The Moral Theology of the Devil


Tonight I watched part two of the Ken Burn’ film “Prohibition” on PBS—a brilliant documentary on America’s fourteen year ill-fated war on alcohol. It’s a classic study in good intentions gone wrong. It’s a penetrating look at the fallacy of thinking, “If we can just pass this or that legislation, we can produce a righteous society.” Anyway, it’s a well-done documentary about a strange time in American history.

After the documentary I decided to read a random chapter from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. I chose a chapter entitled “The Moral Theology of the Devil.” It turned out to be entirely apropos for my state of mind. Here are some selections from the chapter.

The Moral Theology of the Devil
by Thomas Merton

The devil has a whole system of theology and philosophy, which will explain, to anyone who will listen, that created things are evil, that men are evil, that God created evil and that He directly wills that men should suffer evil. God has willed and planned it that way.

As a matter of fact, in creating the world God had clearly in mind that man would inevitably sin and it was almost as if the world was created in order that man might sin, so that God would have an opportunity to manifest His justice.

So, according to the devil, the first thing created was really hell—as if everything else were, in some sense, for the sake of hell. Therefore the devotional life of those who are “faithful” to this kind of theology consists above all in an obsession with evil. As if there were not already enough evils in the world, they multiply prohibitions [get it!] and make new rules so that man may not escape evil and punishment.

The Cross, then is no longer a sign of mercy (for mercy has no place in such theology), it is the sign that Law and Justice have utterly triumphed. Not love but punishment is the fulfillment of the Law. The Law must devour everything, even God. Such is this theology of punishment, hatred and revenge. He who would live by such a dogma must rejoice in punishment. He may, indeed, successfully evade punishment himself by “playing ball” with the Law and Lawgiver. But he must take good care that others do not avoid suffering. He must occupy his mind with their present and future punishment. The Law must triumph. There must be no mercy.

The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect, or because they have come to agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy.

The people who listen to this sort of thing, and absorb it, and enjoy it, develop a notion of the spiritual life which is a kind of hypnosis of evil. The concepts of sin suffering, damnation, punishment, the justice of God, retribution, the end of the world and so on, are things over which they smack their lips with unspeakable pleasure. Perhaps this is because they derive a deep, subconscious comfort from the thought that many other people will fall into the hell which they themselves are going to escape.

It sometimes happens that men who preach the most vehemently about evil and the punishment of evil, so that they seem to have practically nothing else on their minds except sin, are really unconscious haters of other men. They think the world does not appreciate them, and this is their way of getting even.

Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men.

Finally, as might be expected, the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to…the devil. Indeed one soon comes to find out that he is the very center of the whole system. That he is behind everything. That he is moving everybody in the world except ourselves. In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.


(The artwork is “Lovejoy and the Devil of Delight” by Brenda York.)