Thursday, June 28, 2012

Putting the Devil in a Full Nelson

I have a confession to make.  I like professional wrestling.  I enjoy watching people in colorful costumes perform intricate dance-like moves.  My interest, however, is not in the athletics involved, although the participants must be agile.  Nor do I care who wins or loses.  After all, opponents know the results before they actually tie up to start a match. 

My interest in sociological:  how does professional wrestling create evil?

Big Show shows Kurt Angle what happens to "evil" wrestlers.
That’s not as easy as it sounds.  Every match features a good guy, called a “babyface,” and a bad guy or “heel.”  Anyone can be one or the other.  During the Cold War, the “heel” was obvious: a Russian.  During the war with Iraq, one of the American babyfaces, Sgt. Slaughter, turned heel and supported the Iron Sheik, who was supposedly from Iraq.  That approach was revived more recently when a wrestler dressed up like a Muslim and said incendiary things to arouse the crowd.

He caused so much uproar that his character was dropped.

However, most of the time, wrestling has to create evil by having someone act devilish.  This is hardly unique, but very unusual.  Only two other groups must generate evil: politics and religion.

In politics, successful candidates invariably paint opponents in as many dark colors as possible, imply insidious aims and dastardly behavior while contrasting themselves as the paragons of good.  It’s a good strategy, but trite.  As songwriter Johnny Mercer pointed out 50 years ago in his Broadway show Li’l Abner, the Democrats and Republicans “each hates the other one,” but “neither tells the public what the other’s gone and done.  As long as no one knows where no one stands, the country’s in the very best of hands.”
Actually, as all parties know, there may be differences in policy, but there’s no real evil.  Politicians are trying to do the best they can on behalf of the country (and, of course, themselves.)  That’s all.

Religion is a different matter.  It, too, has to create an alternative to good.  That’s true in the old Scandinavian religion where Loki perpetuated evil; or, in Egypt, where Set was a bad guy who killed and sliced up the good god, Osiris.  In the East, religions like Zoroastrian and Hindu don’t mince words.  They have evil gods who regularly battle with the good versions.  Kali is the Hindu god of destruction, but also of rebirth.  The two go hand-in-hand.  In Zoroastrian belief, evil Ahriman battles the good god Ahura Mazda for supremacy.

Western faiths had to be more subtle.  They advocate monotheism.  A devil, therefore, couldn’t be an equal to the one deity.  In Judaism, God has an adversary, which, in Hebrew, translates into Satan.  However, he really has no power.  In Muslim faith, the evil one is named Iblis, who was an angel who declined to bow down before Adam.  He’s also known as Shatan, which is obviously similar to the Hebrew Satan.

Christians also like the idea of a fallen angel and call him, among other names, Lucifer.  He started in the biblical account of Job, but grew in importance as Jesus failed to return to create a kingdom of God on Earth as his apostles promised.  Early Christians, influenced by Zoroastrian ideas of good battling evil, became convinced there was a deceiver who misled people and delayed the parousia. 

Church fathers like Tertullian and Irenaeus made that abundantly clear.  Irenaeus insisted that his opponents were “angels of the devil,” while Tertullian ordered those undergoing baptism to exclaim they were denouncing “Satan and his angels.”

The Lord’s Prayer contains the line “deliver us from evil.”  The words actually can be translated, “deliver us from the evil one,” giving a solid form to a nebulous idea.

For many Christians, the canonical book of Revelation provides a blueprint for what would happen when the devil and Jesus finally collide.  It was based on earlier apocryphal books that described the end of days when the good are rewarded and the sinners are punished. 

In time, the question of why evil exists forced Lucifer to become extremely powerful.  At time, he almost eclipsed God.  The cross was seen as the lone protection against such overwhelming evil.  That’s why it supposedly works on vampires.  Many people still wear crosses as similar shields, not just to proclaim their faith. 

Naturally, such an evil creature must have a house where misdeeds are punished.  Again, Christians looked to the Zoroastrian faith for inspiration.  Hell was borrowed and became a Christian ideal.  Greek and Roman beliefs had no such place.  Their afterlives were benign with dark shades roaming empty fields.  Jews still have no belief in an afterlife either; people merely sleep until being welcomed into God’s embrace.  That doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims, both of whom believe nonbelievers deserve eternal punishment for their stubbornness.

The Italian poet Dante gave us a complete view of Hell with nine levels populated by wicked people enduring divine judgment.  His view still animates the Christian view of the underworld.  Revivalist preachers invariably draw on such images to scare their followers.

As a result, the devil remains as strong as ever in people’s imaginations.  According to a 2010 survey, about 45 percent of Americans believe in his existence.  The devil was actually the defendant’s alibi for a murder in a Connecticut.  The jury didn’t buy it; drunkenness was seen as a more likely factor.  The devil has also been the antagonist in such famed fiction as The Devil and Daniel Webster and Damn Yankees, and, of course, an array of movies
Scene from The Exorcist movie.

Exorcisms to drive out the devil still exist, based on a biblical account that Jesus forced devils to leave a victim and inhabit pigs.  The reality that ill people don’t have devils inside them did not take root until more modern times.

The problem with insisting there is a devil is that it provides an excuse for bad behavior.  Comedian Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it” is not really a joke to many.  People actually believe it, ignoring the fact that we all possess a primitive brain, which, when activated, can cause us to respond to provocation in a very uncivilized manner.   However, as any politician knows, people do things for their own best interest.  They may behave in a way that is anti-society, but their behavior is not driven by a devil.

After all, what is evil?  That depends where you live and what you believe.  Sex with children is awful today, but was encouraged in ancient Greece.  Murder is definitely a bad thing, but not at one tine in India where a cult honored its god by murdering innocent travelers.  Under the circumstances, evil today may be the encouraged behavior tomorrow.

With no evil but ever-changing public ideas, perhaps it’s time to accept that the concept of the devil is completely outmoded and leave true evil where it belongs, flopping around the ring in wrestling tights.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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