Sunday, November 1, 2015

Compassion for Demons

Demons cry out to Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. They beg him not to cast them into the abyss, but rather to allow them to enter a nearby herd of swine.

The Miracle of the Gadarene Swine
about 1000
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum

Remember, these are demons, like the one to whom the priest says before baptisms,
“I adjure you, most evil, unclean, foul, abominable and alien spirit, by the power of Jesus Christ…, Depart! Acknowledge the futility of your power, which had no authority even over swine. Remember the One who ordered you, in accordance with your own request, to enter the herd of swine” (Second Exorcism).
These are such as have no right to ask anything of the Lord. They are altogether evil and rebellious, and yet they ask. Because they also cannot do anything without the Lord’s permission. They cannot even lead a pig. In Genesis, the Lord gives dominion to us humans over all the beasts (1:28). Strikingly, the demons have no share in this. In presence of Jesus, a Legion of demons is utterly powerless, even over pigs. So perhaps it is not so surprising to hear them begging the Lord for something. Though their effrontery remains staggering.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the Lord grants their petition. They beg him for permission to enter the swine, and he gives them leave (8:32). He doesn’t have to do this, you realize. He could have said to them at this time, again as the priest does before baptisms, “go back to your own Tartarus until the great day of the judgement that has been prepared”(First Exorcism). But the demons beg to be spared from this abyss and he does spare them – at least for now.

The Lord taught his disciples, “Ask and it will be given you” (Luke 11:9). Does this teaching apply even to the unfaithful demons? For a moment here anyway, it seems so.

Why? Does Jesus love even the demons?

We could point to many passages – for example, in the cursing Psalms – that proclaim God’s hatred for the wicked and for his enemies. But I believe the fathers were right to interpret these passages allegorically. The enemy that God hates and that we should hate is certainly not our neighbors or our fellow creatures, but sin and death, temptations and all the thoughts which deceive or distract us from the love of God.

On the other hand, it is also true that the fathers also allegorize the cursed and hated enemies in the Psalms as demons. Meanwhile, God is love and has taught us to love even our enemies. And surely the demons are his enemies. And surely he loves his enemies. I certainly hope so, because every time I sin, I make myself like a demon and an enemy of God. 

One of the last things Father Sid told me before he died was that we must have compassion for the demons. I found the idea then and now both repellent and difficult, but I’m not sure he was wrong. One could understand Jesus’ permission to enter the swine as compassionate.

This should give us hope, I think. If the Lord hears the petitions even of the demons of hell, then surely he will hear us, even when we cry out to him from the depths of our despair. 
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness:  for this we revere you” (Ps 130:1-4).
When the Lord hears us, has mercy on us, and grants our petitions, we must do good with the good he gives us. This is not what the demons do. When their petition is granted, what do the demons then do? Do they seek the good of the pigs entrusted to their care? Do they lead the pigs to slop? Hardly. As you know, they rushed the herd into the lake and drowned them. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
“Wicked demons are cruel, mischievous, hurtful and treacherous to those who are in their power. The fact clearly proves this, because they hurried the swine over a precipice and drowned them in the waters” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 44).  
When the demons possessed a man, they used their power to hurt the man, and when they possessed the swine, they used their power to hurt the swine. They are utterly petty and hurtful and destructive. They take even the smallest opportunity to do what harm they can. You and I become ever more like these demons when we return again and again to our sins the way that a sow, having been washed, returns to her wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

Yet, every time we repent, the Lord forgives us. He shows us mercy. He spares us from the abyss. Every time we cry out to him, he hears us. Every time the Lord forgives us, we have the opportunity, by the grace of God, to become like the good and kind and loving and merciful men and women that God created us to be.

Maybe Jesus was even giving the demons an opportunity. He does not at this time condemn them to the abyss. If this is an opportunity for them, they immediately squander it. Jesus does not condemn the demons. They condemn themselves. Throwing the swine over the precipice, they cast themselves into the abyss.

This is how damnation works, I believe. God does not damn the sinful and wicked, they damn themselves by their impenitence. God does not desire the death of sinners, but rather that we repent and live. There are no penitents among the damned. There are only those who reject God absolutely – who would rather wallow in their hurtful sins than love God and their neighbors.

In hell, we know, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (e.g. Matt 13:42; Luke 13:28). What might not be clear about this is that all that tooth gnashing is probably not penitent lamentation. The word here can refer to snarling and growling as in anger. The word often communicates “hate, desire for destruction of the other” (TDNT, as quoted by Randal Rauser). So hell is peopled by the hateful, not by victims of some spiteful God. Our God is a loving God who desires our repentance. Let us repent then, and believe the gospel.

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