The Prince of This World
Adam Kotsko



Why the Devil?

In his testimony before the grand jury, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson claimed to be terrified of Michael Brown, the unarmed black man he shot and killed. He returns to the topic frequently from a variety of angles, but one particular image stands out: “It looks like a demon.”1 Almost every word in this short statement is charged: the dehumanizing “it,” the attempt at immediacy (and therefore audience identification) in the present-tense “looks,” all culminating in the very literal demonization of his own victim.

Even leaving aside its apparent effectiveness, the fact that he could even utter such a thing and expect a jury of his peers to believe and sympathize with it speaks to the deep-seated racism of American society—for which there is already a tragic abundance of evidence. The alarming imagery of Wilson’s remark, however, highlights another, less noted phenomenon: the prominence of theological language in the mainstream media discussion of the black victims of police shootings.

Again and again, we learn that the victims were “no angels.” Now the same might be said of all of us, insofar as we are merely human. Yet the context in which this imagery is deployed shows that being “no angel” is effectively a euphemism for being a “demon”—a being hardwired for evil. The victims’ records are invariably scoured for any hint of criminal activity, as though a single misdemeanor offense singles them out for summary execution. Their every word, action, and attitude during the police encounter are adduced as evidence of a dangerous rebelliousness that could be ended only with lethal force. What this line of inquiry aims to establish is not simply that the victims have committed a crime but that they are criminals. What they do is taken as a symptom of what they are—a point that becomes painfully clear when we recall how often victims’ family connections are used as evidence of their supposedly inherent criminality.

The black victims are always presumptively criminals in this racist public discourse. Strangely, however, this ostensibly inherent inclination toward crime does not free them from moral culpability. As in the case of demons, who are still destined for eternal damnation despite being unable to do anything but evil, it instead exposes them to a particularly intense form of moral accountability in which they face arbitrary lethal punishments for their actions. Here the contrast with white mass shooters is striking. In mainstream media accounts, the sympathetic qualities of the shooter are highlighted, as though to reassure the public that this outburst of violence was truly random and unpredictable. The diagnosis is quick and absolutely uniform: the shooter was mentally ill, which—in sharp contrast to the supposedly intrinsic criminality of the black police-shooting victim—serves to absolve him of any straightforward culpability for his actions. The slightest infringement by a black victim serves, in the tortured logic of the mainstream media debate, to legitimate police brutality toward blacks, whereas every precaution is taken to make sure that nihilistic mass murders by white perpetrators are always regarded as isolated incidents. The actions of members of its most privileged demographic must never be allowed to raise the possibility that there is a problem with American society as a whole.

The question of agency becomes particularly fraught when we look to the police officers themselves. Here the rhetoric emphasizes the automatic, seemingly instinctive nature of the officer’s action: “he just reacted.” From the perspective of common sense, it is difficult to see how this helps the officer’s case. Surely for a police officer—who is heavily armed, highly trained, and bound by oath to serve and protect the public—to follow blind impulse and murder someone is more morally culpable than it would be for a civilian to do so. The function of this seemingly counterintuitive defense is clear, however, when we note the contrast with the officer’s victim, who always could have acted differently—who always “had a choice.” In other words, the victim’s actions are morally culpable because (within the media narrative) the victim has all the moral agency in the situation. In contrast, the officer’s ostensible lack of any agency or choice places his action in the sphere of sheer necessity and thereby renders it morally irrelevant.

In short, in the mainstream media discourse on police shootings, the theological imagery of the demonic (or, euphemistically, the non-angelic) appears as part of a complex and seemingly contradictory discourse on moral agency. This discourse aims to legitimate, or at least explain away, unjustified and destructive actions taken by representatives of the powers that be—and to blame the victims for their own victimization.

This book aims to demonstrate that the place of theology in this heady mix is not accidental. This victim-blaming logic points back to a long theological heritage with which modernity has never fully grappled. This book provides an initial inventory, which will be necessary for taking any meaningful steps toward, if not escaping, then at least finding a new use for this explosive inheritance.

On one level, of course, theology has always been a victim-blaming discourse. The models here are the infamous friends of the long-suffering Job, who argue that since he is suffering, he must have sinned somehow. Yet Job’s own defiance shows that theology has not always or only aimed to blame the victim. Indeed, theology has often served as a weapon against oppression and injustice. Perhaps surprisingly, that was initially the case for demonology, which emerged in Jewish communities facing persecution and violence at the hands of imperial conquerors. Their oppression was so severe that they simply could not make sense of it in any other way than by positing that their tormenters were the agents of some kind of spiritual force that was opposed in principle to God’s justice and his plans for his people. This cosmic opponent, whom God would soon defeat, is the original form of the theological figure we know as the devil.

From the point of view of this theology, if anyone is the demon in this situation, it is surely Wilson, the embodiment of a racist structure of police violence that—as seen in the many similar cases that have come to light in the wake of the protests in Ferguson—is so arbitrary and implacable in its persecution of the black community in America that it is difficult to see it as motivated by anything other than sheer malice. This is a parallel that many contemporary black theologians have embraced, most notably James Cone, who openly refers to the racist American order as demonic while claiming that the black community enjoys a relationship to God similar to that of the Jews suffering under imperial oppression.2

Behind Wilson’s testimony, then, there stands a profound theological reversal: the devil, having originated as a theological tool of the oppressed, has become a weapon of the oppressor. The Prince of This World is the story of that reversal and of its unexpected consequences for the modern world.

The book’s two major divisions approach this story from different angles. The first, “Genealogy of the Devil,” traces the devil’s emergence out of the complex dynamics of the Hebrew biblical tradition and then the way the Christian tradition develops that demonic figure. It is a bitterly ironic story, full of tragic reversals. Fundamentally, it shows how the biblical God went from being the vindicator and liberator of the oppressed to being a cruel ruler who delights in inflicting suffering on his friends and enemies alike. In other words, it is the story of how God became the devil.

The second part, “Life of the Devil,” explores the paradoxical figure of the devil who emerges out of this great reversal. The fully developed Christian devil is both the ultimate enemy and God’s most capable servant, the representative and leader of all who rebel against God as well as the eternal executor of God’s will. Having traced the devil’s emergence in history, this part shifts perspective and explores the devil’s own history in terms of the medieval theological consensus in which he plays such a decisive role—the devil’s past (his initial fall from grace), his present (his identification with troublesome social bodies), and his future (his role as chief inmate and guard in the eternal prison of hell).

My guiding threads in both major parts are the ways in which questions of legitimacy and moral agency become intertwined in the theological figure of the devil. From this perspective, I draw many parallels to key concepts of modernity, including subjectivity, the social contract, the invisible hand, and racialization. In the conclusion I draw those threads together, arguing that the peculiar conceptual knot that ties together free will, blameworthiness, and legitimacy in medieval accounts of the devil becomes, in secularized form, one of the most powerful—and deeply questionable—legacies that Christianity leaves to secular modernity.

The Problem of Evil

At the root of both of my variations on the story of the devil stands what is known as the problem of evil, which has proven to be the most durable challenge to traditional monotheism. Stated schematically, it is the problem of how to reconcile something like the following three propositions. First, God is good, completely benevolent in all his goals and deeds.3 Second, God is all powerful, superabundantly capable of doing all that he wills. Third, evil and suffering happen. If we view this problem from a purely conceptual perspective, it is clear that there is a conflict here and only two of the propositions can be true at the same time. If God wills only the good and is fully capable of carrying out his will, then only good should result. If God always intends the good and yet evil happens, then we must conclude that he is not actually almighty. Finally, if God is omnipotent and created a world filled with suffering, then it would appear that his intentions are less benevolent than we might have hoped.

Continuing in this vein, it seems that the only logical way to resolve this contradiction is to concede one of the first two points, since the testimony of universal human experience prevents us from discarding the third. Yet even at their most coldly logical, the theologians of the monotheistic traditions have almost always concentrated their efforts on demolishing precisely that most unassailable of propositions—indeed, the only one of the propositions for which we have any direct evidence at all. And the reason for this seemingly counterintuitive approach is that even at the rarefied level of the purest scholasticism, the problem of evil is not merely an intellectual problem. It is an existential problem, a problem that touches on the most profound questions of how we are to understand and respond to our experiences in the world. We will have occasion to examine the subtle and nuanced attempts of scholastic theologians to explain away our experience of evil and suffering in a later chapter. For now, though, it is best to begin by treating the problem of evil less as a puzzle and more as a kind of open wound.

This is in fact how the monotheistic tradition itself approaches it, as evidenced by the Book of Job. Job’s impassioned speeches, which cycle through a variety of positions and even make shocking accusations against God, can ultimately be read as an anguished attempt to hold the three propositions together. His friends’ speeches, in contrast, retrospectively seem to anticipate the theological tradition’s attempt to explain away the experience of evil and suffering. As I have noted, their strategy is to claim that Job must have sinned, meaning that his suffering is a deserved punishment from God and hence not an act of sheer malice. Job agrees with his friends that God has caused his suffering, but he refuses to concede even an inch to the idea that it was somehow deserved.

In short, the Book of Job is grappling with an irresolvable deadlock—or better, a deadlock that it utterly refuses to resolve. This deadlock makes its mark on the text. The various speeches all circulate around the same unfixable problem, giving them a repetitive quality. The resolution, such as it is, comes in the form of a literal deus ex machina, as God appears to Job. While it is difficult to say with certainty what we are meant to think about God’s intervention, from our perspective, we can say that God strongly affirms all three claims. First, God’s lengthy monologue, which famously fails to directly address Job’s complaint at all, asserts God’s mighty power over even the most chaotic forces. He also tacitly admits that Job is right to regard his suffering as unjustified, insofar as he tells Job’s friends, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). In fact, he even seems to view their pious explanations as blasphemy, which can be forgiven only if Job intercedes on their behalf (42:8–9). Finally, he does ultimately restore everything Job has lost and more, apparently to demonstrate his own goodness—or at least to show that the good outstrips the evil in God.

Even if modern readers tend to hold up the Book of Job as an exemplary effort to grapple with the problem of evil, it does not appear to serve as a model or starting point for discussions of the issue in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, it is striking how much of an outlier Job is within the Hebrew biblical tradition. The text makes no mention of an explicit law revealed by God, nor does it specify that Job is an Israelite at all. There is no direct reference to any of the major events in Israel’s history, and the exact time frame and country where the story takes place appear to have been left intentionally vague. Overall, even if it takes a narrative form and uses poetic language, the Book of Job is in a certain sense an abstract thought experiment.

The approach of the mainstream of the Hebrew biblical tradition to the problem of evil is very different. Above all, it is much more collective than individual in its focus. While we can still discern the general outline of the abstract problem of evil, it is always posed in terms of the concrete narrative of God’s special relationship to the nation of Israel. That relationship is founded on God’s loyalty to Abraham and his descendants, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis, but it reaches its definitive form only beginning with the Exodus from Egypt.

From the perspective of the problem of evil, the events surrounding the Exodus imply a full-throated endorsement of the first two propositions. In rescuing the people of Israel from their bondage, God shows himself to be powerful enough to defeat the mightiest of earthly powers, with astounding and devastating miracles. From the Israelite point of view, he shows himself to be good, vindicating their claim to justice out of sheer loyalty and generosity. On the issue of evil, however, things become more complicated, as God openly takes credit for hugely destructive acts. Between the ten plagues and the departure of the Israelites, in fact, Egypt arguably suffers from every major evil that afflicts humanity—military defeat, looting, disease, natural disaster, even the premature loss of children. Yet the clear implication is that these deeds were not properly evil insofar as the Egyptians were unjust oppressors who deserved to be punished.

The problem, then, is not really suffering as such but undeserved, unjust, or meaningless suffering. The God of Israel legitimates himself not simply by preventing or minimizing suffering—from the perspective of the Egyptians, he maximizes it—but by converting the brute fact of suffering into an experience that has meaning. And the ultimate horizon of this meaning is God’s special relationship with his people, which means that in the Hebrew biblical tradition, the problem of evil is always necessarily a problem of political theology. Hence, unlike more abstract modern formulations of the problem, it always implies the existence of an enemy who must be overcome. When we ask about the origin of God’s cosmic rival, Satan, we must therefore attend to his encounter with his first great earthly rival: Pharaoh. It is with this encounter that the first chapter begins.


1. Quoted in Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, “Wilson Said the Unarmed Teen Looked like a ‘Demon.’ Experts Say His testimony Was Dehumanizing and ‘Super-humanizing,’Washington Post, November 25, 2014,

2. See, for instance, James Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), particularly chap. 10. As I suggest in later chapters, this parallel is far from fortuitous.

3. While I favor the use of gender-inclusive language for contemporary constructive theological projects, I maintain masculine pronouns in reference to God when discussing the traditional view, to reflect the historical reality that the traditional God has been figured as male.