seems that many people view Satan as a tragic hero. In their frequently asked questions page, The Satanic Temple has this to say:
Satan is symbolic of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority, forever defending personal sovereignty even in the face of insurmountable odds. Satan is an icon for the unbowed will of the unsilenced inquirer… the heretic who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions. Ours is the literary Satan best exemplified by Milton and the Romantic Satanists, from Blake to Shelley, to Anatole France.
Thus, the devil is shown to be the heroic confederate willing to face sure defeat in defense of the noble causes of inquiry, truth, and autonomy. Milton, whom I quoted earlier, is even brought in to corroborate.
I disagree with the Satanic Temple on many grounds; two of these are the above depiction of the devil and the assertion that Milton agrees with that depiction. The above quote describes how the devil may view himself but not how John Milton did. This is an important argument because even though John Milton’s Paradise Lost is not gospel, it is a powerfully accurate, poetic, and important description of the Christian tradition’s view on many spiritual realities, particularly the devil. C. S. Lewis, the great medieval scholar and writer, shows clearly that Milton saw the devil as merely tragic, rather than a tragic hero:
This progressive degradation, of which he himself is vividly aware, is carefully marked in the poem…From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake—such is the progress of Satan.
Satan’s story is a tragedy in the classic form: a character begins in glory and ends by consciously watching himself descend into misery and infamy.
I assert that up to this point I have made a strong case for why the devil is ridiculous and tragic, but from my description, he does not sound very evil. We have all known vain and petty people, and while they may be obnoxious or small-minded, it seems a stretch of the imagination to call them diabolical or dangerous. But perhaps it is the devil’s pettiness that makes him dangerous. For what do petty people crave but to be taken seriously? And what better way to be taken seriously than to do something drastic, serious, and evil? Machiavelli asserts, “it is better to be feared than loved.”6 Likewise, Milton writes from Satan’s perspective that it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” The petty man or woman is full of hard, melodramatic ultimatums and will do everything in his or her power to at least appear, if nothing else, dangerous. Furthermore, as Lewis stated earlier, Milton’s Satan is “vividly aware” of his degradation. Perhaps Satan, knowing his ultimate end, reacts to it with a fatalistic response and hopes to make as many as he can just like him.
Despite his motivation, according to the Bible, Satan is the most dangerous creature on earth. In the Gospel of Luke, Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth and says, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Additionally, the Apostle Peter tells his listeners to “be sober-minded [and] watchful…” for “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Satan’s vanity is matched only by his power; therefore, orthodox Christian tradition does not take him lightly.
So how does the devil actually affect or endanger us? He does so primarily by infecting us with his character. We are chronically predisposed to be like Satan. Our hearts are naturally bent towards envy which is the motive upon which Satan’s rebellion turned. Envy of God, and the desire for self glorification, was what the devil used to tempt Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When offering Eve the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3, the devil tells her that “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Everyone understands the emotion. Often when one watches a truly great performance, such as a particularly charismatic TED talk or a beautiful concert, one is drawn in and really enjoys it. However, there can be a split second when the heart burns with jealousy, and maybe a little ire, and wishes it could attribute the glory of the performance to itself – a split second, gone and forgotten almost as soon as it arrives because the wish is ridiculous, just as the devil is ridiculous. Why should I begrudge someone else’s glory, fame, or skill, especially when I have benefitted from it? It is irrational and absurd to harbor ill feelings towards someone just because they are great or honored. Extrapolating such feelings to the situation in which the creature envies the maker and sustainer of himself and of all that is glorious and beautiful clarifies why the devil was absurd in his claim of injury and why we are absurd when we become like him.
Ultimately, the danger of sharing in the devil’s absurdity is that we will inevitably also share in his tragedy. If our attitude toward God is one of injured merit and haughty rebellion, we set ourselves up for misery and slavery rather than freedom. For the tragedy of the devil is this: that in becoming obsessed with the self, one becomes enslaved by the self. The intense desire and need to see ourselves glorified and/or powerful is so strong and pervasive that it captures our minds and hearts completely and is able to corrupt everything, even love and virtue. We were not meant to be closed systems or stagnant pools sustaining ourselves. Rather, we were meant to be rivers flowing to and being replenished from that which is greater than ourselves, the ocean.
Although the devil is powerful, and although we are so often tempted to follow his ways and slowly head down the tragic path, away from God and toward slavery and destruction, Christians have a guarantee, not against temptation, but against separation from God. Separation from God is the same as being enslaved and destroyed, for in it we are left to ourselves, to be ruled and dominated by our petty passions and demons and removed from the sustainer of life. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, …nor powers, …nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”¹¹ If we will have him, God will not leave us to ourselves or to the devil. He will save us from our own ridiculous, tragic, and evil selves, bind us to a man, the messiah Satan could not stand, and promise us both glory and freedom from the craving of our own glory. Jesus presents a wonderful paradox to us; the only way to gain glory is to give it up, and the only way to find life is to lose it.
1 Brian Regan, Cup of Dirt, 2011.
2 Jude 1:6; ESV.
3 John Milton. Paradise Lost. 1667. Book 5:655- 662.
4 “The Satanic Temple FAQ,” The Satanic Temple. Accessed 11/25/2016. https://thesatanictemple. com/faq/
5 C. S. Lewis. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.
6 Nicolo Machiavelli, Tim Parks. The Prince (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books, 2011.
7 John Milton, Paradise Lost. 1667. Book 1:263
8 Luke 4:6-7; ESV.
9 1 Peter 5:8; ESV.
10 Genesis 3:5; ESV.
11 Romans 8:31-39; ESV.
John Nystrom is a junior animal science major on the pre-vet track. He is interested in the partnership of livestock and people, and how this partnership can both empower and enhance the lives of individuals around the world. His favorite authors include C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and G. K. Chesterton.Tags: C.S. Lewis, envy, evil, literature, Martin Luther, Milton, poetry, Thomas More