Satan is a Fictional Character

It’s been a long time since I dipped my toes in the theology pool.  Pop cultural criticism’s generally more fun and less emotionally exhausting, but every once in a while you have one of those moments that makes you want to do something challenging.

We’ll keep the introduction short here, because the point I want to make is a brief one.  I recently had an encounter with someone that resolved with an agreement to disagree about the nature of Satan.

The event which precipitated the encounter was the ongoing news story about the statue of Baphomet that the Satanic Temple has commissioned as a response to various state legislators trying to erect monuments to the Ten Commandments on government property (first in Oklahoma, and more recently in Arkansas).  Here’s a decent overview of the recent festivities at the statue’s unveiling in Detroit over the summer from Time.  As is to be expected, this event has drawn some ire from a subset of Christians who believe that Satan is a real supernatural figure who opposes the will of God.

This is not Satan; it’s a fictional demon whose physical characteristics were gradually appropriated into the popular imagination of what Satan looks like. (Image credit: Time)

I understand the impulse to be upset about this kind of display.  In the supernaturally inclined Christian mindset, promotion of the character of Satan is a dangerous thing; it is endemic to the casual disregard for God’s sovereignty that these Christians believe to be immutable and unquestionable.  It doesn’t matter that Satanism, as a belief system, is closely connected with principles of secular humanism and can generally be regarded as an atheistic approach to religion, nor that Satanists don’t actually worship a specific supernatural person named Satan.  The fact that Satanists have appropriated a villainous figure from popular Christian mythology as their symbol is the only important thing to know about them, because in the supernaturalist Christian imagination, symbols carry an immense kind of power that influence things on a spiritual level.  To hail Satan, even in mockery, is to give him power.

This is a really frustrating mindset to interact with, because any time you cross into the realm of supernatural belief, you crash up against the problem of the authority of evidence.  From the supernaturalist’s perspective, evidence against a particular belief, if not presented in a way that’s appropriately authoritative, is easy to disregard as untrustworthy.  The supernatural is defined by its existence outside of physical experience, and so beliefs that fall into this sphere are upheld exclusively by a person’s willingness to hold them as true.  I don’t believe that Satan is a real person, but any evidence I can offer for this belief (such as my interpretations of passages in the Bible which appear to discuss the character of Satan and my knowledge of significant portrayals of the character in culture that have influenced the popular imagination surrounding the character) is irrelevant to someone who insists Satan exists and exerts influence in the world.

The whole problem is something of an inverse of one that I pondered for years as an evangelical, which was how you get a person who doesn’t believe in something supernatural, like the existence of God, to consider that possibility.  It’s not a change of mind that really happens because of wholly rational processes.

Nonetheless, for all the frustrations that come from such attempts, I still feel like it’s important to present evidence to back up a position, so let me take a few minutes to outline why I think Satan is a fictional character.

In the Bible, Satan is a word that occurs in a few places.  The earliest occurrence is in the book of Job, which is structured as a series of speeches discussing Job’s state that are framed by a brief explanation that God allows Job to suffer immense hardship as a test of his faith.  Here, the satan (translated as accuser) is a figure who goes to God and asks for an opportunity to test Job.  The purpose of this test is to see if Job’s faith is really as strong as God says.  The satan appears to be acting not in defiance toward God but in accordance with them as a way of checking to see if Job, a man whose reputation for unshakable faith defines him, really does have such strong faith.  We see no real adversarial relationship between God and the satan in this early story.  Later, in the histories of Israel, Satan appears occasionally as a figure of blame for the nation’s misfortunes or poor decisions.  There is no extended characterization here other than to say that Satan is responsible, which functions in a similar way to the mythologies of ancient pantheistic religions where the gods are capricious and dole out misfortune without significant justification.  Considering the national imagination of Israel, that God is a deity wholly invested in the success of the nation when it acts the way they want, it makes sense that moments of national disaster would need some other supernatural figure to blame.  The transformation of the satan into this larger adversarial role makes sense in light of Israel’s troubled history with its neighbors and the emergence of the narrative that God’s chosen people will eventually triumph over their oppressors (you can’t overstate how strongly the Babylonian Exile influenced the way Israel’s history is presented in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles).

Flash forward to the New Testament, and you see examples of Jesus and the disciples making reference to Satan both as a supernatural entity and as a form of disdainful address towards people who obstruct Jesus’ mission.  At this time period you had the re-ignition of the Jewish apocalyptic imagination with regard to Rome’s rulership which felt in many respects similar to what the Jews remembered about their time under Babylonian rule.  By this point in history though, the influence of Greek philosophers (particularly Plato with his concept of metaphysical ideals that are poorly mirrored in the physical world) had spread, and we see instances of Satan being described as a spiritual figure who actually leads the demons that rebel against God (that’s a significant change from what’s seen in the Old Testament where God is opposed by other gods; the transition from enemy gods to enemy demons makes sense in accordance with Judaism’s trend from a religion which prefers its national deity over those of outside tribes to a religion which only acknowledges its own God as truly divine).

All of this is to say that even within the context of the Bible, we see an evolution of Satan’s character which is commensurate with the development of a fiction.  Things begin simply enough, and over the course of generations new details get added on as necessary so that the character can fit the role needed by the narrative.  An inerrantist reading of these texts must struggle to reconcile the fact that the satan seen in Job has very little in common with Satan discussed in the New Testament, especially if they are supposed to be the same creature.

Beyond that, I haven’t even gotten into the ways the character developed within the Christian imagination over the last two millennia.  Somehow we decided that Satan wasn’t just an enemy of God, but also a former lieutenant; he and his demons began as angels in their own right, and they experienced their own fall; that none of this is found in the Bible is irrelevant to its persistence in popular Christian thought.

Reading “Season of Mists: Chapter 2”

Last year I got it in my head that it would be fun to do a series exploring John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.  During my time in grad school I had a brief fascination with Milton that was largely spurred on by my immersion in evangelical subculture at the time.  Much of the modern understanding of the story of the Fall is derived from Milton’s work, even though many smarter people than me have pointed out that in reality, he was more or less just writing his own fanfiction about something that he really loved (seriously, when you realize that Milton includes an extended passage explaining how Adam and Eve’s digestive systems worked so that they never actually pooped in the garden, you know you’re dealing with a superfan).  Milton’s imagining of the events leading up to the Fall depicted in Genesis are quite fantastic, and well worth looking at if you have the stomach for poetry.

Lucifer is all about personal freedom. And creeptastic teeth. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I like to think of issue #23 of The Sandman as Gaiman’s love letter to Milton’s Satan.  From the opening page depicting Dream flying through an infinite nowhere that’s evocative of the unshapen chaos that Satan traverses on his way to infiltrate the garden after he hears about the creation of humans (it’s a terrifying experience, even for a being of near infinite power) to Lucifer’s extended meditation (most of this issue is a prolonged monologue given by Lucifer while he shuts Hell down) on whether his rebellion in Heaven was actually a rebellion or just another facet of the Creator’s plan, Gaiman is riffing on ideas presented in Paradise Lost.  The entire effect of the issue, at least to me, even echoes what I thought about Book One of Paradise Lost (the first book details the aftermath of Satan’s failed rebellion and his attempt to pick up the pieces and establish his reign over Pandemonium besides the lake of fire), which was that there’s a lot about this devil guy to sympathize with (my professor in undergrad with whom I first read parts of Paradise Lost rather soundly deconstructed these feelings of sympathy in her lecture on the text, but I still think there’s a hint of admiration to be found in Milton’s voice).  In Gaiman’s writing, Lucifer comes across as imminently sympathetic.  He’s been villainized by mortals as the one responsible for their bad behavior when he honestly doesn’t give a damn, and he kind of resents the fact that for all his power in Hell, he’s still operating according to the whims of the mortals who find themselves there after they die (Lucifer insists that people who come to Hell do so because they believe they should be there, and the punishments they receive are self-directed).  Like with Milton’s Satan, you have to first accept what Gaiman’s Lucifer says at face value, but it does sound really convincing (particularly in the cosmology of The Sandman where the supernatural seems to spring from the Dreaming, which is a landscape for the collective unconscious of all mortals in the universe).

The ultimate effect is that I consciously recognize that Lucifer is still antagonizing Dream (particularly knowing what’s going to happen because he hands the key to Hell over to him), but in the moments where Lucifer steps down from his office and offers his complaint about what his existence has been like, I feel for the guy.  He’s really screwing Dream over in the process, but I don’t begrudge him deciding that he doesn’t have to be responsible for playing the adversary to a Divinity who might have manipulated him into the role in the first place.  Lucifer’s an agent of free will, and he won’t be damned if he can help it.

Besides exercising his free will (we get a lovely little scene where Lucifer demonstrates his commitment to refusing obligations that he doesn’t want by evicting a small group of fiends who don’t want to leave because they think the lord of Hell should continue fighting the bad fight, as it were; he tells them he’ll do “what he damn well likes” and sends them away), Lucifer also explores the topic of infinite punishment for finite crimes.  Besides the stubborn demons, he also has to contend with a stubborn man who insists that he must suffer for eternity to pay for his really quite gruesome litany of crimes.  Lucifer is unmoved by the catalogue, and points out that all the murders were of people who would have been long dead by this point in time anyway (he seems to have no empathy for the magnitude of suffering that the guy with the hooks in his face inflicted during his life), and everyone’s forgotten his name on top of that (it’s a nice little variation on “Ozymandias”), so the punishment has become pointless.  A little later in the issue, when Lucifer discusses his own crimes we get to see that he’s really thinking about himself, and whether it’s just that he should rule Hell for eternity because of his rebellion (he acknowledges that returning to life as an angel is out of the question probably both because he wouldn’t be welcomed back and because he’d find the servitude galling after millennia playing the bad guy for God).

Turning to the art of the issue, Kelley Jones does some incredible work with close up panels of faces in this issue.  It’s a very talky issue with a fair bit of back and forth between Lucifer and Dream, but pretty frequently Jones interjects a panel or two that consists only of a look from one of the two central characters that conveys a lot of information with just a look (also, every panel where Kelley Jones gets to draw a character’s teeth is one of my favorite because he always draws them in a way that rushes headlong into the uncanny valley, which is a wonderfully unsettling effect for a book focused on Dream and Lucifer).  Besides the lovely close-ups, Jones also draws some great hellscapes that convey the emptiness and the vastness of the place.

Next issue sees more of Jones’s signature creepy teeth and the fallout of Lucifer’s parting gift to Dream begins to make itself apparent.

Re-Reading Paradise Lost: In Which Th’ Arch-Enemy Falls

So I’m sitting here at my computer, wondering how I begin this series (the last post doesn’t really count because that was more a history of my experience with the poem rather than any actual discussion of it), and it seems to me that the device of in medias res is a really useful one.  You don’t have to do too much to establish your topic, and you’re free to jump in at a point of high excitement.  The background details can be filled in later; for now, what’s important is that you hook your readers.

Hell at last, Yawning received them whole. By Gustav Dore. (Image credit: University of Buffalo Libraries)

For Milton, I think that hooking his readers was a pretty important thing, considering what he wanted to accomplish in Paradise Lost.  This was going to be the English epic, the poem that defined what was so great about Milton’s native language, and for its subject, Milton picked what he considered to be the most important story in all the world.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on one’s shoulders, but I’ve always understood that John Milton had more than a slight ego, so he probably felt himself up to the task.

That desire to really set his poem apart doesn’t stop Milton from hitting all the typical epic conventions, including the real biggy: the invocation of the Muse.  Of course, Milton’s not dealing with any heathen muses here; he goes straight for the Holy Spirit as his inspiration.  And how does he ask the Holy Spirit to help him?

[…] What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men. [emphasis mine]

– Book 1, ll. 22-26

Okay, so maybe Milton has a little bit more humility than I give him credit for.  He does ask the Holy Spirit to augment him so that he can better explain God’s ways.  Justify them, even.

This is a strange way to begin, asking for help in justifying how God works to men.  Milton’s writing in an age where the universal hierarchy is pretty uniformly accepted by Western thinkers.  Under that model, there’s not much need for justification when it comes to explaining why someone who’s your superior does the things they do; they’re better than you, so shut up and accept it.  God, being at the top of the chain, should naturally be above reproach here, and yet Milton still feels like his purpose is to explain God’s ways.

I guess theodicy’s one of those questions we just can’t get away from, no matter how much our theology may teach us to bury our heads in the sand over it.

And should we even try to get away from it?  In Christian thought, God is supposed to embody love.  That’s the creative force of the universe, and yet we’re constantly bombarded with experiences that demonstrate how love gets so easily thwarted, to say nothing of the purely destructive forces that exist around us and seem to strike without any real reason.  In our worst moments, all the things we can characterize as being of God seem to operate with no justification at all.  I suppose that doesn’t sit well with Milton (which is good; if it sits well with anyone, then they’re either not thinking very hard about what’s happening around them, or they’re psychopaths who lack basic empathy), so he’s going to buck the system with the kindest permission of the Holy Spirit who’s going to do everything in its power to make Milton not suck at justifying God to people.

Alrighty then.

So with the purpose established, Milton finally gets to setting the scene.  We come in just after the rebellious angels have landed in hell,

Such place Eternal Justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their pris’n ordained
In utter darkness and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of Heav’n
As from the center thrice to th’ utmost pole.

– Book 1, ll. 70-74

What’s really interesting here is how Milton’s personified Justice as an entity separate from God.  The personifications of Death and Sin that appear later in Paradise Lost are pretty famous, but they make sense as separate things.  They’re supposed to be byproducts of Satan’s rebellion (Sin is born directly from Satan’s rebellion, and then she births Death after Satan rapes her), and so it makes sense that they would be their own entities.  Regarding Justice, her separateness is intriguing because it suggests that she’s a created entity, subservient to God.  Milton’s cosmology is a little unusual because he refers to the Son as the first creation of the Father (I remember freaking out the first time I read that bit because it seemed to counter the doctrine of the coeternal Trinity, although now I think there’s probably something more subtle going on; besides, no one really understands the Trinity that well), so Justice has to be something that came afterwards.  I just find it interesting that here she’s characterized as being apart from God, when there are multiple very popular strains of modern theology that say God’s character exists in the tension between his need for justice and his desire for mercy (penal substitutionary atonement, anyone?).  Perhaps Milton is just being poetic, or perhaps he’s making a statement about the need for justice to act in service to God’s primary characteristic of love.

Of course, that reading doesn’t fully explain why God, after so easily subduing an upstart rebellion (we’ll learn much later that he ended the conflict single-handedly after three days of fighting among the angels) sees fit to punish the rebels by casting them into hell.  The best explanation I can come up with leans on Satan’s famous declaration that it’s “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!” (1.263).  Milton seems to be making a case that Satan’s damnation stems from his own pride and refusal to submit to his place within the hierarchy.  God would be willing to take the fallen angels back if they would repent, but they’re incapable of choosing that option.  It’s a more or less Arminian reading of damnation (which generally posits that God hasn’t predestined us to salvation or damnation, but leaves the choice up to us individually; it’s the most palatable interpretation of hell as eternal punishment that I can imagine, though I still think it has flaws).  Of course, Satan’s mental state might call into question how fair it is to leave the decision of damnation up to him.

In Satan’s first speech, Milton establishes that our subject has a very special discursive style.  It involves complicated (and often convoluted) phrasing with multiple digressions (as though Satan just can’t keep focused on a single train of thought for very long) that tend to distract from the central point that’s being made.  It’s not unusual for Satan to carry on for more than twenty lines with a tangent before he finally gets to the point he started with (for an excellent example, look at lines 84-105 in Book 1; it’s a difficult passage to parse, even with a good edition that takes care to include clarifying punctuation).

Actually, Satan’s oratory reminds me a lot of my own informal writing (though I lack all the fancy diction that Milton’s prone to putting in the devil’s mouth).  I wonder if that means that I’m in the same boat, where my salvation is up to me personally, but I just… can’t… get to that ever important thought (I mean, how could I when so many other interesting thoughts occur along the way?) that puts me in the proper doxological category.  The point I’m trying to make is that Satan’s a bit of a loon, and his mental capacity continuously diminishes throughout the poem, so having a salvation model that requires him to come to a place of right belief isn’t the most fair setup.

Also, Satan’s kind of full of himself:

That glory never shall His wrath or might
Extort from me: to bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee and deify His pow’r

– Book 1, ll. 110-112

Here Milton intends for Satan’s redemption to be impossible because of his own pride and inability to acknowledge his place in the divine hierarchy.  It goes back to the free will factor, which I still think is the least problematic form of a model of eternal damnation, though I believe modern thought has eroded the defensibility of this position.  In our postmodern society, the existence of God is no longer something that people are able to treat as a given which they must deal with in their approach to the way of the universe.  It’s harder to blame a person for rebelling against God (and consequently bringing about their own damnation) when they don’t necessarily have to believe that God is something against which they are in rebellion.  Contemporary non-Christians are usually not angry apostates who shake their fists in rage against a God in whom they still bear a grudging belief, but people who just don’t accept the premises of the faith as axiomatic.  God’s not worth fighting because God might not even exist (or if God does, he might not bear any resemblance to the person described in Christian tradition; he might not even be a single entity).  I think that Milton’s exemplar of spiritual rebellion comes across as a little dated here.

But the question of Satan and the other fallen angels’ agency in their damnation isn’t the only question that Milton grapples with in this first chapter.  He also hits in a slightly oblique way the whole issue of a cosmology where evil, as embodied in the rebellious Satan, is allowed to run free and thwart good.  Beelzebub, Satan’s chief lieutenant, brings it up like this:

But what if He our conqueror (whom I now
Of force believe almighty since no less
Than such could have o’erpow’red such force as ours)
Have left us this our spirit and strength entire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains
That we may so suffice His vengeful ire
Or do Him mightier service as His thralls
By right of war, whate’er His business be:
Here in the heart of Hell to work in fire
Or do His errands in the gloomy deep?

– Book 1, ll. 143-152

Just prior to Beelzebub’s rumination on why God might allow the fallen angels to continue in their full strength, Satan discusses how it’s fortunate that they still have their power, because this means, with the new knowledge of God’s true strength, that they can continue to wage war eternally, even if they can’t really hope to ever overthrow God (funny how quickly Satan’s goal changes from conquest to just constant agitation; the diminishment of his ambitions is a regular motif throughout Paradise Lost).  Beelzebub, though faithful, has a little bit more sense to be wary of the fact that all the fallen angels are being punished for their rebellion, and that the reason for their current state probably figures into that punishment somehow (if I had to hazard a guess, it might go back to Satan’s pride; being beaten but not weakened would feed into his inability to repent; of course, that’s kind of a crappy move on God’s part, since it means he’s stacked the deck against the fallen angels’ own free will).  Alternately, Beelzebub reasons if their strength isn’t anything to do with punishment, then it’s probably to do with some other plan that God has which requires them to operate in hell apart from him (here we get hints of predestination and the adage that “even the devil is God’s devil”).  Either way, things don’t look too good for the fallen angels.

I guess they’ll just have to build themselves a giant demon palace and hang out for a bit.

One last thing I want to note (and this doesn’t speak so much to the framework Milton’s trying to build around hell and the fallen angels’ natures, which I think is the major theme of the first book) is a passage from the catalog of demons who comprise Satan’s vast infernal army.

With these came they who from the bord’ring flood
Of old Euphrates to the brook that parts
Egypt from Syrian ground had general names
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth, those male,
These feminine, for spirits when they please
Can either sex assume or both, so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones
Like cumbrous flesh but in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes
And works of love or enmity fulfill.

-Book 1, ll. 419-431

This passage is a description of the various Baals and Ashtaroths who appear in the Old Testament as local gods of the nations surrounding and mixing with Israel.  It’s part of a much larger list (the majority of Book 1 is this catalogue of the fallen angels) that re-frames various pagan deities from antiquity as fallen angels who posed as gods in order to lead people away from the true God.  The thing I want to note here is how Milton is pretty explicit in saying that sex is a biological trait bound up in our physical bodies.  The fallen angels (and by extension, the faithful angels as well) are creatures without a fixed sex, because they’re purely spirit.  This idea probably has its roots in Platonism with the concept of ideal forms, and seems to have a twinge of disparagement for the physical world in general, but I like this passage because it seems to be Milton saying that sex and gender are fluid, at least on a spiritual level.  To put it another way, there is nothing intrinsically gendered about a man’s spirit or a woman’s spirit.  Furthermore, Milton seems to be noting this detail as just a neutral fact.  Spirits may change their sex as they wish to serve whatever purpose they have, for good or ill.  From the perspective of gender dynamics, it’s a pretty progressive stance.

I wonder how it’ll hold up when we get introduced to Adam and Eve.

Walk Humbly: Your Interpretation is Not My Interpretation (And That’s Okay)

All posts in this series refer to the conversation found here.

“Is there any reason the Bible -cannot- be literally true (where it claims to be) and the infallible message of the Creator to His creation?”

I think Damon gets back to the heart of the conversation here, and helps to refocus what we’re talking about (I’ve gone over the whole conversation multiple times now, and if there’s a common flaw in both of our arguments, it’s that we allow ourselves to get sidetracked by tangents really easily).  My answer to the above question is a rather firm “Yes.”  Earlier in the correspondence, I mentioned the fact that Genesis contains two accounts of creation which contradict each other chronologically.  The first has plant life created before the man, while the second has it created after him.  This is not a minor detail like the discrepancies in the synoptic gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry that can be handwaved away as different recollections of the same events (though that’s not really a strong point in favor of literalism either), but a significant difference in how God went about making the world.  Further, both accounts ostensibly come from the same author under a literalist hermeneutic, so it doesn’t make sense to have that kind of contradiction if we’re intended to read them as accurate history.

Moving along in the conversation, there comes a point where I tell Damon that I disagree with the literalist hermeneutic because the way it’s exercised in America today stems from opposition to the abolitionist movement prior to our Civil War (an excellent, if anecdotal, illustration of this point can be found in the film Twelve Years a Slave where a slave owner quotes from a parable Jesus tells in Luke 12 as justification for beating disobedient slaves).  My understanding on this topic comes from what I’ve read from Fred Clark at Slacktivist (he leans heavily on the book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll, which I haven’t read, but do intend to read soon).

I was really disappointed that Damon didn’t address either of these points as the conversation proceeded.  I think they’re worth exploring.  What Damon did respond to was my point about the contradiction between the accounts in Samuel and Chronicles where one writer attributes David’s decision to hold a census to God, while the other writer attributes that same decision to Satan.  I argued much earlier that both accounts couldn’t simultaneously be true and likely reflect the historians’ differing opinions about the census.  Damon’s response to this assertion isn’t a bad one, but it’s worth analyzing because it demonstrates how we’re interpreting the passages differently based on our own theological assumptions.

Here’s Damon’s response in full:

I really don’t have time to go through everything you’ve said and respond to it, but I did want to respond to your proposed contradiction between Samuel and Chronicles. I refer you to the book of Job. If one is describing the events that happened to Job, who is responsible? Who did those things to him? God, or Satan? God, as the sovereign Ruler, is ultimately responsible for everything that happens ever. That does not mean that He literally, directly -does- them, but He allows them. I have heard a quote that, “Even the devil is God’s devil.” “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Damon uses the story of Job as his cosmological model where Satan is subordinate to God and conducts evil in accordance with God’s ultimately good will (we know his will is good because of the proof text that Damon concludes with).  Under this model, an event may be attributed to both God and Satan simultaneously without contradiction.

There are several assumptions implicit in this model with which I disagree, and which need to be examined.  The text of Job is fundamentally an exercise in exploring theodicy, the problem of suffering in a divinely ordered world.  Large portions of it are parodies of contemporary wisdom regarding the responsibility of the victim in any sort of calamity (come to think, Job is an excellent text on how asinine victim-blaming is).  Job is innocent of any wrongdoing, but God allows Satan to torture him.  The only explanation God offers for this is that he’s beyond our understanding, so shut up and deal with it.

Personally, I think that Job ends in a rather unsatisfying way, but I don’t take the fact that God comes off as a jerk in that text to mean that God is actually a jerk (I belong to the school of thought that Job is not a historical book, but a work of fiction that was intended to serve an instructional purpose).  Further, I don’t believe that Satan actually exists, but that he’s a fictional personification of the evil forces at work in the world that drive people to sin.  Under that understanding, it becomes nonsense to say that God authorizes sin in the world when the work of Jesus shows rather clearly (in my mind) that he’s looking to eradicate it.

The point I’m driving at is that Damon and I spend a lot of time talking past each other here, because our interpretations of certain things differ and have rather far reaching effects on how our theology is shaped.  I’m still very firmly convinced that Damon’s literalist reading of the Bible is flawed, but I don’t believe that because his theology contradicts my own he’s somehow outside the realm of God’s grace.  I’ll get more into that problem next time.

Reading A Demon’s Nightmare

It should come as no surprise by this point that a major theme in Chick’s tracts is that the devil is out to derail as many people as possible from looking into the whole Jesus thing.  More specifically, in Chick world it’s not just the devil who’s out to keep everyone away from Christ, but his entire army of demon servants who have nothing better to do than spend their time following an individual around invisibly all the time, speaking things into people’s ears to try to keep them from thinking about God.  The motivation for this seems to run along the lines of “Misery loves company.”

Page 9

Satan’s minions convince the kid’s parents that they’re socially ruined because of their son’s personal decision. (Image credit: Chick.com)

In A Demon’s Nightmare we get to see a pair of rather incompetent demons working frantically to try to keep the kid they’re assigned to from first becoming a Christian, and then becoming an effective evangelist (because in Chick world, it is a Christian’s ability to rake in souls that makes them valuable).  They don’t succeed, despite numerous attempts to distract the kid from first hearing the gospel and then to keep him from getting connected with people in a “Bible-believing church” (Chick’s code for a church belonging to the white evangelical subculture).  The demon’s fail at every turn, but their ultimate failure comes about because they decide to take a night off (if only they had known better than to take a Wednesday night off, which evangelicals know is actually Second Sunday).  The kid goes on to become a missionary in south Asia, and thousands of people convert because of him, which means our two protagonists, as their punishment for being lazy and, y’know, evil, have to dig new deeper levels of hell to accommodate where Satan has sent them.

As a tract, it’s not terribly exciting.  You get the usual jabs at modern American culture apparently being so hostile to Christianity that the kid’s parents are horrified that he’s developed a form of faith, and his friends think he’s a total square because he’s a Christian now (and getting initiated into the club completely changes your personality in a single afternoon), and then he finds a community of like-minded individuals and lives happily ever after.  From the very start, there’s no real tension that the demons will succeed here, which is unusual because Chick typically likes to mix it up to show that even you could go to hell because of something really stupid.  Honestly, this tract’s worst offense is just being kind of boring.

Now, the idea that underlies this story is one that I’ve criticized before in other tracts, and that’s the idea that Satan is a real supernatural entity who is out to destroy our chances at going to heaven.  I don’t believe that the devil is real (instead, he’s the creation of a couple thousand years of mixing and matching some figures who are discussed in the Bible with some medieval cosmological ideas and John Milton’s Paradise Lost), and I think he’s a very insidious idea that evangelical subculture has used to create a certain ideological paranoia in members of the club.

Satan as a concept is a difficult one to grasp, because the central point of his mythology is that he rebelled against God, failed, and is now being punished eternally for his rebellion.  Despite that punishment, he still has power and agency within the world to turn people away from God (or tempt them away, depending on how Calvinist your particular theological framework is).  Satan has a multitude of tools at his disposal, including all the aspects of the fallen world.  Despite being in hell, he’s also the prince of our world.  Satan’s favorite tactic is deception (Prince of Lies and all that), which he employs subtly and imperceptibly to ensnare anyone who isn’t constantly vigilant of the corrupting influence of the world.

It’s kind of head spinny with the contradictions you have to hold in your mind about the character of Satan in order for him to make sense.  At one point back when I was still steeped in evangelicalism, I explained to a friend that I thought of Satan as a force that was so powerful that he nearly succeeded in overthrowing God, even though God has infinite power.  We’ll ignore the fact that if you construct God as being infinitely powerful, then any opposition, no matter how powerful, if it’s still finite, has no chance of succeeding.  The finite and the infinite just can’t be compared except to say that one ends and the other doesn’t.

I was spouting nonsense.

Of course, I’ve reconstructed my theology since then to incorporate the idea that God probably isn’t omnipotent, simply because the exercise of force contradicts God’s central characteristic of love.  With that idea in mind, it becomes less problematic to suggest that Satan is powerful and works within the world, but I still don’t buy that he’s real.

Think for a second what it means to believe in something that can never be proven, to think there is an invisible aggressor always looking over you, trying to push you away from goodness, and you are completely and utterly helpless to detect his influence on you.  You have to be afraid of this bogeyman all the time.  Everyone you meet might be working for him and not even realize they’ve been compromised.  You might be helping him and not even know it.

There is no way to know for sure.

So what does a person do when they live under that assumption?  As ludicrous as it sounds to an outsider, it’s not a hypothetical for many people within evangelical subculture.  Within the subculture, the only answer that’s offered for avoiding Satan’s deceptions is an adamant adherence to what the Bible teaches.  The Word of God can show us the straight and narrow path to freedom from this hidden oppressor, and all we have to do is cling to it with everything we have.

The only problem, and this is one that’s hard to see when you’re on the inside of this system, is that we don’t know for certain what the Bible teaches.  Parts of it contradict other parts.  God comes off as a bully sometimes, even though we’re supposed to believe his central aspect is love.  Paul’s writings about issues within the early church is inconsistent sometimes, with him giving contradictory advice to two different groups.  What do we do with that stuff?

My answer is you find a hermeneutic that doesn’t result in total theological breakdown when you inevitably see the contradictions.

“But then you’ll be deceived!” evangelicals say when this solution is proposed.  It was said to me when I broke from the anti-gay position of evangelicalism (the first issue that I really couldn’t stomach in good conscience).  I was told that my decision to affirm marriage equality and argue that homosexuality isn’t categorically condemned in the Bible had come about because I’d been deceived by Satan.  I had let the world influence me in ways that were not holy, and I was putting myself in a spiritually perilous position.

That hurt.

The idea of the devil hurts.

If there’s an invisible enemy always out to get us, and our only option is to accept a set of beliefs that don’t fully make sense and engender animosity between us and others who don’t hold those same beliefs, then the God who lies at the center of that system is a cruel monster with a cruel pet who can pick us off anytime he likes, because we can’t know what he’s doing.  It’s a universe more in line with Lovecraft than Christ.

I prefer Christ, thank you very much.  And that’s why I don’t believe in the devil.