The truth is that I have not spent much time incorporating the satan into my theology. So when a commentator requested last week that I explain my beliefs regarding the satan, I was a little anxious, to be honest. The request makes sense, though: if I am dismissing the notion of hell as a literal place of punishment and torment, then what do I do with Satan? It is a legitimate question. But it is not a question to which I have devoted much time, preferring to focus on the light than on the darkness. So I am aware that what follows is not a coherent and complete doctrine. All I hope to do is provide some insight into the framework which I would use to construct a doctrine on the satan if I were to devote time to doing so.
I need to begin by noting that I am more than a little concerned by the modern Evangelical preoccupation with Satan. I am not convinced that darkness-oriented ministry is a particularly fruitful use of time and energy. First, I see it as largely unnecessary: if I do ‘good’ (ie. imitate Jesus’ ethics of practising forgiveness and relinquishing violence, whether systemic or personal) then by definition I restrict ‘evil’, as evil is simply the absence of goodness rather than the opposite of it. Second, I think an ‘evil’-oriented ministry speaks to fear (rooted, as it is, in a crime punishment mentality) and, consequently, ultimately drives out love (1 John 4:18) and thus God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). Still, some understanding of what has come to be known as Satan is probably useful: if we have a picture of Satan that is wrong, the chances are that we have a picture of God that is wrong too. And if our pictures of God are wrong, our ethics become distorted as a result. Even a brief look at what has been done in the name of religion will provide a sobering reminder of the necessity for having a right picture of God.
Getting a sound picture of God is hard work, but critical. How I wish that all Christians would try to do meaningful research when constructing their theologies. I completely understand why, when asked what the greatest commandment was (Matthew 22:36-40), Jesus added that we ought to love God with ‘all of our minds’ – which is not in the original – when quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (Do you notice how he uses scripture? There is no hint that it is complete and inerrant). Religious people tend to avoid thinking. I don’t mean that cruelly. I think we do it because we conflate our theologies (our ideas about God) with God. In other words, God becomes what we think She is, and we cannot accept challenges to our God-concepts because they are challenges to our selves. It is easier to avoid thinking. I think Jesus understood this, except he pointed it out more diplomatically than I know how to. In the spirit of developing an informed theology, I have done a little research into Satan, and I am going to paraphrase the key ideas from the reading list at the end of the post. Although I do not agree with everything all of them write, they each provide valuable insight for you to sift through. All of my ideas are derived from their work.
It may surprise many to know that Satan is not prominent in the Biblical writings at all. Most of what people have come to understand about Satan is derived from mythological writings and theologically questionable apocryphal texts.
In the Old Testament, satan is mentioned only a handful of times. On almost every one of those very few occasions, the word – meaning “adversary” or “accuser” – is used in reference to a human being. The absence of any reference to a supernatural “evil” being in literally centuries’ worth of writing has to suggest that either the concept of a being that embodies evil does not exist within the theologies of the people of those times, or is entirely unimportant if it does. And this is borne out in the way the word satan is used in the ancient writings: when the word satan is used, it denotes a function rather than a title. Thus, for example, when Jesus tells Peter “get behind me, satan” (Matthew 16:23), or when satan enters Judas (Luke 22:3), it is not meant to indicate possession by a malevolent spiritual force. Simply put, it indicates that these people acted as adversaries or stumbling blocks to Jesus’ mission through their behaviour. Nor does the word necessarily carry connotations of evil: note how God acts as a satan to David in the parallel passages of 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.
Somewhere during the exile in Babylon, possibly as a result of exposure to the ideas of Persian philosopher Zoroaster (who was trying to understand the nature of evil in the world, and had developed ideas around principles of light and principles of darkness, like opposing gods, locked in eternal cosmic battle), dualistic thinking about spiritual forces of good and evil entered Jewish (and later Christian) thinking. Over time, a mythology developed around a cosmic battle for the human soul between a good God and his evil counterpart, Satan. But this notion is entirely absent from early Jewish theology. Any reading of a literal being embodying evil (like the snake in Eden) can only be read backwards into the earlier texts. Any such reading would be anachronistic.
Ideas about a literal devil do start to have increasing sway in Jewish thinking, largely in accordance with the books of Enoch, which scholars date to somewhere between the 3rd and 1st Centuries BC, and which some of the new Testament writers quote. Although the claimed authorship is Enoch, the son of Noah, it was common practice at the time to claim that a prominent authority was the author of a text, in order to give it increasing credibility. This, for example, is the case with the book of Hebrews, which claims Paul as its author, a claim which scholars are fairly unanimous in rejecting. But when it comes to the concept of the satan, while traces of the ideas in the books of Enoch can be found in the New Testament, by no stretch of the imagination could anyone legitimately claim that the current understandings of Satan are Biblically derived.
Where does that leave me? I don’t know, truthfully. I think sin and the satan are tied up somehow, but I am convinced that the origins of the works of the satan are with me. Whenever I act in a way that opposes God’s peace agenda and Her grace, whenever I fail to forgive, or point fingers and accuse others, whenever I use the Bible or my faith as a weapon to define people as unacceptable or to perpetuate violent and unjust systems, I am the satan. I have a feeling that “him who holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14) , “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and the “powers”, “principalities”, “authorities” and “rulers” to which Paul often refers, even “the world” against which Jesus sets himself in opposition, are ways of relating to one another and to God that promote violence, and use the power of death – the devil – to maintain authority. Perhaps, in short, the devil is not so much a being as a way of relating, both to others and to God, that is built on violence (the absence of forgiveness). I do agree with Tom Wright that the presence of evil in the world is somehow bigger than the sum of the individual sinful human contributions, having almost taken on a life of its own, so to speak, and I am sure that, in some way that I do not comprehend, this is what Jesus defeated on the cross – why adherence to holiness codes could never suffice; why the law cannot bring life (Romans 8:2).
More than that, when it comes to the satan, I am unsure. I am not sure that I need to be more sure either. But I am certain of this: it is more valuable to embrace a faith that seeks to bring light than one that seeks to avoid darkness.
A Woefully Inadequate Reading List (please feel free to add):
Duncan Heaster, The Real Devil: A Biblical Exploration: http://www.realdevil.info/2-3.htm
Michael Hardin, The Satan : https://preachingpeace.org/the-satan
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006)
Very good article, Peter!
Thank you. I really appreciate that, coming from someone as insightful as you are. I love your blog – only recently discovered it, and instantly became a fan!
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Thanks for the kind words!
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