Can you tell Jesus’ story without Satan?

February 22, 2014


Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who produced last year’s smash-hit miniseries The Bible, are recycling the portions of that miniseries to create a theatrically released film about Jesus called Son of God.

As Downey explained in a press interview, however, they’re leaving out one important scene: Satan’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness.

When The Bible originally aired, this scene caused a stir after Glenn Beck said on Twitter that he noticed a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. For Downey and Burnett, this controversy distracted viewers from the message they were trying to communicate. “For our movie, Son of God, I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus,” Downey said. “I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.”

I don’t doubt Downey’s good intentions for a moment. She and her husband are committed Christians who believe in Satan. They even blame him for the original controversy in the first place. But, as one writer at the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s blog rightly complains, you can’t tell the full story of Jesus without the devil.

In reality, Satan and the temptation in the wilderness is pivotal to both the narrative of the Gospels and our theological understandings of Christ Himself. Theologically, Jesus’ facing temptation was necessary in order for Him to be fully human. As Hebrews tells us, Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” It isn’t simply happenstance that Jesus faced temptation. If Jesus hadn’t faced temptation of any sort, His sacrifice on the cross, His unselfish ministry to the poor and sick, and His sinless nature all would have been unremarkable. Jesus essentially becomes an Asimov robot, only doing good works because He is programmed to do so. How could mankind relate to a Savior like that?

He continues:

Evangelism is much easier when the only discussions are about love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation. Love your neighbor, God loves you no matter what; those parts of Jesus’ message poll pretty well among general audiences. Satan, sin, and an eternal Hell? Not so much. What results far too often is a kind of “feel-good Christianity,” with lots of loving the sinner, not too much hating the sin, and certainly no discussion of that guy with horns and a pitchfork you see in cartoons. In actuality, the Jesus of the Gospels spends a lot of time talking about why you should love your neighbors and give up earthly possessions: because the wage of sin is eternal damnation.

I almost completely agree… except for the first sentence of the preceding paragraph: Is evangelism much easier once you remove Satan, sin, and eternal hell? Surely our experience as United Methodists—or some other brand of mainline Protestant—tells us otherwise.

After all, Methodists have spent 50 years or so mostly preaching a “feel-good Christianity” of love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation, with little talk of Satan, sin, and hell. Has evangelism been easier for us during that time?

Who knows? We mostly haven’t done evangelism. And our declining numbers tell the story of a church that is failing to reach people with the gospel—at least in the U.S.

How can this surprise us? Once you remove the main reason that God became flesh in the first place—to save us from sin, death, and hell—why bother with evangelism? What sense of urgency should we have to share such a “gospel”? United Methodist theologian Jerry Walls puts it this way:

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[†]

The world outside our church doors is telling us that it isn’t worth getting out of bed for a trivialized Christianity.

Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

7 Responses to “Can you tell Jesus’ story without Satan?”

  1. Rich Schmidt Says:

    To answer your original question: John’s gospel eliminates the temptation scene entirely, and Mark’s gospel reduces it to one sentence. So I’m not sure it’s as pivotal and essential as some claim it is.

    Still, your larger point stands. The good news of Jesus Christ is one of rescue, of salvation, of healing, of life. These things are needed because we are captive to sin and death. In Christ, God broke the power of sin and death and set us free.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You still have exorcisms in Mark and at least a reference or two in John. Satan is never far below the surface. The way you frame it, though—that we’re captive to sin and death—doesn’t necessarily imply that demonic forces are involved. Sin in this case could just be humanity’s contribution to evil, without any outside influence. Or do I misunderstand you?

    • brentwhite Says:

      God broke the power of sin and death, and didn’t he also defeat the devil?

      • richschmidt Says:

        Yes, he did. I intended that part of my statement to show my agreement with you, since you said Jesus came to save us from “sin, death, and hell.” I often say in my prayers on Sundays that Jesus “took our sins on himself, and by his death and resurrection broke the power of sin and death and set us free.”

        The rest of my post was in the context of your question, which had to do with the temptation scene being cut from the movie. The person you quoted who seemed to think the temptation story is essential to the gospel. I assume that Mark & John would disagree. 🙂

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes, but there is an important difference: John and Mark are writing to an audience who already believe in the reality and power of Satan. This is apparent in Mark’s exorcisms, and in Jesus’ discourses in both gospels. By cutting out the temptation scene (and I’m only guessing there are no exorcism scenes) the contemporary audience, most of whom don’t believe in Satan, may be left thinking that Christ didn’t also come to defeat the devil. Context is important.

  2. richschmidt Says:

    I don’t feel a need to argue with you about this, Brent. 🙂 I’m happy to agree with you about the importance of giving the full story, as much as possible. I’m glad we have all four gospels, plus the rest of the Book, and don’t have to rely on just the movie version(s). 🙂

    Having now read the article you linked to by Alexander Griswold, I still think he overstates his case a bit (or perhaps just expresses it poorly) when he says, “the Temptation of Christ at the hands of Satan also plays a key role in the narrative of the Gospels.” This might be true in Matthew and Luke, but Mark breezes right past it, and John doesn’t even include it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      No argument here! 🙂 I went from being a Satan skeptic years ago to being a big believer in the demonic. I have something like a convert’s zeal on the subject, for better or worse.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: