“The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” – Charles Baudelaire
The existence of Satan as a real entity with the power to influence men’s lives is as widely disputed a topic as the existence of God. Many think of Satan, or the devil, as some sort of mythical personification of evil. Yet the greatest trick of the devil, as is often said, is to make human beings believe he doesn’t exist. Jesus calls him the “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). “Those modern theologians who identify Satan with the abstract idea of evil are completely mistaken,” says Fr. Gabriel Amorth, Chief Exorcist for the Vatican (An Exorcist Tells His Story, Ignatius Press, 1999). “Theirs is true heresy; that is, it is in open conflict with the Bible, the Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Church.”
In fact, Jesus references Satan and casts out demons throughout Scripture. Based upon his witness and teaching, the Catholic Church has always held that Satan is real. “Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil.’ The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel – Lucifer – who, like all other creatures, was made by God: ‘The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing’ (CCC 391). The fall of the angels consists in their free choice to “radically and irrevocably” reject God and his reign (CCC 392.)
Although Scripture provides us with few details about the fallen angels, the words of Jesus, who calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44), make it clear that his mission is to corrupt men away from their good, who is God. “It is impossible to understand the salvific action of Christ,” says Fr. Amorth, “if we ignore the destructive action of Satan” (Ibid).
The Church is very clear, though, about the limits of Satan’s power: it is not infinite, and because he is only a creature, he cannot ultimately confound the action of God.
“Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature – to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but ‘we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him’” (CCC 394).