Writing Satan out of the human story changes the story

June 7, 2013

Since Methodists rarely offer any defense of the Arminianism that’s a part of their doctrinal DNA—even in the face of scornful criticism from our Calvinist brothers and sisters—I greatly appreciate theologian and blogger Roger Olson—a Baptist!—for fighting the good fight on our behalf.

A couple of Olson’s recent blog posts (here and here) were one inspiration for this current sermon series on Satan and spiritual warfare. (We Methodists don’t talk about those things, either!)

In this first post, Olson offers reasons why many modern Christians shy away from the topic of Satan. One reason that spoke to my own experience is our desire for cultural respectability: believing in Satan is uncool, unsophisticated—childish even—and don’t we know better now? I’ve already blogged about that.

Another reason, however, which I hadn’t previously considered is the following:

A third reason may be the influence of philosophical reasoning, channeled through rational apologetics, among evangelicals (including many who consider themselves moderate, centrist). A big part of such apologetics is theodicy—the explanation of evil in light of the existence of God. Theodicy rarely finds place for Satan or demons in explaining the existence of evil in God’s universe.

Think about this: He’s saying that Christian apologists themselves often argue for God’s goodness in a world filled with evil without resorting to Satan or the demonic. Having read some apologetics myself, I happen to know that he’s right. My systematic theology professor at Emory, who otherwise believed strongly in defending the faith, never said a word about Satan when he was giving an account of evil in an otherwise good Creation.

At the very least, without Satan, theodicy becomes more difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but theologian Michael Green, in his magisterial book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, would.

I believe the Christian doctrines of God, of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilisation history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Strong words! Keep in mind: I don’t entirely agree with Green here. I think he overstates the case. But it’s undeniably true that if we reassert Satan’s important role in Christian theology and doctrine, we avoid or better explain many problems with theodicy. And remember: we had no good reason to “write him out of the human story” in the first place.

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

6 Responses to “Writing Satan out of the human story changes the story”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I totally agree that writing out Satan would do substantial damage to not only the text of Scripture but Christian theology in general. I see Satan as part of God’s “direction by permission.” Although God is ultimately sovereign and has things “under control,” he allows his ultimate purposes to be accomplished through the exercise of free will on the part of his creatures (men and angels). Thus, God never sins, but he allows his creatures the option to choose to follow their own free wills and somehow weaves all that together to have history unfold in keeping with his purposes. Thus, Christ was “slain since the foundation of the world,” yet upon that event actually unfolding, this occurred because of the sins of Judas, the Jewish leaders, Pilate, etc. (And, in fact, Satan as well, in that he “entered into Judas,” as well as without a doubt his minions being hard at work also.)

    One key, I think, is that ultimately God places “restraints” on just how far Satan (or we) can go. Thus, with Job God told Satan, “This far and no further.” When Jesus was before Pilate, Jesus said Pilate could do nothing to him unless allowed (don’t recall the exact language). So, history is not simply some melee, but rather a history of free will “within constraints” placed by God, largely for the protection of his own, and also to guide history in the direction needed to fulfill God’s ultimate purposes. God never forces us to do something wrong, but he also does not let us do all the wrong we might otherwise choose to do (and so with Satan as well).

    • brentwhite Says:

      Very well said, Tom. So do you go along with Michael Green (and others) when he allows room for Satan’s handiwork in natural disaster? That’s something I never really considered.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yes, following the example with Job. I don’t think that I could go so far as to say it is ALWAYS Satan (God can “pour out his wrath” as may be appropriate, I think), but I certainly think many disasters, natural included, have a Satanic “agency” behind them (but, again, with God’s “allowance and constraint,” to accomplish God’s ultimate purposes). Satan is described as the “prince of the power of the air.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        I hear you. This is a huge breakthrough for me in my thinking: this solves an important problem in my mind about natural disasters. As for how God uses them—for wrath or punishment—I have less trouble.

      • brentwhite Says:

        It does seem illogical to say that Satan can play a role in influencing human affairs but not (other) natural events. Human beings are part of nature.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Right. Especially since many times it is “natural events” which “tempt us” to respond in certain “wrong” ways.

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