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Answered 2011-03-09 21:18:13

Jeffrey B. Russell (The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History) says that while most religions have their demons, only four major religions have had a real Devil. These are Zoroastrianism, ancient Hebrew religion (but not modern Judaism), Christianity and Islam. He says that the role of the devil in religion is to exonerate God for the existence of evil.

The origins of belief in the devil are certainly with the Zoroastrian Persians, who passed on the notion during the Babylonian Exile. The Jews of the Apocalyptic period (200 BCE to 100 CE) could not understand why God had abandoned Israel and allowed evil to rule the world in their time. Such a degree of evil was more than God would ordain and greater than mere humans could cause; it must therefore be the work of a powerful spiritual force, such as the devil. In spite of this, Rabbinical Judaism in subsequent centuries came to the conclusion that evil is caused by humans, and that the devil is nothing more than a symbol of human misuse of freewill.

Meanwhile, early Christian belief was going in the other direction, creating an image of a totally evil and powerful adversary of God.

Tertullian later argued that evil is not the work of God or of an evil principle (devil), but of sin and sin alone. He said that an evil principle separate from God is impossible, for its existence would be tantamount to that of two gods. God is by definition an all-powerful being and two all-powerful gods cannot exist. Augustine also adopted the view that principle of evil, a being absolutely evil in itself, a lord of evil independent of God such a thing could not exist, for it would constitute a limitation of God. Christianity had begun to return towards the late Jewish principle of there not really being a devil.

In the early Middle Ages, the monasteries tended to emphasise the Devil's power. This was balanced by the opposite tendency of folklore and legend to make Satan seem ridiculous and impotent, a natural psychological reaction against the terrors of the monastic view. The more threatening Satan's power, the more comedy was needed to tame him and relieve the threat.

By the late Middle Ages, the position was reversed. The monasteries tended to de-emphasise the Devil's power but the common people, in legend and literature, began to fear his power. Both the witch craze and Luther's Reformation also encouraged belief in the Devil's potency. Protestant emphasis upon The Bible as the sole source of authority meant renewed confidence in New Testament teaching on Satan. And the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, and among varieties of Protestants, promoted the sense that the Devil was active everywhere.

By the eighteenth-century, liberal Christians regarded diabology as an encumbrance to a Christianity that best travelled without much theological baggage, while conservatives tried to hold the line.

What this little story tells us is that the power of the devil changes with time, depending on what it is convenient to believe. Powers are attributed to the devil based in part on theological fashion, and often by a countervailing view among the ordinary people. Sometimes the devil does not even exist, or barely at all, while at other times he can fight a war with God. But all this power is in the minds of men.

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