Interview
Books
Creed
9 min read

The Devil's perspective

Seeing through a rebel angel’s eyes opens up some surprising new angles on faith. Jonathan Evens interviews author Nicholas Papadopulos.

Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell and Area Dean of Basildon. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, and writes regularly on the visual arts and The Arts more generally.

A statue of an angel crouching and gesturing with one hand.

With The Infernal Word: Notes from a Rebel Angel, Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, is challenging the accepted narrative of faith “through the eyes of a rebel, an angelic non-believer with plenty of attitude.” His book enables readers to see the Biblical story in an unusual light - from the perspective of a devil who took up arms against heaven under the leadership of Satan. 

Papadopulos, who worked for seven years as barrister specialising in criminal law prior to ordination, says: “I have always been more interested in questions than answers, both as a criminal lawyer and as a priest. Posing difficult questions identifies the real issues. Writing in the rebel angel’s voice has allowed me to have fun whilst at the same time compelling me to work out what faith in God really means to me. They say the devil has all the best tunes – well, what better way to challenge the accepted narrative of faith than through the eyes of a rebel, an angelic non-believer with plenty of attitude.” 

“To admire Satan … is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography” 
 

C.S. Lewis. 

His central character is a rebel angel who sided with Satan in his insurgency and was cast out of Heaven. He is, as a result, an unhappy devil, perplexed by the triumph of good over evil and the stories of salvation. With eternity to ponder why God emerged triumphant from the struggle, this rebel angel has turned to the Bible, the record of God’s dealings with ‘the humans’ to find out why his side was defeated. Through his conversational and sardonic style, this rebel angel discusses a dozen of God’s significant encounters with humanity - each of which takes place on a mountain top, from Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark pitched up, to the Mount of Ascension where Jesus returns to heaven. Each of these infernal reflections reveals an aspect of God’s inexplicable and unfathomable love for humans and engages deeply with the reality of a loving God who is made visible and vulnerable in Christ. 

The Devil and his rebel angels have a significant cultural history. From his earliest known appearance in the Book of Job - probably the oldest book in the Bible - the figure of the devil has haunted Western culture being understood “as the embodiment of evil, a figure of temptation, and a potential foil to God”. In The Devil: A Very Short Introduction, Darren Oldridge describes Christian art as representing the Devil “using naked, dark forms with bestial features, committing revolting acts in a Hellish landscape”. He continues, in relation to literature: “In Goethe's Faust, Mephistopheles' character is conveyed in words of nullity and darkness. Milton's Paradise Lost describes a fiend whose defiance towards God makes him a kind of perverse hero. The Devil is often described as an appealing character who tricks people into committing sins.” However, there is an opposite view, as set out by Erik Butler in The Devil and His Advocates, in which Satan has, since his first appearance, “pursued a single objective: to test human beings, whose moral worth and piety leave plenty of room for doubt.” Butler suggests that, while Satan can be manipulative, “at worst he facilitates what mortals are inclined to do, anyway”. 

Responses to John Milton’s Paradise Lost exemplify the debates that rage around the depiction of the Devil in literature. Two rival “interpretive traditions” exist in relation to Milton’s depiction of Satan.  

The romantic tradition, understood to have been begun by William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, “contends that Milton unconsciously favoured Satan and that Satan was the true hero of Paradise Lost”. Blake famously wrote that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. He views desire and energy as characteristics of the Devil and sees these as being opposed to reason, which is equated with God and the power appropriated by institutional Christianity. Similarly, Shelley in his Defence of Poetry writes: “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy.”  

Unlike Shelley, however, Blake also believed that Jesus, through artistic imagination, harmonises the binary opposites that Blake viewed as being characterised by the Devil and God and, as a result, advocates a revolutionary form of Christianity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a more recent imaginative engagement with this side of the Paradise Lost debate, which sits somewhat uneasily between Shelley and Blake.  

Set against the romantic view of Milton’s Satan as the true hero of Paradise Lost is a view, exemplified by C.S. Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost, which sees Milton’s account of the Fall as being similar to that of Augustine’s City of God, with Satan portrayed, not only as “morally evil but also supremely egotistical … even showing himself in some ways to be foolish and tedious”. Lewis wrote that “To admire Satan … is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography”. While Lewis was writing A Preface to Paradise Lost, he was also working on The Screwtape Letters in which, by means of a fictional intercepted correspondence of diabolical counsel from a senior devil to an apprentice devil, seeks to show what the temptation of our souls looks like through the eyes of demons. Bruce L. Edwards suggests that “Screwtape’s timeless brilliance lies in depicting the everyday and showing how from a demonic point of view, the devotion and care Christians show to their fellow men and women, mirrors of the love God has shown to them, is unfathomable to the desperately lost and unreflectively wicked”. 

“Why does God bother about such a crowd of undesirables? The angel’s writing is the lens through which I uncover the absurdity of God’s relationship with them.” 

With these ongoing debates in mind, I asked Papadopulos where he thought The Infernal Word sits in relation to this diabolical heritage and how the book interacts with it. He responded by saying that: “This rebel angel is concerned with the Biblical narrative and what it discloses of God and of God’s relationship with humanity. He is not principally a tempter (as was Screwtape); nor is he a tragic hero plotting his revenge (as was Milton’s Satan); he is instead something of an investigative journalist – an armchair general, commentator, and amateur theologian, keen to ascertain why on earth God seems so keen on the creation that so regularly lets him down. He is also a realist: he harbours no illusions about the place of his kind in God’s economy. The cross was Christ’s decisive victory – the rebels have been beaten.” 

This represents a key difference between Papadopulos’ protagonist and Lewis’ Screwtape. As Edwards notes: “Screwtape never understands why the Enemy [God] loves the patient [human beings], even to the point of giving up His life for another. This is not even ponderable for Hell-bent or Hell-bound dwellers, who are the ultimate egotists and self-aggrandizers.” This difference of approach also raises a question as to why Papadopulos’ protagonist is undertaking his investigation. As he recognises Christ’s decisive victory on the cross, what purpose is served by his investigation? That question takes us to the heart of the book’s purpose which is also linked to the challenges it provides to some accepted narratives of the faith. 

We do know, however, why Papadopulos began the book. His ministry, prior to Salisbury, included time as Vicar of St Peter’s Eaton Square, London, and at Canterbury Cathedral as Canon Treasurer and Director of Initial Ministerial Education for the Diocese. The Infernal Word began as addresses preached on Good Friday in those earlier settings. Good Friday, of course, is the moment in the Christian story when the Devil appears to have won. So, I asked Papadopulos what was it about Good Friday that inspired him initially and which called his rebel angel into being: “The devil did not win on Good Friday, and he knows he did not win! Christ’s faithfulness sees to that. But - stuck for a sermon when serving as a parish priest I tried preaching from the vantage point of faith’s opponent - as a devil. Arriving in Canterbury, and needing a theme/motif for a Good Friday Three Hours Devotion, I remembered the experiment, and wrote the series from that vantage point. It obviously needed to culminate with the crucifixion, and that event’s location on a hilltop prompted the addresses which preceded it.”  

Writing in the rebel angel’s voice allowed him to have fun while, at the same time, compelled him to work out what faith in God really means to him. He says he has always been more interested in questions than answers and that posing difficult questions identifies the real issues. As a result, I asked what it is about testing or exploring faith in this way that enables the essence or the essential to be identified: “The barrister’s skill is identifying the right questions, and that part of my formation lives on in me, jostling with the faith that has been real since I was very young. Theology is faith seeking understanding – the book is an account of faith in which sharp questions are posed, to which (ultimately) a fairly simple ‘answer’ is offered. But that’s in the Epilogue and I wouldn’t want to give it away! Asking questions is not something for people of faith to be afraid of – but we do have to have trustworthy places to ask them and to receive answers. My dearest hope is that a reader might identify with some of the questions posed in The Infernal Word, and find answers that are at least coherent and perhaps compelling.”  

Martin Luther once said that “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn” while Thomas More wrote, “The devil…that proud spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.” Papadopulos’ talk of having fun while writing in the rebel angel’s voice reminded me that creatives from Lewis to Bono have utilised this approach, so I asked whether it one he also endorses: “The rebel angel targets humanity and specifically ‘the Christians’. They are the object of his unremitting scorn and the source of his perpetual puzzlement – why does God bother about such a crowd of undesirables? The angel’s writing is the lens through which I uncover the absurdity of God’s relationship with them.” 

Mountain-tops, as significant places of encounter with God, become important in providing a structure for his book: “The choice of mountain tops was actually triggered by the need to end on one (if Golgotha counts as a mountain top). As that was the destination, I looked for precursors and, of course, there are plenty – from Ararat onwards. I could have picked a different theme: Biblical encounters in cities, or beside water. But mountains serve the purpose, as they do throughout Scripture, as places of encounter between the human and the divine.” 

I ended our conversation by asking in what ways the book challenges the accepted narrative of faith by providing a fresh perspective on familiar Biblical stories and why that is needed: “I hope the book is profoundly orthodox, but it poses some of the questions about faith that have fascinated me and that I believe fascinate others. Because it’s narrated by a rebel angel it can dare to be irreverent and occasionally downright rude. Don’t we always need fresh perspectives on the tradition? That’s what keeps it alive. It was the quest for a fresh perspective that first pushed me in the rebel angel’s direction when I was stuck for a sermon.” 

 

The Infernal Word: Notes from a Rebel Angel is published by Canterbury Press.

 

Article
Creed
4 min read

What would you do with one day more?

A leap year creates opportunities.

Jamie is Associate Minister at Holy Trinity Clapham, London.

Looking straight down on someone sitting in an armchair working on a laptop. They are surrounded by clock numerals and hands on the floor.
Kevin Ku on Unsplash.

We're all going into extra time. If you've found yourself thinking, 'If only I had some more time', then this is the year for you. Congratulations. So how are you going to make the most of the extra day we're gifted? In a leap year, the 29th February square sits quietly there on the calendar, with little fanfare, unless you're one of the unfortunate souls to be celebrating your quadrennial birthday. But it's not just another Thursday. It's redemption time if you've ever flown east across the international date line and wondered where that day disappeared, never to return. 

When you think about extra time in football, the pressure is only heightened, the anticipation and trepidation palpable. Willy Wonka - no, not the recent foppish Timothée Chalamet, but Gene Wilder – famously got muddled when he feverishly announced, 'We have so much time, and so little to do!' Unlike Otis Redding, sittin' on the dock of the bay, wasting time, we have learnt to squeeze more and more into our days, making the most of the time. 

I'm not immune. I've recently begun using an AI app for scheduling meetings and tasks. This app promises to turbocharge my productivity by 137 per cent. Somehow it boasts, 'There are now 13 months in a year'. Of course, there's little way of measuring just how super-duper-extra-productive this is going to make me but so far, I still seem to only have seven days in my week. So, if we were to stop spinning on our hamster wheels of productivity for a moment, and take a look at time (given with this extra day we have the time to do so), how might we make the most of it? 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. 

It's worth measuring not only how much time we have, but the quality of the time we have. We know how to measure time, but how do we measure this measure? Time is of the essence. But what is the essence of time? For Charles Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times went hand-in-hand. The apostle Paul warned the church in Ephesus to make the most of every opportunity, 'because the days are evil'. Is time neutral? Perhaps we should ask the women and children of Afghanistan after the Doha agreement was signed on the last 29th February, with ominous consequences. Every day has the capacity for good and evil, including in a leap year. And if the days are evil, then as we consider how we live, as the King James Version puts it, that we can 'redeem the time'. 

Then there's not only redeeming the time in terms of its quality, but also its quantity. Eventually, one day (quite some time away), HS2 will mean there's 32 minutes 'saved' for those travelling between Birmingham and London. And how many times have you said or heard recently that you've 'run out of time'? Our society treats time as a scarce commodity. There's regret over the time that we have wasted on an unworthy Netflix offering, on doom-scrolling, or that time in the post office queue we'll never get back. 

I recently went to a memorial service of a friend who died in her early 60s. It was not only a sober reminder that we don't know how much time we have, but also an inspiration to live like someone who made the most of her days, by helping others to make the most of their time. 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. Richard Curtis' film About Time invites us into the relationship between a father and son who have the power to travel through time. While the lesson learnt is that we have the power to make the most of every day, the bulk of the film is really about the relationship. Any time he wants, the son can escape back to Cornwall and play table tennis or skim pebbles along the water with his dad. These experiences beyond his own linear timeline teach him how to live in his present reality. 

Christianity also invites us to live in the love between a Father and a Son, and from that place we keep time. Jesus spoke about eternal life: not only a quantity of life beyond death, but a quality of life that we can experience beginning today. Sure, we can't escape the reality of any of the worst times around us, but we can invite the best of times of eternity into today. Maybe our relationship with time is so fraught because we were made to live beyond time. 

The wristband on my watch recently fell apart. I suppose you could say I've been walking around without time on my hands. Time doesn't need to be elusive, slipping away from us. Time, just like the day, can be seized and grasped. King David wrote of God: 'my times are in your hands'. A leap year gives us a whole extra day of deadlines, potential ephemeral joys and sorrows. Perhaps putting our hope not in today, nor tomorrow, but into the hands of the maker of time is the greatest leap.