(I was invited to take part in a debate about hell at a university recently, but unfortunately, the dates don’t work with y schedule this time. But since it’s an interesting topic, and one about which many folks have questions, I thought I’d share a couple of short essays I’ve written on the subject.)
While Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the first to preach about hell and condemnation, his ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ sermon in 1741 crystallizes the beginning of a modern movement in the church. Edwards employed fear of punishment as a primary means for conversion and doctrinal adherence. Meanwhile, his congregants fainted in the aisles and clung to the pews to avoid being dragged down into the abyss.
We can argue day and night about whether or not fear-based theology is effective, biblically accurate and even necessary. But it’s worthwhile to consider where our contemporary ideas about hell and Satan even come from.
Today, we’ll begin with Satan; we’ll save hell for tomorrow.
Some understand the serpent in the Genesis story to be an incarnation of Satan. However, Satan first emerges in the Old Testament by name in I Chronicles, and again in Job. His primary role is to demonstrate the weakness of humanity in the face of hardship.
In Job, Satan must receive permission from God to prove the fragility of Job’s faith by submitting him to any number of hardships. Satan’s sentiments about people are summed up in Job 2:4, when he claims, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.”
He shows up again in similar form in II Samuel and Numbers, always as the antagonist. The name Satan actually means ‘adversary.’ While some may interpret this to mean he is God’s adversary, it’s more accurate to define him as humanity’s adversary, always trying to show how unworthy we are of God’s love.
In the Old Testament, Satan has no latitude to operate outside of what God gives him permission to do. Think of him more like a prosecuting attorney, beholden to God’s judiciary authority. He actually works alongside God instead of against God.
Some people also erroneously refer to Satan as Lucifer. The word “Lucifer” means “Light Bearer” in Latin, which was the term used to describe the planet Venus. Some people take Isaiah 14, about Lucifer’s fall, to be a story about Satan being cast out from heaven, as it looks similar to a quote in Luke. However, most biblical scholars and historians contend that this interpretation is taken out of context.
As for the use of the names “Lucifer” and “Satan” interchangeably in the Bible, it doesn’t happen. Satan is not described as Lucifer until secular literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost adopted the pseudonym. From there, the name seeped its way into our culture until we mistakenly began taking it as scripture.
Satan is much more prevalent – and more powerful – in the New Testament. He possesses people, tempts Christ, and Jesus even claims to see Satan in others, including Peter, his most faithful disciple.
Some maintain that Satan is an embodied figure, while others understand the stories about Satan more metaphorically, representing the perennial weakness of the flesh. There is one thing upon which we can all agree: evil exists.
Theologian Frederick Buechner says that evils exists because, in being allowed to choose whether or not to love God and one another, we also have the choice whether on not to live out our most evil impulses. In this way, Satan lingers in our choices rather than in the shadows, and in the mirror rather than the depths of hell.
Now, that’s scary stuff.