- The Devil: A New Biography by Philip C. Almond
This thoughtful, well-written book by a secularist evinces a good understanding of the Judeo-Christian development of the devil from the Old Testament to the eighteenth century. The organization combines chronological with topical exposition in a relatively seamless way. Philip C. Almond is a specialist in seventeenth-century thought, and it is in his section on that and the following century that he brings the most original and thorough contributions to the subject.
Dealing with theological, literary, artistic, and legal evidence, the author makes numerous thoughtful observations, of which only one is way off the mark. One of his two most salient arguments is absolutely right: the devil is an extremely important aspect of traditional Christianity that we ignore at the cost of misunderstanding the narrative of “Western intellectual history” (p. 222). But he is wrong to call the devil “a being of absolute evil … in the story of a world in which God had lost ultimate control” (p. 48) and to say that the “Christian story cannot be told without the Devil” (p. xv). The story certainly has been told without the devil and still is, although whether it is coherent to do so in the light of the New Testament and tradition is a valid question.
There are several ways to consider the existence of the devil: as a real personage in a cosmic battle between God and Satan; as a historically real concept of the human mind; as a metaphor for radical evil. Almond presents the historical approach very cogently, even though he does not believe in the truth of Christian tradition. And he is certainly right (p. 48) that evil is present since the beginning of the world and that Christians require an explanation for this fact.
Almond’s other most salient argument is off the mark: he sees Christianity as a dualistic religion with a cosmic contest between Christ and Satan. There are two main sorts of dualism: one between body and spirit, and the other between good and evil, and Christianity shows marks of both. But better than arguing whether Christianity is dualist or not is to construct a spectrum of dualism from most dual-istic to least dualistic: from Mazdaism and Platonism through Gnosticism through Manichaeism through Christianity through Judaism and Islam. The author places Christianity much too close to Manichaeism. The sanctity of the body and its resurrection are at the center of Christian belief in contrast to the first sort of dualism. As to the second, almost all Christian thinkers believed that the devil is not an independent principle but a fallen angel who used his free will to reject God. [End Page 588] Almond also emphasizes the Ransom Theory of salvation, a minority view historically but the one that assumes the importance of the devil (pp. 49–55).
Belief in the devil’s reality as leader of all evil beings has frequently encouraged the Christian demonization of opponents such as heretics, Jews, Muslims, alleged witches, and above all in the sixteenth-century wars between Catholics and Protestants. However, demonization of opponents is almost universal, even in ideologies that do not believe in demons.
With its understanding that the devil is best understood through his history, with its many stimulating and illuminating obiter dicta (for example, p. 203 on the relation between magic and science), with its up-to-date bibliography, and with its understanding of the moral importance of the devil as at least a metaphor of real evil as opposed to treating the subject as merely a literary topos, Almond’s book is a welcome addition to the subject.