“In the Old Testament, he is merely the Adversary, a forbidding member of God’s retinue. How then did Satan become the Gospels’ Prince of Darkness, who brings about the crucifixion of Jesus as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil? And why did Jesus’ followers increasingly identify Satan with their human antagonists – first Jews, then pagans, and then heretics of their own faith?““In this groundbreaking work of religious and social history, the author of The Gnostic Gospels traces the relationship between the embattled members of a breakaway Jewish sect and the myth they invoked to explain their persecution. The Origin of Satan is at once a masterpiece of erudition and a book resonant with contemporary implications. For in its pages we come to understand how the gospel of love could coexist with hatreds that have haunted Christians and non-Christians alike for two thousand years.”– From the back cover, The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels, Knopf Publishing Group, 1996.
The above writing contains the phrase, “a cosmic struggle between good and evil.”
To understand our feelings about Satan we must also address our personal cosmic vision first and foremost. We need to understand the assumptions we have made as we internally constructed our definition of both reality and – if we are spiritually inclined – the spiritual world.
In a very powerful subconscious way, those who practice a Christian religion do so with an internal image (something imagined) of that unseen spiritual reality but still a reality we believe exists; the very reality where God “is”, where Jesus “is” and to many, where Satan “is” or “wants to rule.”
In mortal or human terms I personally consider that internal image of the spiritual world upon which we have based our Christian religious foundation to be a “mental construct.” By that I mean an internally visualized – imagined, if you will – spiritual reality. Our construct serves as the context for how we combine our mortal practice of religion with our understanding of God and Jesus.
Although for all or most Christians the realm of God truly exists, we do not all agree on what that existence looks like, what such an existence means or how it impacts our lives.
Furthermore, for many Christians, the spirit world exists in some other dimension and interacts with our own world only in divinely driven supernatural ways.
This is consistent with a view of a purely supernatural, all-wise, all-knowing and almighty God who some times intervenes in the affairs of mortals in dramatic or not-so-dramatic ways. These believing Christians easily accept and live according to the idea of an invisible Jesus/God personage who is vitally invested in human life and directs forces of good against the other supernatural power and source of evil, Satan.
Others do not see the supernatural Jesus/God as a personage who exists “somewhere else” and as someone outside the sphere of mortal perception and who communicates spiritually from a distance through the Holy Spirit.
Taking a cue from Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is within you,” they have a sense of God being omnipresent and an on-going constancy in which the Holy Spirit is an uninterrupted and steady influence toward good works and a desire to live in an appropriate manner, for example, by following the Golden Rule.
On the one hand there are people who talk about spiritual warfare, evoking images of the spirit world as some sort of zone of conflict in which Satan and God operate simultaneously for and against human life.
On the other hand, others see Satan more as a conceptual part of their attempts to get a grasp on the idea of the existence of evil.
Evil for them is not something we are tempted to do by a supernatural Satan. Rather, evil is more an active part of life that serves as a kind of resistance or counter force against our intention or tendency to behave in a positive independent manner – acting in a ways that reflect the “goodness” way that Jesus wants us to be.
The same sort of controversy between biblical literalists regarding God as the “Boss of the Universe” who is commanding humans to behave based purely on obedience and morality as opposed to a non-judgmental God who fully encourages positive human behavior as a consequence of total agency exists around the reality of Satan.
To literalists, Satan becomes the direct opposite and yet needful counter to the goodness and righteous-requiring Commander-God; to such persons, Satan acts as a supernatural reality who tempts mortals to both “sins” of commission and of omission.
To non-literalists Satan represents among other things the natural mortal tendency to self-focused, self-interested acts that disregard the good of anyone else. Concepts of laziness, selfishness, arrogance and intolerance, for example, represent the fundamental source of evil in the lives of non-literalists.
This is the sort of thing addressed excellently by Scott Peck in People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.
Regardless of whether or not a belief in a real Satan is an absolute tenet of one’s personal faith, it remains a valid exercise to explore and attempt to understand how and when humans first became aware of Satan and his impact on their actions.
Moses never referred to the Serpent in the Garden as Satan or the Devil – in fact never used either word in his writings. Yet many believe totally that the serpent was Satan, “that old liar.”
The biblical appearance of Satan by name does not occur until the Book of Chronicles and the word “Devil” finally appears in the book of Revelation.
Reference to Satan in Chronicles is additionally intriguing in that the context is King David requiring a census. In the book of Kings, this event is described as something provoked by God. In Chronicles, which consists of the post-Babylon reconstruction of Jewish records, it is Satan who provokes David to take a census.
As a child I was taught that Satan is a real personage and the spirit-world equivalent of someone like Hitler or Stalin; someone of whom I should be mortally terrified and for whom I should be constantly alert.
As I grew older I found myself in the curious circumstance of being caught directly between the goodness of God and the evil of Satan. If I sinned it was Satan’s fault for tempting me. If I did something good, I was obligated to credit God for prompting me. Either way, I was bereft of any ability to own my own life’s choices and actions as something I had brought about due to my own free will.
That kind of lack of ownership means a lack of proprietorship for one’s own life and is contrary to Jesus’ description of loving the Lord thy God with all thy heart, strength and might. You cannot do that if you do not possess sufficient freedom to choose for yourself – thereby effecting your devotion to God freely without expectation of reward. The reward isn’t necessary.
Satan also serves as the deterrent compliment to a judgmental and punitive God, since – at the bar of judgment – those unrepentant sinners will be consigned to hell and the realm of Satan.
My father passed away as what Protestants would label a “back-slidden” Mormon. Shortly after his death I received a letter from a devout family friend who, while offering consolation for the loss of my Dad, also quoted from the Book of Mormon about how those who give in to temptation become captured by Satan who laughs as he enfolds his victims in chains to drag down to hell.
Satan is also an essential ingredient for the End Times and Rapture believers. As most good narratives require some sort of conflict for the hero of the story – be it a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, or an animal like a shark – most narratives utilize a personified villain such as Oil Can Harry, Black Bart, Ming the Merciless or the old Soviet KGB.
Satan’s role in the End Times narratives is vital as he is the ultimate source of villainy to be put down when Jesus returns and, after a war against evil, finally sets things straight (and also having consigned the Devil and his unrepentant sinning minions permanently to outer darkness.)
Elaine Pages’ marvelous book, The Origin of Satan, is well worth the reading. You need not be a doubter to ponder her work. In fact, if you experience an immediate internal emotional reaction – especially if that reaction is negative or fearful – I recommend you read The Origin of Satan carefully.
Give yourself a chance to throw off the chains of an internal mental construct that may have had a serious long term impact on how you perceive the world.