Rethinking Satan as Absolute Evil

If Satan has no power except that given by God, we are left wondering whether evil can come from God, a proposition which the early biblical writers and ancient Church Fathers like Augustine raised. We heard the prophet Amos asking “If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Amos 3:6).

This article is based on The Quest for the Historical Satan (Fortress Press) scheduled to be release August, 2011.

By Albert Hernández
Professor of the History of Christianity,
Iliff School of Theology

Miguel A. De La Torre
Professor of Social Ethics,
Iliff School of Theology
April 2011

God’s portrayal as a character of absolute goodness is the result of a theology that is read into the Christian Scriptures, yet which is not necessarily supported by a close reading of the texts. Not only is this theology challenged by the Bible, it is also challenged by existentially and morally comparing such a theology of absolute Good versus absolute Evil with the realities of life. All have faced, or will face, tragedy, misery, illness, and death. Events will occur that appear unfair, leading most of us to question if any sense of cosmic justice and mercy truly exists. Natural disasters will claim thousands of lives, as with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and the victims will include innocent men, women, and children. Many have referred to this dilemma as the theodicy question. How can an all-loving, all-powerful God allow evil to occur? What type of parent would allow a child to suffer if they had the power to prevent evil from touching or hurting their child?

Jesus asks, “What person among you, if asked by their child for a loaf would give a stone? Of if asked for a fish will give a snake? If, then, you, who are evil, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those that ask?” (Matt 7:9-11). Yet, reading the morning paper, one finds stories about tornadoes that have wiped out good Christian families while they slept peacefully in the middle of the night, or innocent children who perished at the hands of child molesters and murderers, good decent individuals who die in freak accidents, and many others who suffer under moral evils (those actions caused by humans) and natural evils (those actions caused by nature). When we consider the billions of senseless deaths, tragedies, and atrocities which define human history, it would seem that history denies more than it confirms the paternal love of a caring and merciful father God. One is forced to ask: Where is God? Comparing Jesus’ words with the reality of evil in our global economy seems to indicate that earthly parents, rather than God, know better about how to care for their children. It is God who appears to be giving the tens of thousands who die each day of hunger and preventable diseases a stone when they are begging for bread, or hands them a snake when they are praying for fish.

In a very real way, the search for the historical Satan is an attempt to justify God’s grace while legitimizing the reality and presence of evil in human history. It appears that the development of Satan was, to a certain extent, trying to save God from appearing as the source of evil that is so much a part of the reality of human suffering and death. The Scriptures attempt to convince us that God is still worthy of our worship despite the presence of evil, even though the most troubling conclusion derived from the Judeo-Christian biblical text is the discovery of a God who is the cause and author of all that is good—and all that is evil. As the prophet Amos reminds us, “If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Amos 3:6). The prophet Isaiah understands God to say, “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I Yahweh do all these things” (45:7). This is a God who sends evil spirits to torment, as in the case of Saul (1 Sam 18:10) or Jeroboam (1 Kgs 14:10). Contrary to popular opinion, the biblical text does not begin by introducing its readers to Satan as the Prince of Darkness and enemy of God whose primordial spiritual warfare continues to manifest itself in our times. Rather, this concept developed over centuries as religious ideals comingled with popular culture and the flow of history.

What if we were to answer the theodicy question by simply reducing evil to a punishment for sins? If evil befalls you, you deserve it for some offense committed. Unfortunately, the book of Job deals with the theodicy question by illustrating that evil befalling an individual is not necessarily caused by sins that individuals have engaged in or committed. Rather, evil may befall a person, like Job, because God directs it to be so. We are left with the troubling answer from God as to why evil befell such a faithful person like Job: “Because I wanted to” is the heavenly response we hear. The early shapers of sacred texts and religious traditions found themselves in the position of having to protect God from accusations of being the source of evil. As it became less acceptable to have aspects of God represented in evil elements or events, independent evil figures had to be birthed. If Satan did not exist, then perhaps he would have had to be created to serve as an adversary so as to vindicate God. Still, the problem exists that radical monotheism makes it difficult simply to develop a demonology. As troublesome as it may be to conceive of God as being the author of malevolent acts, more bothersome yet is the creation of another supernatural being in competition with God within a strictly monotheistic religion.

A simple good versus evil binary understanding of reality leads to an ethical perspective that might cause more evil than good. A world where everyone and everything is either with or against God leads to great atrocities by those “with God” in their defense against the perceived threat of those “against God” (who those on God’s side usually define as Satanic). Because such an ethical framework causes more evil than good, we are in need of a new way of understanding what is satanic, what is Satan.

What if instead our understanding of Satan was influenced by the concept of the “trickster” figure which seems to be present in the Hebrew Bible? Could the concept of the “trickster” perhaps be more in line with the biblical text than the way Satan developed as the personification of absolute Evil? And if so, how does such an understanding of Satan feature in our appreciation of evil? And more importantly, how would Satan as trickster shape our morality?

Learning to interpret Satan as the ultimate trickster, rather than the embodiment of absolute Evil, can lead to ethical praxes that are more liberative because they deal with the causes of oppressive structures in the physical world rather than simply blaming the present reality on the metaphysical reality of evil or on the moral depravity of humanity. Tricksters create situations that force the one being tested to look for new ways by which to deal with the discord that has entered their life. What society normalizes can mask oppressive structures that make resistance seem futile as both those who benefit and those afflicted by those structures are lulled into complicity. Seeking new alternatives to the surrounding trials and tribulations can lead the one being tested to discover opportunities previously unrecognized. Likewise, it could raise the consciousness of the one benefitting from the status quo, leading them to repentance and to a more liberative course of action that can result in the former oppressors discovering their own salvation.

Unfortunately, an original understanding of Satan as trickster has been lost by Christians. History has conditioned Christians to read into the biblical text an understanding of Satan as the evil antithesis of God. But what would happen if Christians were to reread some of the biblical texts with new eyes, refusing to impose their theology upon the text? What if they were to read the scriptures conscious of Satan’s role as trickster? If they employ this strategy in reading the text, they might discover a Satan that can be understood as a trickster, used by God for the benefit of humans, or a being used by God for their ruin. Satan’s role becomes a bit more complex than being simply evil incarnate. The trickster’s role can lead to good, as in the case of conscientization. But it can also lead to destruction. Trials and tribulations can lead Christians to be of good cheer because they recognize that Christ who is with them has overcome the world. Or they can lead them to greater misery and destruction because they refuse grace. If they believe the deception of Satan’s tricks, rather than rise above it, they can face devastation. It does not depend on Satan, an implement used by God, but rather, it depends on humans and the choices they make.

We propose to return to the early biblical Satan because it leads, in our opinion, to a better ethical framework from which to operate in the bringing about of justice and redemption. For example, Satan in the book of Job leads Job beyond simplistic theodicy solutions that assume unfortunate circumstances are the result of God’s punishment for peccadilloes. The Satan who confronts Jesus in the desert helps Jesus, in all his humanity, to understand his own divinity and the important public ministry he undertakes after the sojourn in the desert. Like tricksters of other various indigenous traditions, Satan’s temptation leads Jesus to understand his mission and purpose.

Radical monotheism means that there is only one omnipotent and omnipresent God, creator of all that is and ever will be. To suggest that there exists another being that rivals God, that is omnipresent like God, that is so omnipotent that it can challenge the might and love of God makes Satan into another God. Christianity is thus reduced to a good God and an evil God, which was one of the profound problems set off by the medieval dichotomy of Christ versus the Anti-Christ. Such a conclusion is problematic, for it portrays Satan as a hostile independent entity assailing God’s people in the quest for supremacy. But if Christians claim that there is only one God through whom all things are maintained and sustained, then Satan has no knowledge and no power that is not derived from God. Satan, like any other spiritual emissary, exists to serve God’s purposes. The biblical text seems to confirm the proposition that Satan has no power or authority except that given to him by God, concluding that Satan, and the havoc he causes as trickster, is necessary for God’s ultimate purposes to be realized.

The de-emphasizing of a binary system of either absolute Good or absolute Evil moves us away from the impossible task of maintaining an ethical framework where either we emulate God’s pure goodness, or we become wretched creatures under Satan’s control. The concept of Satan as pure evil contributes to the theological concept of total depravity among humans found within most Christian faith traditions. How many religious leaders, congregations, and movements attempted purity and self-righteousness only to ignore their darker side, and in so doing, fall victim to what they proposed to battle by persecuting others who fall short of their lofty and righteous expectations? The Spanish Inquisition serves as an excellent example of how, by denying one’s darker side, great evils can be committed in the name of faith.

Satan as trickster serves a crucial role. Can we as humans ever truly advance without moral conflict? Without tragedy? Without struggle? How do we practice righteousness unless there is temptation in our lives? Although Satan as a trickster-hero becomes a scapegoat upon which humans can project their unrealized aspirations, their fears, and their failures, his trials and tests force humans to flex their moral muscles and, in the process, raise their own consciousness and self-knowledge. Without the darker side of the spiritual, we might never strengthen our own resolve to do good. In the final analysis, Satan as trickster is an agent of change. And here is the ultimate paradox: Satan as trickster teaches humanity how to walk humbly in the paths of the Lord. While possibly taking pleasure in testing human weaknesses and strengths, Satan can create situations that can lead humans to make proper moral choices.

Take the example of Paul, whose flesh was torn by Satan so that he “may not be made prideful” (2 Cor 12:7). Who “gave” Satan to Paul? The text does not say. And why is this Satan doing good, specifically keeping Paul from the sin of pride? Paul understood that Satan could be used by God to lead humans toward God’s hope for their salvation. This is demonstrated by his recommendation to the church at Corinth that the man guilty of incest be handed over “to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that his spirit can be saved on the Day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). Yes, Satan may destroy the flesh, but he does so for a reason, to save the soul. But Paul also knew that the faithful could fail the tests of “the one who tests (peirazō),” the same word used for Satan in Jesus’ temptation in the desert. When he writes to the Thessalonians, Paul expresses concern that they “might be tested by the one who tests and thus [Paul’s] work might have been in vain” (1 Thess 3:5). What the biblical text indicates is that Satan’s trickery can lead humans to sin or can prevent people from sinning. The hope of God is that through the tests administered by Satan, believers would mature in their faith. Yet there always exists the possibility that the test, like all tests, could be failed.

Through Satan’s tests and tricks, those afflicted by oppressive societal structures can become aware of how racism, sexism, and classism are embedded within social, political, and economic structures that contribute to their suffering and disenfranchisement. What has been presented as legitimate and normative is disrupted. Through this process, Satan is able to lead those who are oppressed, upon becoming conscious of how these structures operate to privilege a small elite group at their expense, allowing them to discover their ability to transform these structures toward a more just arrangement. The role of the trickster is to create situations that raise the consciousness of those relegated as “objects” being used by those in power for the dominant culture’s gain. Satan as trickster, as the one who disrupts the norm, can illuminate new paths for the oppressed, even to the point of assisting them to become “subjects” of their own destiny by breaking through the accepted reasons given for their marginalization by those whom society privileges.

Trials and tribulations humanize the disenfranchised, who, until now, were seen only as “objects.” The difficulties of their personal experiences, brought about by tests and tricks, has the potential to expose and unmask the contradictions within the prevailing social structures and the justification used by those in power in maintaining those structures. God can use Satan, as God did in the case of Job and Jesus to assist those who are seen as “non-persons” to uncover their identity and the causes of their station in life. The situations in which the marginalized find themselves, due to these “satanic” forces, becomes the starting point for all critical analysis. Upon evaluating the information based on the social location of the oppressed, the formulation of actions serving to change their situation becomes possible. The trickster, thus, moves the disenfranchised from a position of complicity with structures designed to maintain their marginality.

God can also utilize Satan to cause those who benefit from the status quo to discover their own salvation. Oppressors and sinners are also trapped in structures that dehumanize them due to their complicity with repressive structures. The ethics constructed by those privileged by the status quo is part of a false consciousness that accepts oppressive social structures as normative, one that does little if nothing to dismantle those structures. The ethics of the privileged and powerful can blame all misery caused by oppression that benefits them on Satan, or natural selection, or karma, or just bad luck, while excusing themselves from all responsibility and liability. By bringing chaos to the “law and order” that protects the dominant culture’s place within society, they too can achieve a conscientization that recognizes that even though the prevailing social structures privilege them, through the demonstration of solidarity with the disenfranchised, working with them for a more just social order, they can reclaim their humanity and, thus, their salvation.

Viewing Satan as trickster is not without problems, specifically the ambiguity that exists between Satan and God—an ambiguity that can find its full expression in the trickster figure. Rather than being God’s antithesis, God’s opposite, a certain ambiguity, if not complimentary position is held by Satan. If Satan has no power except that given by God, we are left wondering whether evil can come from God, a proposition which the early biblical writers and ancient Church Fathers like Augustine raised. We heard the prophet Amos asking “If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Amos 3:6). More disturbing is the passage where God sends evil spirits to torment King Saul (1 Sam 18:10). Such a proposition has the potential of dismissing any notion regarding God’s ultimate goodness. Once we eliminate Satan as some type of quasi-deity who can be blamed for all of the evils which befall humanity, we are left asking if God has a dark side. What is more, if Satan is only carrying out God’s divine will; then does this mean that God is the ultimate trickster?

Comments (2)

That's very thought provoking. I am still wondering though if Satan is a scapegoat or some complement to the freewill of humanity...

#1 - Paul Miller - 05/28/2014 - 07:16

I think we have to also ask what is good and evil, because if everything was created by God, then this being created all the possibilities that could come about within reality. Including the option of 'evil.'

My personal philosophies have led me to a somewhat similar position to Taoism, where one being or source originally existed in a simple, unified state, and divided itself into all the possible combinations of states everything could be in. That we are simply part of this process of being divided and rearranged, and that living in harmony motivated by pure love will ultimately lead us to be one again with the source of it all. And, that what we call evil, serves two purposes, both of which eventually bring about the same conclusion. 1, it gives us direction to find the imperfections in us that we might clean out and love more purely, or 2, if we fail the test, our existence either directly or indirectly goes back to being part of the One again.

Not preaching it as dogma or fact, just a direction my curiosity has led me in philosophising :)

#2 - Adam Parker - 09/12/2014 - 11:53

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