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.
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.