Isn’t it about time we scratch Old Scratch?

Recently on ABC’s “Nightline” there was an interesting debate over whether Satan is for real or just another myth.  (You can link to the debate or read excerpts here.)  Lively, and fun (as Marc Driscoll said) I think they missed the boat by not including a  Jew and a Muslim in the conversation. It might be even more fun, and perhaps enlightening, to hear their interpretations of who Satan is.

Personally, I don’t believe in Old Scratch, for a number of reasons:

1).  The Satanic scenario of good vs. evil is way too similar to many other common myths of the past.

2).  The original authors of the Bible were Jewish and Jews historically have considered Satan to be a metaphor.

3.)  It makes no sense for God to conjure this fellow up – we have all the resources at our disposal to do evil without the need for some supernatural being devoting his existence to leading us astray.  And it is too darn easy to blame our evil on the Devil.

4.) It’s almost impossible to tell where real scriptural support for a ‘living’  Satan (if there is any) ends and folklore begins.

5.) What difference does it make? I mean, does a belief in Satan help you become a better person? Or perhaps…

It was surprising to read in the above linked article that 70% of Americans believe in Satan. Until I considered the prevailing content of the 400 or so cable channels on my TV as well as the pulp magazines  that face me at the grocery store check-out. I don’t know that our nation’s level of sophistication is altogether that high. I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that the same 70% believe in guardian angels. (Maybe Michael Landon is performing a miracle somewhere at this precise moment.)

I don’t think it necessary, however, to discard the idea of Satan completely, as long as we recognize that it is a convenient trope – an anthropomorphism.   For the sake of discussion, it is useful to refer to things as having the characteristics of an individual personality:  the fury of Mother Nature, the whims of Lady Luck or the blindness of Justice.  Satan is another useful metaphor – the mere mention of ‘him’ sums up the thrust of  a psychology text,  but without all the big words.

This is because Satan so easily embodies the characteristics of our selfish and wounded personal egos, as well as what the owners of those egos are capable of doing.  He knows that his destructive behavior is ultimately futile, but he just keeps on being bad. This is the main reason, I think, it made sense for Jesus to use the concept of Satan in his teachings (whose students, by the way. were Jews who may or may not have believed in a distinct person called Satan).

One of the participants in the “Night Line”debate, “New Age” spiritualist Deepak Chopra put it this way:

“Healthy people do not have any need for Satan. Healthy people need to confront their own issues, understand themselves and move towards the direction of compassion, creativity, understanding, context, insight, inspiration, revelation and understanding that we are part of an ineffable mystery. …So I would say be done with Satan and confront your own issues.”

Making an important point about the difference between belief and experience (which, from a spiritual perspective, might be called ‘faith’)  he later said:

“All I have to say is belief is a cover-up for insecurity,” Chopra said. “If something is real, you don’t have to believe in it. You should be able to experience it. And the most fervent believers in the world are the cause of all the problems in the world right now, OK?”

I have to agree. When considering many of the more egregious acts committed by religious people around the world, they all seem to have this one superstition in common: they believe in the Devil.

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  1. #1 by Rachael on April 28, 2010 - 7:07 pm

    Dr. Jeffrey Burton Russell has a great series on the shifting conceptions of Satan/the Devil/Lucifer/etc. I highly recommend it.

    • #2 by Christian Beyer on April 29, 2010 - 12:01 pm

      Thanks Rachael. I have his book “Paradise Mislaid” on my Amazon wish list. I checked out his book on Lucifer and as soon as I can download it I will.

      BTW – I spent some time this morning reading some of your articles. Love your website! And thanks for the link.

  2. #3 by anon on April 28, 2010 - 9:58 pm

    “The original authors of the Bible were Jewish and Jews historically have considered Satan to be a metaphor.”
    —A Jewish person explained it to me as a “force”—a weak “force” without any power. The Quran has a similar perspective, though the “force” is more of an “entity”

    “It would be even more fun, and perhaps enlightening, to hear their interpretations of who Satan is.”
    —-I am a Muslim—what do you want to know?

    • #4 by Christian Beyer on April 29, 2010 - 12:05 pm

      “The Quran has a similar perspective, though the “force” is more of an “entity” ”

      See? You already enlightened me. But tell me more – what do you mean by “more of an ‘entity'”? The prevailing Christian (or even pop pseudo-Christian) opinion is that he is most definitely an entity – one that is decidedly conscious, intentional and highly motivated.

  3. #5 by Sherry on April 29, 2010 - 1:09 pm

    Christian, thanks for a great post. I’ve long ago given up the concept of Satan as an actual being. And given a few other things I’ve come across, this post helps to solidify some ideas I have for a post of my own. LOL..I’ll be sure to give you credit for nudging me onward when I do.

    • #6 by Christian Beyer on April 29, 2010 - 1:31 pm

      Thanks Sherry. I look forward to reading it. Give us a shout when it’s up.

  4. #7 by anon on April 29, 2010 - 9:40 pm

    “-one that is decidedly conscious, intentional and highly motivated.”

    I would say, the Quranic concept of Satan(Iblis) is somewhere between Judaism and Christianity. The tribe(group) of Iblis are a previous creation with free-will (but not angels—In Islam, angels don’t have free-will). This group becomes “Satan”(rebellious ones) after “the fall of Iblis”. However, they are not anthropomorphic and have only that power which humans give to them of their own free-will.
    There is a difference between the “folk version” and the “Quranic version”–the idea of “mischevious spirits” called Jinn(the invisibles) existed before Islam—and is still retold in stories.—-and is more or less the the Disney version.

    In the Quran, concepts are often paired—for example, the concept of freedom is paired with responsibility, likewise, the idea of free-will is paired with accountability. Therefore, human beings are held accountable for the excercise of their free-will—but the degree of accountability is tied to the degree of free-will they are able to excercise. In the case of
    Satan/Iblis, They have already had the opportunity to excersise their free-will and have already been Judged.—However, God is compassionate and merciful and when Iblis pleaded for mercy they were given “respite”(–a delay on the carrying out of the sentence.)
    This is just a summary—if you want details on certain points or all of it, please ask.

  5. #8 by Alex on May 14, 2010 - 4:16 am

    Hey Christian,

    A quick correction. Jews historically do not consider Satan to be a metaphor.

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