A few weeks back, an interviewer asked Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia whether he believed in heaven and hell. Sure I do, Scalia replied, adding: “I even believe in the devil.”
The interviewer seemed to think this was remarkable if not bizarre, and so have various media figures since then. But Scalia, who’s never cared about adopting the fashionable attitudes of purportedly enlightened folk, said yes, he means the devil — a real personal being, not just some vague force or embodiment of a concept — and went on to discuss the ways that being works. At one point, Scalia — part amused, part bemused — turned the tables on his interviewer, saying:
“You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. … Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so … removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the devil! Most of mankind has believed in the devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the devil.”
You might be surprised to learn that the number is on the rise: Polls show that 70 percent of the public say they believe in the devil, up quite a bit since 1990 (55 percent). But of course, some people will try to make you feel silly and embarrassed if you say so. And this, Scalia noted, is just the way the devil would have it: While at some times and places he and his demons have manifested their presence very openly, at other times they have concealed their presence, appealing to human pride with the notion that the supernatural is a primitive fiction. “He’s smart,” said Scalia. “What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.”
Scalia is far from the first to notice that tactic. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” C.S. Lewis writes in his preface to The Screwtape Letters. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Both of those errors are especially on display around Halloween. Some people get morbidly fascinated by the occult, and this time of year that fascination hits a crescendo. But the first error probably is more common. Demons are treated as caricatures and fantasy creatures. Screwtape would approve. “The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you,” he advises his nephew Wormwood, an apprentice tempter. “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in [a human’s] mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that … he therefore cannot believe in you.”
Many Christians shy away from talking about the devil in public: They tend to keep that talk strictly among themselves, where they don’t have to risk being mocked. But this is a disservice to the people around us. The devil is too huge a reality to ignore. We need to talk to not only the people who don’t believe he’s real, but those who do, because many of them don’t understand how he works. When they think of him, they think of terrorists and serial killers and school shootings — for most of us, people and events that seem far away, existing on TV, not in our own lives. That’s demonic activity, all right, but it’s only a fraction of what Satan does. Most of his work is much subtler, manifests itself in much less dramatic ways. He’s at work corrupting not just sociopaths, but all of us. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be “basically good people” are the ones who are in most danger from him. Our own pride and complacency are some of his greatest weapons. Christians have the opportunity not only to correct the caricatures, but to alert people to the real dangers — not the kind they see in the movies.
How about you? Are you willing to talk to non-Christians about the devil, or do you steer clear of the topic? When you do, how have you gone about it? Have you had any conversations you’d like to talk about here?