You’ve noticed, dear reader, that I talk about the devil a lot. I emphasize the work of the devil, and I see demonic forces as a very real threat to our lives and world. Do I need to cite scripture to justify my interest in the subject? Yes? O.K., start here, for one small example.
While I believe I emphasize Satan in proportion to the Bible’s emphasis, I probably wouldn’t talk about him as much as I do, except as an antidote to this sort of nonsense, courtesy of a clergy colleague from Alexandria, Virginia, named Jason Micheli:
In scripture, satan (שָּׂטָן) is not a personal name or a proper noun; satan is our propensity for blame, accusation and recrimination that so easily leads to violence.
The personification of satan as Satan in scripture reveals the extent to which this spirit of blame and accusation captivate and possess us.
‘Satan’ as a malignant, seraphic rival to God, against whom the Creator struggles for the fate of creation, does not exist, for such a figure reduces God to but another object within the universe.
If ‘God’ by definition is the source of all existence at all moments of their existence, then ‘Satan’ as he’s imagined in popular piety, by definition, does not exist.
One wonders how a “propensity” talks to Jesus during his wilderness temptations, departs from him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:12), and speaks to him throughout the gospels, through various people who are possessed by him or his minions.
Oh, I know… It’s parabolic. It’s anthropomorphic. It’s symbolic. If the historical Jesus was confused about Satan and believed—alongside chumps like me—that Satan is real, well, it’s only because Jesus was a product of his time, having emptied himself through the incarnation of any special insight about the real world that we moderns understand so much better than he did.
To which I will quote Michael Green, who said the following:
If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else? Perhaps his belief in the free forgiveness of God is equally culturally conditioned—is there not some talk of free acceptance before God in the Hymns of Qumran covenanters?
This kenotic theory if applied to Jesus’ understanding of Satan, proves much too much if it proves anything at all. It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us. Such eclecticism is academically indefensible, and is not a proper option for those who call him Lord and set out to be his learners or disciples. The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[†]
I agree with Rev. Micheli that if Satan were a “rival to God, against whom the Creator struggles for the fate of creation,” then by all means such a being wouldn’t exist—and if he did then God would be reduced to one object among others in the universe. But I’m sure Micheli knows that that’s not what Christian orthodoxy holds.
Good heavens, even if you don’t believe in a literal Satan, can you at least attack the actual doctrine and not the caricature?
In case Micheli doesn’t know, we Christians are not dualists or Zoroastrians. Satan and his fellow fallen angels are no “rival” to God. Like all other created things, including us humans, demonic forces are sustained into existence by the God who created them. God currently constrains their power and will one day destroy them altogether.
In the meantime, we underestimate them or reduce them to metaphor at our own risk.
† Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.