The General Synod of the Church of England voted this week to pension off the devil, as The Telegraph puts it. The baptism service will no longer include a promise by parents and godparents to “renounce the devil and all his works” or in the language of a more modern version, “reject the devil and his rebellion against God”. Instead they will be asked to turn away from sin and stand bravely against evil, which is much more culturally appropriate and accessible. Supposedly.
As I read the New Testament, however, it seems that the devil was put out of business a long time ago. According to the book of Revelation, the devil was cast out of heaven by Michael and his angels some time after the ascension to stop him accusing Jewish Christians before the throne of God (Rev. 12:7-12). He then went off in diabolical frustration to make war against the churches in the Greek-Roman world (12:13-17). He did so by giving “his power and his throne and great authority” to the “beast” of Roman imperialism (Rev. 13:2): he inspired Rome’s sometimes savage persecution of the emerging Christian movement. The intensity of his opposition was down to the fact that “he knows his time is short” (12:12).
Towards the end of the book John describes the judgment of Rome, Babylon the great, the “great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality”, and the avenging of the blood of God’s servants (Rev.19:1-2). Once pagan Rome was overthrown, the nations formerly ruled by Rome were judged and defeated by the Word of God, who would “rule them with a rod of iron” (19:15). In other words, the nations of the Greek-Roman world would no longer be governed by Caesar but by Jesus. The beast of Roman imperialism was captured and thrown into the “lake of fire that burns with sulphur” (19:20).
This brought to an end the short period of time that the devil had to persecute the churches of the Greek-Roman world:
And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev. 20:2–3)
For reasons that are not made clear, John expects the devil to be released at the end of the thousand years. He will deceive the nations again, as he did during the age of Rome’s opposition to the church, but he will be defeated and thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, “where the beast and the false prophet were”.
This would appear to mean that between the conversion of Rome to worship of the God of Israel and the end of the world—that is, throughout the rest of history—the devil is not active in the world deceiving the nations but is imprisoned in the abyss, where he can do no harm. That being the case, the Anglican Church is not so much dumbing down the baptism service, as former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali complains, as catching up with New Testament eschatology.