When I served as a jail chaplain years ago, I often received requests for specific books from inmates. Mostly they were books on overcoming discouragement or self-improvement books you’d imagine an inmate would need in their position.
That’s why a request for scholarly level theological books caught my attention. I was even more surprised when the one requesting them was a mass murderer…of his own family.
Philippe (not his real name) had been in jail for several years now. Trial date after trial date had been postponed due to his various antics. He would go on hunger strikes for weeks on end, and then say something disruptive in his hearing. He’d give grief to his own counsel and they’d eventually resign in frustration.
To be specific, Philippe was in jail for taking a knife and slitting the throats of his wife and their five small, beautiful children. And now here I was, sitting at his cell door and answering his rather complex questions on Christ’s eventual return to earth.
The “end of days” is not an uncommon subject of interest for inmates. I would get endless requests for copies of the famous “Left Behind” book series. I concluded that the books offered inmates one possible option for eventual “escape”. In their minds, the Second Coming of Christ was in effect “Jesus breaking them out of prison”.
I guess He really did say He’d come to “set the captives free”.
But Philippe had returned those books when I tried to send them. He said they were just fictional accounts (which is correct), and that he wanted strictly scholarly sources for Biblical study. So today, I walked down to the special area of the jail reserved for inmates who were emotionally or psychologically impaired to tell Philippe in person the jail really had no theology books on that level.
Then Philippe asked, “Well, would you have the time to talk with me and answer my questions, verse by verse?”
I answered “sure”, partly out of compassion and partly out of curiosity to see what kinds of theological questions are asked by a guy who murdered his family with his bare hands and a kitchen knife. As we talked, I leaned in toward the opening in the door where his food tray is inserted and listened.
Since the opening was about waste-high, I looked around the room for a chair that might save my knees from kneeling for a protracted Q&A session. I found one and sat in front of the cell, and put my head close to the opening so I could hear Philippe over the peripheral noise in the room.
“Hey, Chaplain, you need to move back right now!” An officer at a central desk in the large room called out to me, not as much in anger but fear.
“What’s wrong?” I answered as I pushed away from the thick plexiglass cell door.
“Chaplain, all that man has to do is reach through that opening and rip out your trachea! You can’t sit that close to the opening!”
The inmate I’d been speaking with seemed so normal…so reasonable. I’d forgotten for a moment there was such a thing as evil, and that the man within just arms reach of me was well-acquainted with it.
Which brings a question to mind I’d like to ask you…
Do you believe in evil? I mean, in a personal, intelligent force working against us and, in some cases, through us?
Sometimes in everyday life, it seems doubtful, doesn’t it? Nothing around us is quite as exciting as the evil manifested in your garden-variety exorcism movie. So it’s easy to dismiss the concept, to think its perpetrators in our world are just the emotionally or mentally disturbed.
But pure, unexplainable evil is something we’re skeptical of these days. It would be easier to believe in if it was more obvious, like in the movies. Why don’t we see those kinds of demon-possessed people like Jesus faced (as in Luke 8:26-39)?
“What is your name?” Jesus asked. “Legion, for we are many.”
Are those stories merely the superstitious products of a primitive culture lacking any better explanation?
I have met evil in person. I’ve prayed for some pretty twisted people over the years. I’ve sat with some who’ve violently massacred loved ones, like Philippe. I’ve counseled child abusers who’ve done unspeakable things to the innocent. You’d have to be crazy to do those things, right? But more often than not, those people looked me straight in the eye and seemed quite lucent.
I often wondered, when looking in their eyes, if I might catch evil staring back at me…
Philippe sits calmly and talks with me about fairly complex theological issues. He asks intelligent questions, some for which I don’t have adequate answers off the top of my head. When I tell him I don’t have a particular book or don’t know something, he doesn’t lash out at me but responds like any rational person would.
…expect that this rational person murdered his family for no good reason, as if a good reason could exist.
Philippe claims that what he did was a case of demonic possession. Sure, you say, that’s his excuse to get off on six murder charges. However, it’s interesting that he’s never tried to get his attorneys to argue that in court. He knows no one will believe him. Instead, they’ll go for an insanity plea, even though there’s nothing in my visits to indicate any insanity at all.
He says he was into voodoo and spiritism in his home country before coming to the states. He claims that this exposure haunted him, and eventually led to the horrible acts he committed. He now claims to be a Christian, and in fact has held some Bible studies with other inmates when he wasn’t in the psych ward. As my conversation goes deeper and deeper with him, I find myself struggling to decide what I believe about Philippe and his claims.
I’m struggling because most of the evil I’ve seen is of a much tamer brand. I’ve watched bitterness and unforgiveness growing like a cancer in a friend’s soul, causing him to lash out illogically. I’ve witnessed substance and sexual abuse. I’ve known people with addictions that left them limping through life, the byproduct of their own sins or someone else’s against them.
When you think about it, it seems Satan may have tailor-made these tamer “designer demons” for our more enlightened age. The old-school demons Jesus dealt with would honestly give away too much about a spiritual world which contemporary skeptics no longer believe in.
Actually, “Legion” was the name of the demon Jesus confronted that day. It was instead the demons’ way of bragging about their numbers and strength. They wanted Jesus to know He was outnumbered. That’s how evil works – it manipulates with fear and intimidation.
In the 1st century, many people believed not only in a God but in many “gods”. So a demon showed its preeminence among their “gods” by demonstrating its control over a victim, like with this young man Jesus encountered. Outrageous behavior and supernatural manifestations intimidated the 1st-century mind into submission and servitude. Satan was boasting he was the most powerful of all their “gods”.
The demon’s tactics worked pretty well until confronted by a certain rabbi from Nazareth.
Today, the deception is different: Satan’s lie “de jour” is unbelief. “There is no God” is the reigning deception he uses in our day. So Satan knows that any flamboyant manifestations of spinning heads and spitting pea soup would spoil that grand illusion. We would then be faced with evidence of a supernatural world living between the layers of our limited logic.
So Evil dare not rear its head so obviously and theatrically, or else we’d have to believe there was also a great Good fighting against that evil as well.
Better to keep his work stealthy, subtle, undetected. So he camouflages his demons in the guise of social ills. It’s merely a coincidence we are so often struck strategically at our weakest point, right? We believe the self-destructive voices in our head are our own, never realizing our voice is being mimicked by the Great Impersonator himself.
Instead of turning to God to cast him out, we take an extra tranquilizer to sleep at night. As long as the demons look common enough to fly under the radar, the deception is a success and the destruction of the human soul may continue undeterred.
Therein lies our trap: we are too smart for our own good. Anyone as overconfident as the common skeptic is pretty easy to deceive, as long as the deception plays to their arrogance. It’s like a 21st-century version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Instead of telling the king he’s naked, we just persuade him smart people don’t believe in demons.
Surely it’s only a paranoid fantasy to believe we’re really being watched, studied and stalked like prey on a daily basis.
Yes, Evil knows us well. While He still comes out of the closet in more superstitious cultures like Philippe’s, he’s content to brew beneath the surface in our own. He beckons fathers to destroy their families with sexual liaisons. He lies in wait for the innocent child and seduces the predator who would abuse them. He rips through our cities with a thousand selfish indifferences toward our fellow humans, building frustrations one upon another until the more violent among us break and lash out in a frenzy of hate.
No, we don’t believe. Yet the demons are all around us. And they are legion.