Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 2: The Emotional Burden of Monotheism

Monotheism is a rough emotional ride.

To understand this, let’s back up.

How many gods are there? The Old Testament seems mixed in its testimony. At times, God is seen as a national god or a family god, one god among many gods in the ancient Middle-Eastern pantheon. At other times, the national god of Israel is elevated to High God status within the Middle-Eastern pantheon: God is the God above all gods (my church even sings a song with this lyric). And, finally, at other times, the OT seems to suggest that there is only One God. All other gods are “nothing,” non-existent.

So, is the Other Realm crowded? If so, is it hierarchical? Or, is it populated by One?

The bible seems mixed in its testimony on this topic.

However, as a psychologist, I don’t have much of an opinion on the Census of the Heavens. I do, however, have some thoughts on the emotional toll monotheism places upon a believer.

Specifically, if the Heavenly Census = 1, then the believer will have a very ambivalent relationship with the One. That is, all facets of life--the good, the bad, and the ugly--will be placed at the feet of the One God. God would be responsible, to use OT language, for both “weal and woe.” All our feelings about the justice and pain of our existence will fall at the feet of the One God. And, given that our experiences of happiness and suffering are mixed, our praise and lament intermingle. Our experience with the One God is ambivalence. Or, as psychologists like to say, we are experiencing an approach-avoidance conflict with God.

This ambivalence is amply documented in the emotional landscape of the psalms. Although Israel’s testimony regarding the Heavenly Census is mixed, her emotional experience was decidedly monotheistic. That is, in the psalms all theodicy concerns are taken directly to God and laid at God’s feet. No other supernatural agent (e.g., Satan) is allowed to rescue God from the questioning and accusations of Israel. As a result the relationship with God witnessed in the psalms is complicated and, at times, deeply ambivalent.

By contrast, a dualistic model of the Heavens with two gods could resolve some of our theodic ambivalence, particularly if these two gods were at war. That is, a dualistic warfare model of the heavens functions well as a theodic explanatory apparatus. Specifically, pain is the product of the Evil god and blessing the product of the Good god. Life is a mix of pain and blessing because the cosmos is a mix of Good and Evil. My experience thus reflects my metaphysics.

In the dualistic warfare model life might still suck for me, but my feelings toward the Good god are uncomplicated and overwhelmingly positive. There is no ambivalence in this model as we observed in monotheism.

Interestingly, ancient Zoroastrianism had just his “dualistic warfare” model. And Israel came into contact with Zoroastrianism at just the time when she was undergoing a crisis of theodicy (see prior post). Thus, some have speculated that this exposure to Zoroastrianism pushed Israel and early Christianity to adopt more of a dualistic warfare metaphor to explain pain and suffering.

All of the preceding is nicely summed up by Jack Miles in his Pulitzer Prize winning book God: A Biography:

“When the sole god or even the dominant god in a pantheon doles out weal and woe…the question[s] of [theodicy] don’t come up…[but] as God became both a consistently good god and the only real god the question How could a good god permit…? Suddenly became unavoidable…”

“Just at this point in its history…Israel was massively exposed to a persuasive answer to the new question…Persian Zoroastrianism recognized two competing gods…It is undeniable that after this period of Israelite entanglement with Semitic polytheism a dramatic growth in the importance of Satan, or the Devil, is easy to document…”

In short, the psychology of Satan has two complementary aspects:

First, Satan functions as a theodicy, as a means to explain the pain, suffering and evil in life.

Second, by fleshing out a dualistic warfare model, Satan allows for relationship with God to be less complicated, conflicted, and ambivalent. Satan becomes a theodic wastebasket, where the pain and suffering of life gets increasingly dumped on him. And, as more of the “woe” is attributed to Satan, God gets to be experienced almost solely as a producer of “weal.” And that feels good.

And, thus, the emotional burden of monotheism is lifted.

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3 thoughts on “Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 2: The Emotional Burden of Monotheism”

  1. I came across a reference to Zoroaster in an out of the way place. There is a writing that comes from the Nag Hammadi library called the Apochryphon of John or the Secret Book of John. It purports to relate a revelation of John the son of Zebedee from the Saviour. It is a Gnostic work of probably the 3rd century. It shows familiarity with the Old Testament, Adam, and Jehovah God. Yet, it unflinchingly refers the reader to the Book of Zoroaster if they want to get some further information on angels. The Secret Book of John names dozens of angels that are assigned to each organ of the body and cites Zoroaster as the source. Those ancients sure were an eclectic lot.

  2. So your saying Satan is a scape goat.

    I have been wanting to share this little piece a knowledge for a while so I shall now. (though you might already know)

    In ancient Israel, when making a sacrifice they would use two goats - one to cleans the community from sin (the messiah) and the other to keep sin from returning (lucifer) - I like this concept, because it clearly shows a different role for "the devil" - if he is to be a man, like Jesus, it makes me question whether his deeds on earth will so warrant his "cetain destruction", but instead just play his role.

    The poor guy.

  3. ah, problematic still - if one adheres to the prevailing notion of an omnipotent deity, how can there be a chaotic / free agent with efficacy beyond his will and control?

    open theism makes it far easier "to assert eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men"...but it must needs change the way we view that God. he becomes limited, vulnerable in the way that the divine Greek patriarchs were - usurp-able.

    anyhow, correct general statements, but not helpful.

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