Truth in the Garden of Good and Evil

By Fr. Christopher Robinson
“Pandaemonium” by John Martin, 1841

There is a line from the old Billy Joel song, “Only the Good Die Young,” that comes to mind when people ask me questions about the devil. Joel sings, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints … the sinners are a much more fun!”

It seems that chatting about Lucifer is far more tantalizing than reflecting on the lives of Saint Vincent or Saint Louise, and there are reasons for that. The reality of evil, the weakness of evil, and the power of choices are all a part of our theological tradition as  Catholics. Evil is real. Evil, though, is not a “thing.” It is a choice and consequence of free will.

A free-will choice is not acting on instinct. Only animals act on instinct. Memory, imagination, logic, and individual decisions come together to create an evil outcome that is deliberate. Sometimes bad things happen because of poor or uninformed decisions that create sadness or pain. This is not the same thing as intentionally and deliberately causing sadness or pain.

Anything that exists is good because everything comes from God. Everything. That being said, the good that God has created can become distorted by free will choices. This is true for people … and for angels.

We could spend an entire quarter studying angelology … and yes, that is a real field of study beyond the tackiness of New Age kitsch! Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have long accepted the possibility of intelligent angelic messengers who were created to serve God and help Him communicate with people. They are similar to God’s smartphone. The messages they carry are not from them or for them.  And it is an accepted belief that some angels have used their free will to reject their created nature, reject God, and reject everything in the universe. This rejection causes distance and alienation from God. Fallen angels continue to communicate with other creatures, yet their messages are now distorted, untrue, and deliberately obtuse because they have chosen themselves over God and God’s creation.

Again, think of them as smartphones with no wifi and intermittent connectivity. It is all but useless and maddening because you are not sure what is and is not being communicated. All one can do when working with such a broken device is say continuously, “Are you there? Can you hear me now?” There is no real power behind these distortions. It is all an illusion and mistruth.

Many religious traditions believe that these distorted and selfish angels can overtake or control human beings. This is not common at all! Someone cannot suddenly be overcome by a demonic mind against his or her own free will. Demonic possession only occurs when someone’s free will has been shattered, destroyed, or diseased through abuse or acts of intentional violence. No one can randomly be controlled by some bizarre demonic force.

Some individuals experience what they describe as temptations from lying angels. Even Jesus was tempted in the desert. These are miscommunications, lies, and distortions that you might expect from broken creatures. Temptation, however, is just static that can be tuned out. Depression and sadness are not demonic. They are explainable challenges almost all human beings face.

Thousands of years of tradition has helped Christians keep things in perspective: God is more powerful than any creature. There is no spiritual warfare between demons and angels that could ever result in a loss to God. It is true that human free will can be assaulted by the free will of others, but it is also fundamentally true that God is love itself and that God always forgives, always reaches out in healing, and always wins in the end. We simply have to keep our spiritual apps updated, delete those that are malignant, and allow our faith communities to pray for and guide us.