Satan got a bum rap

| November 13, 2008 | 4 Replies

I’ve always been curious about the character of Satan in Christianity. Why? Mainly because the Bible demonizes Satan (no pun intended) without ever letting Satan explain his side of the story, in his own words. The Bible claims to be The Truth, but it only gives us one side of the story: the side that is favorable to itself. That’s an obvious conflict of interest. Moreover, as we all learned in grade school, there are two sides to every story, which makes the Bible’s self-flattering claims not just one-sided, but plainly incomplete.

So, I have often wondered, does the Bible unfairly or incorrectly portray the Prince of Darkness, just as political writers today often unfairly or incorrectly portray their political rivals? Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, religious zealots, atheists, etc., all have been known to mischaracterize, even demonize, their opposites — so what about the Bible? By giving only one side of the story, how far does the Bible go in mischaracterizing its most hated antagonist?

To find some answers to this question, I recently read a book called, “The Origin of Satan” (1996) by Elaine Pagels. Pagels has written several provocative books about the origins of Christian doctrine. Her approach is refreshing: she does not evangelize either for or against Christianity, but merely presents her historical findings. Her ‘Origin’ book delves, obviously, into the source of the satan character.

I say the satan (with a small ‘s’) character, because “satan,” in ancient Jewish folklore, was originally the generic term for any angel sent by God to oppose human activities. That’s right, there were many satans, just as there were many angels, and each did its own sort of work for God. Significantly, a satan was not necessarily malevolent: a satan merely interfered with human endeavours. A satan might stop a person from succeeding in business (“bad”) or stop a person from jumping off a cliff (“good”). Thus, a “satan” was merely one of God’s vast army of spiritual soldiers — soldiers who were *obedient* to God and sent by God to steer human destiny.

However, as the centuries passed, Jewish folklore gradually changed “satan” from a mere interloper to a separate, powerful enemy of God: i.e., Satan. Pagels’ book explains her findings about how this happened. Here is a summary.

Although ancient Jews primarily saw themselves as one, unified population (i.e., an ethic community), centuries of intermingling with non-Jews (e.g., Romans) had created sharp divisions among various Jewish sects. Most Jews accepted, and even adopted, many gentile practices, while other Jews — the hard-core believers — became more fundamentalist, with rigid laws concerning food, sexuality, priestly succession, etc. By the first century b.c.e., the fundamentalist Jews no longer saw themselves as a unified ethnic community, but rather as a *moral* community that was very much divided. Their perception of “us” versus “them” no longer meant “Jews” versus gentiles (a word that means “other nations”), rather, it meant, at least to the fundamentalists, *righteous* (fundie) Jews versus immoral (apostate) Jews.

Coincident with this perceptual shift, Jewish fundies modified their folklore to inflate the satan character to that of a single, malevolent divine being, apparently because this was the easiest way for them to explain why the vast majority of Jews were adopting gentile practices. Who else but a powerful Prince of Darkness could seduce so many Jews away from the “One True Faith” of orthodox Judaism?

When Jewish followers of Jesus arrived on the scene a century later (i.e., in the first century c.e.), the folklore about Satan morphed again. Among Christian Jews, Satan became a convenient solution to the problem of explaining why so few Jews were willing to convert to Christianity. From their viewpoint, only a powerful, evil interloper could blind the vast majority of Jews to the “One True Faith” of the risen messiah. “Satan” was no longer a generic name for one of God’s many obedient servants; “Satan” — now a powerful, but evil, individual — conveniently explained why God’s messiah — supposedly the most powerful spiritual being ever to arrive on earth — was such a resounding popular failure. In order for the Christian story to work (i.e., in order to explain why God’s own son, Jesus, was such an ineffective messiah), Satan needed to be not just God’s enemy, but God’s *worthy* enemy — a character both purely evil and rivaling in power to God. For Christian Jews of the first century, who perceived “us” versus “them” as a moral division between *righteous* (Christian) Jews and immoral (non-Christian) Jews, Satan provided important ground cover.

The failure of Christian Jews to attract many followers during the first century led them, in the second century, to expand their marketing campaign to include gentiles. Thus, we find the New Testament books shifting their focus from appeals to Jews to appeals to gentiles. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the four NT Gospels were written for different audiences — some Jewish and some gentile. Again, Satan — now a powerful enemy of God — provided a convenient answer to the question of why so few gentiles were willing to convert to Christianity: obviously, they must be under Satan’s spell.

Around this time, the story of Satan began to get even more bizarre. Christians were divided over whether Satan rivaled God’s power or not. Some Christians believed that Satan must be God’s rival, because human society obviously had very strong tendencies toward evil despite God’s loving care — and only a god-like Satan could create this ungodly result. However, other Christians believed that Satan could not possibly rival God’s power, because that would undermine the Christian claim that their god was the most powerful of all divine beings. In what can only be called a remarkable irony, the Christians who believed in a powerful, god-like Satan were actually considered *heretics* (i.e., polytheists) by the Christians who believed in a less powerful Satan.

Obviously, the above summary only skims the surface of Pagels book, but I hope it conveys the important transformation that the satan character has undergone at the hands of various pre- and post-Christian religious groups. From pre-Christian Jews trying to understand the rise of secular Judiasm, to first-century Christian Jews trying to explain the failure of Jesus to attract more Jewish followers, to second-century Christian gentiles trying to justify their inability to convert non-believers, each group had compelling psychological and political reasons for elevating the satan character from that of God’s obedient servant to that of God’s evil enemy and, ultimately, to that of God’s powerful rival. The result of this escalation is the wide range of beliefs about Satan that we see today in the various branches of Christianity: some view Satan as merely allegorical, some blame Satan for every misfortune, and some see all of human existence as a supernatural war between good and evil — God versus The Enemy. Pagels makes a compelling argument that Satan got a bum rap — that Satan was merely an invisible scapegoat invented by humans to excuse their own inability to sell their equally invisible god — and she supports her views with sound reasoning and ample references. I urge interested readers to examine her evidence.

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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (4)

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  1. Hank says:

    Thanks gp. I'm always fascinated by the evolution of religion and the character of Satan has always been a favourite. I think I should get me some Pagels!

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Satan certainly has evolved. Consider the story of Job, where God and Satan interact like good buddies. Consider this description from Wikipedia:

    The term "Satan" appears in the prose prologue of the Book of Job, with his usual connotation of "the adversary", as a distinct being. He is shown as one of the celestial beings before the Deity, replying to the inquiry of God as to whence he had come, with the words: "from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it" (Job 1:7). Both the question and the answer, as well as the dialogue that ensues, characterize Satan as that member of the divine council who watches over human activity, but with the purpose of searching out men's sins and appearing as their accuser. He is, as it were, a celestial "prosecutor", who sees only iniquity; for he persists in his evil opinion of Job even after the man of Uz has passed successfully through his first trial by surrendering to the will of God, whereupon Satan demands another test through physical suffering (Job 2:3-5). Satan challenges God by saying that Job's belief is only built upon what material goods he is given, and that his faith will disappear as soon as they are taken from him. God accepts the challenge.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Job

  3. Vicki Baker says:

    I remember seeing a television documentary about a sect somewhere in the Middle East that worships a deity called Sheitan or Satan – so maybe the name originally comes from some local god? In some of the early parts of the OT it's obvious that Yahweh is just one of numerous local gods who are all considered to be real, that's why he's so jealous.

    It's interesting how cultures react when they come into contact with another culture's religion. Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, the dominant mode seems to be the view that gods are avatars of some all-pervading force, so the idea that other peoples have their own particular gods is not that threatening. Brahma or the Great Spirit can take various forms, so it's not surprising that other people see them in different ways. Other people's stories are not threatening, what is threatening is the idea of being forced to leave the gods that inhabit their own particular sacred ground.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    To Hank: please do check out any of Pagels' books. They have some overlap, but they're good reading.

    Erich's comment brings up a key question. Supposedly, the reason why humans need a divine redeemer (Jesus) is that we must be free of sin before we can be in the presence of the god-of-the-Bible. However, per the book of Job, the god-of-the-Bible apparently has no problem socializing with the source of human sin, so where does our need for a redeemer come from?

    Further to Vicki's comment, consider the second of the Ten Commandments: "Do not have any other gods before me." The god-of-the-Bible is plainly admitting there are other gods, of whom the god-of-the-Bible is indeed jealous.

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