While this saying is often made in gest, the underlying meaning is much more sinister. It implies that there is either a supernatural entity or a cosmic force that preys upon humans to encourage them to commit heinous acts. The shooter in the recent tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon is reported to have left a message on social media saying that he would be “welcomed in Hell and embraced by the devil.”
How can people believe in such a malevolent force if they also believe in an omniscient and all-powerful deity? How is the fear of evil used to motivate and control people to accept religious dogma? How does this concept of the devil and hell impinge on our ability to get at solutions to tragedies such as the one at UCC? These are all interesting questions that will be addressed later in this essay. But first let’s look at a bit of history on the concept of the devil itself.
If you think that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was Satan, I can’t blame you. I was taught the same thing. But that equation was not made in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). In pre-exilic texts (prior to 587 BCE), it is God who holds the power over good and evil. ”I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things.”(Isaiah 45:7) “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” (2 Samuel 24:1) In the texts composed after the exile in Babylon, Satan appears as an agent of God sent by him to be an adversary to man. He is still not yet an independent force for evil. For example, in Job 2:6, God is clearly directing Satan’s activities, “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.’” Indeed Satan is referred to as among the group called “the sons of God,” or part of the heavenly court. (Job 1:6) Even though Job loses his fortunes, including his family, he is steadfast in his belief in God. At the end of the book, God rewards him by restoring everything he has lost. Satan remains a part of the heavenly court after his assignment with Job is done. In contrast to the pre-exilic citation above in 2 Samuel where God calls for a census, Satan is the one who does the directing in a post-exilic passage where he “moved David to number Israel.” (1 Chronicles 21:1)
The change in the concept of God from being the force of both good and evil to the role of Satan as an adversary of man is credited to the influence of the Persians. It was the Persians who liberated the Hebrews from their exile in Babylon and who allowed the Hebrews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The Persians are credited with having the first beliefs in the duality of good and evil through their founder Zarathustra (Zoraster in Greek). “Well known are the two primeval spirits correlated but independent; one is better and the other is the worse as to thought, as to word, as to deed, and between those let the wise choose aright.” The evil spirit, known as Angra Mainyu, directs the forces of darkness.
Elaine Pagels, in her book The Origin of Satan, also gives credit to the Essenes, a group of mostly male celibates who lived by themselves in Qumran, for the elevation of Satan from a “rather unpleasant angel into a far grander—and far more malevolent—figure.” The Essenes, known for writing what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, ranted against the impiety of their fellow Jews in Jerusalem from the second century BCE until 68 CE when their settlement was destroyed by the Romans. They were not the only group in the troubled times of the Roman occupation of parts of Israel that blamed the troubles on this newly expanded character. Yet neither the concept of Satan as a force equal to God nor the concept of hell as Satan’s dwelling place were part of Judaic thought. It is only in Christianity where the exposition of Satan as he is known today in many religions is truly made.
In the first century CE during the birth of Christianity other groups also played a role in the concept of good and evil, specifically the Greeks. (The Romans had no concept of an evil force). Since Plato, the Greeks had developed the concept of duality: good vs. evil, body vs. soul, etc. Indeed, we derive our word for the devil from the Greek word diabolos, which means slanderer. This nascent concept of an evil force characterized by a specific character, Satan, is greatly expanded in the writings of the New Testament.
Pagels makes the claim that the role of Satan is crucial to the explanation for the death of Jesus. “How, after all, could anyone claim that a man betrayed by one of his own followers, and brutally executed on charges of treason against Rome, not only was but still is God’s appointed Messiah, unless his capture and death were, as the gospels insist, not a final defeat but only a preliminary skirmish in a vast cosmic conflict now enveloping the universe?”
While one can see the progression of the development of a powerful entity of evil, one has to question why an omnipotent God wouldn’t simply destroy this force? Christian apologists use the concept of free will to justify the existence of evil. In other words, humans possess free will and only through belief in God can humans overcome the force of evil. But isn’t this just a circular argument to try to explain bad things that happen? Some of our earliest ancestors developed concepts to explain natural disasters such as volcanoes by positing that a god was angry at them. But when science came along to explain how and why these events occurred and strived to lessen their impact by projecting their occurrences, the role of an evil force that caused them disappeared. As we begin to understand the human mind and the myriad influences that stand behind actions such as rape, murder, etc., it is likely that the idea of a malevolent figure causing people to take these actions will dwindle away as well.
It is clear that the threat of hell and the influence of the demonic being called Satan has been used to promote fear throughout Christianity down to the present time. And as such, it has served as a source of control by the Church. But even more sinister is its use to claim others as heretics. While the Jews fought other tribes, they did this in order to claim the land of Israel. They did not attempt to convert other people to their beliefs, nor did they label non-Jews as heretics. This last act has been reserved for the Catholic Church and its descendents. The church went on the Crusades to murder Muslims, killed the Cathars in Medieval Europe, and murdered and enslaved Native Americans and peoples in the Caribbean in the New World justifying this genocide because they were unbelievers. They killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, in the Middle Ages for being witches using the figure of the devil to justify their killing. See previous blog post.
But what if there is no cosmic evil force? How would our actions change? Instead of stating as Jeb Bush did in response to the UCC shootings—stuff happens—maybe we would look harder for solutions and seek to understand the various factors at play in a tragedy such as that of UCC: identifying and providing support to youth, especially males, with tendencies toward violence or with mental health difficulties; examining how we can reach a compromise on gun control; looking at what in our culture leads to young males feeling they are victims or losers, etc. Yes, it would require more thinking than just saying—the devil made me do it—but we might actually prevent these acts from reoccurring.
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend an excellent essay entitled The Truth About the Devil by Michael Sherlock and Elaine Pagel’s well-researched book, The Origin of Satan.
Karen Garst, The Faithless Feminist
October 15, 2015
 Paul Carus, editor, The Open Court, A Weekly Journal Devoted to the Science of Religion, Volume IX (Chicago, IL: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1895), 4684.
 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995), 47.
 Pagels, 12.