Two leading American evangelicals independently attributed Monday’s murderous rampage at Virginia Tech by Cho Seung-Hui to demonic possession.
“Based on what I’ve seen in the news, there’s no doubt that this act was Satanic in origin,” said Richard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University.
Franklin Graham said the gunman was “demon-possessed.”
The facts from Blacksburg fit their story about how a world in thrall to the Prince of Darkness works. We can be confident that thousands of Christians had already come to the same conclusion long before these second-generation princes–inheritors of the royal estates of Oral Roberts and Billy Graham–were queried by reporters in the aftermath of the tragedy.
That story, the traditional Christian story, is the mother of all conspiracy theories. It was first formulated by ancient Jews in the second century B.C. It was a way of accounting for the gaping abyss between their image of a benevolent God, who enforces moral cause-and-effect, and their lived experience. Eastern Mediterranean and western Asian despots were bullying God’s chosen people and getting away with it.
These ancient apocalyptic authors of the biblical book of Daniel, and non-biblical scrolls such as Jubilees and Enoch, told a story about a universal, invisible conspiracy. Satan and his demonic agents were engaged in perennial Spy-vs.-Spy combat, with the archangels Gabriel and Michael and their heavenly ranks.
The Gospel writers modified the story by making Jesus the hero of the forces of light. God, incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, had secretly entered the battle in order to lead the counter-rebellion in the name of Love.
It is a powerful story. It imagines that each believer’s struggle to do the right thing is part of a cosmic jihad. Redemption of the world is at stake. God and Satan, the demons, and angels and the mortal followers form each respective camp.
It is also perversely fascinating that Cho Seung-Hui indirectly invoked a conspiracy theory when he referred to the adolescent murderers of Columbine–Eric Harris and Ryan Klebold–as martyrs in his ravings sent to NBC News.
In so many words, he identified himself as their fellow-travelers, co-conspirators and comrades-in-arms. These Legionnaires of Loneliness have taken the plot of “Revenge of the Nerds” to a macabre conclusion. The readily available armory of modern America is the great equalizer in the long-standing battle between social misfits, the runts of the Darwinian social litter, and their perceived adolescent betters.
The last shall become first … by murdering them.
As a biblical scholar at a mainline Protestant seminary, you might expect me to say that those whom claim that the devil made Cho Seung-Hui do this are members of the Flat Earth Society. (I think they are.)
Still my high-falutin’ ideas about “the God beyond God” and skepticism that there is any reality that conforms in any way, shape or horned-form to the traditional image of Satan are beside the point.
For those who walk around with the devil story as a lens for translating the random and chaotic flow of events into a story about good guys versus bad guys, it makes perfect sense. Satan, the Author of Disasters, the Underground Kingpin of Murder, Inc., the Master Spy of the Network of Evil, recruited this child of God into his malevolent ranks.
For those of us who do not walk around with this Satan story, it seems clear that Cho Seung-Hui was not recruited. He enlisted. The pathological army he joined was not mustered by a cosmic power. It emerged wholly from a combustible and toxic mixture of psychology and sociology.
The psychological imbalances in this young man–with an invisible disability and the culture of guns and communication that allow the meek to inherit the fear of their peers–have come together with the headlines to form a perfect storm in contemporary America.
Something tells me that it has not blown over yet.
Gregory Mobley is associate professor of Old Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass., and co-author of The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots.