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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Can there Be a Theology of the Devil?

(Auschwitz Death Camp – photo by pixabay)

Last week this blog focused on beauty–especially the beauty of various art forms as seen in the works of local artist, Pat Firem. This week we are focusing on a topic that may be uncomfortable for many of us: the ugliness and power of evil. But as we draw nearer to Good Friday, I think it’s important to say something about the forces of evil. For they are very real. Just look at the photo above of Auschwitz… Just look at some of the headlines and pictures that dominate our current news: wars waging in Ukraine, the Middle East, Sudan… massive refugee camps… famine… mass shootings… hate crimes… greed… dishonesty… destruction of our environment… wholesale injustices especially toward the “least” in our midst.

In a recent column, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser raises the question, “Can there be a theology of the devil?” Maybe not in the strict sense, he says, because theology means “words (logo) about God (Theos).” But in a wider sense, theology can mean “a view of something through the prism of faith.” In that sense we can have a theology of the devil. What’s more, says Rolheiser, we need one.

Rolheiser maintains that, for some people, belief in the devil is a “dark superstition from the past.” But the scriptures and even Jesus talk about the “the forces of hell.” At times Jesus even engages with them–for example, in the wilderness before he begins his public life. Sometimes the scriptures speak of the devil (diabolus) and at other times of satan (satanus). The two terms are not synonymous, says Rolheiser. Diabolus means to divide, to tear apart. Satanus means almost the opposite. “It connotes a frenzied, sick, group-think” that accuses an individual or group of some awful wrong.

The gospels tell us that the powers of hell work in two ways. Sometimes they divide us from God, from each other, and from what’s best in us. But sometimes the powers of evil “unite us to each other, but through the grip of mob-hysteria, envy induced hype, and the kind of sick unity” that leads to violence such as gang-rapes, lynchings, and crucifixions.

At the root of both kinds of evil, says Rolheiser, lies envy or jealousy. “Through envy, the devil works at dividing us from each other.” Envy can lead to paranoia, the sense of being wronged, and bitterness that rips apart “families, communities, churches, whole nations.” Satan uses envy in a different way. Satan uses envy to unite people into a frenzied mob “hell bent on crucifixion.” Often Satan uses envy “to pit the crowd against an outsider.” Throughout history we have seen crowds united against “outsiders” such as slaves, indigenous peoples (such as our own Native Americans), immigrants, people of a different faith, and Jews in Nazi Germany.

(Photo by Patricia McCarthy – pexels)

In Jesus, we see the opposite work of the devil. “Everything Jesus says and does is intended precisely to lead us beyond division, dissipation, and being apart from one another. The kingdom he preaches is about coming together.” Over and over again Jesus spoke about the qualities necessary for the building of such a Kingdom: love, forgiveness, humility, the sharing of earthly goods, and service of one another. Similarly, everything Jesus says and does is anti-Satan. “Jesus resists group hysteria–even when it is in his favor.” Remember when, early in his public life, the enthusiastic crowds want to make him king? What does Jesus do? He slips away from them. Says Rolheiser, Jesus didn’t look towards the crowd for direction. Instead, when Jesus “looked for guidance, he lifted his eyes toward heaven.” Sadly, in the end, it was the hysterical mob shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” that led to his execution on the cross.

Let me conclude this reflection on the forces of evil with some “bad news” and some “good news” from around the world:

In the past decade the global refugee crisis has more than doubled. In 2022 the number surpassed 100 million or 1.2% of the world population.

Microplastcis have been found in human blood, human placentas, breast milk, and the feces of babies and adults. Plastics have polluted the entire planet from the summit of Mt. Everest to our deepest oceans.

Over 160 million children in the world worked in child labor in 2020. Even in the U.S. 688 children worked illegally in hazardous jobs in 2020, the highest figure since 2011.

There are an estimated 12,512 nuclear warheads worldwide. The U.S. has 5,244, second only to Russia.

Other news stories you may have missed:

The global literacy rate continues to climb. It is now 90% for males, and 82.7% for females.

The year 2023 recorded the largest single year decline in homicides across the U.S.

Last year the poverty rate in India dropped by 5% for the first time ever.

An organization called ARK rescued over 15,000 animals from war-torn Ukraine.

Angela Alvarez, age 95, won the award for “best new artist” at the Latin Grammies this year! She began writing music in 1942 in Cuba. It took her 8 decades to produce her first album–at the urging of her grandson!

The Spirit of Jesus brings life and goodness and beauty and peace… (Photo by Nextvoyage – pexels)

For reflection:

Did anything in this reflection stand out for to you? Why?

We may not participate in a lynching mob, but what are some of the “small things” we can do that divide us from God and from one another? (gossip? holding grudges? prejudice against a certain group of people? ignoring prayer? overlooking an injustice close to home?)

Similarly, what “small things” can we do to bring us closer together as families, as local communities, as a nation, as a world? (being aware of our prejudices? simple acts of kindness? really listening to others? daily communication with God? reaching out to help someone in need?


We begin every Mass with the penitential rite where we acknowledge our sins and failings to the Lord. The refrain “Lord have mercy” in Greek is “Kyrie Eleison.” It seems fitting to conclude this reflection on the forces of evil with a humble petition for God’s mercy for any way we have allowed any form of evil to be a part of our life. This beautiful litany is entitled “Hold Us in Your Mercy.”

I welcome your comments on this reflection below:

25 Responses

  1. Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
    Good morning, all…

    Yes, a dark but necessary blog topic. I never knew that the words satan and devil were not synonymous, but, now that I do know the true meaning of those words, I can see them being played out before my very eyes. But Jesus gathers us in his gaze of inclusive love. We need to hold on to this truth, while he “holds us in his mercy.”

    1. John, I especially liked your words, “But Jesus gathers us in his gaze of inclusive love.” I liked your reminder that Jesus brings us together and that his love is inclusive. Than you for your wise words. Melannie

  2. Good morning,
    Thank you for this powerful song litany, a tender reminder that we all swim together, amid tensions of this world, in God’s everlasting waters of mercy.

    Thank you, also, for sharing Fr. Rolheiser’s distinction between the devil and satan. Like John, I was unaware. But with this new found awareness, may we identify the evil of this world and our part in it, and fervently pray, “St. Michael, the archangel, defend us in battle.”

    1. Joanne, I too thought the song litany was “powerful.” And I like your image of all of us “swimming together in God’s everlasting waters of Mercy.” Simply beautiful! Thank you. Melannie

      1. Thank you, Sr. Melanie, for this necessary look at the evil tht we cannot deny exists. Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote, “To prevent questions from weighing us down, we must raise them. The longer we wait, the heavier they get, like a thatched roof in the rain.”
        It reminded me also of C.S. Lewis’ work, “The Screw tape letters.” In it he depicts fictionally how the Devil might work in subversive ways to turn people’s hearts. And when we resist that influence, we pray, “Hold us in your mercy, Lord.”

        1. Jim, Thanks for your references to two fine writers, Steindl-Rast and C.S. Lewis. Br. David’s work on gratitude is legendary. Your quote here is another fine one. And Lewis’ works are forever timely. “The Screwtape Letters” are both imaginative and wise. Thank you for your contribution! Melannie

  3. When I pray I always ask Jesus to forgive me for anything I did to cause Him the pain he suffered on the cross l am truly sorry for hurting Him and ask Him to forgive me It really hurts me inside

    1. Moe, What a beautiful, humble, and heart felt prayer. Thank you for sharing it with us! Melannie

  4. Thanks for reminding us of some of the good news that we may have missed that is happening throughout the world that the media seldom brings to our attention.

    1. Bob, Yes, sometimes we have to really search for the good news that is in our personal life as well as the good news that exists in the larger world. Thanks for writing! Melannie

  5. Dear Sister Melannie,
    I appreciated this writing on evil. I am really concerned about the increase of anti-semitism since the outbreak of trouble in the Gaza Strip. I do not consider myself anti-semitic but it is a reminder to examine myself closely to see what my true feelings are toward the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Prejudice can be a deep cave within us which we are mostly unaware of and do not admit to.
    b Luke OSB

    1. Br. Luke, It takes humility to search our own hearts for prejudice against others, but it is necessary to do this on a regular basis. As for anti-Semitism, remember some of the old prayers we Catholics prayed at our Good Friday services? Thankfully, those prayers were modified in recent years. Yes, I agree that prejudice “can be a deep cave within us…” Thank you for writing! Melannie

  6. Unless we face it we can’t overcome it. Evil is everywhere- but God’s love is always stronger. We just have to ask for grace and strength- then evil loses its power. Thank you for the insight and reminders of how sinister the devil is and how he makes his evil so inviting.
    May we all look to the Resurrection for hope and guidance to overcome the great evils in our world.

  7. Patt, Amen to all you said! Yes, the devil can make evil so inviting, so attractive. And your final sentence is my prayer too! Thanks for your very worthwhile words! Melannie

  8. Thank you, Sister Melannie.
    Father Rolheiser’s reflections on the distinction between the devil and Satan are new to me. But, in light of his explanations, it’s easy to identify the work of Satan in the “hate groups” that continue to grow and attract like-minded individuals.

    More than ever, we need to pray: Lord, hold us in your mercy. Thank you for including this litany. It can serve as a mantra as we navigate through these dangerous and uncertain times.

    1. Marge, Fr. Rolheiser’s distinction between the two words was new to me too. And the litany certainly can be our mantra. Thanks for your comment! Melannie

  9. All those terrible “d” words Do you remember Sr. Roseleen’s words about being sad. “If you’re down in the dumps you’re down there with the devil “. That’s why humor is so important—even if it’s a “groaner pun”. Did you hear abut the sale at the boat shop ? It was quite an oardeal 😜

    1. Mary James, Yes, I do remember Sr. Roseleen’s words. (Readers, Sr. Roseleen was our novice director.) And I definitely agree with you about the importance of humor. And, yes, I groaned at your pun… Melannie

  10. Today blog was quite a contrast from last week’s on beauty. I found myself putting off finishing today’s blog. It took me several tries so I know it was something that I needed to do. I am currently praying Matthew Kelly’s 33 days to Eucharistic Glory. At the beginning of this Lenten challenge he encourages us to keep going no matter what. To see this “journey “ through. Today was my first thought of stopping. I asked myself why. I realized that I felt like I was being separated from God. I can resonate with the beauty in our world, but was finding it difficult to trust God to be with me when evil is all around our world .I finished the blog and the song Hold Us in Your Mercy calmed my heart. In my ‘old age’ I have stumbled on the Divine Mercy Chaplet. It has become my go to prayer. I have the “know” in my head but sometimes it fails to make it to my heart. This song may help it along. May God bless you in your writings that bring others closer to Him.

    1. Martha, I can understand your reluctance to read a post on evil and the devil. It was difficult for me to write too, but I felt it was a topic I couldn’t avoid. I’m glad your persevered all the way through the beautiful song, “Hold Us in Your Mercy.” I’m glad the Divine Mercy Chaplet is speaking to you at this time in your life. And Matthew Kelly is another good choice for spiritual nourishment. Thank you for writing and expressing what others might be experiencing this Lent too! Melannie

  11. So many insightful comments here, Sr.. Melannie. This blog about evil has touched us in ways we probably didn’t know we needed to be touched. The final sog, Hold Us in Your Mercy, reminds me of your quote from Thomas Merton in “Give us This Day “:
    Who is God? “God is mercy within mercy, within mercy. ” Thank you for this.

    1. Pat, Merton’s “definition” of God is one of my favorites. It always brings consolation. Thank you for reminding us of his words. Melannie

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Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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