The Long Spoon

What motivates the devil? That is the question I found myself asking as I spent New Years watching the Sci-Fi Channel’s semi-annual Twilight Zone marathon (as I always do!). There are several episodes which pick up the traditional (but never tired) mytheme of the devil’s bargain. To me it is obvious that the basic feature of human moral existence that the myth enshrines is the constant danger to sell out, to sacrifice one’s integrity, trading it for some unworthy but attractive good which one cannot obtain in a legitimate manner or with a clear conscience. One does it anyway only to discover (sooner or later, and provided one is not too far gone) that, if one has indeed gained the whole world, one has lost one’s… soul or self or life, all three being good translations of the Greek psuche (Mark 8:36). To me, the key is that the word can easily, naturally mean “self,” because this gives us the “cash value” (as William James used to say) of the term soul, and of selling it. It is no ectoplasmic spook but rather one’s integrity. That exists. That may be sold. And it is sold when one violates one’s own code in order to gain some tempting end. Stephen Vincent Benet’s character Jabez Stone in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” makes his point beautifully: Stone was not a bad man until a compromise (=a deal with Satan) made him one, by exposing him to moral corruptions newly available to him along with success.

Why would a devil want you to do that? Of course, the devil is but the narrative personification of the tempting object itself: “Come on, big boy!” There need be no seducer; seduction is enough by itself, the seduction radiated by the seductive option. And it has no selfhood, no motivation, no subjective existence, unlike us. Here is where the myth wears thin. Picture the various devils of literature and folklore, of TV and cinema. Why should they be interested in swindling your soul from you? What benefit do they gain? And where did they gain the omnipotent control of reality that enables them to grant every wish, including immortality and world domination, to their hapless clients?

First, they would seem to have nothing to gain. What joy can it give them to see a mortal roasting in hell? Ancient legends of Lucifer’s fall ascribe to him and his servants the desire to demonstrate to the Creator that Lucifer was right when he refused to bow before the newly-created flesh-puppet Adam (Hebrews 1:6). Henceforth, their palace revolution having failed, the rebellious demons are trying to vindicate their ancient actions by proving to God how worthless are his mud-sculpted-creatures. “See? Told you they were unworthy!”) But hasn’t that lesson been taught quite sufficiently by now? If one wishes to imagine devils as real persons, this motivation makes them the biggest neurotics of all. Haven’t they got anything better to do?

C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, pictures the devils as devouring the souls of the damned and presumably deriving nourishment from them, but that hardly comports with the damned undergoing conscious torment in hell’s torture chambers. It’s you who suffer heartburn, not the food you ate.

Second, no devil could be as powerful as God, granting the very world, changing the past, etc. Or, let me put it this way: if you believe in such a powerful devil, you are a Manichean, one who believes there are two co-equal powers of good and evil, light and darkness. They are engaged in a genuine conflict, theoretically an open-ended one.

Third, the very idea of risking one’s soul in a deal with Satan—you mean, such a person would probably have deserved to go to heaven otherwise? Think of the spiteful, hate-spewing, totally self-absorbed Walter Bedeker on the Twilight Zone. He is a spoiled hypochondriac to whom the devil appears waving a contract that will guarantee him, like Superman’s ancient foe Vandal Savage, both immortality and invulnerability. Or take William Feathersmith, the fat old business man with the bad bald wig whom devilish Julie Newmar persuades to part with his soul for a trip back into his past. This merciless creep had been cruel and contemptuous with his underlings, whom he would as soon fire as look at. You mean these gents would have been headed for heaven if they hadn’t made a deal with Satan? Madman cartoon evangelist Jack Chick had a rare moment of clarity when he was writing his terrific cartoon booklet The Contract in which a man goes through the standard “deal with the devil” drill and winds up terrified on his deathbed. His cousin informs him he has been deceived. The truth is not that you are okay until and unless you sell your soul to Satan, but rather that you automatically belong to him until and unless you make a “transaction” with Christ to believe in him for salvation. Good point, given the larger religious context of devil’s bargain stories, which inhabit the world of Christian theology as surely as Vampire stories do: you have to “get saved,” not “get unsaved.” So what is the point of a deal with the devil?

Does the devil’s bargain story imply Universalism? That is, the doctrine that Jesus Christ died for everyone and it worked? On that reading, these stories would depict acts of apostasy, a special step taken to remove oneself again from the sphere of salvation after Christ had taken considerable trouble to get you there (Hebrews 6:4-8). But that seems to be too much back-story. Nothing like that is ever hinted in these tales. Rather, what they seem to presuppose is a naively optimistic view of salvation by works: you may be a sinner, buddy, but you’ve got to do something really bad to persuade God to send you to hell. But not even that works, because there is nothing in these stories about God’s judgment! You are making a deal with Satan. God is totally extraneous to the proceedings!

And this makes me wonder if possibly, as a piece of folklore, the devil’s bargain stories grew out of popular heresy long ago, perhaps popular (and it was very popular) Marcionism. In this type of Christianity, there were two Gods. The Creator who gave the Torah to his chosen people by Moses was the Hebrew God, righteous but unforgiving. The Father of Jesus Christ was an alien God who judged no one, because he was all Love and had given no Law. This God sent his Son Jesus to issue an offer to the creatures of the Old Testament God to jump ship, abandon Jehovah, and swim over to his side. Hence all the “adoption” language in the Pauline Epistles: Christians would be adopted children, not natural children, because the Father of Jesus Christ had not created anyone. Well, it was easy for both types of Christians, Catholics (forbears of all of today’s churches) and Marcionites, to vilify the God the other faction believed in. We know the Marcionite Apelles, for example, identified the Jewish and Catholic deity as Satan. For Catholics, this dubious “second God” of the Marcionites must seem to be a Satanic counterfeit, hence presumably Satan himself. Thus any bargain one made with him to join his side was to opt out of the salvation one had previously enjoyed as an orthodox Christian and to plunge into eternal peril. That the entity with whom you would be dealing was originally the Marcionite deity explains why the deal-making devil is henceforth imagined to be practically all-powerful: he was, since he started out as God, not as some crummy fallen angel.

There’s our pattern: you start out in the clear—because as a Catholic you were baptized as an infant. And then you make a bargain whereby your soul goes over to a new owner. You think you are making a good bargain: Marcionite salvation. But in fact you are handing your soul over to a counterfeit God, namely Satan.

So that would be my guess as to the (forgotten) origin of the mytheme. But the evaluation? I’ve already said it is a powerful and important metaphor for squandering your integrity through moral compromise. The real danger is not getting dropped down the chute into a lake of flames. That’s not going to happen. The danger is making peace with the moral violations you have committed, learning to get along with them and with the creep who made them (you). Moral frostbite has set in, and you are no longer the man or woman you once were. You have forfeited your life, your integrity, your soul.


So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
January 2009


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