Reading A Demon’s Nightmare

It should come as no surprise by this point that a major theme in Chick’s tracts is that the devil is out to derail as many people as possible from looking into the whole Jesus thing.  More specifically, in Chick world it’s not just the devil who’s out to keep everyone away from Christ, but his entire army of demon servants who have nothing better to do than spend their time following an individual around invisibly all the time, speaking things into people’s ears to try to keep them from thinking about God.  The motivation for this seems to run along the lines of “Misery loves company.”

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Satan’s minions convince the kid’s parents that they’re socially ruined because of their son’s personal decision. (Image credit: Chick.com)

In A Demon’s Nightmare we get to see a pair of rather incompetent demons working frantically to try to keep the kid they’re assigned to from first becoming a Christian, and then becoming an effective evangelist (because in Chick world, it is a Christian’s ability to rake in souls that makes them valuable).  They don’t succeed, despite numerous attempts to distract the kid from first hearing the gospel and then to keep him from getting connected with people in a “Bible-believing church” (Chick’s code for a church belonging to the white evangelical subculture).  The demon’s fail at every turn, but their ultimate failure comes about because they decide to take a night off (if only they had known better than to take a Wednesday night off, which evangelicals know is actually Second Sunday).  The kid goes on to become a missionary in south Asia, and thousands of people convert because of him, which means our two protagonists, as their punishment for being lazy and, y’know, evil, have to dig new deeper levels of hell to accommodate where Satan has sent them.

As a tract, it’s not terribly exciting.  You get the usual jabs at modern American culture apparently being so hostile to Christianity that the kid’s parents are horrified that he’s developed a form of faith, and his friends think he’s a total square because he’s a Christian now (and getting initiated into the club completely changes your personality in a single afternoon), and then he finds a community of like-minded individuals and lives happily ever after.  From the very start, there’s no real tension that the demons will succeed here, which is unusual because Chick typically likes to mix it up to show that even you could go to hell because of something really stupid.  Honestly, this tract’s worst offense is just being kind of boring.

Now, the idea that underlies this story is one that I’ve criticized before in other tracts, and that’s the idea that Satan is a real supernatural entity who is out to destroy our chances at going to heaven.  I don’t believe that the devil is real (instead, he’s the creation of a couple thousand years of mixing and matching some figures who are discussed in the Bible with some medieval cosmological ideas and John Milton’s Paradise Lost), and I think he’s a very insidious idea that evangelical subculture has used to create a certain ideological paranoia in members of the club.

Satan as a concept is a difficult one to grasp, because the central point of his mythology is that he rebelled against God, failed, and is now being punished eternally for his rebellion.  Despite that punishment, he still has power and agency within the world to turn people away from God (or tempt them away, depending on how Calvinist your particular theological framework is).  Satan has a multitude of tools at his disposal, including all the aspects of the fallen world.  Despite being in hell, he’s also the prince of our world.  Satan’s favorite tactic is deception (Prince of Lies and all that), which he employs subtly and imperceptibly to ensnare anyone who isn’t constantly vigilant of the corrupting influence of the world.

It’s kind of head spinny with the contradictions you have to hold in your mind about the character of Satan in order for him to make sense.  At one point back when I was still steeped in evangelicalism, I explained to a friend that I thought of Satan as a force that was so powerful that he nearly succeeded in overthrowing God, even though God has infinite power.  We’ll ignore the fact that if you construct God as being infinitely powerful, then any opposition, no matter how powerful, if it’s still finite, has no chance of succeeding.  The finite and the infinite just can’t be compared except to say that one ends and the other doesn’t.

I was spouting nonsense.

Of course, I’ve reconstructed my theology since then to incorporate the idea that God probably isn’t omnipotent, simply because the exercise of force contradicts God’s central characteristic of love.  With that idea in mind, it becomes less problematic to suggest that Satan is powerful and works within the world, but I still don’t buy that he’s real.

Think for a second what it means to believe in something that can never be proven, to think there is an invisible aggressor always looking over you, trying to push you away from goodness, and you are completely and utterly helpless to detect his influence on you.  You have to be afraid of this bogeyman all the time.  Everyone you meet might be working for him and not even realize they’ve been compromised.  You might be helping him and not even know it.

There is no way to know for sure.

So what does a person do when they live under that assumption?  As ludicrous as it sounds to an outsider, it’s not a hypothetical for many people within evangelical subculture.  Within the subculture, the only answer that’s offered for avoiding Satan’s deceptions is an adamant adherence to what the Bible teaches.  The Word of God can show us the straight and narrow path to freedom from this hidden oppressor, and all we have to do is cling to it with everything we have.

The only problem, and this is one that’s hard to see when you’re on the inside of this system, is that we don’t know for certain what the Bible teaches.  Parts of it contradict other parts.  God comes off as a bully sometimes, even though we’re supposed to believe his central aspect is love.  Paul’s writings about issues within the early church is inconsistent sometimes, with him giving contradictory advice to two different groups.  What do we do with that stuff?

My answer is you find a hermeneutic that doesn’t result in total theological breakdown when you inevitably see the contradictions.

“But then you’ll be deceived!” evangelicals say when this solution is proposed.  It was said to me when I broke from the anti-gay position of evangelicalism (the first issue that I really couldn’t stomach in good conscience).  I was told that my decision to affirm marriage equality and argue that homosexuality isn’t categorically condemned in the Bible had come about because I’d been deceived by Satan.  I had let the world influence me in ways that were not holy, and I was putting myself in a spiritually perilous position.

That hurt.

The idea of the devil hurts.

If there’s an invisible enemy always out to get us, and our only option is to accept a set of beliefs that don’t fully make sense and engender animosity between us and others who don’t hold those same beliefs, then the God who lies at the center of that system is a cruel monster with a cruel pet who can pick us off anytime he likes, because we can’t know what he’s doing.  It’s a universe more in line with Lovecraft than Christ.

I prefer Christ, thank you very much.  And that’s why I don’t believe in the devil.

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One thought on “Reading A Demon’s Nightmare

  1. Ugh, this tract reads like a bad condensed version of “The Screwtape Letters.”

    . . . wait, so he becomes a missionary in Asia? Not Africa? Too bad — I liked the idea that he was the missionary husband from “Flight 144.”

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