Al Pacino is John Milton. Not John Milton the writer of Paradise Lost, although that is the obvious in-joke of the movie The Devil’s Advocate (1997). No, this John Milton is an attorney and — in what thus might be another obvious in-joke — he is also Satan, the Prince of Darkness. In the movie, he hires a fine young defense attorney, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), and offers him an escalating set of heinous — and high-profile — cases to try, a set of ever-growing temptations if you will. What will happen to Kevin in the trials to come?
The Devil is a terrifying foe in this film, which should not surprise us. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the Duino Elegies that “Every angel is terrifying.” We sometimes forget that our devils were angels first. Tales of angels fallen from goodness particularly bother us, and Satan’s rebellion is supposed to have inspired the most terrible of conflicts. In The Prophecy (1995), Simon (Eric Stoltz) describes the conflict in Heaven and its consequences: “I remember the First War, the way the sky burned, the faces of angels destroyed. I saw a third of Heaven’s legion banished and the creation of Hell. I stood with my brothers and watched Lucifer Fall.”
The Doctor Who episode “The Satan Pit” (2006) also retells the story of this conflict. The Doctor (David Tennant) encounters The Beast (voiced by Gabriel Woolf) deep within a planet. The Beast tells The Doctor that he comes from a time “Before time and light and space and matter. Before the cataclysm. Before this universe was created.” In this time before Creation, The Beast was defeated in battle by Good and thrown into the pit, an origin that clearly matches that of the Satan whose legend he is said to have inspired: “The Disciples of the Light rose up against me and chained me in the pit for all eternity.”
A majority of Americans believe in Satan, a personified cosmic force of evil, but why? The Hebrew and Christian testaments say almost nothing about the Devil. As with Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, angels, and other topics related to the afterlife, most of what we know — or believe we know — about Satan comes from human imagination, not from holy scripture.
We have used stories, music, and art to flesh out the scant references to the Devil in the Bible. We find Satan personified in medieval mystery plays and William Langland’s Piers Plowman (ca. 1367), and described in horrifying—and heartbreaking—detail in Dante’s Inferno: “If he was fair as he is hideous now, / and raised his brow in scorn of his creator, / he is fit to be the source of every sorrow.” (Inferno 34.34-36) We find the Devil represented in the art of Gustave Dore and William Blake, and in our own time, represented graphically in the comics The Sandman, Lucifer, and disguised as “The First of the Fallen” in Hellblazer. We watch Satan prowling the crowds for the entirety of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), and arriving for an earthly visit at the end of Constantine (2005).
And we are terrified. Like him or not, the Devil is the greatest villain of all time. Who else stands for every quality and condition that we claim to despise? Who else helps us to understand why the world contains evil — and why we are ourselves sometimes inclined toward it?
We also work out these questions through characters who are not explicitly Satan, but who embody supernatural or preternatural evil. If writers and artists can be said to create “Christ figures,” then it makes sense that they might also create “Satan figures.” Professor Weston in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra space trilogy, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and films, Darkseid (the ruler of the hellish planet Apokolips in DC Comics), Lord Voldemort (The Dark Lord of the Harry Potter mythos), and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter all fit this profile. Such characters — dark, scheming, and because of their tremendous capacity for evil, all but all-powerful — may tell us as much about evil as our stories of Satan do. In fact, Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Lecter in the television series Hannibal, makes that comparison explicit:
“I believe that Hannibal Lecter is as close as you can come to the devil, to Satan. He’s the fallen angel. His motives are not banal reasons, like childhood abuse or junkie parents. It’s in his genes. He finds life is most beautiful on the threshold to death, and that is something that is much closer to the fallen angel than it is to a psychopath. He’s much more than a psychopath, and there is a fascination for us.”
In our consumption of narratives and images of the Devil, we are trying to work out what — if anything — the devil means. Even if we don’t believe in an actual fallen angel who rules this world and contends with God, most of us have come to accept that Satan is an emotionally-satisfying explanation for all that goes wrong in real life. The stories in which Satan chills us prove this beyond doubt. What could be more frightening than Al Pacino’s John Milton plotting the destruction of our hero in The Devil’s Advocate, his schemes only moments away from coming to fruition?
Evil is real, and has real power. We see that in the daily headlines and history books, in our own lives and even in ourselves. To find out where that evil comes from — to understand why human beings do things that are so clearly wrong — perhaps we do need to wrestle with the Devil, even if the only way we encounter him is as a character in a story.