M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of the best-selling book The Road Less Traveleddied of cancer Sunday at age 69 in his home in Warren, Conn. Peck explored spiritual influences such as evil and demon possession on psychology. This article was first published March 1, 1985

If it is true, as Baudelaire suggests, that "the Devil's cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist," then psychiatrist M. Scott Peck has dealt the Devil a serious blow in his best-selling book, People of the Lie. The Devil is not all Peck talks about in this unlikely book. He originally set out to write a work dealing with human evil, and that is what he has done. When he began he believed, along with 99 percent of his psychiatric colleagues, that there was no such thing as the Devil. But as he contemplated writing such a book, it seemed to him that, in the interests of scientific objectivity, he ought at least to examine the evidence for the existence of the Devil. His conclusion? "I now know that Satan is real. I have met it."

That makes for interesting reading—so interesting, in fact, that People was in its fifth printing as of November of 1984, had sold more than 150,000 copies at the rate of 1,000 per week, and its publishers were showing no signs of issuing it in paperback. No small portion of its readership is among evangelicals. Both People of the Lie and another book by Peck, The Road Less Traveled, appeared on Eternity magazine's Book of the Year list, finishing seventh and sixth, respectively. (Eternity's list is determined by the votes of a group of evangelical writers, leaders, and theologians who have been associated with the magazine.) The success of these two books has kept Peck so busy speaking and writing that he has had to stop practicing psychiatry, at least for the time being.

What makes People of the Lie so unlikely is that it comes from a man thoroughly trained in the canons of a secularist psychological discipline. His education was at Harvard and Case Western Reserve universities, he did not read the Gospels until he was 39, and was not baptized until March of 1980, sometime after he wrote The Road Less Traveled. That last item causes astonishment for the many who read the book and were sure that the author must have been a Christian. But he was not. His path to Christianity came by way of Zen Buddhism in his youth and mysticism as an adult. The Road Less Traveled was, by his own assessment, part of a pilgrimage toward Christianity, not the end of the road.

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Peck has a gift for writing the captivating opening line. The first sentence in The Road Less Traveled is, "Life is difficult." For People of the Lie it is, "This is a dangerous book." He is also a fine storyteller. People of the Lie is loaded with the fascinating and chilling stories of patients he has treated who have struggled with evil people or who were themselves evil. Unforgettable is the story of Bobby, whose parents made him a gift of the rifle with which his brother had committed suicide; or of the mutually parasitic marriage of Hartley to Sarah, an "evil couple"; or of Billie and her spider phobia; or of Angela's dream of a voodoo ritual.

Peck's thesis is simple: There really is such a thing as human evil, and it has certain definable characteristics. What is evil? He once asked that question of his eight-year-old son, who answered, "That's easy, Daddy, evil is live spelled backwards." That definition is good enough for Peck. Human evil is that which destroys human life. More telling, however, is what characterizes evil. According to Peck, it is the persistent and accumulative refusal of the evil person to face the truth about himself. He may admit publicly that, of course, he is a sinner just like everyone else. But deep down inside he does not believe it. So rather than face up to his own sin he is constantly scapegoating: laying it on other people, making his faults theirs. Evil people are masters of disguise, morally. They are constantly dodging their conscience. In other words, evil people are liars. Hence the title of the book.

This scapegoating mechanism is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the evil personality. Children are most often its victims, because they are so vulnerable. Parents have an almost godlike power over their own children, and to the degree that they will not face up to their own evil, to that same degree they seem to project it onto their children. Peck observes that rarely will evil people turn up in psychotherapy. This is because psychotherapy is what he calls the "light-shedding process par excellence." Evil, by definition, avoids the light. So the persons who end up in the therapist's office are not usually the truly evil ones, but the victims of someone else's evil. Again, children figure hugely in this group of victims. .

Where and how does the Devil figure in all this? Peck is not sure. He writes, "Perhaps it will forever be impossible to totally discern exactly where the human Shadow leaves off and the Prince of Darkness begins." His tentative conclusion is that the Devil has very little to do with evil in everyday life. Most of us do not have to be recruited to do his work; we recruit ourselves. Of this much he is sure: the Devil does exist, and on rare occasions does take possession of people. But only on rare occasions. In preparation for his book he was able to participate in two exorcisms. It was his experience in these events that convinced him of the Devil's reality.

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Peck the psychiatrist is bold, unconventional, and imaginative. In his field of endeavor it would take such a person to take a serious look at the possibility that the Devil might exist, and to risk the ridicule of the psychiatric dogmatists when he published his findings. Peck the theologian is also bold, unconventional, and imaginative. As he put it in a telephone interview, "When I talk theology I am utterly speculative." That he is, indeed.

For instance, take his view of man. Man is radically free to choose to do good and evil. Says Peck, "It is always within our power to change our nature." In view of this, I asked him what he meant when he called Christ "Savior." He suggested that there are three ways to understand what it means to call him Savior. One way is to think of him as Savior in the sense that he atones for our sins. Peck termed that "my least popular level." A second way is to see him as Savior in the sense that he is "a kind of fairy godmother who will rescue you when you get in trouble as long as you remember to call upon his name." Peck believes that Jesus does just that. A third way to see Jesus as Savior is to see him as the one who shows the way to salvation through his life and his death. So Peck likes Jesus the Savior as fairy godmother (a term I am sure he does not use flippantly) and as exemplar, or one who shows us how to live and die. But he does not like the idea of Jesus the atoner.

In all fairness, Peck does not reject the idea of Jesus as atoner, he just does not see that as very helpful in the healing of human evil. Why? Because, in his view, it compromises human responsibility. He thinks that as long as we think Jesus has done it all for us we will be encouraged to live passively in the face of our own sin and evil. Therein lies Peck's chief weakness as a Christian thinker. He lets what he deems to be psychological necessity dictate theological truth. With him it is like the old joke, "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to be changed." So it is with salvation from sin and evil. Peck insists that this is not Pelagian heresy, but I have difficulty in seeing how such a view of the Atonement is not.

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No one has ever resolved the classic theological problem of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man. I am certainly not going to attempt that here. But whatever is said, it must take into account the mass of biblical material asserting that, apart from God, no one is free. Even the freedom to choose is a gift that God gives. I find it very difficult to have an extraordinarily high view of human freedom when Jesus tells us that we are all the servants of one of two masters, either God or Satan—or when the apostle Paul tells us that without Christ we are blinded by the god of this world (Satan), dead in sins and tresspasses, and by nature children of wrath. It appears that Peck is so anxious to give human freedom its due that he does not give the Devil his due. A radical view of human freedom may be very useful in psychotherapy. How else can you convince a patient to respond to treatment? But I suspect that it is a salutary fiction.

Peck's view of God is even more disturbing. He ends up looking suspiciously like a psychotherapist. Peck declares flatly that God does not punish evil, that he "cannot destroy, he can only create … having forsworn the use of power against us, if we refuse His help, He has no recourse but, weeping, to watch us punish ourselves … having forsaken force, God is impotent to prevent the atrocities that we commit." That description of what God can and cannot do sounds a lot like what a psychiatrist can and cannot do, but not like what the Sovereign Lord of the universe can and cannot do. Peck is big on God's love, but not on God's power. More accurately, for Peck God's power is his love, only his love. It is interesting that earlier in the book he cites with approval Rabbi Harold Kushner's book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He terms it a fine treatment of the problem of "natural evil": the evil that befalls us from the seemingly blind and remorseless forces of nature. (Kushner wrote his book out of the pain of watching his young son die the painful death of progeria, or rapid aging.) Kushner attempts to explain this kind of thing by affirming God's great love, while asserting his less-than-great power. God can't help it when these things happen, he can only help us through them when they do. Kushner's God and Peck's God are very similar. But he is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, nor of Job and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All Peck's and Kushner's God can do and will do in the face of evil is to wring his hands and weep in impotence and frustration. This, I repeat, is not the God whom the apostle Paul warns us "will give to each person according to what he has done … [on] the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed" (Romans 2:5‑6).

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These are serious, maybe even fatal, flaws in Peck's thinking. Nevertheless, People of the Lie is a remarkable book and well worth your time. It is a significant contribution to the dialogue between psychology and theology. Peck's discussion of the value of a multimodel approach to the study of human behavior is alone worth the price of the book. For pastors it provides some crackerjack sermon illustrations (Charlene's lonely protests against God are a devastating example of the power of evil to isolate and destroy a human being). More important, the book is invaluable for alerting the pastoral counselor to the dynamics of evil on an interpersonal level.

The book also leads to a very urgent consideration of the role of the Christian community in dealing with human evil. I say "leads to" because he did not mention this in the book, but said it later in a telephone interview. He said he felt that something very inappropriate was taking place during the exorcisms of which he was a part. It was that the exorcisms were not taking place in the church, but outside it. He commented, "The church, I think, has failed in not being willing to be that battleground. What the church has done is to try and hush up and avoid any kind of conflict … The church should properly be a place for conflict just as Jesus' body was stretched apart and torn apart on the cross … Our job in the body of Christ should be in some ways to be torn apart and experience great stress rather than great peace. I think we generally want church to be like going to a good movie, Mary Poppins or the like, and it gives us a good feeling for an hour a week." Right on, Scott Peck.

When he said that, I felt as I did so often in reading his book. I felt as though I had had a glass of ice water thrown in my face. Thanks, I needed that. For a long time I thought it was only the liberals who had a weak view of human sin and evil, and who therefore avoided those subjects in their preaching and publishing. But of late, we evangelicals have out-liberated the liberals with our self-help books, positive thinking preaching, and success gospels. Peck's book has come along at a propitious time. It deserves a critical reading by evangelicals, but also a wide reading.

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This article was first published March 1, 1985. At the time, Ben Patterson was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, Irvine, California, and a Christianity Today contributing editor. Patterson is now campus pastor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and is still a Christianity Today contributing editor.

Related Elsewhere:

More about M. Scott Peck is available from his website.

Editor's Bookshelf featured Peck's latest book, Glimpses of the Devil.

Editor's Bookshelf: Review
Scott Peck vs. Satan | A well-known psychiatrist describes and analyzes two exorcisms. (Jan. 24, 2005)

Editor's Bookshelf: Interview
The Devil Didn't Make Me Do It | Possession is real, says Scott Peck, but we have more to fear from the evil already inside us. (Jan. 24, 2005)