PART V: Demonization

Or "Hail Satan"

Ever since I first read the Bible, I have felt bad for Satan. I do not know what may lie beyond the physical world, so I cannot say whether such a being actually exists, but if he does exist, then I feel bad for how libelously he is portrayed, and if he does not exist, then I feel bad for everyone whose understanding of the nature of "good" and "evil" has been tainted by an inaccurate understanding of Satan's character. Some people may say that if Satan is not real, then no portrayal of him can be said to be inaccurate, because mythology is defined by people's understanding of the characters. I disagree. If you say that Aphrodite was married to Zeus, even if you do not believe that either character exists, you are still getting the mythology wrong.

To start with, Satan is not evil. I know what you are thinking - "Of course he's evil! His very name means 'The Adversary'! That obviously means that he is the greatest enemy of God and man!" Well, that is one interpretation, albeit a biblically unsound one. Another interpretation could be that he acts as an adversary to those who stray from God's path. Now, where did I get this radically revisionist take on the character? My first hint was in Numbers 22, when he said, "Behold, I have come as an adversary because your way was contrary to [God's]." Biblical scholars disagree on the identity of the angel, but I am fairly certain it is Satan. Although "Satan" was not used as a proper noun until the New Testament, at several points in the Bible, a character is identified as "The Adversary." In Job, one of the principal characters is one of the hosts of heaven who is called "The Adversary," and no further explanation is given of his identity or function. This is odd, because the book of Job is one of the earliest examples, if not the earliest example, of the character of Satan being used as a major figure in Hebrew mythology, so why is no explanation given of this new character who was never before seen in the Bible? The best explanation is that he is not a new character, that this angel who is identified only as "The Adversary" is the same as the angel in Numbers who was identified only as "The Adversary." In fact, I am fairly certain that every supernatural being identified as Satan in the Bible is the same character, although Satan is also used as a general term for any adversary and not every use of the word refers to that character. This is not as complicated as it sounds. It is like how Elvis Presley is referred to as "The King," but that does not mean that every biblical use of the word "King" refers to Elvis.

The character of Satan is an interesting one. When he first appears, all we know about him is that he is an angel. He delivers messages for God and he carries out God's commands. However, in Job, there are some things about him that are not usually characteristic of angels. For instance, when he first appeared, God asked where he had been. Most people consider this question rhetorical, like in Genesis 3:9, when God asks Adam where he is, and that it should not be taken to mean that God actually did not know where he was. Still, it is strange that an angel would ever be out of God's sight. Also, when Satan questioned Job's piety, God took that under advisement and decided to put Job to a test. Not only is it strange that God would take one of his subordinates' advice, but the very fact that God felt the need to point out how moral and loyal Job was shows that he seems to have something to prove to Satan. This is especially strange when you consider that even after Job's tests, God refuse to explain anything to Job. The whole point of the book of Job is that God does not have to answer to anyone because he knows more than you do and because he can beat up monsters. No, really, Job 40-41 is all about how God can beat the hell out of monsters. So why does God answer to Satan? In doing so, God shows Satan more respect than he shows for any other character in the Bible.

However, this should not be taken to mean that Satan has any more autonomy than any other angel. It is important to note that there is not a single instance in the Old Testament where Satan acts without God having commanded it. In fact, it is doubtful that Satan has any power at all beyond what God specifically granted to him. This system under which God takes Satan's advice and Satan takes God's orders hardly seems like an adversarial relationship. This partnership continues into the New Testament, even though most religious scholars disagree with me. I am sick to death of people referring to the "Old Testament Satan" as opposed to the "New Testament Satan." It's the same damn character! If he is not portrayed consistently, you can only chalk that up to bad writing, and if you take the Bible as divine truth, you do not have that recourse. The other option is to accept that the rules did not change between the Old and New Testaments. Actually, although God (in the aspect of The Father, if you believe that Josh is the same entity) is hardly ever seen in the New Testament, there is no reason to assume that Satan's actions in the New Testament (excluding Revelations) are not mandated by God. Take for instance the story of Josh's temptation in the wilderness. In it, Satan takes an adversarial position to Josh, which most people see as evil. However, as I previously stated, privileges are allowed to Satan that are not allowed to any other character in the Bible. Satan is allowed (and even ordered) to murder (in Numbers and Job) and is even permitted to question God's judgement (in Job and Zechariah). Also, regardless of Josh's identity, he is biologically a man, and must endure all things as a man, including Satan's temptations. Why would God not condone Satan's temptation of Josh? As was shown in Job, it is not the wicked and impure who need to be tested, but the loyal and trusted, and who could be more loyal and trusted by God than his own son?

There are many times when terrestrial events are explained by the involvement of God or angels. The most obvious explanation, of course, is that there was no supernatural cause, but that the writer could not reconcile extraordinary events or actions without divine (or infernal) intervention. However, taking the supernatural explanations at face value reveals something interesting about the use of Satan. In 2 Samuel 24, it says that it was God's wrath against Israel, but in 1 Chronicles 21, it says that it was Satan. It is possible that the account in Chronicles is not supernatural at all, and David's actions were in response to a mounting attack by an enemy (an adversary as opposed to The Adverary), but most Biblical scholars contend that it was intended to be Satan, but it does not necessarily contradict the account in Samuel, because Satan may have been acting on God's behalf. How then can you maintain that their relationship is at all adversarial? Another example comes in The Gospels. John said that it was Satan's influence that caused Judas to turn Josh over to the Romans. John says that right before Judas left the supper, Josh told him, "What you do, do quickly." John said that no one else understood the true significance of this because they thought Judas was just going out to get more food. This may also explain why nobody else mentioned him saying this in their Gospels. At any rate, if John's account of Satan's influence is to be trusted, then so is his account of Josh's assent. I understand that Josh's command was made somewhat reluctantly - along the lines of "You're going to do what you will anyway, just get it over with," but what he said was not at all disapproving of Judas' actions. He did not say, "You should not do what you are planning," or "I beg you to reconsider." He said that Judas should turn him over to the Romans and quickly. This makes sense if you believe that Josh's death was necessary for humanity's salvation, and if Josh knew about it, there is no reason to assume that Satan did not. So Satan did what was necessary to save mankind. In both cases, God's and Satan's will if not the characters themselves are shown to be interchangeable. In the example of the Last Supper, it is possible that Satan's purpose was a last temptation. Perhaps he thought that being betrayed by his own people and killed in a horrible manner would cause Josh to question his faith and cause him to cry out with his dying breath, "Oh God! Oh God! Why have you forsaken me?" Of course, this is all speculation, and even if this were the case, there is no reason to assume that God would fault Satan for this ploy, considering that God had always approved of Satan's temptations before, even when it involved killing random people.

I once had an argument with a friend about Satan's true motivations. He said that just because God condones Satan's actions, that does not mean that Satan is not evil. I say that is exactly what it means. If God is the final judge of what is good and what is evil, then God approving of someone's actions means that the actions are not evil. Besides, considering Satan's actions on their own, they do not seem very malevolent. It may be true that he does not show much regard for human life, but he is not nearly as reckless as he seems to some. In the stories of Job and Balaam and even his temptation of Josh, his goal was not to do irreparable harm, but to teach them a lesson. The story of Balaam is particularly interesting. Satan was given the authority to kill Balaam by God, and he seemed to have more regard for Balaam's talking donkey than for Balaam himself. Satan could have easily killed Balaam with impunity - in a fight between someone with a flaming sword and someone armed only with a magical talking donkey, it is wise to bet on the guy with the weapon - but he did not. He would rather have Balaam turn from his evil ways than be killed. That is far from evil. In fact it is more than fair.

There is a common opinion that Satan's role as tempter makes him evil. I disagree. Inspiring others to do evil is not necessarily evil in itself. For example, Charles Manson's personally philosophies were inspired largely by Beatles songs, notably "Helter Skelter." Does that make Paul McCartney responsible for the actions of the Manson family? No more than David Berkowitz's neighbor's dog was responsible for the "Son of Sam" killings. In the case of Job, Satan did not leave Job no option but to curse God, he only took away Job's possessions and family and health and friends. In Josh's case, Satan only offered words that Josh could easily ignore. In his biblical depictions, Satan does not have the capability to turn people evil, only to bring out the evil that is already there, and often, he does not even do that.

If Satan is shown in the Bible to be under God's employ, then where did the perception of Satan as God's enemy come from? Well, the idea that God is responsible for evil and that he keeps company with someone who provokes evil acts does not sit well with some people. That is why a few hundred years B.C., the myth of Lucifer* became popular as a way to explain the nature of evil. According to the myth, in the time before evil, the universe was perfect and everything was according to God's plan. Lucifer was the wisest and most beautiful of the angels and was pretty much God's golden child. Because of this she became vain, so much so that she decided that she would make a better ruler of Heaven than God. She got an army of her angel friends together to try to forcibly overthrow God, but they were vanquished and Lucifer was thrown from Heaven. Embittered, Lucifer turned to thwarting God's designs on Earth by introducing sin.

*The name "Lucifer" actually was not used until the Middle Ages. It comes from a translation of Isaiah 14, in which Isaiah compares the King of Babylon to a falling star. Astronomy buffs may know that Lucifer, the morning star, is the aspect of Venus that shows in the morning (which is why I refer to her in the feminine). At the time they thought that Venus was a star. Interestingly enough, they also thought that falling stars were stars. Some [really stupid] people saw the part about Lucifer falling from Heaven and, not checking any of the context, assumed that it was about the character in this myth. Although the myth identifies the character as Satan, I prefer to use the name Lucifer to avoid confusion, because the characters are from different mythologies and, outside of astronomy, the name Lucifer is only used to describe the character in this myth.

People generally consider Lucifer to be the embodiment of evil, which is not quite accurate. It is possible to see the myth as an allegory, with Lucifer representing evil, but if it is, then it is not a very good allegory. The point being made is that in its natural state, everything is the way that God wants it, and evil is caused by a conscious rebellion against nature. The problem with that is that it does not account for the reality of situations in which one's instinct is to do something that God would consider sinful, and it is necessary to deny one's nature to do good. Also, why would evil ever be considered beautiful and wise and God's favourite?

If Lucifer is not just a metaphor but an enitity with its own consciousness, then it is unfair to think of her as the embodiment of evil. She may have made some bad decisions, but that does not mean that she is only capable of wickedness and deceit. God created her with a purpose and she is still capable of fulfilling that purpose. That she was regarded so highly by God speaks well of her. She still has the same capacity to choose between good and evil as anyone else. She also has the same capacity to be forgiven.

The myth is meant to distance God from evil, but it does not do that very well, either, because even if God did not directly introduce sin to Earth, he did create Lucifer and gave Lucifer her pride and her power, which would eventually be her downfall. Even if God does not explicitly permit Lucifer's activity on Earth, he does so tacitly by not destroying her utterly nor even just confining her or limiting her power.

The myth was not supported by biblical accounts of Satan. If Satan was expelled from Heaven, then why is Satan seen in Heaven at multiple points in the Bible? Also, if Satan works against God's plans, then why does he honour God's requests? For that matter, why does Satan punish sin rather than reward it? How does providing a deterrent to sin help to promote sin? There simply is no answer to these questions in the myth, and that did not escape the notice of scholars. The story was considered apocryphal and was not included in the Bible in any form until Revalations centuries later. However, it speaks volumes of the seductive nature of the Us-Against-Them mentality and how much people want someone completely dispicable on whom to blame all of their problems that the story caught on in the way that it did. Zechariah, one of the later Old Testament books, may have shown some influence of the changing attitude towards Satan, when in Satan's brief appearance, God speaks very harshly with Satan. This was because Satan was acting as prosecuting attorney in Joshua's trial, and was meant more to show God's approval of Joshua than his disapproval of Satan. Zechariah did not seem to accept Satan's expulsion from Heaven, as Satan is shown in Heaven in the story.

By Joshua of Nazareth's lifetime, the myth was accepted by many to be true, and the apostles were among them. The apostles hated Satan and said some pretty inflammatory things about him. However, it should be noted that they are not God. Josh makes only one or two specific references to the myth, neither of which is confirmed by any of the other apostles. Of course, if the myth is true, then that is very good news, because it means that none of us ever need worry about dying and going to Hell, because security in Heaven is so lax that someone who was specifically banned from Heaven could show up there whenever he wants and not incur any punishment. However, I do not think that the references in the Gospels necessarily discredit Josh nor his apostles' accounts of his actions. After all, when accused that his powers were demonic in nature, Josh said that, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If the Adversary drives out the Adversary, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?" If he had considered the implications of that, he could not possibly believe in the myth, because Lucifer's powers were divine in nature, so God's own kingdom was divided against itself. He could not possibly be saying that the Kingdom of Heaven cannot stand.

Besides, in Luke 10 and Matthew 24, the point Josh was making was not about Satan's character. The reference to Satan was only used as a flourish of language, and given the Luke's and Matthew's religious beliefs, they probably would not have seen it as blasphemous. Some may see it as a blasphemy that I allow the possibility that they embellished the language a bit if the Bible is divinely inspired truth. However, it is possible that things were changed between inspiration and publication. Regardless of whether he inspires the Bible, God does not control what is finally put into the Bible. That is why there isn't one universal version of the Bible that everyone agrees on. If there are conflicting versions of a story and only one of them, if any at all, can be correct, you have to be open to the possibility that the correct one is not the one with which you are most familiar.

On the other hand, I may be wrong. As I said when I started, I have no knowledge beyond the physical world, so I do not know what Satan is like or even if he exists. Assuming that I take the testimonies of John Milton and Dante Alighieri as heretical (which, by the way, I do), all I have to go on are biblical accounts, so all I can say with certainty is how the Bible portrays him. No matter what conclusions you have drawn about Satan's character, keep in mind that it does not give you the right to blame your own faults on Satan. It is made abundantly clear in the Bible that God holds people accountable for their own sins, so saying that your sins are Satan's fault is saying that you are a better judge of the situation than God is. Do you really believe that? Before you answer, keep in mind that God can totally beat up monsters.

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