I have called into question the traditional understanding of Satan. Many widely held beliefs have absolutely either have no basis in scripture or at best not explicitly laid out. I have suggested the description of Satan in scripture actually changed over time. Whichever description one agrees with or emphasizes, there appears to be some evil spiritual figure in mind in the New Testament, so what are contemporary Christians to think about him/it? Should we live as if Satan does not exist? Should we live as if Satan is a servant of God? Should we still adhere to the traditional view? I here suggest that understanding why Satan developed in the ways that he did can prove helpful to this question. In this post I will discuss his development and my conclusions regarding all of this.
Anyone who reads the Old Testament and then the New Testament might be struck by something I pointed out recently. In the Old Testament there is little to no talk about any sort of evil spiritual forces. Aside from a handful of select ambiguous passages there are only three types of beings in the Old Testament. There is God, there are angels and there is humanity. That’s it.Then suddenly in the New Testament demons are being cast out left and right and there is some sort of evil spiritual being that appears to be opposed to God. What the hell happened? (Again, pun intended. Yes I recycle jokes. Don’t judge me.)
My belief is that Satan developed from a literary device to a full-fledged spiritual being opposed to God in order to incorporate dualism into Hebrew thought and theology. The purpose of this move was to resolve the difficulties inherent to struggling with theodicy in a strict monotheistic religion.
First, I should provide some historical and biblical background to this whole situation. When Israel was taken into captivity by Babylonian empire they were deported from the Promised Land. This was a very problematic situation because the land had been promised to them. It appears much of Samuel, Kings, and much of the Prophetic writing was written to explain why Israel had failed to uphold its end of the covenant and explain the Exiles ans divine punishment from God. But Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persian Empire. The Persians allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem but the Israelites were still under the rule of the Persian empire. Chronicles tells the same stories as Samuel and Kings, but in a much more conciliatory fashion to highlight God’s mercy (an example of this is the fact that Bathsheeba narrative with David is simply omitted) and the prophetic writing at this time turns from condeming outside foreign powers and focusing on the restoration of Jerusalem and the worship of the LORD. To put it simply (and ridiculously) at times it appears the role of the prophet shifts from an accuser and predictor of judgment to a spiritual spiritual visionary and cheerleader. (Compare Amos to Zechariah.)
During their decades under Persian rule the Israelites were exposed to and influenced by Persian theology and though during this time. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Anytime cultures intermingle there is a cultural exchange for better or for worse. The Bible saw this, at least with Israel, to be a negative thing. Intermarriage would lead to a cultural exchange of religions, a threat to the worship of the LORD. Regardless of if cultural exchanges are good or bad, they do happen, a fact that can be readily seen by just about anyone who thinks about our global village. A rather clear example that this happened comes from the Bible. The story of Esther is written like a Persian history and would fit in more in a Persian library than in our Bible. For those wondering, it has been suggested this is why the book famously never mentions God and is very different from traditional Hebrew narratives.
One result of this cultural exchange was the use of “the satan” in Job. As I have described in my previous post, I agree with Tur-Sinai and I believe the authors of Job used the concept of a spiritual satan as a literary device. Technically speaking, “the satan” in Job functions an anthropomorphic projection. Just as one might speak of the LORD having an arm or a hand, so a concept readily understandable to most readers was used to talk about the otherwise indescribable God. Specifically, it appears that “the satan” in Job was modeled after “the eyes and ears” of the Persian king who were domestic spies whose role it was to investigate and report on the behaviors of the King’s own subjects. The captive Israelites were most likely familiar with these “eyes and ears” after decades under Persian rule and were probably investigated themselves by such agents. The use of a “satan” in Job and Zechariah was then a contextualized way to describe God and His interactions with humanity. How was God aware of everything that went on in his realm? How did the LORD know who was truly loyal and who was not? Well, like the Persian kings the LORD has eyes’ and ears of His own that roam the whole earth, investigate humans and report back to Him. This begs the question, did the author(s) of Job mean for their writing to communicate actual truth about a spiritual being that existed or was it just a literary device? For the time being, I’m going to table this question.
However, the satan’s role as being an adversary, a spy, and an accuser made him ripe theological material to incorporate into Hebrew thought another helpful innovation picked up from the Persians: spiritual dualism. In Persian theology they conceptualized the world as being a battleground where the good god (Ahura Mazda) and the evil god (Angra Mainyu) contend for sovereignty. (Balentine, 53) These two diametrically opposed sides were constantly battling for control of this world and this spiritual warfare had very real consequences in the world. But why would this be an appealing innovation for the Israelites and something they would want to incorporate into their theology?
Dualism is useful because it helps alleviate or avoid what some psychologists have referred to as, “the emotional burden of monotheism.” In any monotheistic religion, where one God is in complete control of the world, one has to accept both bad and good, woe and weal, from ultimately the same source. This is a difficult concept to accept and apply in daily life and is a source of psychological, emotional and spiritual distress. How many can credit God with the birth and life of their child and also credit God with that child’s death at the hands of a drunk-driver without some serious difficulty? Furthermore, I think any honest person will admit that it difficult to affirm that God and good, just and in complete control when things that are clearly evil and unjust continue to happen in this world with frightening regularity. Talking about sin and the consequences of the Fall only goes so far. Holding onto the belief that God is good and just despite increasing amounts of evidence to the contrary is emotionally, psychologically and spiritually taxing and can only be maintained for so long without new information or a new understanding of God. In dualistic or polytheistic faiths this tension is avoided. The evil or injustice experienced in life is blamed on the evil God/god(s) and/or on the spiritual warfare between the two sides while the good God/god(s) are credited with the good things that happen in this world.
The Israelites were just like us. I am sure they too found it difficult to declare God as loving and God and just when they were taken into Exile after a time of prosperity and affluence. Often we ignore the fact that the Babylonians and Assyrians were brutal when they conquered people. The evils perpetrated this time was I’m sure horrific. When the Israelites, the Chosen People promised a Land for themselves, again found themselves under the rule of another foreign empire, theodicy was probably something they were wrestling with as individuals and as a people. The satan figure became a convenient way to explore dualism, a concept previously unheard of in Hebrew theology. Satan, introduced as a spy, accuser and adversary loyal to God, continued to develop as his name, exact nature and role morphed over the next several centuries. His original role as a shadowy secretive adversary whose job it was to be suspicious…of you…no doubt provided ample room for his power to increase and his nature to become more sinister and inherently evil.
Contrary to popular belief Jewish history and thought did not come to a screeching halt as they waited for a Messiah after the Exile(s). We often fall into this thinking because large parts of our Bible were cut out in the Reformation (thanks Luther) and cutting out these books created a huge gap in our biblical timeline. It was during this time, of rich theological diversity and development (where many of the various Jewish sects Christians are familiar with originated), that Satan underwent his gradual change and became part of common thought.
While this may all sound highly speculative, if reasonable, this move to incorporate dualism and alleviate theodicy is actually recorded in our Bible in the story of David taking a census and who incited him to do it. (I said I was going to come back to this.) It is hard to say “God is loving and just” when scripture records that God incited David to do something, then judged David for doing the very thing He had incited David to do. How just was God in killing 70,000 Israelites for something that He himself set into motion? The post-Exilic author(s) of Chronicles re-wrote this story and have Satan, not God, inciting David to take this census. In this new dualistic version of the story we can we can blame Satan (for tempting) or David (for falling into temptation) for the sin that God judges Israel for. Being able to assign blame to someone other than God for David’s actions allows God to judge the situation harshly and still appear just and good in our estimation. This strikes me as a cosmic joke of sorts. Our word and concept of a scapegoat originally derives from the goat sent out by lot to “Azzazel” whom some have identified with Satan/the Devil, on the Day of Atonement for the sins of Israel. Here now we can see Satan being used as a scapegoat to take the blame for the “sins” (the apparent injustice) of God.
This move towards dualism is also captured in non-biblical Jewish texts from the post-exilic time. Balentine writes that, “In the Book of Jubilees (2nd C. BCE), the chief of evil spirits is called Mastema (lit., “enmity, hatred, hostility”; 10:1-14; 11:1-5). It is Mastema, for example, who is said to have caused Abraham’s testing (Jub 17:16; cf. Genesis 22:1) and to have attacked Moses on his way to Egypt (Jub 4:2; cf. Exod 4:24). In Qumran texts, the leader of the forces of darkness is most often identified as Belial (lit., “wickedness” or “worthlessness”). As the prince of the kingdom of wickedness (1QM 17:5-6), Belial leads his troops against the Sons of Light in an effort to control the world (1QM 1:1, 13; 11:8; 15:3).” (Balentine, 53) Both dualism and spiritual warfare were being adopted into Jewish thought during this time. Again, this language and theology does not exist in the Bible before the Persian rule and it appears to be an import from Persian theology. Furthermore, we have here an evil spiritual being being blamed for actions that God is elsewhere credited with, apparently in an attempt to resolve these difficult passages.
By the time Jesus hits the scene in the New Testament satan, an evil spiritual kingdom, spiritual warfare and some super-demon opposed to God was apparently common theology. When Satan is referred to by name or referenced in an indirect way, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that everyone knows who is being talked about. When Jesus brings up Satan, his audience is not shocked and ask for an explanation. Satan, spiritual warfare, and dualistic thinking and language were not an abrupt theological inventions that hit the scene in the New Testament (as a literal reading of the Protestant Bible without historical context might lead one to believe) but beliefs that had been growing overtime and had become widespread.
Like many aspects of scripture the passages regarding this super-demon leave a lot of questions and there is ample room for interpretation. Historically, some in the Church have interpreted these verses and Church tradition and arrived at something that looks like the traditional understanding of the Devil. While some today might suggest the concept of the Devil being a red-skinned figure with a pitchfork is misguided they for some reason swallow other beliefs about him uncritically. Many of the beliefs about the Devil that I have encountered in the Church have absolutely no basis in scripture or are but one of many ways interpretations of select passages referring to Satan.
“But Kevin,” one might ask, “how does this understanding of the development of Satan/The Devil help us to understand how we are to understand this figure now? Are we to reject deny that Satan exists and it is all God? Are we to see Satan as a servant of God? Are we to re-interpret the passages in the New Testament as best we can? Are we to follow Church tradition?”
With certain caveats or stipulations any of these options could be described as the “biblical” approach to Satan, depending on one’s hermeneutic, Church tradition, and experience of the demonic. To many this will no doubt sound highly subjective. As with many things in the Bible, it is. However, I would hate to have written all this in vain so I should provide where I have landed currently as a result of exploring Satan and his development in scripture and Church tradtion.
For me personally, all of these options are undercut by one question:why doesn’t God kill the Devil?
Even if one disagrees with my research and adheres to the traditional understanding of the Devil, this question still poses a problem. If one believes that so many problems are caused by Satan, and one believes that God is all-powerful and will even one day throw the Devil into the lake of fire to be forever destroyed, why doesn’t God do that now? Is the lake of fire not hot enough yet? Does it have to warm up over centuries like a galactic jacuzzi? If God created the world through speaking it into existence, couldn’t He annihilate the Devil with one word to protect His children from harm? If one believes that nothing is co-eternal with God, then everything in this world, in both the physical and spiritual realms, must have been created by Him and is under His control if not guidance. The Devil must have been one of God’s creations. Did God’s creation somehow grow too powerful for Him to handle?
The only solution in my mind that makes any sense of the fact that Satan is allowed to continue to exist is because Satan still has a job to do. God is either planning on using Satan’s violent actions in some redemptive way or Satan’s actions are in line with God’s will and done at God’s permission or command. Satan is either an unwitting and begrudging servant of God or a loyal servant of God.
Because of my own studies I personally have come to reject the traditional understanding of the Devil have come to believe Satan is just another named servant of God, similar other named angels but with a unique portfolio of tempting and testing. My worldview is not Satan vs. God but Satan, along with everything else, under God. I think dualistic language and the language of spiritual warfare used in the New Testament, regardless of how literal or figurative it is supposed to be, is ultimately irrelevant in light of monotheism.
So why do we believe…such wonky things about Satan? I think many Christians uncritically adhere to the traditional understanding of the Devil and often exaggerate his power for the same reasons he was created in the first place: it makes theodicy easier. We are just like the Israelites. We may have not been taken into Exile but with the nightly news and the internet we are instantly aware of all the pain and injustice in this world that God causes or allows to happen under His sovereignty. It is hard to affirm God as loving, just and in complete control when faced with these these realities. We must grow in our faith, adopt specific theological stances or lose faith. Exaggerating the power and nature of the Devil, focusing on spiritual warfare, and ignoring the Devil’s subservience to God or God’s refusal to destroy the Devil are all theological stances. By taking these stances one can blame the Devil for at least some of the bad things that happen in this world and this requires less of us. It requires less of our faith, less scriptural honesty, less wrestling with God and allows for an easier and safer faith for most people. But this does not come without a cost.
Our use of the Devil and dualism often becomes quite heretical. To return to the article on the “emotional burden of theodicy,” the authors record that, “Historically, Christianity has always been tempted by dualistic polytheism or ditheism. From the great heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism in the 1st and 2nd centuries, to Manichaeanism in the 3rd and 4th centuries and Catharism in the 13th century, which still rumble on today, many Christians have tried to resolve the emotional burden of monotheism by positing two gods, one good and the other evil.” The pull to empower Satan has been felt by Christians for centuries and is felt today. I recently heard a professor at Fuller simply state something to the effect of, “Everything that is good is from the LORD and everything that is bad is from Satan.” This is obviously an extreme example, but it highlights the dangerous pit I think many have fallen into: by elevating the Devil to make faith easier for us we slowly dismantle true monotheism. Many Christians, especially those who are ardent adherents to the traditional understanding of the Devil actually have a faith that is ditheistic (that is a belief in two gods), not a belief in one God that exists in three persons who control everything.
While it is tempting to blame the Devil for some or all of the problems in this world, and such a stance is easier on us, this is ultimately unfaithful to God and what God has chosen to reveal about himself. The Bible is not shy about describing how God acts both benevolently and malevolenty towards individual humans and humanity as a whole. This is a difficult God to wrestle with, but this is the God of scripture. While this may be more difficult, and ultimately too difficult for some to continue in faith, we would do better and be more faithful to the scriptures to wrestle with this bigger, more mysterious God than use the Devil as a scapegoat to make things easier on us.