Heaven Is for Real, the story of a young boy who reportedly had a real-life experience of heaven during emergency surgery, is currently playing in movie theaters. The film is not doing as comparatively well as the eponymous, bestselling book that inspired it — more than one million e-book copies alone of which have been sold — but it will likely inspire other Christian films, given that its gross receipts have exceeded its relatively modest budget more than sixfold thus far.

The book and the movie’s success have reminded me that people can also come to believe that God and heaven exist by realizing that the devil and, thus, hell are real, and sometimes through a shocking personal experience.

In his short pontificate, Pope Francis has spoken often of the reality of the devil, (read here too) and the accompanying existence of hell, which is definitely a place to be avoided.

This is all rather timely because this year marks the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist. It’s one of the highest-grossing films ever, particularly when adjusted for inflation.

The movie has some disturbing elements, but it presents the reality of the devil — and how he operates — in an especially compelling cinematic fashion, as the late Father James LeBar, who served as the chief exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, was quick to affirm. (Here’s another interview with Father LeBar, particularly note the end of the interview).

As Father LeBar notes, demonic possession is distinguished from mental illness by several phenomena, including that a possessed person may speak in a language or languages they’ve never studied, manifest clairvoyance about past or future events, and/or exhibit extraordinary strength well beyond that which can momentarily occur amidst an adrenalin-fueled crisis.

These phenomena are writ large in The Exorcist, which is based on a true story, and in the book Begone Satan: A Soul-Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession in Iowa, a true story which can also be read online.

As both the book and the film dramatically convey, the devil will “pull out all the stops” to intimidate and otherwise demoralize an exorcist and his support staff. Hearing and reading about such dramatic encounters can provide needed spiritual sobriety checkpoints in our secularized world, although the overwhelming number of people on earth will not need an exorcism, nor be a witness to one.  Most people’s battle with the devil will be more subtle, yet no less real, as he seeks to provide us with occasions of sin of various sorts to keep us from knowing God, lead us away from God, and, in any event, undermine our human relationships in the process. 

For example, the devil’s goal with unbelievers is to keep them distracted from pondering the ultimate questions of whether he or God exist, such as by encouraging them to stay focused on their life ambitions and/or vices. And he can help make the answers seem absurdly self-evident to us, given the painfully obvious problem of evil in the world, or perhaps because of God’s “failure” to meet their lofty standard of demonstrating his existence. And if God doesn’t exist, surely the devil and hell don’t.

Believers are certainly not immune either to Satan’s prowling, for as a wise friend once said, “The devil has something for everyone.” Some are led astray by calling evil good (Isaiah 5:20), basically presuming to remake God in their own image, such as in supporting the redefinition of marriage or defending the HHS mandate on the federal level, or justifying one vice or another in their personal lives (Romans. 1:18-32; Catechism of the Catholic Church 401).

He can also exploit one’s pious preferences to achieve his divisive goals. So he’s more than happy to have someone fervently participate in Tridentine Masses or pray the Rosary daily, while that same person also breaks Communion with Christ’s vicar on earth, the pope.

And for those aligned with the Holy Father, the devil can play upon their psychological and spiritual vulnerabilities. Such people might fail to achieve a very important goal(s) in their personal lives, particularly a vocational one, and interpret it as somehow a sign of God’s disfavor or punishment. Even though they haven’t committed a mortal sin, they can experience profound guilt, anxiety and even clinical depression, which could be aggravated by other factors in their lives. One might call it the “Job Complex,” as in the biblical figure, and here good spiritual direction from a priest or other qualified individual can be crucial in helping set them straight that they’re not “on the outs” with the Lord.

So unbelievers often have to struggle against dismissing the existence of heaven and hell, as St. Faustina affirms, while believers must guard against the two main sins against hope: presumption and despair (Catechism 2091-92); however, the faithful shouldn’t unduly fear the devil and hell. Rather, they should calmly see through the counterfeit promises of Old Scratch, as moral relativism of any type cannot engender the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn.8:31-32), nor provide the peace which the world cannot give (cf. Jn. 14:27).

Let us pray for God’s strength and healing love in our lives, and in the lives of those most in need of his mercy (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-7).