Better watch out, I’m telling you why: the devil’s gonna gitcha. He prowls around like a roaring lion. Or would that be a snake? Wait no, he’s a goat-like figure with horns and a pitchfork…er, trident. Hold on, I thought he was an angel of light? I’m so confused.
Here’s the thing. Every system of belief has to have a boogeyman. The bad guy. The corruptor of the innocent who preys on the weak and helpless. The personification of pure evil we can direct our Two Minutes Hate toward. Praise the powers that be we’ve been clever enough to escape his clutches!
The Hebrew Scriptures originally introduced such a boogeyman in a mere handful of stories. They even gave him a special title: Ha-Satan — aka, The Accuser, or The Adversary. In some renditions he’s not even all that evil; more like a sour-faced stuck-up who’s tattletaling to God about some goody two-shoes (Job for example).
What’s super weird about all this is, when you zoom out to the wider scope of the Old Testament writ large, Ha-Satan is barely there. And some of the places you might go to to find him—Genesis for starters—are actually a much later interpretation. Literally speaking, there’s nothing in the Garden of Eden story about Satan, the Devil, etc. It’s just a talking snake. An interpretation of that passage as chiefly messianic in nature came centuries later.
(To be honest with you, I always had a problem seeing that passage as a prophecy about Satan vs. Jesus. I mean, right before the bruising heads and heels part, it talks about the snake slithering on its belly and eating dust. Um, yeah, that’s what snakes do. What in the world has that got to do with angels of light, demons, becoming the headmaster of hell, and the like?)
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that yes, there are a few scattered stories throughout the Old Testament about adversarial mythic figures opposing the will of God; tales of angels falling from heaven and corrupting mankind (and in some cases having sex with the womenfolk!). But the theological construct of Satan with a capital S that we have today just isn’t all there.
OK, you convinced me when it comes to the Old Testament. But what about the New Testament?
By the time of the events of the New Testament, widespread belief in demons aka evil spirits who seemingly can posses people and cause all sorts of mental or physical ailments had grown considerably. And if you have a metaphysical “underworld” with hordes of devils running wild, it would stand to reason that there’s a Chief Devil among them calling the shots. Seems logical, right? He even shows up in the wilderness right before Jesus kicks off his ministry and has a tête-à-tête with the Son of God.
But it’s not just that there’s this super bad dude named Satan popping up in various New Testament stories. He’s also somehow entering people and influencing their behavior to be evil rather than good. Or he’s tempting people whenever they have doubts about the faith. Or he gives people the power to perform miracles apparently! (Otherwise why would the Pharisees accuse Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebub?) Or perhaps he’s waging war in a cosmic battle up in the heavens. Actually, the real scoop is he’s a multi-headed dragon at the end of time (aka, the Book of Revelation). At least that’s what thebookofrevelationmadeclear.com says.
Again, I’m so confused.
Listen. Normally I prefer not to argue against an idea by mocking it, as I’m doing here. But I’m not sure how else to talk about Satan at this point. Freed from the need to prop up Christian tradition and systematic theology, it’s overwhelmingly obvious to me that a bunch of mainly unrelated stories, characters, and mythological figures scattered through the Old and New Testaments have, over the centuries, been cobbled together by theologians into a barely coherent narrative. Something along the lines of:
There was this supernatural individual named Lucifer, a devilishly handsome fellow (see what I did there) who ran things up in Heaven. He was an angel you see, the top dog of them all. But then he got mad at God for being, er, God I guess, and he decided he wanted to be the big cheese instead. But his evil plan failed and he got kicked out of Heaven, taking a bunch of his bad boy angel buddies with him who then turned into demons. Satan (no longer called Lucifer) then landed on earth disguised as a snake (?), led Eve to rebel against God, then sort of went into hiding for the most part for thousands of years until right before Jesus came along. For whatever reason, at that point he and all his demon pals really stepped it up with subjecting humans to a world of hurt, so Jesus made it a point to seek out those demons to cast them out and heal people right and left. Yay for Jesus! (Jesus also rhetorically kicked Satan’s butt in the desert.) Then Jesus died on the cross, went to hell, freed everybody there (or only some?), and then came back in his resurrected form to hang out with his disciples. And somehow that meant he defeated Satan. Except not really because the world is still secretly run by the devil and his minions, or so we’re told. Thus Satan won’t really be defeated until the end of the world when the apocalypse happens. Thankfully, that’s when the devil and his demonic hordes are cast into the lake of fire and that’s the end of the story. Jesus wins and Satan loses. Burn, baby, burn!
Something along those lines.
“The devil’s greatest trick to get you to believe he doesn’t exist.”
Perhaps you might be thinking my skepticism concerning Satan is simply playing right into his hands. Sure he might ultimately want us to worship him directly, but it’s an even bigger win to get us to stop worshiping God. (Because non-belief in Satan automatically means non-belief in God, right? Er, uh, hmm…)
All I can say to that logic is: well that’s awfully convenient, isn’t it?! What you’re telling me is that, in order to be a good Christian, I not only have to believe in a God who can’t be seen or touched but who will make his presence known to me as he enters my heart, but I also have to believe in a Devil who is actively trying to hide his presence so that I have no reason to believe he’s real at all.
Wow. That…makes no sense whatsoever.
I have a simpler explanation
One that doesn’t require mental gymnastics to keep track of all the different meanings and plot points and story arcs that never quite fit together.
One that doesn’t turn Jesus into some buff superhero suckerpunching his arch-nemesis and reigning supreme in the final boss battle.
One that doesn’t turn God into some aggrieved party who put so much stock into this angelic Lucifer character only to see him crash and burn and then somehow wipe out the spiritual merits of the entire human race on his way down to rock bottom.
My simpler explanation is this: Satan doesn’t, in fact, exist. I mean not as a literal being aka some singular immortal entity who bears the name “Satan” and runs things down in hell. However, I do believe in “satans”—that is, devilish personalities, veritable monsters, personages of great evil. For example I believe Hitler was a devil. I believe Nero was a devil. I think any one of us is capable of becoming Ha-Satan and turning against our fellow humans to transform our world into a living hell.
But is that really all there is to the story? Isn’t there a supernatural realm of horror and outer darkness? Isn’t that what Jesus’ sacrifice was all about? Perhaps. The trouble is, when it comes to this topic there’s just not much to go on in the Bible in the way of concrete depictions. Anything we can glean comes mainly from an eclectic collection of various mythic tales, wrapped in an enigma. And that’s precisely why, over the centuries, the shadowy evil mastermind of certain stories gets named Satan and gets equated with fantastic beasts like talking snakes or seven-headed dragons, and then eventually the whole doctrine of hellfire and eternal torment comes along and surely somebody has to be responsible for that and…well, you see where this goes.
But why is this a problem? What’s the big deal with believing in Satan? Even if he’s not quite a real figure, metaphysically-speaking, maybe we would do well to value our souls and stay on the straight and narrow. Don’t allow yourself to get devoured by that prowling lion after all!
The problem is that “fear of the devil” has been weaponized in religious history to strike utter terror in the hearts of some of the most vulnerable populations. Fundamentalists of all stripes enlarge the devil’s role in popular imagination and stoke the fires of these diabolical visions.
Taken to extremes, it can become borderline absurd. Do you like eating too much chocolate? It must be the devil! Enjoy the company of your own gender too much? The demon of homosexuality must be cast out! Prefer listening to Black Sabbath instead of hymns on the Sabbath? Surely you’ve been possessed by the evil spirits of heavy metal!
Blaming Satan and his minions for every human foible (or merely qualities we find in folks we don’t like) can end up directly causing mental illness and extreme psychological problems, leaving people traumatized and spiritually paralyzed.
I’ve seen this first hand.
I once witnessed somebody “casting demons” out of a man in San Francisco during a prayer rally and worship music event. What I found disturbing (even when I still bought into the whole Charismatic thing at the time) was she (the demon caster) was white and he (the victim) was black and there mainly to hang out and smoke some weed. She kept yelling at this poor man and he mostly took it in stride (probably he was pretty stoned at that point). But it was utterly embarrassing. I watched from a distance and thought to myself “if there’s ever a proper scenario where we should imitate Jesus and cast a demon out of a person, there’s no way in hell this is it!”
But unfortunately, in many Charismatic Christian circles today, belief in people—even Christians—getting “demonized” and suffering mental, physical, or behavioral ailments directly caused by devils is widespread. I myself was part of a faith community which unquestioningly believed this was happening all the time. In fact, in order to be really sure we were protected from falling under the influence of Satan, we had to go through “spiritual housecleaning” by removing any artifacts in our possession which might draw the devil to us. We had to throw away books, movies, or other items which referenced the occult or something overtly “bad” (sexual I suppose, or gory, or whatever). We also had to go through special rituals to lift “generational curses”—I’m not making this up! Apparently if our ancestors had been demonized at one point or another, that negative spiritual energy could make its way down the family tree. I was even afraid that if I masturbated, it was a sign I was being influenced by the generational curse of a known promiscuous grandparent!
You might be rolling your eyes at this point, but the real tragedy here is that these sorts of cartoonish fears of evil personified running rampant in our lives is the everyday religious context of many thousands if not millions of people. I was once part of that movement. And only in recent times has it occurred to me how incredibly damaging it is to live as though a demon were lurking behind every bush, waiting to jump out and get you when you’re least prepared and “spiritually” fortified.
So you’d better pray a lot, and seek Jesus a lot, and read your Bible a lot, and go to church a lot, and hang out with other Christians a lot, and go through various ritualistic practices, and only then are you, maybe, going to emerge unscathed and defeat the works of the devil like Jesus did.
It’s fucking exhausting.
My awakening to true freedom from Satan
The first time I was thoroughly challenged to consider if Satan was simply a myth was when I watched the debate on ABC Nightline featuring Bishop Carlton Pearson and Deepak Chopra on the “he’s a myth” side, and Mark Driscoll (wow, his legacy in pop culture hasn’t aged well!) and Annie Lobert on the “Satan is real” side. When I first heard Bishop Pearson describe his journey toward non-belief in Satan, I was quite shocked. How could anyone possibly believe in the God of the Bible without believing in his principal Adversary?!
Mark Driscoll took much the same tack as this article from GotQuestions.org titled If God knew that Satan would rebel, why did He create him? I’m sure Mark thought he was making good points, but all it did for me was help me begin to realize the sheer wackiness of such a belief. A few years later, I find that whole line of reasoning entirely vapid.
My principle concern is it places humankind in the center of a Battle—a Great War of the cosmos where you’re forced to pick a side. You’re either on God’s side or Satan’s side. You’re either a pawn in a larger game, or you’re holding up a weapon to fight against the forces of darkness (spiritually speaking, although in fundamentalist extremism this can manifest physically).
Such religiosity based on the language of warfare can feel really good for the folks who buy into it. I remember feeling a sense of worth and purpose when I wholeheartedly believed I was equiped by God to do spiritual battle against satanic hordes. But as time has passed and I’ve grown a wee bit wiser, I’ve come to comprehend the distructive potential of doctrines centered on cosmic violence and zero-sum games.
In summary, I would argue that belief in Satan and all that entails is effectively more demonic than non-belief. As Bishop Pearson puts it, the more you believe in the devil, the more you make the devil a reality.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment of “Dial H for Heresy” where I’ll continue to dive into the problematic doctrine of “spiritual warfare” and why it’s essentially the polar opposite of a healthy contemplative spirituality built upon principles of peacemaking and non-violence. Subscribe to get notified when future installments are published!
Illustration by Victor Vincent Adam, ca. 1830. Source: Smithsonian
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