Goofy title, I know.
But if you've been reading the comments to these posts you know where I'm getting this from. I'll use this post to elaborate.
Thanks to some good discussion on my last post provided by Sheila Vamplin and ftwskies I've been thinking a lot about the ontology of evil and Satan's relationship to evil. Thanks to Sheila and ftwskies for pushing on me to clarify my posts. Here's a shot at clarification.
Let me start by saying that I've read nothing on this subject. So the following is based upon reason and what I can remember of the bible as I sit here and type. If anyone would like to recommend good books on this topic please pass those titles on.
First, to set the context. In my last post I suggested that some Christians with strong warfare models tend to inflate Satan's powers and scope to almost god-like levels. The result of this inflation is that the metaphysic begins to creep toward dualism with the fight between The Evil and The Good represented in the battle between God and Satan. This dualism, to my eye, looks crypto-Zoroastrian. It is true that Satan is not perceived as God's equal by these believers. That is, it is not:
Good God vs. Evil God.
But rather, again, to my eye,
Good God vs. Evil god.
So, the model looks more like a weak-Zoroastrian formulation. It doesn't operate, metaphysically speaking, as a strict monotheism. But neither does it operate as a strict dualism. It's somewhere in between.
In my prior posts I've suggested that one of the reasons for creating this weak dualism is that it partly helps with the emotional toll of monotheism, particularly as that toll is related to theodicy.
Okay, but does the Satan concept get inflated as I have suggested? Inflated in ways that are unbiblical? Because if Satan has been inflated in unbiblical ways it lends support to my notion that there is more going on in the psychology of Satan. Part of what might be going on is cultural history (e.g., Dante's influence on notions of Satan). But I'm also suggesting that there might be some psychological stuff mixed up in this as well. Specifically, the need to feel less conflicted about God when we suffer in life.
What evidence do I have that the Satan construct gets inflated?
First, I've noted that many Christians tend to equate Satan with Evil, ontologically speaking. For example, I've suggested that you ask Christians of your acquaintance this question: If Satan didn't exist how would the world be different? A similar kind of question is this: Could the Fall of Adam and Eve happen without there being a Satan? Or: Can sin exist without there being a Satan?
Most of the people I've asked these question tend to claim that the notion of the Fall of Man demands a Satan, demands that Evil preexist the Fall. In short, for sin to exist there must be a choice between Good and Evil. Those choices must preexist, ontologically speaking. Thus, Satan, as Evil, must exist prior to the Fall. No Satan, no Fall, no sin.
Here's the problem with that formulation. How did Satan himself fall? For if sin requires Evil to preexist then Satan needed a Satan. And Satan's Satan needed a Satan. It's a Russian Doll problem.
So, it seems clear, to me at least, that Evil does NOT need to preexist for a Fall to occur. And what that means is this:
You don’t need a Satan in the world for there to be sin.
Let me clarify. I'm not saying there isn't an Adversary. What I am suggesting is that having an Adversary isn’t a necessary condition for sin. Phrased another way, the Adversary may be Evil-as-adjective. But the Adversary isn't Evil-as-noun.
But this reasoning, obvious to me, is news to a lot of believers. Why? Because, tacitly and implicitly, people have tended to think of Satan not as an Adversary but as the ontological embodiment of Evil. They think of Satan as Evil, in ontological terms. And this is a very dualist (e.g., Zoroastrian) way of viewing things.
And here's the odd thing. The bible is pretty mute about Evil. The bible has no theology of Evil, as in Capital E. Evil is our invention. Ontological Evil isn't a biblical notion at all.
What is the biblical notion of evil? Well, it’s a relational notion. Evil is not the absence of God or the opposite of God. Those are untenable notions. What is, exactly, the absence of God? Even Satan needs God to sustain him. Satan is not an eternal, necessary, self-sustaining agent. Thus, Satan cannot represent the absence of God or the separation of God. Further, Hell can't even be the total absence of God. God must sustain Hell as God must sustain all created things.
But notice, if God is all-in-all all sorts of theodicy questions arise. If nothing is separate from God then all the evil things in life must, it would seem, ultimately find their root in God. Or, at the very least, he’s complicit in their ongoing existence. That fact, I've argued, creates the emotional toll of monotheism. And, since this emotional toll is high, we default to dualist notions, implicitly associating Satan with Ontological Evil and saying things like "Evil is God's Opposite" or "Evil is the Absence of God." Speaking plainly, those formulations are unbiblical. So why do we opt for them? Again, speaking plainly, these formulations get God off the hook (since God is removed from the equation, hence the language of "absence" or "opposite", basically "not God”).
Going back to biblical notions of evil. Evil in the bible is very simple. It is transgression. Evil isn't a prerequisite for sin. Evil is sin. That is the biblical view. Evil is not a noun. It’s a choice.
As another example of the inflation of the Satan concept, I've also noticed how we tend to grant Satan god-like capabilities. And these god-like abilities are unbiblical. But yet we add these details due to the inflation of the Satan construct. As an example, here is a part of one of my comments from the last post:
Let's say I read the bible this way:
1. Satan, as an angel, is located in both time and space. Like the angel Gabriel, when Satan is in one locale he cannot be in another location. He can't be with you and me and the same time.
2. When Satan tempts/attacks a person (let's call this one of his "projects") this takes some time. For example, let's say his conversation with Eve lasted about 30 minutes. His time with Jesus in the wilderness a few hours. Let's, to allow for a back of the envelope calculation, say that a typical "project" of Satan's lasts about an hour.
Let's pause here. Both #1 and #2 are very biblical. Nowhere do we see testimony that Satan can be two places at once.
3. But if we grant #1 and #2 (both very biblical), Satan can only have about 24 projects a day. Given the current world population, that means that it would take Satan 742 years to get around to tempting everyone on the planet. Which means that I'm much more likely to be struck by lightning than having to deal with Satan in my lifetime. He just won't have enough time to get around to me.
This, of course, is all very silly. But it is extraordinarily biblical. So why don't we see Satan this way, as an opportunistic agent who picks and chooses his battles? (For example, the bible suggests that Jesus had to only deal with Satan twice. And if the Son of God, given his obvious challenge to Satan, had to only deal with Satan twice, what chance will there be that I, a small cosmic player, will ever encounter Satan?) Why not this obvious reading?
Instead of this obvious reading, we have this INFLATED notion of Satan. People tend to think (again, this is generally unstated, you have to press people to get them to work out the implications of what they really believe) that Satan is everywhere and can be tempting all people at once. Well, think about that. That is a remarkable claim. Satan would no longer be a angel, but an agent of god-like capability. And, interestingly, this inflation is unbiblical. The bible doesn't support this vision. Yet it's the vision most Christians subscribe to. I've called this kind of "inflated Satan" model crypto-Zoroastrian because it struck me as dualist in flavor. Or at least creeping in that direction. I think that is a reasonable, if whimsical, way of framing the issue.
Given the numbers and assumptions above, which seem very biblical to me, I went on to calculate the probability of encountering Satan in a given day. By my estimation the probability is:
Now, this calculation is intended to be silly, but it’s also making a legitimate point. The biblical witness claims that Satan is finite and opportunistic. And the number .0000000036 simply makes the biblical claim explicit. Yet this claim flies in the face of the god-like inflated Satan most Christians believe in. I’m just trying to make this implicit notion explicit. And the number .0000000036 helps do that.*
*It could be claimed that Satan commands a huge host of demonic agents to accomplish his purposes. That may well be the case, but it misses my point. I'm not arguing about if Satan exists or if demons exist. I'm trying to discuss, let me be clear, how we think about Satan. And the number .0000000036 helps us illuminate how we think about Satan. That is, the number strikes us as counter-intuitive. Exactly! It's counter-intuitive and, thus, theologically diagnostic.
Welcome to the blog of Richard Beck, professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University (brief vita).Richard is the author of Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith. Experimental Theology is also available on the Kindle.
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