Publications: Articles - Theology
On God and Evil Spirits
The teaching of the Christian Orthodox tradition is that God did not create evil spirits but rather evil originated in creatures due to their disobedience and alienation from God's loving presence.
According to the Orthodox Christian tradition, apart from the good spiritual powers that do the will of God, there are the evil spirits which rebelled against God and continue to do evil. The Church claims however, that formerly they too were good angels, but subsequently fell from God’s presence due to their haughtiness and arrogance. The Scriptures claim that these evil spirits broke communion with God out of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. This then gave way to, every manner of evil and, the refusal to give thanks and glory to God. This is an important point, since it affirms the Scriptural truth that everything that God created was inherently good. In fact the Scriptures claim that God created everything within the world for no other reason than for all creatures to enjoy, reflect and participate in God's goodness. For this reason evil in general has no substantial existence since it is a perversion of goodness. Seen in this way, it must be admitted that the evil spirits were originally and essentially good. Therefore the teaching is that God did not create evil spirits but rather evil originated in creatures.
Like angels, these evil spirits are noetic beings or spirits. However, unlike angels they are evil and exist to darken the human mind so that it can stray from God. They detest what is good and their "serpentine wisdom" lead the human person to sin. These evil spirits are neither purely figments of the human imagination enlisted to act as human scapegoats nor are they purely psychological or subjective states of the human mind created by guilt incurred from human experiences. The Orthodox Church would claim that they are real forces which sow the seed of alienation from God within the human mind. Furthermore we would also claim that they cannot predict the future or know the consequences of their sowing; yet by virtue of the fact that they have acted on the human psyche since the beginning of the world's creation they have learnt to discern certain patterns innate with the human being.
Led by their leader Satan these evil spirits believed that they could attain God-like blissfulness and joy in and of themselves without God. Since they strayed from God, they came to be called devils, because, as the word for devil in Greek (diabolos) suggests, they divide, slander, separate and destroy by lying. Their leader, Satan is also called Beelzebul , Beliar , Eosphoros the tempter and dragon . He now stands in opposition to God thereby preventing human beings from attaining communion with God as well. St Symeon the New Theologian stated clearly that devil and the evil spirits in general “continually stand against us, facing us, even if they cannot be seen by us.” Everything which causes division therefore is not of God but of the devil since God primarily is love attracting the entire world to this love.
In general terms the task of the evil spirits is to go against the will of God and to hinder the work of Christ’s salvation here on earth. They do this by tempting, provoking and occasioning humanity into spiritually perverted things by lying. In particular the devil as St Paul notes “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4) and continuously “prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1Pt 5:8). In the parable of the Sower, Jesus says that the devil “comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Lk 8:12). Moreover the devil, and by extension his evil spirits cause affliction and suffering in the lives of people – righteous people as well. This is clearly witnessed in the classic story of Job who suffered unjustly because he did not want to deny his own integrity or the integrity of God. These torments initiated by the evil spirits are carried out for no other reason than to destroy the world’s relationship with God in whom there is life in all abundance.
Why Evil Exists
In the Christian tradition it is said that God allows this and even wills evil for at least two reasons. Firstly this can test whether the human person really desires a life in God and secondly it can act as an opportunity chasten or discipline a person. However, what is clear in the Scriptures is that God never acts in this way to punish the world. The evil spirits incessantly try to destroy human beings by leading them away from God, not only “head-on” but also in subtle ways with deceit, hidden actions and above all lies. Jesus himself describes the devil in the following way:
“He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is not truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8: 44).
From the above words we can see that the chief work of the evil spirits is to fight against the truth of God’s saving action towards the world even bringing pain and suffering to people so as to test and allure them to do evil. In his message to the Church of Smyrna, St John the Evangelist writes:
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction” (Rev 2:10).
To those who are unjust, the devil not only encourages but also supports them to continue in their evil ways. It must be stated that God gives way or concedes to such trials brought on by the demons so that in being tested human persons may grow stronger against sin. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul states this explicitly:
"you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (I Cor 5:5).
Being removed from the joy of God's presence, the human person may repent and in the end be saved.
Other times God does not simply give way, but actually actively allows and turns people over to the evil spirits. In St Paul’s letter to Timothy we read: “among them are Humenaeus and Alexander whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (I Tim 1:20). On this difficult issue
St John of Damascus writes:
“Some of the things that are due to providence are by approval, whereas others are by permission… Thus, He often permits even the just man to meet with misfortunes so that the virtue hidden in him may be made known to others, as in the case of Job. At other times, He permits something iniquitous to be done so that through this apparently iniquitous action some great and excellent thing may be brought about, as was the salvation of men by the Cross. In still another way, He permits the devout man to suffer evil either so that he may not depart from his right conscience or so that he may not fall in presumption from the strength and grace that have been given him as in the case of St Paul .”
From the above it must be admitted that God does not permit suffering. It must be made clear that God does not will evil metaphysically, but does so providentially – that is for the ultimate salvation of the person concerned.
As to the second reason why evil exists, it must be said that God uses the horror and ugliness of evil for the ultimate glory and salvation of His creatures. Therefore the victorious ones are those who have overcome evil by good which inevitably means suffering and enduring the evils of this world. The Orthodox teaching is very clear in its teaching that since evil exists, God, anthropomorphically speaking "can do nothing about it" but use it for good – that is to discipline, cleanse, instruct and even transform evil for the salvation of His people. It can only be for this reason that the Orthodox Church, every years sings during Holy Week:
“Bring more evils upon them, Lord, bring more evils upon the glorious ones of the earth” (Isa 26:15 LXX)
God uses evil, in this case to the proud, so that He can chasten and ultimately save them. The ultimate example where God uses evil for God is seen in the crucifixion of Christ. It is for this reason that Hopko rightly stated that
“Jesus’ execution is the most magnificent and compelling example of God’s use of evil for good.”
Jesus endures the scandal and curse of the cross, becomes an innocent victim for the ultimate salvation of the world.
Fighting Evil with Good
The Scriptures urge us to be wary: “Discipline yourselves, be vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). St Paul also states:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against he cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-13).
The saints of the Church knew of the great powers of the evil spirits; however they also knew that if they remained with God and were thus continually filled with the Holy Spirit then this would deprive Satan of his power. For this reason they continually urged Christians not only to struggle against the evil spirits but to actively initiative strategies to drive them away by doing good. St Symeon the New Theologian makes this point very clear:
“It is one thing to resist and fight one’s enemies and another thing to completely defeat and subdue them, putting them to death; for the first belongs to athletes and those brave in ascesis, but the second belongs rather to the dispassionate and perfect.”
The snares of the evil spirits are varied and manifold where they can even resort to doing good in order to beguile the human person. It is for this reason that St Paul warns his readers not to swayed from the teaching of Christ even from what appears to be angels since “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Their primary task is to divert the human person from looking towards God and this is carried out very discretely. And if they cannot persuade human persons to fall into sin then they try to have them pass judgement on others. The Patristic tradition is unanimous in its teaching regarding the importance of humility in disabling the power of the evil spirits. One should not try to fight them head-on but simply in all humility redirect all thoughts to the direction of good. The fathers would therefore say that we must try to transform any vice directing to a positive effect. For example sinful anger can be transformed into God-befitting anger against all that is evil.
Some concluding remarks
The Scriptures tell us clearly that the power of Satan will be destroyed at the Second Coming and Judgement of Christ where the demons will go to the eternal place of torment. The word for judgement in Greek krisis means separation. In accepting God’s redemption in Christ and living a life in Christ, human beings will be saved from the powers of evil. However those who do not repent but continue to do evil and stubbornly refuse God's love will be enslaved to everlasting evil. Christ himself said:
"And this is my judgement, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God" (Jn 3:19-21).
However, the Christian Scriptures teach that at the end in God’s Kingdom evil will not be victorious. Rather the presence of God who is “all in all” will be eternal joy and bliss to the righteous and eternal torment and unhappiness to the wicked. One can also detect a positive view of demons within the Orthodox Patristic tradition. And so some fathers would claim without their constant temptation in life, they would not have occasioned a conscious and direct resolve for human persons to do good. Therefore Origen could state:
“Let us give thanks for the goods revealed to us through temptation.”
On this issue St Symeon the New Theologian would go so far as to say:
“Learn to love temptations as if they are to be the cause of all good in you.”
Clearly evil spirits can ultimately be seen as instruments used by God for the salvation of the world, ultimately being the cause of our victorious crowns and life in the Kingdom to come.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College