The 40-day duration of Lent is derived from the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness following his Baptism by John The Baptist. During this period, recorded in Matthew 4, we read of the encounter between Christ and Satan.
Today’s church sometimes doesn’t know what to do with Satan. He’s still there in the Bible, but was written out of sermons in most main-line Protestant churches years ago. To be sure, belief in Satan as a literal, spiritual being has caused a whole heap of problems over the years, among them the abusive treatment of mental illness and cruel scare tactics brought to bear upon impressionable youth.
The church’s track record with the devil has led many people of faith to discard this as a credible belief. In this view, which is also applied to the virgin birth, the validity of a doctrine is judged according to how well or poorly mankind has handled it.
In recent years, polls indicate that Satan has made something of a comeback. The notion of an exclusively benevolent spiritual realm has become problematic in a world filled with indiscriminate violence and terror. Even people of deep faith have trouble reconciling the events of 9-11 and other atrocities in our world.
When we read about these kind of horrific events, we are acutely aware of the dark side of human nature. Yet we resist the idea that the struggle between darkness and light may not be confined to inside our heads – that it is an external struggle as well as an internal one.
This, of course, is what the Bible says. The account of Christ’s temptation in the desert is one of many references to Satan as a very real force working to deceive us and turn us away from the light of God’s love. These verses sometimes get edited, of course. Consider the Lord’s Prayer. The original text in Matthew doesn’t say “deliver us from evil,” generically stated. What Jesus said was “deliver us from the evil one.”
In a Christian experience in which love is the central theme, it’s not easy to make the case for a literal Satan. But as we encounter these passages in the Bible, it’s important that we be mindful of our inclination to dismiss the devil as an archaic belief. After all, if Satan is real, that’s probably exactly how he’d want it.