A Pact with the Devil

To light one candle to God and another to the Devil is the principle of wisdom.

-- Jose Bergamin

Whenever disaster strikes – a really big one – the evangelist Pat Robertson could usually be counted on to weigh in with a pronouncement that the victims are being punished for some grievous offense against the Almighty. A case in point: Robertson’s claim that the cataclysmic Haitian earthquake in 2010 was payback for a pact the Haitian people had supposedly made with the devil more than 200 years earlier to rid themselves of their French colonial oppressors. Never mind that the immediate victims of the earthquake were innocent of any wrongdoing themselves or that the alleged perpetrators had presumably already paid for any dalliance with the devil by forfeiting their souls. The statute of limitations apparently never runs out on such heinous crimes.

Pat Robertson’s assertion that the Haitians had made a pact with the devil is based on a voodoo ceremony that revolutionary leaders participated in before attacking the French in 1791. They prayed that God would deliver them from their oppressors and from the “white man's god [who] asks him to commit crimes.” Their understanding of the white man’s god was based on the behavior of their slave masters, which apparently led them to the conclusion that the French must be in league with the devil, or something very much like it.

Pacts with the devil are such a staple of Western folklore that they have their own entry under the Aarne-Thompson system of classifying such tales. Since at least the fourth century C.E., stories have circulated of foolhardy mortals who sell their souls to the devil in return for benefits not otherwise easily obtainable, whether it be for love, fame, riches or, in the case of the Faust legend, for esoteric knowledge. The deal is sometimes closed with a formal contract, signed in blood. The devil may exploit loopholes in the contract to avoid having to deliver on his end of the bargain. In a surprising number of instances, however, he may be outwitted by the other party and fail to collect his due. Occasionally, the other party may appeal successfully to a higher authority, such as a saint or the Virgin Mary, to nullify the contract.

There is some biblical precedent for pacts with the devil – not counting the serpent’s enticement of Eve in the Garden of Eden, which didn’t really amount to a formal arrangement. There was Satan’s abortive attempt to get Jesus to worship him in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world; however, Jesus refused to play along. Strangely enough, the only such deal that actually got off the ground was one between Satan and God that decided the fate of the long-suffering Job. In that case, Satan was given permission to torment Job unmercifully to see if he would turn away from God. Job, alas, was never told that he was a de facto party to the deal.

“Buyer beware” seems to be the lesson in most stories featuring a pact with the devil. But what lesson are we to draw when God himself enters into the bargain? Although a renowned literary scene-stealer, Satan is only a bit player in Scripture and rarely occupies the stage at the same time as the Lord God Almighty. The interplay between the two in the Book of Job is instructive, to say the least. Satan is introduced as one of the “sons of God” who present themselves before the Lord, which might come as news to some people. (If nothing else, it would support the belief among the fourth-century Messalian heretics that Christ and Satan were brothers.) Satan’s role, as presented in the Book of Job, is to wander the earth uncovering sin as “the accuser” (the meaning of his name in Hebrew). Although he appears to have instigated the wager with God that led to Job’s tribulations, you could also argue that God put him up to it by singling out Job as a blameless and upright man, knowing that “the accuser” couldn’t resist a bit of mischief.

At the very least, Satan’s relationship with God in the Book of Job is a good deal closer and more tangled than in his later Christian incarnation, in which he is operates more or less as a free agent embodying pure evil. The depth psychologist Carl Jung argued that the Christian God is incomplete because Satan has been effectively banished from heaven. As a result, theologians have had to struggle ever since to explain how evil can flourish in a world governed by an omnipotent and omniscient God. In psychological terms, Satan represents God’s “shadow self,” embodying dark impulses that are never allowed to find conscious expression. Thus, in accepting a wager with the devil in the Book of Job, God is effectively cutting a deal with himself.

Boukman Dutty, “Bois Caïman Prayer”
Matthew 4:1-11
Job 1:6-12
C.G. Jung, Answer to Job

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