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Casting the Devil Out of the Jesus Story
Image: History Channel

The Bible TV miniseries, created and produced by husband and wife duo Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, was a 2013 sensation, raking in more than 100 million views. It was nominated for three Emmy awards, and a sequel title, A.D.: Beyond the Bible, has been planned for NBC.

But amid the hype came controversy. The same episode that debuted Jesus also included scenes with the devil. Downey was immediately disappointed to find the media fixated on the devil rather than Jesus: some were claiming that the actor who played Satan looked like President Obama.

In order to avoid further controversy, the producers decided to remove Satan from the Son of God movie rereleasing this Friday. "I want the name of Jesus to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so I cast Satan out," said Downey.

Although perhaps not the movie's target audience, the large number of viewers who are agnostic about or deny the devil's existence could simplify the decision to omit him. Recent polls suggest a large number of Americans don't believe the devil exists. A 2009 Barna survey reported that nearly 60 percent of Christians in America view the devil as only a symbol of evil. Only one quarter of participants strongly affirmed the devil's personal existence, though this figure more than doubles among "born again" Christians.

What muddies the poll, however, is the inconsistency of responses. Nearly half of those who treated Satan as a symbol believed that demons could influence people. Furthermore, a strong majority affirmed that one "must either side with God or with the devil." And only 11 percent strongly disagreed. Such results suggest that even those who believe the devil is a symbol of evil are not ready to do away with him altogether.

Other recent polls only add to the confusion. A 2013 YouGov poll concluded "that more than half [57 percent] of Americans believe in the devil" and that only 28 percent denied his existence. Admittedly, this poll did not provide the "symbol of evil" option. And a 2010 Lifeway survey found that four in ten Millennials believe Satan is not a real person but just a symbol of evil.

Given his role in the Gospels, symbol or not, it seems natural that Satan would appear in a movie about Jesus. Downey has voiced publicly her belief in the devil's personal existence, so she and her husband didn't exclude Satan from the big screen because of theological bias. Yet with the devil's absence from the film, some Christians have questioned whether the Christ story can be told without mentioning Satan.

The short answer is yes.

We can't include every detail when presenting the gospel. For many of us, the devil is usually one of the first elements we drop in recounting the big picture of Christ's life. Even the apostles did this. The sermons in Acts rarely include the devil. And when they do, their discussion of his activity is limited. For example, in Acts 10:38, Peter simply says that Jesus healed and delivered those "under the power of the devil." He doesn't go into detail.

Following the example of the apostles, we can tell the gospel story without detailing who Satan is and what he does. If the producers of Son of God can better communicate the Christ story without including Satan, I won't complain.

Nevertheless, Satan does play a key role in the Gospels, where he is mentioned more than 30 times and is described performing various activities. These passages help us to better understand Christ's mission, the challenges we face, and the reality in which we live.

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