I’ve been doing some research into demonologies lately for some of my fiction writing, and, naturally, it’s got me thinking about demons and devils from a theological standpoint.
Most of Christian demonology (and the demonology of Judaism and Islam, for that matter) is based on folk belief run amok.
The Book of Job features “the Satan” (“Ha-Satan”), not so much a formal name as a title of office: “the adversary.” In Job, the Satan’s position is just that, the skeptic who doubts Job’s sincerity and requests God’s permission to test Job’s faith. Here, the Satan’s intent is not to corrupt Job but to uncover the truth of his piety. We should also read the Satan in this text as highly metaphorical; through the story the author is leading us through an investigation of the problems of evil and suffering. The ultimate answer given at the end of Job is that we humans cannot fully understand evil and suffering and must trust in God as the only satisfactory resolution. The Satan, then, represents a force or condition personified for mythopoeic effect more than a literal being.
The word “satan” appears in the Old Testament about 18 times outside of Job. The King James Version (already saturated with folk demonology–James VI & I himself wrote Daemonologie in 1597) sometimes translates the word as a proper noun when it more correctly should have been translated as “an adversary.”
There is one notable exception: Revelation 12:7-9, which reads: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” We’ll return to this below.
The word translated by the King James as “Lucifer” appears in Isaiah 14 and should properly be translated as “morning star” rather than a proper name.
So where do our ideas about Satan and Lucifer, fallen angels and great demons come from? As I mentioned above, a borrowed and greatly embellished folk tradition that somehow became enmeshed within Christianity.
The early Mesopotamian cultures had extensive legends about demons, much of which we have come to know from apotropaic amulets and inscriptions. There are Alu and Agag, the edimmu and the Lilu, just to name a few. Mesopotamian ideas naturally influenced Jewish ideas (remember that Abram is called by God to leave the Mesopotamian cities in Genesis) and through Jewish thought came to Christian thought. The Exodus and the Babylonian Captivity provided additional opportunities for pagan demonologies to influence demonological thought among Rabbis and Jewish scholars.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide some insight. We know that Qumran, the community of the (probably) Essenes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was probably founded between the 130’s and 100’s B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in 68 A.D. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, both of which make reference to the episode in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God”–interpreted in these texts as angels–rebel by taking human wives, giving birth to the Nephilim. Because of this, we know that a well-developed and codified set of demonological ideas exists at about the time of Christ. To what extent these ideas were widely accepted is, I think, unknown.
The likeliest influence for a chief demon in the popular concept of Satan is Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion, in which the good God Ahura Mazda battles the evil god Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) for control of the world. This idea of a powerful evil being in opposition to the supreme being (and in the early Old Testament the Hebrews appear to be henotheistic long before they are truly monotheistic) must have been an attractive one for the explanation of evil and suffering in the world.
This jibes well with the story of Satan’s rebellion against God, a war in heaven that ends with Satan and his followers being cast out or cast into Hell. In a truly monotheistic mindset, it doesn’t make sense to think that one–angel or not–could overthrow the sovereign creator of all things and take God’s place as lord of creation. If this popular “Satan’s rebellion” story is true, I question the danger of an adversary who can’t do a basic benefit to risk assessment; it’s the smart criminals you have to watch out for.
Now we return to the passage in Revelation. But we ought to be careful: while the core nugget of Satan rebelling against God and a war in heaven is there, the nature of the text and the narration make it unclear whether we’re looking backwards in time or forwards. Based on the surrounding context (that the seven seals have been broken and trumpets are blowing) this appears to be a depiction of a future time–not a spiritual history.
The Revelation of John was probably written somewhere in the 70’s to 90’s A.D.–not long after or perhaps even concurrently with the Book of Mark. Plenty of time for popular demonological beliefs to take hold–and well before the canonization of the New Testament texts. We know that 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees existed before the Book of Revelation was likely written, so we know that there were demonological ideas that to draw upon at the time, even if most of these ideas would not make it into canon.
There is much information to be had on ancient demonologies and their potential influences on one another. For my purpose here, I mean only to point out in broad strokes that most of our ideas about “the devil” and Satan are based on conjecture and elaboration–some of it fanciful–rather than Scripture.
Most of our understanding of the “war in heaven” narrative–in the popular mind–comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is from that work, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and long-standing oral traditions that our concept of the devil comes about.
Why does this matter? Because the way we think about evil matters. Is there evil in the world? I don’t think there’s any question about that. Is there a personified, capital “E” Evil at work in the world? I don’t know–I don’t think that Scriptures are entirely clear on this matter and we can cause more suffering than we alleviate if we focus overmuch on a the “spiritual warfare” against a personified Other in our efforts to seek justice and peace in our world.
To be clear, the Scriptures do indicate a confidence in the existence of supernatural entities that can affect the world, some of them evil or unclean. The Witch of Endor (surprisingly not related to Star Wars) summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel at Saul’s command; Jesus is shown driving spirits out of the afflicted as well. I’m unwilling to deny this; nor can I categorically prove or disprove the existence of a Satan. But, we don’t know the extent to which Jesus’s exorcisms were really the contemporary cultural understanding of the miraculous healing of mental illness and to what extent actual predatory beings were involved. Maybe I’m hedging my bets, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s some of both. Still, we’re not Jesus and therefore not blessed with absolute knowledge of which is which, We ought to take a very careful approach, then.
What are the dangers of a focus on Satan as a strong influence on our lives? The most obvious, I think, coincides with the previous paragraph: the employment of exorcism as a tool when the situation really calls for mental health treatment. Much research shows how mental conditioning can create a situation where a person can be made to believe that they need an exorcism and to play the role of the afflicted even when they would not have said that they were possessed before entering the preparation for exorcism. The extreme measures used in some exorcisms have led to deaths–this isn’t really helpful to anyone. Again, I’m not saying that an exorcism can never be an appropriate course of action (I’m skeptical but I don’t have any way of knowing for sure) and I have no problem with ritual abjuration and exorcism, such as performed by the Eastern Orthodox Church prior to baptism. More often than not, however, I think exorcism is the creation of problems that do not exist, obstructing the addressing of those problems that do.
In the wider spiritual sense, however, it’s not exorcisms that most concern me. What concerns me is the functions a Satan figure fulfills in practice. On the one hand, Satan makes a convenient scapegoat for personal responsibility–the classic “the Devil made me do it.” There’s a definite psychological advantage to saying “I did that thing I feel guilty about because I was weak in the face of the Devil’s temptation” over saying “I made a bad choice that was my doing entirely.” While psychologically advantageous, this practice is not spiritually advantageous–to repent for sins we must accept responsibility for them.
The most dangerous, as I’ve seen firsthand: saying that someone is under the influence of Satan is the ultimate act of creating Otherness. Once done, the namer typically treats the name as a force of Evil against which the only righteous course of action is vehement opposition. The named can never have a good point, raise an issue that ought to be considered, or be approaching a conflict from a place of reason. The voice of the named may be entirely disregarded. I have seen this in intrachurch conflict; it is painful to watch, frustrating to deal with, and Sisyphean to resolve.
As a further example of this, take a look into the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980’s and early 90’s. This is the closest we’ve come to a witch-hunt in modern times, I think, and most if not all of the accused were innocent. If there is a Satan, he was well served by those events.
Here’s the ultimate irony, I think: Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. If there is a Satan, as an archnemesis of humanity, ought we not to try to love even him? Yes, we must reject evil, but rejecting evil is a matter of standing against particular actions and outcomes, not against people themselves. What does opposition to a Satan in a way that shows mercy to the extent possible look like? Personified evil can only lose its power in the face of love.
A focus on Satan as a force of evil blinds us to looking at institutional evil, the ways in which our society–which includes us and our own complicity–perpetuates oppression, injustice and inequality. When we look to a personified evil acting in the world for us to oppose, we neglect the evil we do, especially when we can say “my evil is far less than that of the Devil.”
As an aside, I think it’s interesting (and perhaps important as well) to note that most self-avowed Satanists do not belief in a literal Satan. They instead believe in the Nietzschean pursuit of selfish power at the expense of all else (an idea that remains nevertheless anathema to the Christian), but they do not per se believe in a Devil or even necessarily in evil for evil’s sake (although the line quickly blurs when exercising power for power’s sake). If even those who explicitly make Satan the focus of their philosophical ideology (and there are, unfortunately, some Christians who do the same, albeit from a more oppositional perpesctive) view Satan as a figurative symbol for selfish living and rebellion for its own sake, we ought to consider the figurative meaning of a Satan in our own theology at least as much as a literal meaning.
The thoughts of Satanists do not make the existence of Satan true or untrue. My own thoughts here bear the same powerlessness, and I’ll explicitly state once again that I believe in the possibility of the existence of evil supernatural entities–personified evil or not. There are far more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. At the same time, we are far better served striving against the evil within us and within our collective way of living before looking for some external evil to combat–even spiritual warfare has a tendency to bring out the darker side of human nature, I think.
A close inspection at the Biblical sources for Satan, especially when viewed alongside the historical development of popular ideas about a personified evil in the form of some archnemesis spirit, leaves some doubt about the literal existence of a demonic force. A belief in Satan as the ultimate adversary is not a key component of Christianity (although I think that it’s fair to say that belief in the existence of evil as a condition or description of conditions is). I fully understand that there are those convicted that they know that Satan does exist. I must respect their position as much as possible because I cannot confirm or deny the truth of their experience–not that there is no absolute truth about their position, just that I don’t have access to it. In light of such uncertainty, we are better served looking to humanity and the ways in which we sin and bring evil to fruition before we blame Satan or some other supernatural force for the decisions we make and the conditions we allow to persist.