The Devil’s Theology
On Reformation Heritage Sunday I preached a sermon in which I referred to one variety of what I call the Devil’s Theology. If I might define that term, I would say that the Devil’s Theology is any use of religious beliefs to provoke or justify the destruction of any portion of God’s creation. It will only take a moment or two for us to think up several versions of the Devil’s Theology, but today I have in mind one specific variety which threatens us today.
The theological concept of predestination has deep roots. St. Paul seems to be the first to touch upon the concept, as when he says in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
This statement of promise has been systematically turned into one of Christian theology’s great curses. This is especially tragic when one reads this passage in its larger context which speaks of God’s loving care of those who love him. Everything in the passage speaks of God’s eternal intention to justify and glorify humanity in Jesus Christ. It is a thoroughly positive statement, and in the hands of a Reformed theologian like Karl Barth it carries the universal promise that “God has elected Jesus Christ for us.”
Lots of folks like to pin the negative side of predestination on John Calvin, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformer, but, in fact, the concept of Double Predestination (Which professes that if God predestines some for salvation then it’s only logical that he chooses others for damnation) goes all the way back to a particularly dark essay written by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) late in his life. Augustine follows his logic with ruthless energy till he comes to a chilling conclusion: God has no pity for the damned, and when the saved are with God in heaven and look over into the pit of hell, they will share his divine contempt, even for those the elect had loved in life.
John Calvin made the mistake of wondering which folks in his own congregation in Geneva might be among those predestined for heaven and hell, and was curious whether he might be able to tell the one from the other. But while Calvin wondered, he did not actively pursue the chilling logic of Double Predestination, but left that to his followers in the next generations of Calvinists.
And did they ever pursue that chilling logic!
Some Calvinists in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thought they knew clearly who were among those predestined for hell. Among this lot they included people with certain kinds of illnesses and disabilities, mental and physical, as well as people who rejected belief in God, and, of course, pretty nearly everyone who disagreed with them.
These Calvinists had completed the circle of logic that even Augustine has deferred until the afterlife; they believed not only could one have contempt for the damned after death, but (because they thought they knew who were going to be damned) they could have contempt for them now.
If ever there was a Devil’s Theology, this is it. It resulted in cruel religious wars across Europe, torture, murder, wanton destruction of whole communities, and centuries of bloodshed. Once human beings were able to combine their primitive distrust of the stranger with religious fervor, there was no end to the destruction they could self-righteously indulge in. And when this Devil’s Theology was combined with Nationalism and an idolatrous obsession with myths of ethnicity, a destructive force was unleashed that, however irrational, has endured into the twenty-first century.
There are many examples, of course, and it would be foolish to try to rank them. But in my own personal experience, Exhibit A was Northern Ireland, one of the most religious regions in the world which nearly destroyed itself with hatred. Here was a country in which many of the most bitter enemies were also among the most religious, where the fervor of faith had been distilled into a deadly poison. And among the most hateful people in that conflict, sadly, were some who identified not only as Protestant, but Presbyterian as well.
Their logic was simple, and simply diabolical.
Those who succumbed to the Devil’s Theology reasoned that if God himself predestined the damned for everlasting torture, punishment and death, and if the elect (whom they were sure included themselves) had figured out that those who don’t share their faith are damned, then they could go ahead and torture, punish and kill them. And, because those people who didn’t share their faith also didn’t share their politics, their hatred was not only blessed by God, it constituted a form of warped patriotism.
I recall a story my teacher, Professor James Torrance, once told me, about an Interfaith Prayer Service in which he participated for Protestants and Roman Catholics in Belfast. He and other faith leaders were departing the church after the service. Outside was a loud demonstration against the service. A woman confronted James, yelling “How could you, a leader in the Presbyterian Church, pray with these accursed Catholics?”
To which James gently responded, “I think you are asking me, how I, a woeful sinner could kneel beside other woeful sinners raising our broken and faulty prayers to God in Christ, trusting Christ, our heavenly High Priest, to take our shoddy prayers and make them worthy of the presence of God. I can only do this by the grace of God.” (And, in case you’re wondering, yes, James really did talk this way).
I know I said this once in a sermon, but I’ll never forget what my old friend, Cliff Kirkpatrick, former Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), once said. “As Christians, we are not called to sit on the judge’s bench, only to stand at the witness’ bar.”
If I harbor a deep concern for our country in this time, it is not about a danger of the sort of division that led to the Civil War, it is for the kind of ingrained animosity, justified with settled self-righteous hatred of those who differ, such as infected Northern Ireland for so long, where Protestant militias and groups like the IRA operated with impunity, and every cruel act was varnished over with several coats of some version of the Devil’s Theology, spiced generously with ethnic chauvinism and nationalistic fervor.
Of course, not everyone in that conflict was religious or theologically motivated, but there also are secular versions of the Devil’s Theology, which simply de-humanizes the opposition, pretend they are monsters, and deny them any good motivation. The Devil is really quite flexible. He will use whatever tools he can find, to harm the world which God loves. It seems to me that we will do well to ignore him.