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Jun30TueIs Satan real or just the personification of evil? June 30, 2009 by Major Geoff Ryan
“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
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—Shakespeare, Ninety Fourth Sonnet
“No theodicy that does not take the Devil fully into consideration is likely to be persuasive.”
—Jeffrey B. Russell, Mephistopheles
Have you heard of Flip Wilson? He was the first African-American comedian to get his own prime time TV variety show. It aired from 1970-1974. My brother and I used to watch The Flip Wilson Show regularly—we loved it—and avidly followed the antics of Reverend Leroy of “The Church of What's Happening Now” his parishioner, Geraldine, and her imaginary boyfriend, Killer. Geraldine's most famous line was, “The Devil made me do it!” It became a national expression and part of our lexicon as we grew up. We used it as an excuse when we got ourselves into a jam and even now, 35 years after the show went off the air, if you mention Flip Wilson to anyone old enough to remember the show, they will immediately say, “The Devil made me do it!”
That line is a succinct description of one of the three main approaches to the idea of Satan among Christians. The “Geraldinistas,” as I call them, shift responsibility for their issues off themselves and onto Satan. Geraldinistas need someone to blame when they mess up. As a rationale for weakness, brokenness and sin, you simply can't beat Satan. Salvation Story, The Salvation Army's Handbook of Doctrine, contains only two references to Satan (as does Paul's Epistle to the Romans, his theological Magnus Opus). One of these references is a warning to Geraldinistas: “The role of Satan indicates the pervasiveness and power of evil in our world, though it does not absolve us from our responsibility for sin.”
Geraldinistas talk about Satan a lot. He pops up all the time in their sermons. Their songs are full of warrior imagery. I call them “statement-of-intent” songs—always looking toward some soon-to-be-realized future when we are going to actually do all the things we sing about doing. In Satan's case, it's usually about what we are going to do when we finally get hold of him: rebuke him, cast him out, tie him up and generally lay a good beating on him. Personally, I wouldn't pick a fight with him, especially if he's the same guy the Geraldinistas think him to be, as he seems powerful, prone to extreme violence and as scary as the place he lives in!
The problem of evil is powerful enough in each of us, so why would I take on someone as fearsome as a wayward angel?
In subscribing to this view of Satan, Geraldinistas not only sidestep responsibility for their personal failings, they also give themselves permission to hate. Followers of Jesus are supposed to love and never hate, but Satan represents an “acceptable hate” for the Geraldinistas. In the same way that leaders and society demonize certain people—such as Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or pedophiles—the Church permits an outlet for our hate, too, when it comes to Satan. With clear consciences we can sing about tying Satan up like an inmate of Abu Ghraib and righteously stomping on him like a gang of Christian skinheads. It raises the question of whether it is ever acceptable for a Christian to hate someone, even Satan. The Bible gives us no indication that God hates Satan; he hates the sin but not the sinner, and always plays by his own rules (love) and never Satan's (hate). Are we permitted to act differently?
At the other end of the Satan spectrum sit the “Satanatheists.” They completely deny the existence of Satan. Taking issue with “the personification of evil,” they focus exclusively on the problem with people. And they can make a fairly good argument from Scripture.
In the Genesis account of the Fall, Satan made his first appearance in the form of a snake, although he is never referred to as Satan but simply as the serpent, which is odd in a book where names are of paramount importance. From that point on, Satan doesn't figure much in the Old Testament, aside from the Book of Job. God is referenced frequently because the Old Testament is really the story of God's interaction with his creation. All the bad stuff, all the evil, is being done by us—by people. Satan is not needed as we seem to mess things up enough ourselves. In the few Old Testament references there are to Satan, his title is always preceded by a definite article, as in “The Satan,” which literally means “The Adversary”—more a title than a name, more a concept than a person.
Satan, as many understand him now, really emerged in the New Testament period. As the Israelites evolved from idolatry through monolatry to monotheism, gradually the other gods were discredited and cast aside, sometimes quietly and sometimes with epic fanfare (for example, Elijah versus the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:16-40). The heavens, in a sense, became depopulated and only Yahweh was left. He was alone in the palace with no retainers, no retinue, no court, which was hard for the ancients to understand. The only frame of reference they had were their own kings and potentates. How could the heavenly King, the King of kings, have no court? This brought the angels and other heavenly beings to the forefront. And since the old gods were always fighting each other, as were earthly kings, it further stood to reason that God had an adversary, who also had fallen angels in his court, which brings us to Satan and his demons.
The third approach, I suspect, is where the majority of Christians land. I call them the “Satanostics.” These are people who believe in Satan's existence, but don't think much about his presence. Satanostics find enough references to him in Scripture that they can't fully dismiss the possibility of his existence, so they decide to live with the contradictions and incongruities. For example, how can the Spirit of God and the spirit of Satan co-exist in one human body as in those who are “possessed”? They take some intellectual comfort from believing that when evil is unspeakably immediate, there is a reason beyond our own fallen natures. Many secularists occupy this middle ground and blame Satan when faced with incomprehensible evil.
I'm not really comfortable with the Geraldinistas. I have some sympathy with the Satanatheists. Ultimately, I am most comfortable with the Satanostics. I'm not willing to dismiss Satan outright (having taken to heart
C. S. Lewis' admonishment in The Screwtape Letters), but I also refuse to give him more credit than he is due. I like to think I take responsibility for my weaknesses and sins, and do not play the victim to anyone, Satan included.
Does Satan really exist? Does it really matter? The problem of evil is pervasive, powerful and problematic in each of us. I see it every morning as I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror. It is enough of a battle to sort myself out, so why would I take on someone as strong and fearsome as a wayward angel?
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: “The line between good and evil is not drawn between nations and parties, but through every human heart.”