Does the Devil need Political Power to harm the Church? A Review of Jason A. Whitlark’s “Resisting Imperial Claims: Jesus’ Defeat of the Devil”

Whitlark, Jason A. “Resisting Imperial Claims: Jesus’ Defeat of the Devil.” Pages 122-41 in Resisting Empire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to “the Hebrews.” Library of New Testament Studies 484. London: T & T Clark, 2014.

Investigating Jesus’ defeat of the devil in Heb 2:14, Jason A Whitlark argues that “Jesus’ triumphant enthronement following his victory over the devil in Hebrews represents a figured critique of Roman imperial authority” (123). Whitlark suggests that Hebrews’ reference to the defeat of the devil in Heb 2:14 could be understood as a metaphor for conquering Rome and its authoritative grip on humanity (124). Because Rome was understood to carry the power of death—and Hebrews describes the devil as the being holding the power of death—Whitlark infers that the author of Hebrews may have been trying to covertly undercut Roman imperial power (124-25). Whitlark builds his case by investigating NT passages outside of Hebrews, church fathers, and Roman legal precedent.

  1. According to Whitlark, Paul’s autobiographical note in 1 Thess 2:18, that Satan prevented him from visiting the Thessalonians, should be read in light of the threats Roman authorities made toward him as an apostle of Christ (125). Similarly, Paul’s promise to the Romans that God would soon crush Satan under their feet (Rom 16:20), “Might be a cryptic reference to Roman imperial authorities or the imperial culture that acclaimed Rome’s authority and afflicted the Christian communities in Rome” (126).
  2. Whitlark offers martyrdom texts of the Church Fathers, like the Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4-3.1 and Justin’s first and second apologies, as evidence that the early church attributed Rome’s authoritarian rule to the devil (129). Applying his paradigm of imperial Criticism to Hebrews, Whtilark states that “The audience of Hebrews would likely have heard in the mention of the devil in Heb 2:14 a reference to Roman imperial authority at whose hands they were suffering” (130).
  3. Surveying Roman law, Whitlark finds in Patria potestas—the statute providing a Roman father the authority of life and death in his family in order to maintain the honor of Rome via the fidelity of his own household—a framework that applied even outside of the family unit (132-33). Whitlark argues that emperors like Vespasian enjoyed the highest rung on a scaffolding of Patria potestas-like authority in Rome, wielding absolute sway over all families and peoples in the empire (132-33). Since Christians were thought to compromise Rome’s honor by their worship practices, the Roman authorites held Christians in fear of death all their lives—the exact characteristic Hebrews attributes to the devil (138). “The audience of Hebrews living in or around Rome would have been reminded daily of the fearsome messages of Roman power that were supremely embodied in the emperor” (138).

Whitlark infers that Jesus’ victory over death would have emboldened Christians hearing Hebrews to resist imperial threats to conform to Roman paganism (139). Because Jesus was faithful in His suffering (Heb 5:5-10; 12:1-2) at the hand of Roman authorities, He is able to aid Christians as they endure the results of their resistance to Roman threats (139). Whitlark argues that the threat of Rome was so strong that Christians, including the author of Hebrews, cast it in apocalyptic language: “The goal of Christians in identifying imperial culture and power with the devil or Satan was to portray their conflict as an apocalyptic one” (139). This paradigm in place, Christians would understand that their ultimate battle was not with Roman authorities—who were simply the devil’s tool for suffocating Christian testimony and eternal hope (140). Jesus’ victorious death, Whitlark maintains, provides Hebrews’ audience a rationale for resisting Rome without insurrection: by faithfully maintaining their allegiance even unto death they would obtain their hope in eternity (Heb 11:35, 13:20) (140).

Whitlark’s case may suffer from being too persuasive. His analysis so intertwines the work of the devil and the power of Rome that I wonder if—in the condition that the latter would have been suspended for a time—Hebrews’ audience would have understood the former to also have no hold on them? My concern is that Whitlark describes a spiritual archenemy void of some of the characteristics and practices of the devil in scripture—motifs that explain the author’s matrix for Jesus’ defeat of the devil in Heb 2:14. In scripture, the devil makes humanity fear death not only by external powers like the Roman imperium but also through the internal power of unforgiven sin. I argue that at the cross Jesus acts as a faithful high priest to atone for the sins of those who believe in Him (Heb 2:16-17; cf. Job 2:1-10; Zech 3:1-5; Col 2:13-15), rendering the devil impotent in his scheme to condemn humanity to eternal punishment. Humanity is not threatened only in this life by national forces that come and go but by the enduring human condition of propensity to sin. Sin—not national or geopolitical threats—incur guilt before God. And in the author’s frame of thought, God’s wrath is of greater consequence than that of any Roman emperor (Heb 10:31). The author thus describes Jesus’ death as, yes, defeating the devil, but also the means by which Jesus forgives sin as mediating high priest of the new covenant. In Hebrews’ logic, Jesus’ victorious death necessitates the devil’s demise because it robs the devil of his power to condemn sinners before God—the result of which would be eternal death (Heb 2:14-17).