Martin Luther and the Interiorization of Evil


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Martin Luther saw evil as something inside all of us. For him the Devil’s power did not come through sheer muscular strength, but rather through his ability to disrupt our own reasoning. He was someone who could only be defeated by appealing to God’s infinite power and by believing in the inscrutability of divine providence.

Martin Luther burning the papal bull.
Martin Luther opposed the church playing the role of an intermediary between God and the individual. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

Martin Luther’s view on the Church and God

For Martin Luther, in some important ways, the church was a secondary expression of the relationship between God and the human. It was contrary to the church’s position whereby the church wanted to put itself between God and the individual. Luther believed that God is absolutely powerful and completely sovereign.

However, this omnipotent God is mysteriously hidden from us; all we have in this life is the God visible in the scriptures in Jesus Christ. The distance between the human Christ, who teaches and preaches and dies on the cross and is raised again, is the space in which the Devil plays with us.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Devil is a Theologian

Satan, for Luther, was a powerful figure, but in an interesting and subtle way. He was not a monster or a bogeyman, but an inner power, able to corrupt faith. He was no physical menace to us. The Devil rather was a tempter and a deceiver; a deluding agent who would obstruct, trick, and mystify humans into making terrible choices.

Luther felt that the Devil works by seducing us to think evil thoughts and most definitely does quote Scripture. The Devil was thus, a theologian. It was a depiction which was extremely psychologically acute and borne out of Luther’s own intellectual anxieties and paranoia.

Luther’s Satan may not be very terrifying at first, but what he lacks for in grandeur, he more than makes up for in subtlety. The Devil comes to people who are serious about being good Christians, who are trying to be sincere; that’s who the devil strikes. The people who are just happy to eat, drink, and be merry, the Devil already has those; he’s trying to get the people who he doesn’t have yet.

The Workings of the Devil

One of the most important phrases of Martin Luther’s work is ‘works-righteousness’. It is the idea that we are made good by what we do, by what we accomplish; that in some sense we have to earn or deserve our salvation. The Devil loves this idea, insofar as he can insinuate it into our minds, that we could claim any credit for our own salvation and for what Luther calls the ‘theology of glory’. It is a theology that is all about glorifying ourselves and talking about ourselves as achievers.

A painting depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ with two priests kneeling on either side of him holding a bible.
Luther believed that the only way to defeat Evil was to appeal to Christ to protect us. (Image: ArTono/Shutterstock)

In Luther’s own experience he says,

I encounter the Devil most immediately and most frequently just at those moments when I am tempted to rely on myself.

In other words, the Devil is the insinuation that maybe I don’t need the help of God; maybe I don’t have to pray for Christ’s grace in accomplishing a task. For Luther, this is a paradigmatic example of how the Devil gets inside peoples’ minds who are, in some sense, trying to be good people, but manages to warp them in disastrous ways.

Learn more about the New Testament heritage on evil.

The Reality of Satan for Luther

Luther’s big innovation really is, in part, the kind of remarkable character that Satan is in his writings. In recent years, many scholars have emphasized the reality of Satan for Luther. But, in fact, the Satan that is real for Luther is a Satan who is really quite immaterial; who works wholly by means of messing with human subjectivity, with messing with our interiority, with our pride and with our thought.

For Luther, this Devil is able to affect our thinking and our way of seeing the world. This Devil is not a muscular threat to us. Instead, the picture of evil that Luther is offering us here is not one of threat, of immediate danger, of peril; it is, rather, of deception and obscurity.

Learn more about Enuma Elish, evil as cosmic battle.

Godthe Ultimate Master and Savior

For Luther, the response to evil that we should employ when we are confronted with these temptations is simple: We can’t engage the Devil; we can’t resist him. We should not attempt to fight the temptation. In fact, if we do, it would amount to playing the Devil’s game, because now we are trying to fight the Devil on our own. Instead, Luther thinks, we have to appeal to Christ to protect us from the Devil.

To counteract evil, Luther insists on the absolute governance of the world by a sovereign and providential deity. We may not know how that God is governing the world, but nonetheless we know that God is in charge. In fact, God’s providential mastery over creation is so important to Luther that he’s willing to ascribe a responsibility for evil, even evil, to this God.

In his early work, On the Bondage of the Will, Luther emphasizes that God’s providential control is over all aspects of our lives, even the evil aspects. As it is a mystery for Luther, he appeals to the idea of the inscrutability of divine providence, the lives of Abraham and Job, and the prophetic tradition’s interpretation of the travails of Ancient Israel.

Luther, however, is equally aware that any attempt to master God’s providential control over history on our part will fail. Thus, all we must do and all we can do is appeal to Christ as our savior in this situation.

Common Questions about Martin Luther and the Interiorization of Evil

Q: What does the term ‘works-righteousness’ mean?

It was Martin Luther‘s idea and meant that we are made good by what we do, by what we accomplish; that in some sense we have to earn or deserve our salvation.

Q: What did Martin Luther emphasize on in his early writings?

Martin Luther, in his early work, On the Bondage of the Will, emphasized that God’s providential control is over all aspects of our lives, even the evil aspects.

Q: In Martin Luther’s experience, when did he encounter the Devil most?

In Martin Luther‘s experience, he encountered the Devil most immediately and most frequently just at those moments when he was tempted to rely on himself.

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The Early Notions about Evil
Major Theories about Evil
Martin Luther Battles the Devil