The Theological Psychology of “Lucifer”

(Updated 9/21)

The television series “Lucifer,” based on a character from the brilliant fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, does not shy away from addressing some of the big questions of Christianity. Do we have free will, or are our fates predetermined? Is Evil the result of a separate, opposing force to God, or the result of our own choices and actions? Is there really a Hell, and what is it like? Is damnation eternal?

The premise of the show is that there is a Hell and there’s a devil in charge—the fallen angel Lucifer. In this version of the story, Lucifer is nothing like John Milton’s Lucifer; he does not think it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. He has been sent to rule Hell as punishment for rebelling against his Father (rather like the rebellious son who gets sent to military school). He thinks this isn’t fair, and he longs to return home. But his pride and resentment won’t let him ask for forgiveness.

After æons of overseeing the punishment of the guilty, Lucifer is bored. He decides to take a vacation and comes up to Earth, to run a nightclub in Los Angeles and live a life of total hedonism. He grants favors, but not in return for your soul; instead, he makes it clear that you owe him an unspecified favor in return, to be paid on demand whenever he chooses. This favor can be great or small, whatever takes his whim. For example, in the first episode, he tells the rising young diva whose career he helped get going that it’s time to pay him back—which he wants her to do by getting off drugs and going straight.

He steadfastly denies that he entraps people into sin. “I take no part in who goes to Hell,” he tells one man. “Then who does?” the man demands. “You humans,” Lucifer replies. “You send yourselves, driven down by your own guilt, forcing yourselves to live your own sins over and over. And the best part . . . the doors aren’t locked. You could leave any time.” Here the show writers are echoing Dante’s idea of Purgatory, where repentant sinners (only the completely nonrepentant go to Hell in Dante’s vision) suffer torments appropriate to their sins for as long as they themselves feel the need to be punished. The torments are self-chosen and last until the sinner feels they have atoned sufficiently. Likewise, the people in the show’s Hell walk a “hell loop” of the actions they feel the most guilt over, reliving it incessantly.

Over time, it is revealed that Lucifer’s “angel gift” is to elicit the deepest desires of a person’s heart. His brother angel Amenadiel evokes the love of God in a person, and his brother angel Michael draws out their deepest fears. As Amenadiel figures out and explains to Chloe, the human police detective who is the female lead of the series, none of the angels create those feelings in others. They simply mirror feelings back to people. People may think they desire Lucifer, or love Amenadiel, or fear Michael, but that’s only because in the presence of these angels, those hidden feelings come to the surface. The devil does not “make” us do anything, but blaming him is a convenient way to dodge responsibility for our own feelings and actions. We fear him because we see our own darkest selves reflected in him. But the mirror does not create the image we see.

This process is what Carl Jung called projection. All of us, at times, project our own stuff onto other people and think that person is responsible. Most of the time when someone says “you make me [feel a feeling]” it’s a projection. Projection usually involves a strong feeling that’s rooted in some past experience. When another person somehow reminds us of that experience, perhaps by looking or behaving like another person we associate with that experience, we get triggered and hook back into those old feelings without being conscious of what is really happening. In this unconscious reactive state, it’s easy to transfer those feelings to the new person who “made” us feel them again. But the feelings have always been within us. For example, someone may be strongly attracted to a person who looks like their first love and ignore all the ways in which they aren’t like that person. Or they may hate on sight someone who reminds them of the bully of your high school, even if the person is perfectly nice. In either case they are not seeing the real person; they are “seeing” a memory.

Chloe is the only person who does not react in this way to angels. And at first, when Lucifer is near her, he is vulnerable to being wounded or killed, which otherwise he is not. Eventually they find out that Chloe is a “gift from God,” specially blessed at conception. She and Lucifer assume that God planned her as a gift to Lucifer, “the perfect Mrs. Morningstar” she says bitterly, and they both resent God for trying to manipulate them. This resentment throws into doubt the feelings they have for each other.

But Amenadiel suggests that the gift isn’t Chloe herself; the gift is Chloe’s resistance to the projection-provoking qualities of angels. She sees them for who they really are; she isn’t triggered, but remains conscious in the moment. Chloe is Lucifer’s only chance to know what it is like to be seen for himself instead of as the recipient of selfish desires. Furthermore, Amenadiel posits, it’s not that Chloe “makes” Lucifer vulnerable: Lucifer is choosing to be vulnerable when he is around her. What they will make of these gifts is up to them. Nothing about their relationship is preordained.

Quite the opposite, in fact. When we are in the grip of a projection, we can get stuck in old ways of behaving that aren’t necessary or helpful to us now. When we take back the projection, as Jung calls it–when we own our own feelings and take responsibility for them–we take back control over our own lives. When we can see clearly, when we become conscious of our own reactions, we can act with free will.

Another theme of the show is self-actualization. We become what we believe we are. In the show, this is as true for angels and demons as it is for humans. When Amenadiel believes he has done evil, he loses his angel wings. When Lucifer starts to fall in love with Chloe, he loses his “devil face” and grows back the angel wings he cut off in defiance of his Father. Maze the demon begins to learn that she has good qualities and starts to believe she is not purely evil. But first all of them must bring up their unconscious feelings into the light and look at them. The climax of Season Three comes when Lucifer, instead of blaming his Father for everything, cries out to the human therapist he’s been seeing, “why do I hate myself so much?” He realizes that even though he has fought against the view of the devil that humans have projected onto him, on some level he believes that he is just as bad as he’s been made out to be. Other people’s projections have no power over us–unless we agree, at least in part, that we are what they think we are.

Lucifer realizes that he doesn’t want to be that person. The only part of the devil persona he is comfortable with is the part that can see who is guilty and who is innocent, which is why he gets drawn into helping solve murder cases with Chloe. “Perhaps,” his therapist suggests, offering him what is called reframing, “what you’re really concerned with is not punishment, but justice.” Reframing allows us to see situations and ourselves differently.

When we can see ourselves differently, we can live up to that vision and be that different person. Ultimately, Lucifer goes beyond desiring justice for those who do wrong to having empathy for them. Empathy is a natural outcome of learning to forgive and have compassion for oneself; hatred of others is so often rooted in self-hate. He gives up what he thought was his own deepest desire–to rule Heaven–and returns to Hell. The denizens of Hell still have to walk their hell loops, but when they finally reach the point where they are ready, Lucifer invites them into his office, which exactly resembles the therapist’s office where he learned to forgive himself and move on. Sitting in the therapist’s chair, he guides souls to acknowledge and face their guilt, express remorse, and when they are ready, to ascend to Heaven. Lucifer, after all, means “light bringer,” and Lucifer has finally accepted his true calling: to bring others to the light of understanding and forgiveness.

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