Olson asks a good question about Satan

May 22, 2013

In this post, theologian Roger Olson explores a question I’ve been thinking about for many years now (as recently as last week, in fact): Where the Devil is Satan (in Contemporary Christianity)?

He explores some reasons we Christians (by which he says he mostly means his fellow moderate evangelical Christians; but it goes without saying that his words apply even more to many United Methodists) avoid talking about the devil. In my experience, this reason resonates:

A second, related reason, I think, is our moderate Protestant craving for cultural respectability. Belief in a literal Satan and demons seems, however nuanced, guaranteed to bring scorn from sophisticated people living under the influence of the Enlightenment.

Having been someone who previously didn’t believe in a literal Satan and demons (at least through seminary), this reason resonates with me. I used to be embarrassed by those quaint descriptions of demon possession and exorcism that are so prevalent in three of the four gospels. Satan was merely the personification of impersonal, undirected evil. He was symbolic, not literal.

The first chink in my armor of unbelief began to appear in an Augustine theology class taught by an English lay Catholic theologian named Lewis Ayres. We were discussing a passage from Augustine that allotted to the devil a greater share of responsibility for evil in the world than I could reconcile with my liberal Satan-as-symbol belief.

I said, “Wait a minute, Dr. Ayres. I hardly need Satan to explain why I do evil. I sin just fine without resorting to ‘the devil made me do it.’ I don’t get it. I don’t understand the role that a literal Satan would play in human sin.”

Dr. Ayres replied, “Just because you don’t understand what he does doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist!”

“Fair enough,” I said. But I was thinking, “Lewis Ayres believes in a literal Satan?!”

I can’t tell you how important this exchange was: here was a very smart, intellectual Christian—a professor at Candler of all places—who believed in Satan. I’m sure many other profs did, too, but Dr. Ayres was the first one to say so out loud.

Why was Satan such a taboo subject?

I blame it on Enlightenment thinking, which reasons that since believing in one invisible something that we can’t access directly through our senses (namely, God) is hard enough, why make Christianity that much harder by adding hundreds, thousands, millions(?) of invisible somethings called angels and demons?

This is silly, of course. If you believe that one thing outside of time, space, and matter (who isn’t really a thing, but you know what I mean) created everything, including us humans, how much harder is it to believe that he also created invisible angelic beings, some of whom, like humans, chose to rebel against God?

My point is, once you’re over the hump of believing in God—assuming that’s a hump to be gotten over—believing in Satan and demons is easy. And if you ask me, there certainly seems to be ample evidence for his existence, especially given the history of the 20th- and 21st-centuries.

Our modern skepticism about Satan, therefore, corresponds to modern skepticism about the resurrection. What do those very liberal Christians who want to reduce Jesus’ resurrection to a spiritual experience within the hearts of his disciples think they’re gaining? If we already believe in a God who intervened in the universe at least once (to call it into being), how much harder is to believe that he intervened on other occasions?

My point is, whether or not Christianity is an intellectually “respectable” thing to believe in, it won’t be because you’ve gotten rid of the bodily resurrection or angels and demons. So you may as well believe in those things, too.

3 Responses to “Olson asks a good question about Satan”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good point. Also, even though we have ourselves to blame for our sins (James), still there are “temptations” out there which “guide” us into situations where our lusts are aroused. I think Paul, generally speaking, attributes such “guidance” to “spiritual powers” (“wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, etc.”). And I don’t think this is an irrelevancy. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” I think we can say, if there is a tempting situation, that we know the devil is “prowling around like a hungry lion, seeking whom he may devour.”

    Case immediately in point. My daughter was “taken” by a handsome young fellow in a knife shop (she collects those) who gave her his number to call. Intrigued and flattered, she prevailed upon me to let her go out with him, though he was not a Christian (with her continually pleading, to which my objections finally collapsed with, “since you insist”). Well, unfortunately he made some “sexual advances,” to which she succumbed partially. Her decision, but I should have recognized “the devil was at work,” and not “given in.”

    P.S. Please pray for my daugther, Brianna, as she deals with the aftermath of this awful decision. Thanks!

    • Morbert Says:

      Interesting. I have a couple of genuine questions about your statement “the devil was at work”.

      I’m wondering what this specifically means. Do you believe the devil manipulated the man or your daughter? Do you believe all such instances of temptation are contrived by the devil? Do you believe that this would not have happened if the devil wasn’t at work?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Good questions. First, I believe God “oversees” everything, so he “could have stopped” things here. However, second, I believe part of what is going on when God makes his decisions about allowing these things (whether from eternity past or “as they happen”) is to let us make our own decisions, which manifests the state of our hearts, and he allows us to make mistakes that reveal that. Third, he also allows the devil to make his own decisions and manifest who he is. So, all these things interact with each other.

        Would this PARTICULAR scenario have happened without the devil (or one or more of his demons) being involved? I don’t think so. Likewise, I don’t think Eve would have eaten the forbidden fruit had not the devil approached her on the subject. (Or, probably, David would not have sinned with Bathsheba had the devil not “whispered in his ear” to take that nightly stroll.) But nevertheless God allowed the devil to do that to “test” Eve (or David) on how she (he) would respond. When we succumb to such temptations, it reveals to us what the state of our heart is. But the devil will still “get his due” for his part in “tempting” us in the ways that he does. Also, I think this fellow will get his due as well for his part in the process (though doubtless less should he repent). Jesus said: “Offenses must needs come, but woe to those by whom they come.” (Sorry, memorized verses in the King’s English). Meanwhile, my daughter will also “suffer the consequences.” As will I, for letting her go on the date when really I knew she should not.

        So I don’t know if I am fully answering your questions or not, but I’m trying to. Everyone in the scenario has their own role, and particular situations would not likely happen without the devil playing his role. But some other scenario might happen in another place or time, because ultimately God is interested in the state of our hearts, and us coming to see that “the heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?” This leads us to see our need for God’s forgiveness and to repent. So it is all ultimately God’s plan, but it is our choices (and the devil’s); and, if we “learn from our mistakes” there can still be a “happy ending” (though, perhaps, not quite AS happy as it would be if we hadn’t had those particular falls).


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