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What Does it Mean to Play Devil’s Advocate?

Playing devil’s advocate is meant to get people to think about something a different way, or to get someone to think through their point – taking an opposing, often unpopular viewpoint, and throwing it into the ring.

May 31, 2022
What Does it Mean to Play Devil’s Advocate?

The serpent, Satan, himself, is in the garden, the thus-far perfect garden, with Adam and Eve. He seems to be addressing Eve, trying to convince her that God has lied to them. His all-too-obvious goal is to get them to question God.

He wants them to believe that God is intentionally withholding from them the ability to have their “eyes opened” and “become like God, knowing good and evil.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” …You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1,4-5).

Eve added to God’s words regarding the tree – “…you must not touch it, or you will die.” And Satan took full advantage. It is so easy to picture, isn’t it? Satan says, “You will not surely die…”

Satan wants them to believe that God is being unfair – the two should be able to do as they please and should know good and evil. Eve didn’t hesitate a moment. She immediately took the bait – and took the bite of the apple.

Bingo. The first to play devil’s advocate, and so successfully too that his prey even went further in giving the forbidden fruit to his next prey, Adam, as if to prove the point. Without even realizing it, Eve had advocated for the devil.

Satan’s tactics have not changed. Right up to this very day, he will try to get people to question God’s Word. “God could not have meant…could he? After all, God is love, why would he do that?”

Satan wrangles the truth, then twists it around, giving us another “way to look at it” and, in the process, makes the lies sound so…attractive.

Exactly the tactic he used when he tempted Jesus in the desert. He took Scripture, which Satan knows all too well, and tried to twist it as if seeing it from another angle – and ultimately perverting it.

What Exactly Is Devil’s Advocate?

It is so easy to use expressions that we have heard all our lives but have no idea where they come from. For me, “playing devil’s advocate” falls squarely into that category. In my 45 years in the business world, I was known to do precisely that.

In an attempt to get people to think about something a different way, or to get someone to think through their point – I would take an opposing, often unpopular viewpoint, and throw it into the ring.

It wasn’t until recently though that I learned where the expression came from – and thought about what it really means. Where exactly did the phrase come from and how is it used today?

Well, its usage today certainly seems more harmless than what we saw in the garden, but the reality is something else again, and the origins of the phrase will certainly make me think twice about ever using the expression again.

According to dictionary.com, a devil’s advocate is “a person who advocates an opposing or unpopular cause for the sake of argument or to expose it to a thorough examination.”

Seems harmless enough, right? But a second definition referring to the Roman Catholic Church caused me to dig deeper into the origins of the expression.

The term “devil’s advocate” actually dates back to the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V created a position within the church that lasted until 1983 when it was abolished by Pope John Paul II.

That position, in Latin, was known as Advocatus Diaboli – literally, “devil’s advocate.” The person given that title was appointed by the church to raise doubts and arguments against the Bible, the truth of the gospels, miracles, salvation, and all things God or Jesus.

Why the position was created may have been quite innocent or worthy. But since the position was abolished, the modern-day usage of the phrase has come to be fairly commonplace and unoffensive – and used quite simply to identify a contrarian individual or argument.

But let us not forget – Peter gave a firm warning about the evil one:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

The Devil and His Advocates

From the very beginning, that “ancient serpent,” who is the devil, who has tempted, deceived, and destroyed those who have allowed themselves to listen to him and thus fall under his power.

This is Satan himself. The devil. He comes to seduce and lure us – and dresses himself up to be attractive to us. Paul warns us that the evil one “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).

Indeed, this is the reason Satan disguises himself. Satan appears as an angel of light in order to draw our attention – to draw us to himself – and to make his lies seem like the light of truth.

Today, it is no longer fashionable to talk about Satan – many pastors even avoid the subject entirely, choosing instead to focus on the more positive message of Jesus.

Perhaps afraid of creating empty seats in their churches, pastors fail to warn believers of the dangers of the evil one. This makes the dangers no less real.

Satan chooses to present sin as something pleasing and beautiful. Something to be desired. After all, why would a loving God not want us to enjoy that which is pleasing to us?

Satan attempts to convince us that his teaching is enlightening. Life-changing freedom from the rules. He wants us to question the Father – and to believe that we know better/best what is good for us.

We Must Be on Guard

As humans, all too often we underestimate Satan– almost as if he is no longer a factor today. This is precisely what he wants.

Satan hopes that we will ignore him – and he works very hard to make his very existence a matter of superstition or outdated and quite primitive belief, even among believers.

He knows that when we take him all-too-lightly – we let our guard down and allow ourselves to become vulnerable. He knows then that he can strike.

Light and darkness are biblical metaphors for good and evil. What happens when you are in a dark room, and someone turns on a bright light?

It almost hurts. Your eyes have difficulty focusing for a time. You want them to turn the light off and allow your eyes time to adjust. This is the tool of the evil one.

Darkness is a result of believing we know the truth better than God. It comes from not staying connected to the Word.

Moreover, ignorance of God’s Word will certainly result in being susceptible to “devil’s advocate” arguments. Yet, we are called to be able to demolish these arguments with the knowledge of Christ – just as Jesus did in the desert.

“…demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

  • We must stay diligent. Even to the language we speak and phrases we use (Ephesians 4:29).
  • We must stay in God’s Word in order that we can discern truth from lies (2 Peter 1:20).
  • We must stay unified and strong – despite our differences (John 17:20-21).
  • We must continue “meeting together” and “encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

Let us not, then, play “devil’s advocate.” Moreover, let us stand guard against such arguments.

Let’s face it, if Satan was arrogant enough to tempt Jesus, he will not hesitate to do all he can to separate us from the Father.

For further reading:

Why Do Some People Say ‘The Devil Made Me Do It'?

How Do We Know That the Devil Is a Liar?

How Can I ‘Resist the Devil’ and Cause Him to Flee?

Photo Credit: © iStock/Getty Images Plus/KTStock

SWN authorGreg Grandchamp is the author of "In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins" — an easy-to-read search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Greg is an everyday guy on the same journey as everyone else — in pursuit of truth. You can reach Greg by email [email protected]  and on Facebook

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