“So is evil a force like gravity, the propensity to serve self at the expense of the other, or a person that tempts and oppresses humans like Satan?” my fellow reader asked.
We were sitting—she in a wheelchair—at a coffee shop discussing our fall book The Quest for the Historical Satan. It had been summer reading, but “st_ff happened.” And then her elderly father died. Compared with everything else, we wondered, what did Satan matter?
According to Miguel De La Torre, an ethicist, and Albert Hernández, an historian, at the Iliff School of Theology, Satan began his career as an adversary in Yahweh God’s council. His popular character as the author of absolute evil solidified and grew into Yahweh’s near-rival during the Babylonian exile, a position he held (with a dip during the Gospels) until the Renaissance demoted him. Psycho- analysis and science reigned in his stead throughout the Enlightenment, but the atrocities of the Holocaust suggest he did not die.
“Yes,” we agreed after reading the book. “Evil is all three: an impersonal force (Luke 13:4–5), sinful human nature (Rom 3:23), and even a celestial demonic (1 Pet 5:8).” But consenting to this multiple-personality-disorder theory for the source of evil was the easy part.
Satan existed. So what?*
“It matters little if Satan exists—evil definitely does,” answered our practical-minded authors. “Our interest in Satan has less to do with explaining his existence and more to do with understanding his function” (10, 193).
Turns out personified evil has functioned to grease the wheels of all sorts of bad behavior toward those (the Other) who are different from ourselves. The bulk of The Quest demonstrates through history how Christians have demonized those who fear us, hurt us, or believe and act differently than we do. “Such thinking . . . all too easily defines everything that is suspect, unfamiliar, or ambiguous—such as the stranger, the alien, the racial or ethnic other, or dissenters from the norm—as belonging to Satan’s domain” (2).
Some of this seems harmless, calling the Yankees “the evil empire.” Some of it is harmful, calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” The consequences of so characterizing the Other are that we excuse ourselves from loving that person or group and rationalize acting out against them instead. How does this happen?
How does a simple statement of what may be true—“XYZ happened because of the work of the dark one”—end up justifying failure to embrace the redemptive work of God on the one hand and acts of unspeakable violence in Jesus’ name on the other? De La Torre and Hernández make several suggestions:
- When we dismiss the Other as evil, we “ignore the causes of their resentment and any validity their grievances may have” (6).
- When we blame Satan, we acquit regular folks like ourselves of our responsibility “to see the everyday immorality of social structures” and we easily tolerate our own “indifference to human suffering” (47).
- When we foment our own group’s fear of the Other, we summon ourselves to exclusivity in the name of repentance (7).
- When we invoke our own religious knowledge in self-defense against the Other, we legitimize a standard that is repressive to the Other, “if not more evil, than what we are defending ourselves from” (193).
The problem is that we project our own definition of stupid, bad, evil, and satanic onto our Other (1 John 1:8). Then we can define ourselves as the opposite—smart, good, righteous, and godly—but within this tidy little package, we’ve created Satan in our own image (194; Rom 2:1).
Evil is bigger than we are. Our good self-image alone carries too puny a power and too limited a love to cope with natural disaster, habitual sin, or Satanic attack (Amos 5:19; Rom 7:23–25; Eph 6:11–13). In fact, with regard to our Other, Jesus suggests our self-image is no better than a poke in the eye with a sharp speck (Matt 7:3–5).
All Hallows Eve and Election Night converge. Who is your Other?
*If my seeming flippancy about the dark one is giving you the willies, I’d suggest starting with Neil T. Anderson’s The Bondage Breaker, where he writes, “Your relationship to demonic powers in the spiritual realm is a lot like your relationship to germs in the physical realm. . . . The only appropriate response to the swarm of germs around you is to eat the right foods, get enough rest and exercise, and keep yourself and your possessions clean—and your immune system will protect you. . . . Demons are like little invisible germs looking for someone to infect. We are never told in Scripture to be afraid of them. You just need to be aware of their reality and commit yourself to live a righteous life” (93).