Rev. J. Mark Worth
Western theology has a problem: If God is perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient, then evil cannot exist. But evil does exist, so we have a logical contradiction. We’ve been told that that Satan, the supernatural personification of evil, is the culprit. But does this really answer the question?
1. From Marilyn Sewell, Threatened By Resurrection, Fuller Press, Portland, Oregon, 2006:
“There was a time when the Devil was terrifyingly real. Demons were cast out. Witches were burned. People were put to death because they had become tools of Satan. Some religious groups still take the devil quite seriously – and quite literally – but to liberal religious people like ourselves, the devil just usually turns up in our jokes…”
2. From Forrest Church, The Devil and Dr. Church, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1986:
“I must confess, I believe in the devil. I’ve experienced his subtle infiltration of my innermost being and done battle with him in long, dark nights of the soul too often not to believe. That my devil doesn’t have horns takes nothing away from the damage he inflicts on me. With the subtlest of stratagems he leads me into temptation. Under the most transparent of pretexts he still somehow manages to deliver me unto evil.”
Western theology has a problem. What is that problem? Evil. If there is a God, and if God is perfectly good, God must want to abolish all evil and suffering. If God is all-knowing, then God knows that evil and suffering exist. If God is all-powerful, He (or She) must be able to abolish all evil; and yet – evil and suffering exist! Therefore, God either is not perfectly good, or is not all-knowing, or is not all-powerful.
Christianity and Islam – and to a lesser extent, Judaism — try to solve this problem by suggesting the existence of a supernatural being, called the Lucifer, Beelzebub, or Satan; or in Islam, Shaitan. What we might call “the Satan theory”says, “God does not cause evil, Satan does.” As comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “The Devil made me do it.”
But that doesn’t solve the problem. It just removes it one step. If the Devil causes evil, why is there a Devil?
If we go back far enough, to when the Bible was being written, Judaism didn’t have a Devil. We think that Satan made an appearance in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But if you read the story carefully you may notice that the serpent is just a serpent.
Satan does make a rare appearance in the Biblical Book of Job. There, Satan isn’t really the Devil that he became in later Christian mythology. His name, Satan, means “the Adversary,” and that is how he operates in the Job, as if he is a courtroom adversary, a heavenly prosecuting attorney. In Job, Satan has been walking about on earth and notices how much Job praises God. God says, “Look at my servant Job. He praises me all the time!” “Of course he praises you,” Satan says to God. “You’ve given him a wonderful wife, strong sons and talented daughters, and made him a wealthy man. He has everything he could possibly want. Even a flat-screen TV, which hasn’t been invented yet. But take away his wealth, his health, his family and his Apple Watch, and he’ll curse you.” And so God and Satan play a little game in which they torture Job to see where his breaking point might be.
When I first learned of the story of Job, I thought it didn’t speak very well of God. The Book of Job was one of the reasons I began to have doubts about the faith I had been raised with. God and Satan, working together, conspired against him. Yes, Satan is the one who suggests toying with Job by killing off his cattle and his family, and covering him with boils, but God plays along with the game, too. The torture of Job happens with God’s permission.
The Book of Job tries to answer the question, “why is there evil?” And it ends without giving much of an answer. We are left with the impression that God’s actions are simply beyond human comprehension. God basically says to Job, “You wouldn’t understand even if I told you.”
So this book, which tries to explain why there is injustice, pain, illness, and suffering, leaves us without a satisfactory answer. And if we blame evil on the existence of Satan, that doesn’t answer the question, either. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, why would God tolerate the existence of Satan? Why would a loving God tolerate cruelty?
The origins of Satan ~
Remember, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is only One God. So if God created everything, and there is evil in the world, God is responsible for it. This was always a theological conundrum, even when the books of the Jewish Bible were being written.
After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, in 587 BCE, the leaders of the Jewish people were taken into captivity in Babylon. Later, the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and allowed the Jewish leaders to return home to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple.
It was during this time, the Second Temple period, that the Jews encountered the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) taught that there are two great supernatural beings, almost equal in their power: There is one good, universal, and transcendent God, Ahura Mazda. And there is a destructive being called Ahriman, who creates evil. Ahura Mazda leads the forces of goodness and light, and is in a struggle with Ahriman, who leads the forces of chaos and darkness. It is our duty to choose sides in this struggle between good and evil. In the end times, a Savior will appear. Good will triumph over evil, Ahriman will be defeated, the dead will be raised, and, at the Last Judgment, everyone will be judged on whether they took the side of good or of evil. Does this sound familiar?
Most of the Jewish Bible had been written by the time Judaism encountered Zoroastrian ideas. Judaism borrowed only a little from Zoroastrianism. But Christianity may have borrowed much more from the Zoroastrians.
Satan today ~
It’s mythology. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with using mythology – the late Joseph Campbell, who taught comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, said, “A myth is not a lie. A myth is a classic story that tells us something about the human condition.” And so our question might be, “What can we learn from the myth of Satan?”
The late Rev. Forrest Church, wrote, “I must confess, I believe in the devil.” Church was a Unitarian Universalist, and he was a bit tongue-in-cheek here. He was saying that we humans are largely self-centered, that we are eager to deceive ourselves. We frequently put our short term pleasure ahead of our long term health and well-being, and ahead of the well-being of those we love. Remember the words of Oscar Wilde, “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation.”
Rev. Church wrote, “I’ve experienced [Satan’s] subtle infiltration of my innermost being and done battle with him in long, dark nights of the soul too often not to believe. That my devil doesn’t have horns takes nothing away from the damage he inflicts on me. With the subtlest of stratagems he leads me into temptation. Under the most transparent of pretexts he still somehow manages to deliver me unto evil.”
Church said that we do not recognize evil because Satan, if he existed literally, would not walk around in hooves, red skin, horns, and a tail, or carry a pitchfork. No, he would wear a business suit. He would carry a Bible. He would carry the American Flag. He would have his own Gospel Hour on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He would be a lobbyist for his corporate clients.
But let’s be careful. While the TV evangelists demonize humanism, we are tempted to demonize them as well, and maybe I’ve just engaged in a little of that. It seems fair to turn the tables. But that’s the problem with temptation. It’s so attractive. The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin summed it up this way: “If we hate evil more than we love the good, we become damn good haters, and of those the world already has too many.”
A visit to hell ~
I don’t believe in a literal Satan any more than I believe a literal Krishna or Zeus. But I do believe that we easily give in to temptation, to the short cut, to short-term pleasure, to our own egos. That is what we need to watch out for. The idea of Satan is important – Satan is a great metaphor – because the temptation posed by our own self-centered nature is real and strong. Temptation is so strong, and our ability to lie to ourselves so pervasive, that Satan seems real.
Here’s a story about temptation, and our willingness to see what we want to see. It comes from Marilyn Sewell’s Book, Threatened With Resurrection. It seems that Steve Jobs died and went to Heaven. When he arrived, St. Peter asked, “Well Steve, do you want to spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell?” Jobs thought this was a strange question. He said, “I don’t know. I just expected that I would be assigned to one place or the other. Why don’t you show me both places, and I’ll make a decision.” So St. Peter gave Steve Jobs a tour of Heaven, and it was pretty much what he expected: a lot of puffy white clouds, Greek Revival buildings with marble columns, angels playing harps, and the rehearsal of an awesome gospel choir. Pretty nice.
Then St. Peter took him to Hell and introduced him to Satan. Satan gave him a tour of Hell. White sandy beaches, lots of sailboats and surfers, beautiful young women in bikinis, cool drinks at the oyster bar, plenty of people napping in hammocks. Jobs said, “I have to admit this is not what I expected Hell to be. Heaven was nice enough, but this is even better.”
“I thought you’s like this,” said Satan. “You’re welcome to join me here.” So Jobs went back up to heaven and talked it over with St. Peter. He said, “I know I shouldn’t trust Satan, but it seems like such a great place. Is it really that nice?” St. Peter said, “I don’t know. I stay away from there as much as possible.” Jobs said, “Heaven is nice, but Hell is really fabulous. I choose Hell.” “Okay,” said St. Peter, “It’s your choice.”
So a few weeks later Satan came around to check on Jobs, and there he was, chained to a wall, fire and brimstone all around him, being tormented by devils. “How do you like it?” asked Satan. And Jobs said, “This isn’t what you showed me! Where is the surf, the cool drinks, the beautiful women?” “Oh, Steve,” said Satan, “you should understand. That was just the screensaver!”
Your ego is a liar ~
The Devil, of course, is a liar. Our ego is a liar. We deceive ourselves so easily. We say, “I’m not hurting anyone. I’m just enjoying myself.” Or we say, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle.” Or we say, “Of course I want my own way. I’m in the right.” We think we can get what we want, not think of others, not be kind, and not pay a price. Yet every choice we make has consequences. So what is the defense against the devil in that old ego of ours? Satan is about lies and deception. We lie to ourselves, we deceive ourselves. Driven by ego, we hurt ourselves and those around us.
Yet we know that love overcomes hate, life overcomes death, creativity overcomes destruction, compassion overcomes indifference, and truth overcomes lies. If we cultivate loving-kindness, if we keep our own egos under control, we put the old devil in his place.
Our defense against evil is to see things as they really are, cleared of the blinders of our egos. To act with the right intention. To be truthful and yet not hurtful in our speech. To be morally upright in what we do. To choose work we love, work that does no harm to others. To be mindful of others and their needs. To seriously engage in a spiritual path that helps us to develop gratitude for the gifts we have been given, and compassion for others.
What I’ve just described is, essentially, the Buddhist Eightfold Path. It’s also the essence of what Jesus taught in the “Sermon on the Mount,” which says that God’s children are the peacemakers, those who forgive, those who treat their neighbor with generosity, love, and compassion.
I don’t care whether you say you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist. The older I get, the more I am convinced that our doctrines and theologies count for nothing. Our deeds are all that we have. We put that old Devil in his place when we understand that we are all capable of doing wrong, when we care more for others, and place our own egos in the background.