The Evolution of Satan

May 5, 1996




The Evolution of ‘Satan’

If you happen to be one of our welcome visitors this morning, or you were not here last week, this is a second sermon in response to a request from a member of this church who left a remarkably brief note in my box: no preface, no postscript — just four words: “Please talk about Satan.” I meant to use only one sermon in that response, but the topic is so complex I have been pulled irresistibly into a second one and there will be one more next week to complete a trilogy. Today’s material is highly compressed and more like a lecture in seminary than the usual sermon, so I shall need your help. Pretend we’re in a college classroom and it’s important to make an “A” on a test at the end of these remarks.
When Charles Darwin gave new and permanent meaning to the word evolution, it was inevitable that the term would be applied to ideas as well as to animal life, so when good students read the Old Testament carefully, they see how religion itself evolved from very primitive ideas to ones that are quite sophisticated. In the earliest stories, for example, Abraham, Jacob and Moses are represented as being able to see God, and walk with him, hear the sound of his footstepssteps, and eat a meal with him — face to face, we are told in one place, just as we talkwith our friends. God, in these ancient stories, has human form and shows up frequently to pay a personal visit to planet Earth. But their concept of this God evolves, and he becomes ever more lofty and grand until a young Jewish prophet, centuries down the line, will say of him: “God is a spirit.” Not a physical presence with hands and feet and body weight, like us, but a spirit — unconfined by time or space. So one of the New Testament authors says flatly, and logically, “No person has seen God at any time.” But centuries before, the book of Genesis (32:30) has Jacob say, “I have seen God face to face,” and Exodus (33:11) says that on various occasions “God would speak with Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” Those are all simple, declarative statements — easy to understand — but they totally contradict each other and cannot all be literally true. So how do we deal with the contradiction? We deal with it by understanding a long slow change, an evolution, in how the authors of the Bible understood the nature of God.
At one point in Jewish history it was felt that God was limited to their own homeland, so it made good sense for Jonah to think that if he left Palestine he could also leave the presence of God and be free from a command he didn’t like. That same parochial notion that the Hebrew god reigns only over Hebrew soil lies behind the story in 2 Kings (5 & 6) about a Syrian military officer who carries a couple of bushels of Palestinian dirt back to his own country so that when he wishes he can put his feet on it and worship the God of the Israelites. But that idea, too, is primitive and quaint, and by the time we reach the great late prophets of Israel an evolution has taken place in the understanding of God: they talk about a God not bound by the limits of Palestine and interested only in the Israelites, but a God of the whole earth who is concerned about everybody. After pointing out these changing notions of God for years in university classrooms, it is hard for me to imagine how any serious student could miss them, and I mention them this morning because the same kind of thing happened with regard to Satan or the devil.
The first mistake in this sermon, from a fundamentalist point of view, is the title. Satan did not “evolve,” fundamentalist Christians would say: he is a fallen angel who displeased God and was cast out of heaven before we came on the scene and who appears first in the Bible story as a serpent in the Garden, tempting Adam and Eve. The truth, as is often the case, is not that simple. Like most figures of myth, the Christian concept of the devil is a composite drawn from many sources, most of them legends that originated outside the accepted Jewish and Christian scriptures but gradually worked themselves into religious tradition over the centuries. If that is a novel idea, And you care enough to research it, libraries are full of excellent books and commentaries by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant scholars who make the points I will make in this sermon.
The book of Genesis, for example, does not identify the serpent with Satan — and for a very good reason: at the time of that writing there was no such figure as Satan in the Jewish religion. It was much later that a Satan figure evolved, and only then did the Jewish people identify the snake in their ancient folk story with the devil. Not only is the serpent not called the devil in the story of Eden, but no such figure as the devil is mentioned anywhere in the Torah, those first five books of the Bible which have always been so tremendously important to Jewish people. The reason, to put it very simply, is that there was no Satan or devil in the early centuries of Jewish thought. And the reason there was no devil is that the Jews were strict monotheists: they believed in one God, and one God only, and they attributed everything that happened, good or bad, to that God — whose most important name, for them, was Yahweh.
So, in the oldest literary source of Genesis, this Yahweh creates a world of thinking creatures, but then “regrets” his creative work and annihilates virtually all living things, both animal and human. This includes innocent babies, feeble grandmothers, rabbits, lambs — everything on earth except a few people in one boat are wiped out by this Yahweh who is both good creator and terrifying destroyer. Thoughtful readers who wonder how a good God could kill so much innocent life have to understand that there was no one else around to blame this on, except the one God, Yahweh.
This is why the God who does good things is also represented as the God who bad things — at times a tormentor and a deceiver. In 1 Samuel 16 he personally sends an “evil spirit” to madden King Saul. It is not the devil who does this, because there is no devil; God does it. And in 1 Kings 22 the same God sends a “lying spirit” to mislead Ahab. In our thought world, it is handy to blame such things on the devil, but they had no devil as yet. As late as six centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaiah still presents this god Yahweh as the originator of both light and darkness, both good and evil (Isa. 45:7): In the language of the great Catholic translation called The Jerusalem Bible, it reads like this: “I am Yahweh, unrivalled. I form the light and create the dark. I make good fortune and create calamity, it is I, Yahweh, who do all this.” Another way of putting this is to say that in early Jewish religion there was no dualism, no good power versus a power of evil, no God versus Satan.
So when did this dualism enter Jewish history. The scholarly consensus is that it happened during the time of the Jewish exile [ca. 587 BC – 536 BC] when two whole generations of Jews came under the influence of the Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism. In this strongly dualistic religion the dark god — the enemy of the good God — was known as Ahriman, and the things said about him are astonishingly similar to what is said about Satan in both Jewish and Christian writings. This Persian religion also had a hierarchy of angels and demons, and a system of rewards and punishments in the afterlife, both of which entered and profoundly influenced Jewish thought and is also reflected in our Christian writings. This influence on Judaism, however, came after the Hebrew Bible was nearly completed. For that reason, says George MacRae, a Biblical scholar at Harvard Divinity School, “the Old Testament simply does not contain a personal Devil who is the principle of evil and God’s adversary.”
If we were reading a book right now, and missed a point, we could turn back and read it again, but words and ideas go by quickly in a speech like this, so let’s risk repetition and sum up what has just been said. In the early centuries of Hebrew religion, no mention of Satan. As monotheists, the ancient Israelites had only one God, Yahweh — and no use for the myth of equal but opposite deities. But that attitude eventually created problems. For as Yahweh evolved from a tribal deity into the Lord of the universe, the Israelites still had no choice but to hold him responsible for both the good and the evil they experienced. But in the last four centuries before Christ, they gradually developed the need for a powerful Devil, a need scholars feel was born out of the spiritual despair arising from their dashed hopes. During their exile in Babylon (Persia), they had imagined a new golden age awaited them once they came back by Yahweh’s help to their Promised Land. But it didn’t happen. The Temple was not rebuilt to its former glory and Israel’s political fortunes only got steadily worse. Greeks conquered them, Syrians violated their holy places, and Roman legions followed in a hateful occupation of their Promised Land. By this time, the Israelites needed a new theology to explain such terrible things — some countervailing force of evil which made sense of their suffering. They had found that force in the religion of Persia, and after they came back from that long exile, their writings changed remarkably. Between 200 BC and 100 AD, in literature too late to get into their canonical scripture but which profoundly influenced early Christian views, a fully-developed Satan appears, along with demons who roam the earth doing his bidding.
Since the first Christians were Jews, it is not surprising that in their literature this late Jewish concept of Satan is accepted as part of the world order, with demons blamed for all sorts of physical and mental illnesses. Born into that thought world, Jesus accepted it. Perhaps he could not have been truly human, caught in a certain context of time and space, had he done otherwise. But as I mentioned last week, there were huge differences of opinion about all this among faithful Jews, long before Christ came along. The famous scholar/teacher, Ben Sira, writing around 180 years before Christ, expressed scepticism about a personal devil by saying: “When an ungodly man curses Satan what he is really cursing is his own self.” As far as he is concerned, that figure of folklore called the Devil is really just a personification of our own worst selves. As a result of such thinking, the Devil soon lost importance in Judaism, but Christians made up for the loss by placing more and more emphasis on the role of the Devil in human life. Unfortunately for both Muslims and Jews, Christians came to regard them as worshipers and agents of the Devil, which made it easy for the Christian crusaders to slaughter thousands of them in the name of God.
Evil has seemed to fascinate human beings more than good, and through what we call the Middle Ages the Devil became more real and accessible to the Christian imagination than the benevolent Christ. Through these centuries people outdid one another in lurid stories of how the devil appeared as a horrible monster who beat or choked them, and through whose huge gaping nostrils they could see the raging fires of Hell. Writing a life of St. Anthony, a Christian bishop tells how on one occasion the Devil appeared to the saint in the form of a pretty woman and almost seduced him. On another occasion, demons burst into his cell in the shape of lions, bulls, bears, lepoards, serpents, scorpions and wolves. In still another encounter, the Devil and a pack of demons waylaid the saint, beat and whipped him, and left him unconscious. For centuries, stories like these inspired preachers to terrify their flocks into good behavior. They also had the grim result of causing superstitious people to see devil-possessed witches everywhere, so that between 1450 and 1750, an estimated 200,000 poor souls., mostly women but occasionally men, were burned at the stake for supposed dealings with the Devil.
In modern times, what and how much one hears about the Devil depends on where one goes to church. In fundamentalist and charismatic churches, the Devil is used as a powerful tool in persuading people to come to church regularly and give generously of their money. In what are called Mainline Churches — Presbyterian, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, Congregational — the Devil’s hold on the Christian imagination has all but vanished. The problem of evil — make no mistake — is as acute and on occasion as mysterious as ever, but in the kinds of churches I just mentioned the Devil has become a metaphor, a traditional way of personifying evil, rather than a real character.
If you are here next Sunday for the wrapup of this brief series, I will talk about how Satan’s face and color and character have all changed through the centuries as theologians and literary authors and unschooled believers struggled to understand the nature of evil. And I promise that if you had enough curiosity to survive this morning’s rather heavy dose of theology, you’ll like what happens next week!

We leave this morning, Eternal God, rejoicing in a church which
honors the search for truth, and the right of each individual to
examine ideas and build a faith that is true and honest….in the
name of Christ our Lord. Amen.