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.