(No, seriously, it’s
a parable an allegory. [Corrected 6/25/12.] Disclaimer one: I’m not actually religious. Disclaimer two: it’s not about me.)
God and the Devil decided to have a little competitive collaboration, to test out a couple particular notions they had of good and evil. To that end, God created a planet in some far-flung corner of the universe no one would notice, populated it with some plants and animals and a special race of people. These people were designed such that they would outwardly morph into either the form of demons or the form of angels if they were good or bad. This change would be gradual and cumulative, such that a bad act would make someone slightly more demon-like, and a good turnaround on that act might reverse the effect slightly.
As time went on, few of the people were ever fully transformed into demons or angels, as they learned the rules. They tended to hover slightly on the angelic side of the spectrum, since whenever they did something wrong the effect was obvious, but few if any could muster consistent goodness, and avoid justifying immoral acts (which they’d inevitably act surprised about later, when they became more demon-like because of them), and keep themselves constantly from enacting petty cruelties to ever make it all the way to full-angel. For the most part, the average person looked like an average person, with just a hint of extra purity in their eyes and a touch of heavenly glow about their hair.
But the Devil’s and God’s competition was not about them.
The competition concerned two specific individuals, one which was claimed by God and one by the Devil. Each set up circumstances around their person to drive them towards the angelic or the devilish side. God’s person was born with a naturally forgiving personality hard-wired in; a supreme empathy for others; an atypical lack of ego; and so forth. God’s person was raised by a group of partial-angels who did their best to instill in their ward a sense that goodness was achievable and that it was within her grasp to do good. They convinced her that being good was her future, was her self, and that, so long as she never became complacent about it, she should surely achieve it. She lived a good life, had many friends, had some challenges, made some mistakes but never repeated them, and by the time she had reached adulthood she was a full-on angel, complete with halo – and she still worked hard to keep it.
The Devil’s person was raised the opposite. His brain was predisposed not to wickedness, but rather to oversensitivity; if the Devil had designed him as a singleminded psychopath, that would hardly prove anything. He was made with the capacity for good, but raised in the worst circumstances imaginable. His neglectful caretakers abused him, told him he was horrible; whenever they appeared to do something good for him, their appearance became more demonish, as if helping him was a sin (in reality, this only happened because their “kindnesses” were performed for the sole purpose of trying to look better, and so backfired karmically). Whenever he seemed to have earned something, it was either given to someone else, or he became so gleeful to finally earn some good fortune that his gloating ruined it. Soon enough, he was purposefully ruining any good turn that came, expecting that it would happen anyways, and whenever he would encounter an obvious opportunity for a genuine kindness, he would spitefully do the opposite to punish himself, living up to his own expectations. Soon enough he became a full demon, complete with horns – and he worked hard to keep it that way, while even his caretakers had enough moments of at least nonchalant decency to keep them somewhere in the middle.
Their creations fully formed, God and the Devil arranged for their angel and demon to meet. The angel, being what she was, naturally pitied the demon, and understood that his demonish qualities were the result, essentially, of a cruel upbringing. She saw the potential for good in him underneath, and tried to convince him of it. Predictably, he lashed out at her at every chance, to prove her wrong; for if he was capable of decency, it was his own fault he was a demon, and not “just” that he was born that way.
The angel put up with his increasingly cruel revenges for a while (as they stepped up from mere spiteful words to full-on vandalisms of her life), but withdrew after a while, knowing that to allow herself to be punished as some sort of martyr for the good of someone who didn’t want redemption would be an evil thing unto herself. She was smart enough to know that to let herself be flagellated by him would not convince him he was good; it would just make him more bitter. So she withdrew.
The demon had a choice at this point. It was his rainbow moment. He could reach out for her, or he could self-satisfying assume that he had been proven truly evil, and give up. So he examined himself, said “fuck it,” and did one truly nice thing for her. He reached out. His horns receded a little; he took a deep breath, and accepted it. He did his best to ignore the implications this had for his past life, and tried to frame his action as an evil one: “I’m only doing good for her because she’s amazing and I want her,” he reasoned, “so it’s selfish and wrong.” Despite this, his horns stayed receded a bit. He simply ignored the contradiction as best he could.
He kept up this charade for a while and she slowly, cheerfully, came back into his life. Soon enough, it was looking like a sure victory for God, because the demon-person was looking downright in-the-middle and the angel still had her halo. But the Devil wasn’t worried.
Sure enough, one day the demon-person looked in the mirror and realized how far he’d come. He thought on all the tortures of his younger days, and all the bad things he’d done and justified as being of his nature. He felt immense guilt which he could not relieve simply by saying he had reformed and that past mistakes were acceptable so long as one moved past them. He reasoned the angel was just being nice to keep her halo, and hated her for that moment. Promptly he went out and did the worst thing he could conceive of to her.
As expected, he was immediately a full-blown demon again. The angel wept, but felt she understood. The demon deserved one chance, because “the worst thing he could conceive of” was not the worst thing she could conceive of. He had gone very far, but not crossed the line, possibly just because she had such deep and abiding grace that her line was far, far beyond any normal person’s. Call it the grace of God.
She forgave him.
This warped the demon’s mind completely. To be forgiven for the worst thing he could think of, what did that say of him? It either said that the angel was crazy – and he thought too much of her for that to be true – or that he deserved forgiveness. How could he deserve forgiveness? Only if he were capable of, after the forgiveness, living up to it.
Just as quickly as before, his appearance normalized to that of a plain person.
The Devil glowered. For a time he watched, as was customary, the planet revolve as the former-demon and the angel lived onwards in relative happiness. He figured it was decided; that is, until, sitting there and contemplating, the Devil came up with one more daring, last-ditch plan, to throw out there before these two people could grow old and die, and the experiment come to a conclusive end.
It was detailed work, but the Devil was meticulous, and soon the scenario was set up. To describe it specifically would be nearly impossible, for the number of little faults the Devil inserted into the world were legion. Suffice to say that the life of the former demon and the angel, and their friends and family, was slowly undermined so as to rest on a series of what amounted to dominoes. All the Devil had to do was wait.
The former demon was not himself perfect or an angel at this point. He was still oversensitive, and quick to self-indulge, and to lash out, and one day a minor thing ticked him off. He took out his frustration on some mutual friend, and the Devil’s dominoes began to fall. Soon, the emotional storm he had started blew back his way, and the former demon had to make a little white lie to protect himself, in one of those same little gut-reaction evils that kept most of the people on this planet from ever becoming full angel; that lie spiraled out of control, and soon the entire collected family and friends of the angel’s and his was in turmoil. It was a series of small coincidences, a completely unfair setup by the Devil, but the former demon could not deny to himself, as he looked at the damage rippling around him, that he had done wrong in this, and that, although the effects were disproportionate, he could have foreseen them if he had truly paid attention. He, both rightly and wrongly, blamed himself.
About to be cast out by the friends and family, who had perhaps always been suspicious of the former demon and now felt that ths last straw had been snapped, he turned to the angel. He knew that she would forgive him, and that, as the famous full-angel, her forgiveness would earn his way back into popular approval. He was not thinking about the smugness of his action. When he went to her, the angel saw the truth: the dominoes that had fallen had hurt too many people to be reset. He was doomed to be despised by their loved ones, with or without her forgiveness; unlike him, she did not ascribe god-like powers to herself, and knew that their friends would simply dismiss her forgiveness as a luxury she could afford as an angel. But she grieved, and did not want to see this happen. She had come to genuinely enjoy his company after he had reformed, and she felt some injustice at the way the dominoes of coincidence had blown the situation up.
So she lied. She invented a story that but the blame on herself.
Her friends and family would never believe it, of course, coming from her, with her halo on her head. Something significant needed to happen for them to believe it. And somehow, in the thinking it, she made it happen: and her halo disappeared.
Everyone was shocked. Some of her friends and family were shamed, some confused, some forgave her instantly, and some were happy to see her brought down a notch after so many years, but it was he who was most profoundly affected by her backwards conversion. She took him aside to apologize to him for her selfish and doe-eyed act, because she saw that her own downgrade was wounding him severely, but, not the least because it made him feel more guilty that she who had just lost her angelhood was actually apologizing to him instead of the other way around, he could not accept.
The Devil licked his lips. The Devil knew that the former demon would imminently revert to full demonhood, and permanently, having seen that he had brought down an angel. He knew that his former demon would have to once again justify the consequences and reconcile them with his identity; if he had brought down this angel, surely he would know himself to be a demon, and would never again allow himself to be remotely good.
But something happened that the Devil did not expect, and whether or not God could depends on your conception of God in such a universe. On seeing the angel’s halo wink out, and hearing her apologize to him for this, something chemically fundamental changed in the former demon’s mind. He had staked his knowledge of himself as an agent capable of good on the angel’s word, but here was that same angel, tarnished. But he had also, in the intervening years, done many unequivocal goods to total strangers and other friends, having branched off in a sense from the angel herself. The former demon knew he was not utterly evil; but he also knew that he could not forgive himself for tarnishing the angel. He could not let her see him become a demon again, for that would double up the wrong he’d done to her; but he could not let her see him remain where he was as if he did not care, and he could not let himself ever after become more angelic, for that would mean he had forgiven himself. He could be neither evil nor good; he could not stay where he was, nor could he change.
So he became some other thing entirely. All his colors expired, and he turned into a shadow.
The Devil slumped in his throne, astounded. He blinked his eyes. Then he spat, cursed, and spitefully invoked God, who came to him. The Devil expected that, since now God’s person was still overall on the angelic side of the spectrum, and the Devil’s person was on some other plane of humanity, void, seemingly, of either goodness or evilness, that this would mean God would claim the victory.
But, in an act that the Devil would always remember as a perfect example of how even he, the Devil, could not understand God, instead God bowed his head. “We have both lost,” said God, and with one of his Words the entire planet of demon-spectrum-angel people they had created was unmade.
The Devil sat there a while, staring at the empty void in the middle of some far-flung corner of space, and then reluctantly rejoined God in observing plain Earth.