Continued from “On Satan and What Makes a Christian. Part 1.”
So here we are. There is no evil in the Hebrew Bible. Only sin.
By the time Jesus of Nazareth walks the Earth, however – by the time nascent Christianity begins to develop its terms and concepts – by the time New Testament writers formulate their mythology – the thinking about sin and evil has gotten more complicated in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
Firstly, our obedient ha-Satan has developed in some very pseudepigraphic literature into Satanael, a fallen prince of angels, cast out of heaven and bringing death into the world. This is Jewish literature but not Hebrew – this is Greece, breathing itself into Judaism through the Greek-speaking diaspora.
Secondly, the background for this development is a whole new cosmology that the down-to-earth pre-exilic Israelite religion could not dream of: Heaven, Hell, choirs and hosts of angels, apocalyptic dreams of the world’s end complete now with a judgment day and the resurrection of the dead. Life after death. Judah in its last few centuries was quite a cultural melting pot, not always by choice. This international simmering of ideas certainly shaped its two main legacies: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, and the most important idea for our purposes was that of ethical dualism, and it came from Persia.
More specifically, the dualistic worldview is Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, seems to have had a great deal of influence on the details of Christian mythology and, possibly, a bit of vice versa. If curious, compare the stories of Jesus and Zarathustra, recall the three magi who come to greet the newborn Christ in the Gospel of Matthew (the magi are Zoroastrian priests), and look up the term “Saoshyant” (the Zoroastrian concept of savior). There is more – and why not? By the 1st c. CE, the followers of the Nazarene and Zoroastrians had much in common, for Pharisaic Judaism had already internalized several of its key features and was working on the one that interests us the most: the cosmic opposition of Good and Evil.
It got introduced to the carriers of Judaism during and after the Babylonian Exile, as they hung out with Zoroastrians in Babylon and later in Persia and around the ecumene and even (having in 539BCE become a Persian province for a couple centuries) entertained them occasionally in Jerusalem. In brief, the Zoroastrian worldview is built upon a premise of two primordial forces in conflict: the good god Ahura Mazda and the evil anti-god Angra Mainyu (whose primary characteristic, by the way, is druj – “the lie”). Humans are the battleground of this war and must pick a side. Adherents of Mazdayasna (Zoroastrianism) by default have chosen to stand for Good and believe that it will win in the end, but succumbing to the lies and dark temptation of the Evil One is always a danger.
Now, Christianity began to mold its independent cosmology not only at the time in the near eastern history of mind-boggling international, interreligious, spiritual, military, and political upheaval – the movement itself, having started out as a small Jewish sect, quickly became very Gentile and richly diverse, dispersing through the vastness of Roman influence to carry a message of a divine/human savior to multicultural crowds from India to France, complicating and clarifying itself on the go, fighting and squabbling and hiding from persecution and then becoming the state power of the Empire itself, within a few centuries going from being lions’ food to issuing conciliar doctrines. This process of condensing a belief structure occurred at boiling speeds, and it demanded that highly complex ideas and formulations of mysteries be reconciled with seemingly irreconcilable philosophies, with both Jewish- and Greek-oriented minds, and with the observable order of things then and there, on the ground. As it were.
And so the daughters of the down-to-earth biblical Judaism – Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity – are anything but down-to-earth. Christianity, growing up now in the new world of the nascent millennium, looked down and looked up and saw itself over a dark abyss but under the heavenly light. Between Evil and Good. In the face of suffering. Carried on by hope. And Evil was given a name because we say these things through myth. That is how it works. Ha-Satan became Satan. God’s prosecutor was now the prosecutor of God. The name “Devil” comes from the Greek “diavolos” and means “accuser” or “slanderer.” The Devil. The Prince of Lies. A fallen angel who rebels against God and loses all his light and goodness and wages perpetual war on all of God’s creation. Lucifer. The tempter. The ruler of Hell. Sounds familiar?
As centuries pass, Christian eisegesis begins to read Satan into the places in the Bible where he is not certain to be – or couldn’t possibly have been meant to be. The serpent in the Garden of Eden. The Beast in Revelation. The morning star (Lucifer) in Isaiah 14. We interpret our myth to make sense of ourselves, and by doing that we create more myth. That’s just how it works. It’s a good thing.
Satan is an important article of faith in Christianity. Before a new Christian is baptized, she is asked questions in the presence of the Church, and one of the questions is, “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” So please, understand me well: I contemplated this issue thoroughly as I embarked on my journey to the baptismal font. I could not very well state with clear conscience that I renounced Satan if I did not believe Satan existed. If I found the whole concept false. Or silly. Or ridiculous.
Still, is this not at least a silly-sounding question to a modern person? How many of us expect to run into a sulfur-stinking being with hooves and horns even in the most depraved of circumstances?
I don’t know. You might be surprised.
It took me some heavy thinking, but by the time I either answered “Yes” before God and man to renouncing Satan or informed my church I was walking away from my baptism, I had to know what I was saying. What I meant to be saying.
Obviously, if you are reading this, you know that I answered, “Yes.” And underneath that answer was a solid, mountainous foundation of formulated meaning. So, when a few days ago, at Thanksgiving dinner, our family friend and I squared off over literal vs. metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and she asked me if I believed in Satan, I felt it was important to qualify my “yes” with its blueprint, structure, and foundation.
Satan, I said, to me is evil personified. An embodiment of the dark forces – the evil – with which the biblical writers were dealing then as we are dealing now. Satan, I said, is an attempt to make sense of, to put into images and words the cosmic moral warning of the agency of the lie, of the danger of seduction, of the power of despair, of the hopelessness of betrayal, of the abyss into which the rejection of Love plunges a lonely soul. I find it a very powerful name for the evil of the world because I find the Christian myth of Satan so poignant, so deeply complex, so enlightening, and so…true. True psychologically – mythically in its original sense. It’s not about what happened; it doesn’t have to be. It’s about what happens. It’s about what is and why. And what can be. I find that the Christian hope that at the end of time even the Devil himself can be redeemed and return to the embrace of God profoundly comforting – not just for the lost and the dark personified by Satan but for us. That we find it in our hearts to wish this for our ultimate Enemy.
At the baptismal font, I said that I renounced Satan and all his works, and I meant it. I renounced evil, malicious lie, cruelty, indifference – all the opposites of Love, which is God. On Thanksgiving I said that I believed in Satan as the embodiment and personification of Evil, and I meant that, too. But I was not – I said – expecting to see the horned Tempter on any particular day prancing by on his habitual mission of mischief and destruction. Not literally.
You might remember that our friend’s answer was immediate. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You are not a Christian.”
I respectfully disagree. But I did enjoy the conversation. Every day we are privy to each other’s processes of the drawing of lines. We all do it, though we don’t always realize when and how we do. This was a particularly elucidating case. And a very, very bright line.
Who knows, we might still talk again…