The Implications And Origins Of Belief In A Personal Satan [with
the help of Elaine Pagels]
The conclusions which we have come to in our studies about the devil may appear freaky, and unsupported by many churches. But it should be appreciated that we are far from alone in having come to these conclusions. Well known writers from more orthodox backgrounds have come to just the same conclusions.
Stephen Mitchell, in a much acclaimed and well publicized book published by none other than Harper Collins, observes that throughout Job, “there is no attempt to deflect ultimate responsibility by blaming a devil or an original sin”(1). And Mitchell says this in the context of commenting upon Job 9:24, where having spoken of the problem of calamity, Job concludes: “Who does it, if not he [God]?”. And of course at the end of the book, God confirms Job as having spoken truly about Him. Mitchell observes that Job ends “with a detailed presentation of two creatures, the Beast and the Serpent… both creatures are, in fact, central figures in ancient near-eastern eschatology, the embodiments of evil that the sky-god battles and conquers… this final section of the Voice from the Whirlwind is a criticism of conventional, dualistic theology. What is all this foolish chatter about good and evil, the Voice says, about battles between a hero-god and some cosmic opponent? Don’t you understand that there is no one else in here? These huge symbols of evil, so terrifying to humans… are presented as God’s playthings”. And so Mitchell comes to the very same conclusions as we have outlined here- there is in the end only God, and He is not in struggle with any super-human ‘devil’ in Heaven. And this is in fact the whole lesson of the book of Job. Even if such a mythical being is thought to exist, as it was in Job’s time, the essential point is that God is so much greater than such a puny ‘devil’ that He can play games with him. John Robinson, one time Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, came to some similar conclusions, albeit less clearly expressed, in his classic In The End God (2).
Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, is perhaps the highest profile writer and thinker to express agreement with our position about the devil. Her best selling book The Origin Of Satan is well worth a read if you’re interested in this theme (3). She begins where we have done- that Christianity and Judaism taught only one God, and this left no place for a devil / satan in the orthodox sense. We have said time and again that one true doctrine leads to another, and Pagels grasps that clearly. One God means no devil. Simple as that. And so she comments: “Conversion from paganism to Judaism or Christianity, I realized, meant, above all, transforming one’s perception of the invisible world”. And this had a radically practical outworking- as does belief in any true Bible doctrine: “Becoming either a Jew or a Christian polarized a pagan’s view of the universe, and moralized it”. The pagan worldview would’ve felt that anything like a volcano or earthquake was a result of demonic activity. But instead, the Bible clearly describes the volcanoes that destroyed Sodom as coming from the one God, as judgment for their sins (Gen. 19:4). People were not just victims of huge cosmic forces; they had responsibility for their actions and met those consequences. We can easily miss the radical implications of the moral way the Bible describes such things which were otherwise attributed to demons / pagan gods. There was a huge political price attached to rejecting belief in ‘demons’. Rusticus, prefect of Rome, persecuted Christians because they refused “to obey the gods and submit to the rulers”. The Romans considered that their leaders were agents of the gods; and if the gods didn’t exist, then the Roman leadership lost its power and authority. For this reason, the Romans called the Christians ‘atheists’.
The following quotations from Pagels exactly reflect our own conclusions: “In the Hebrew Bible…Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an “evil empire”, an army of hostile spirits who make war on God…in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants- a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (mal’ak) into Greek (angelos)… In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character… the root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary”... But this messenger is not necessarily malevolent… John dismisses the device of the devil as an independent supernatural character… Paul holds a perception that Satan acts as God’s agent not to corrupt people but to test them” (pp. 111, 183)”.
But Elaine Pagels isn’t just out there on her own. Neil Forsyth comments likewise: “In… the Old Testament, the word [satan] never appears as the name of the adversary… rather, when the satan appears in the Old Testament, he is a member of the heavenly court, albeit with unusual tasks”(4). Several respected commentators have pointed out the same, especially when commenting upon the ‘satan’ in the book of Job- concluding that the term there simply speaks of an obedient Divine Angel acting the role of an adversary, without being the evil spirit being accepted by many in Christendom (5).
How Did Christianity Adopt Pagan Beliefs?
Pagels and other writers tackle the obvious question: Where, then, did the present idea of a literal evil being called satan come from, seeing it’s not in the Bible? They trace the idea back to pagan sources that entered Judaism before the time of Christ- and then worked their way into Christian thought in the early centuries after Christ, as mainstream Christianity moved away from purely Biblical beliefs(6). But pushing the question back a stage further, why and how did Judaism and later Christianity pick up pagan myths about a personal devil and sinful Angels and mix them in with their belief system? Pagels quotes sources such as the Jewish Book of the Watchers to show how there was a clear belief that each person has a ‘guardian Angel’, and when conflicts arose, people judged as ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’ came to be charged with therefore having a ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’ Angel controlling them. And it was an easy step to assume that these ‘wicked Angels’ were all under the control of a personal, superhuman Devil as widely believed in by surrounding pagans. The book of Jubilees (e.g. 15:31) made the association between pagan gods and demons. Jewish apostates who believed in the pagan gods, or who were accused of believing in them, were then seen as being somehow in league with them. And thereby those ‘demons’ were felt to be real beings, because the people they supposedly controlled were real people.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect who were in conflict with the rest of the Jews, whom they believed were condemned to damnation. They expressed this conflict between them and others in terms of a cosmic conflict between God- who they believed was on their side- and a personal Satan, whose followers they believed their enemies on earth were supporting. The more bitter the political conflict within Israel, the stronger was the appeal made to a supposed cosmic battle between good and evil, God and Satan. The result of this false doctrine was a demonizing of ones’ opposition. And the same can easily happen today. The value of the human person is forgotten about, if we believe they are condemned, evil people who are the devil incarnate. The orthodox ‘devil’ can’t be reconciled with. He can only be destroyed. And if we demonize people, we can never reconcile with them, only seek to destroy them. Here is where doctrine is important in practice. If there is no personal satan up there, and all people, our enemies included, are simply struggling against their own nature… then we can reach out to them, as fellow strugglers, understand them, seek to reconcile with them and seek their salvation.
The Devil In John’s Gospel
John’s Gospel seeks to correct the false idea of a huge cosmic conflict. John frequently alludes to the ideas of light vs. darkness, righteousness vs. evil. But he correctly defines darkness and evil as the unbelief which exists within the human heart. Again, from this distance, we may read John’s words and not perceive the radical, corrective commentary which he was really making against the common ideas of a personal Satan existing in Heaven, involved in some cosmic conflict up there. The real arena of the conflict, the essential struggle, according to John, is within the human heart, and it is between belief and unbelief in Jesus as the Son of God, with all that entails.
In the same way as the concept of ‘demons’ somewhat recedes throughout the Gospels, and the point is made that God’s power is so great that effectively they don’t exist- so it is with the ‘Devil’. Judaism had taken over the surrounding pagan notion of a personal ‘satan’. And the Lord Jesus and the Gospel writers use this term, but in the way they use it, they redefine it. The parable of the Lord Jesus binding the “strong man”- the devil- was really to show that the “devil” as they understood it was now no more, and his supposed Kingdom now taken over by that of Christ. The last Gospel, John, doesn’t use the term in the way the earlier Gospels do. He defines what the earlier writers called “the devil” as actual people, such as the Jews or the brothers of Jesus, in their articulation of an adversarial [‘satanic’] position to Jesus. Others have concluded likewise: “John never pictures satan.. as a disembodied being… John dismisses the device of the devil as an independent supernatural character”(7)… “In John, the idea of the devil [as a personal supernatural being] is completely absent”(8). Raymond Brown- one of the most well known Roman Catholic expositors of the 20th Century- concludes that ‘Satan’ doesn’t refer to a character in ‘his’ own right, but rather is a title referring to groups of people who play the role of adversaries or tempters(9).
The Synoptics speak of how satan ‘comes to’ and tempts and challenges the Lord Jesus to claim earthly political power, which ‘satan’ can give him (Mt. 4:8,9). But John describes this in terms of “the people” coming to Him and trying to make Him King- which temptation He refused (Jn. 6:15). Likewise it was ‘the devil’ in the wilderness who tempted Jesus to make the stones into bread. But in Jn. 6:30,31, it is the Jewish people who offer Him the same temptation. In the wilderness, the Lord responded that man lives by the bread which comes from the mouth of God. In Jn. 6:32, He responds likewise by speaking about “the true bread from heaven”. The temptation from ‘the devil’ to publically display His Divine powers in front of Israel in the Jerusalem temple (Mt. 4:5,6; Lk. 4:9-12) is repeated by John in terms of the Lord’s brothers tempting Him to go up to the same temple and openly validate Himself “to the world” (Jn. 7:1-5).
(1) Stephen Mitchell, The Book Of Job (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).
(2) John Robinson, In The End God (London: James Clarke, 1950).
(3) Elaine Pagels, The Origin Of Satan (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 1996).
(4) Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan And The Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 107.
(5) See P. Day, An Adversary In Heaven: Satan In The Hebrew Bible (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1988) pp 69-106.
(6) In addition to Pagels op cit, see Knut Schaferdick, “Satan in the Post Apostolic Fathers” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) Vol. 7 pp. 163-165 and George F. Moore, Judaism In The First Centuries Of The Christian Era Vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927).
(7) Elaine Pagels, op cit pp. 100,111.
(8) Gustave Hoennecke, New Testament Studies (Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1912) p. 208.
(9) Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1966) pp. 364-376.