Here is what I was taught growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church. I learned that there were two sets of supernatural beings, God and his angels, who were entirely righteous, and Satan and his angels, who were pure evil. It hadn’t started out that way. Originally there was just God and the angels, and everyone was righteous and happy. They all lived in heaven. There was no evil.
But then something went wrong, and Satan (originally named Lucifer) became jealous of God’s authority. This jealousy represented the first instance of evil. Satan persuaded one-third of the angels to join him in challenging God who, being stronger, cast Satan and his cohorts out of heaven. Thereafter, God and his two-thirds of the angels have remained wholly righteous, and Satan and his angels have become wholly evil. They wouldn’t have a good bone in their bodies, if, that is, they had bodies. In fact their entire raison d’être is to cause evil and to encourage humans to commit evil. And it’s Satan and his henchmen, rather than God, that are responsible for all the evil of this world.
That is what I was taught. It’s an interesting story, but I stopped believing it when I was 16. Now I believe neither in God nor in Satan. Because God is viewed as omni-benevolent, Satan, I believe, was invented as a rationale for the existence of evil. Otherwise, there is no logical defense for God standing by in the face of massive evil and suffering in the world.
We all know the Garden of Eden story. Viewed objectively, it does not speak well for human intellectual abilities. It seems that the rules of conduct in Eden were pretty simple. They consisted of a single rule: Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yet Adam and Eve failed—miserably. Their punishment was severe. They were cast out of paradise; childbirth became painful; scratching out a living became difficult. Despite all that, they failed to learn their lesson. Instead, they kept on sinning and have been sinful ever since.
As the story goes it was the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to sin. Apparently they were outsmarted by a snake, who, Genesis says, was craftier than the other animals. It is not at all clear in the Genesis account that the serpent who tempted them was Satan. it was only centuries later that Jewish and early Christian writers made that connection. But assuming it was Satan, did Adam and Eve sin because Satan deceived them, or did they sin because they had the freedom to choose and simply made a bad choice? I am aware of the Christian argument that humans sinned because God gave them free will and they chose to sin. But that has always struck me as a “yada yada yada” argument that sounds plausible but in fact ignores other problems of logic. It also implicates God more directly in the disaster, since God is supposedly omniscient as well as omnipotent and knew what was going to happen.
The existence of Satan serves to shift that responsibility from God. It’s true that God supposedly created Satan knowing that he would ultimately turn rebellious. Even so, the invention of Satan does establish at least one degree of separation to insulate God from the taint of evil in the Christian narrative. And that’s good enough for most Christians. In effect, Satan takes on the role of the villain, cleansing God of that taint . . . sort of.
This whole account raises other questions about the nature of evil:
- Is Satan also somehow responsible for natural disasters? After all, they are the direct result of the operation of the laws of nature, which God supposedly set up.
- Are humans just naturally sinful at this point, or does sin have to be initiated by Satan?
- What about Adolf Hitler? Osama bin Laden? Jihadi John? Did they know or think that they were being evil or did they believe their actions were morally justified?
- What is the nature of evil? Is it just behavior that society deems immoral? Or is it an intrinsically religious term? Is there a difference?
- If humans were given a “do-over,” would they repeat their fall or would they have learned their lesson?
- Assume there is a heaven for the saved, this time without Satan. Would humans remain sinless without Satan’s temptations, even though they would supposedly retain their free will?
The answers to these questions are left as an exercise for the reader.
© 2016 John M. Phillips