Goofy title, I know.
But if you've been reading the comments to these posts you know where I'm getting this from. I'll use this post to elaborate.
Thanks to some good discussion on my last post provided by Sheila Vamplin and ftwskies I've been thinking a lot about the ontology of evil and Satan's relationship to evil. Thanks to Sheila and ftwskies for pushing on me to clarify my posts. Here's a shot at clarification.
Let me start by saying that I've read nothing on this subject. So the following is based upon reason and what I can remember of the bible as I sit here and type. If anyone would like to recommend good books on this topic please pass those titles on.
First, to set the context. In my last post I suggested that some Christians with strong warfare models tend to inflate Satan's powers and scope to almost god-like levels. The result of this inflation is that the metaphysic begins to creep toward dualism with the fight between The Evil and The Good represented in the battle between God and Satan. This dualism, to my eye, looks crypto-Zoroastrian. It is true that Satan is not perceived as God's equal by these believers. That is, it is not:
Good God vs. Evil God.
But rather, again, to my eye,
Good God vs. Evil god.
So, the model looks more like a weak-Zoroastrian formulation. It doesn't operate, metaphysically speaking, as a strict monotheism. But neither does it operate as a strict dualism. It's somewhere in between.
In my prior posts I've suggested that one of the reasons for creating this weak dualism is that it partly helps with the emotional toll of monotheism, particularly as that toll is related to theodicy.
Okay, but does the Satan concept get inflated as I have suggested? Inflated in ways that are unbiblical? Because if Satan has been inflated in unbiblical ways it lends support to my notion that there is more going on in the psychology of Satan. Part of what might be going on is cultural history (e.g., Dante's influence on notions of Satan). But I'm also suggesting that there might be some psychological stuff mixed up in this as well. Specifically, the need to feel less conflicted about God when we suffer in life.
What evidence do I have that the Satan construct gets inflated?
First, I've noted that many Christians tend to equate Satan with Evil, ontologically speaking. For example, I've suggested that you ask Christians of your acquaintance this question: If Satan didn't exist how would the world be different? A similar kind of question is this: Could the Fall of Adam and Eve happen without there being a Satan? Or: Can sin exist without there being a Satan?
Most of the people I've asked these question tend to claim that the notion of the Fall of Man demands a Satan, demands that Evil preexist the Fall. In short, for sin to exist there must be a choice between Good and Evil. Those choices must preexist, ontologically speaking. Thus, Satan, as Evil, must exist prior to the Fall. No Satan, no Fall, no sin.
Here's the problem with that formulation. How did Satan himself fall? For if sin requires Evil to preexist then Satan needed a Satan. And Satan's Satan needed a Satan. It's a Russian Doll problem.
So, it seems clear, to me at least, that Evil does NOT need to preexist for a Fall to occur. And what that means is this:
You don’t need a Satan in the world for there to be sin.
Let me clarify. I'm not saying there isn't an Adversary. What I am suggesting is that having an Adversary isn’t a necessary condition for sin. Phrased another way, the Adversary may be Evil-as-adjective. But the Adversary isn't Evil-as-noun.
But this reasoning, obvious to me, is news to a lot of believers. Why? Because, tacitly and implicitly, people have tended to think of Satan not as an Adversary but as the ontological embodiment of Evil. They think of Satan as Evil, in ontological terms. And this is a very dualist (e.g., Zoroastrian) way of viewing things.
And here's the odd thing. The bible is pretty mute about Evil. The bible has no theology of Evil, as in Capital E. Evil is our invention. Ontological Evil isn't a biblical notion at all.
What is the biblical notion of evil? Well, it’s a relational notion. Evil is not the absence of God or the opposite of God. Those are untenable notions. What is, exactly, the absence of God? Even Satan needs God to sustain him. Satan is not an eternal, necessary, self-sustaining agent. Thus, Satan cannot represent the absence of God or the separation of God. Further, Hell can't even be the total absence of God. God must sustain Hell as God must sustain all created things.
But notice, if God is all-in-all all sorts of theodicy questions arise. If nothing is separate from God then all the evil things in life must, it would seem, ultimately find their root in God. Or, at the very least, he’s complicit in their ongoing existence. That fact, I've argued, creates the emotional toll of monotheism. And, since this emotional toll is high, we default to dualist notions, implicitly associating Satan with Ontological Evil and saying things like "Evil is God's Opposite" or "Evil is the Absence of God." Speaking plainly, those formulations are unbiblical. So why do we opt for them? Again, speaking plainly, these formulations get God off the hook (since God is removed from the equation, hence the language of "absence" or "opposite", basically "not God”).
Going back to biblical notions of evil. Evil in the bible is very simple. It is transgression. Evil isn't a prerequisite for sin. Evil is sin. That is the biblical view. Evil is not a noun. It’s a choice.
As another example of the inflation of the Satan concept, I've also noticed how we tend to grant Satan god-like capabilities. And these god-like abilities are unbiblical. But yet we add these details due to the inflation of the Satan construct. As an example, here is a part of one of my comments from the last post:
Let's say I read the bible this way:
1. Satan, as an angel, is located in both time and space. Like the angel Gabriel, when Satan is in one locale he cannot be in another location. He can't be with you and me and the same time.
2. When Satan tempts/attacks a person (let's call this one of his "projects") this takes some time. For example, let's say his conversation with Eve lasted about 30 minutes. His time with Jesus in the wilderness a few hours. Let's, to allow for a back of the envelope calculation, say that a typical "project" of Satan's lasts about an hour.
Let's pause here. Both #1 and #2 are very biblical. Nowhere do we see testimony that Satan can be two places at once.
3. But if we grant #1 and #2 (both very biblical), Satan can only have about 24 projects a day. Given the current world population, that means that it would take Satan 742 years to get around to tempting everyone on the planet. Which means that I'm much more likely to be struck by lightning than having to deal with Satan in my lifetime. He just won't have enough time to get around to me.
This, of course, is all very silly. But it is extraordinarily biblical. So why don't we see Satan this way, as an opportunistic agent who picks and chooses his battles? (For example, the bible suggests that Jesus had to only deal with Satan twice. And if the Son of God, given his obvious challenge to Satan, had to only deal with Satan twice, what chance will there be that I, a small cosmic player, will ever encounter Satan?) Why not this obvious reading?
Instead of this obvious reading, we have this INFLATED notion of Satan. People tend to think (again, this is generally unstated, you have to press people to get them to work out the implications of what they really believe) that Satan is everywhere and can be tempting all people at once. Well, think about that. That is a remarkable claim. Satan would no longer be a angel, but an agent of god-like capability. And, interestingly, this inflation is unbiblical. The bible doesn't support this vision. Yet it's the vision most Christians subscribe to. I've called this kind of "inflated Satan" model crypto-Zoroastrian because it struck me as dualist in flavor. Or at least creeping in that direction. I think that is a reasonable, if whimsical, way of framing the issue.
Given the numbers and assumptions above, which seem very biblical to me, I went on to calculate the probability of encountering Satan in a given day. By my estimation the probability is:
Now, this calculation is intended to be silly, but it’s also making a legitimate point. The biblical witness claims that Satan is finite and opportunistic. And the number .0000000036 simply makes the biblical claim explicit. Yet this claim flies in the face of the god-like inflated Satan most Christians believe in. I’m just trying to make this implicit notion explicit. And the number .0000000036 helps do that.*
*It could be claimed that Satan commands a huge host of demonic agents to accomplish his purposes. That may well be the case, but it misses my point. I'm not arguing about if Satan exists or if demons exist. I'm trying to discuss, let me be clear, how we think about Satan. And the number .0000000036 helps us illuminate how we think about Satan. That is, the number strikes us as counter-intuitive. Exactly! It's counter-intuitive and, thus, theologically diagnostic.
Welcome to the blog of Richard Beck, professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University (brief vita).Richard is the author of Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith. Experimental Theology is also available on the Kindle.
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Warfare and Weakness: A Vision for Progressive Theology
- Part 1: A Real Fight
- Part 2: A Theology of Revolt
- Part 3: About Those Angels and Demons...
- Part 4: To Go To War We Need a Weaker God
- Part 5: The Weakness of God
- Part 6: Let There Be Light
- Part 7: The Victory of the Lamb
- Part 8: A Creation Theology of the Quotidian
- Interlude: In Memory of the White Rose
- Part 9: Wickedness in High Places
- Part 10: Jesus Went About...
- Epilogue: Final Reflections on Progressive Theology
The Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The William Stringfellow Project (Ongoing)
- Van Ministry
- Wednesday Night Church
- Morning Prayer at San Buenaventura Mission
- The Halo of Overalls
- The Hands of Christ
- The Farmer's Market
- Subversion and Shame: I Like the Color Pink
- The Bureaucrat
- Uncle Richard, Vampire Hunter
- Freedom Fellowship
- Palm Sunday with the Orthodox
- Looking Like Jesus (or a Crazy Person)
- Freedom Rider
- On Maps and Marital Spats
- Get on a Bike...and Go Slow
- Buying a Bible
- Memento Mori
- We Weren't as Good as the Muppets
- Uncle Richard and the Shark
- Growing Up Catholic
- Ghostbusting (Part 1)
- Ghostbusting (Part 2)
- My Eschatological Dog
- Meditations on Y'all
- Tex Mex and Depression Era Cuisine
- Aliens at Roswell
- Driving to Pizza House
On the Principalities and Powers
- The Preferential Option for the Poor
- The Political Theology of Les Misérables
- Good Enough
- On Anarchism and A**holes
- Christian Anarchism
- A Restless Patriotism
- Wink on Exorcism
- Images of God Against Empire
- A Boredom Revolution
- The Medal of St. Benedict
- Exorcisms are about Economics
- "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?"
- "A Home for Demons...and the Merchants Weep"
- Tales of the Demonic
- The Ethic of Death: The Policies and Procedures Manual
- "All That Are Here Are Humans"
- Ears of Stone
- The War Prayer
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail
- The Hormonal God
- Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement
- Open Communion: Warning!
- The Missional and Apostolic Nature of Holiness
- Love is the Allocation of Our Dying
- The Satanic Church
- A Community Called Forgiveness
- Easter Shouldn't Be Good News
- Jesus Stopped: On Interruptibility
- The Gospel According to Lady Gaga
- Your God is Too Big
- Marriage as Spiritual Failure
From the Prison Bible Study
Series/Essays Based on my Research
- The Conflicts of Love
- Death and Christian Art, Part 1
- Death and Christian Art, Interlude
- Death and Christian Art, Part 2
- Death and Christian Art, Part 3
- Satan and the Emotional Burden of Monotheism
- Death, Gnosticism and the Incarnation
- Summer and Winter Christians
- Sinning in Your Heart
- Quest Religious Orientation
- Satan as a Functional Theodicy
- Attachment to God
- PostSecret, Part 1
- PostSecret, Part 2
- PostSecret, Part 3
- PostSecret, Part 4
- PostSecret, Part 5
The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes
The Theology of Peanuts
The Angel of the iPhone
Reflections on Gender and the Church
- Can Patriarchalists Pray the Lord's Prayer?
- Power and Gender: Among Us It Shall Be Different
- Call No Man on Earth Father
- Head Coverings: Why Female Hair is a Testicle
- A Letter to My Church on Women's Roles
- Pragmatics or Power in Patriarchy?
- Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible
- On Masculine Christianity and Powerplays
- Thoughts on Mark Driscoll While I'm Knitting
- Ambivalent Sexism
- Direct Your Hearts to Her
- Gender, Submission and Ecosystems of Abuse
The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia
How Facebook Killed the Church
Blogging about the Bible
- Control Your Vessel
- Circumcised Ears
- Forgive Us Our Trespasses
- Doing Beautiful Things
- The Most Remarkable Sequence in the Bible
- Targeting the Dove Sellers
- Christus Victor in Galatians
- Devoted to Destruction: Reading Cherem Non-Violently
- The Triumph of the Cross
- The Threshing Floor of Araunah
- Hold Others Above Yourself
- Blessed are the Tricksters
- Adam's First Wife
- I Am a Worm
- Christus Victor in the Lord's Prayer
- Let Them Both Grow Together
- Here I Am
- Becoming the Jubilee
- Sermon on the Mount: Study Guide
- Treat Them as a Pagan or Tax Collector
- Going Outside the Camp
- Welcoming Children
- The Song of Lamech and the Song of the Lamb
- The Nephilim
- Shaming Jesus
- Pseudepigrapha and the Christian Witness
- The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs
- The Second Moses
- The New Manna
- Salvation in the First Sermons of the Church
- "A Bloody Husband"
- Song of the Vineyard
- The Jubilee
Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prision
Civil Rights Family Trip
Demons and The Powers
- Part 1: Thinking about Demons
- Part 2: Evil and Illness in Modernity
- Part 3: Evil as Residual
- Part 4: The Language of The Powers
- Part 5: The Angels of the Nations
- Part 6: Yoder on The Powers
- Part 7: The Spirituality of The Powers
- Part 8: The Inner Aspect of Material Power
- Part 9: Stringfellow on The Powers
- Part 10: Demons in the Gosples
The Midrash of R. Crumb
Theology and Evolutionary Psychology
- Prelude: Galileo's Dilemma
- Part 1: Natural and Sexual Selection
- Part 2: On the Sweet Tooth (and Morality as Dieting)
- Interlude: Emoticons
- Part 3: Evolution and Human Sexuality
- Part 4: Sexual Jealousy
- Part 5: Kin Selection and Family Values
- Part 6: The Storge to Xenia Shift
- Part 7: Reciprocity
- Part 8: Moralistic Aggression
Scripture and Discernment
- Songbooks vs. the Psalms
- Biblical as Sociological Stress Test
- Cookie Cutting the Bible: A Case Study
- Pawn to King 4
- Allowing God to Rage
- Poetry of a Murderer
- On Christian Communion: Killing vs. Sexuality
- Heretics and Disagreement
- Atonement: A Primer
- "The Bible says..."
- The "Yes, but..." Church
- Human Experience and the Bible
- Discernment, Part 1
- Discernment, Part 2
- Rabbinic Hedges
- Fuzzy Logic
Interacting with Good Books
- Torture and Eucharist
- How Much is Enough?
- From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart
- The Catonsville Nine
- Daring Greatly
- On Job (Gutiérrez)
- The Selfless Way of Christ
- World Upside Down
- Are Christians Hate-Filled Hypocrites?
- Christ and Horrors
- The King Jesus Gospel
- The Bible Made Impossible
- The Deliverance of God
- To Change the World
- Sexuality and the Christian Body
- I Told Me So
- The Teaching of the Twelve
- Evolving in Monkey Town
- Saved from Sacrifice: A Series
- Darwin's Sacred Cause
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 1
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 2
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 3
- The Black Swan, Part 1
- The Black Swan, Part 2
- Rapture Ready!
- A Secular Age
- The God Who Risks
- The Evolution of Cooperation
- On Apology
- The Beautiful
- The Sensory Boundary
- Elizabeth Smart and the Psychology of the Christian Purity Culture
- On Love and the Yuck Factor
- Ethnocentrism and Politics
- Flies, Attention and Morality
- The Banality of Evil
- Regarding Sex
- The Ovens at Buchenwald
- Violence and Traffic Lights
- Defending Individualism
- Guilt and Atonement
- The Varieties of Love and Hate
- The Wicked
- Moral Foundations
- Primum non nocere
- The Moral Emotions
- The Moral Circle, Part 1
- The Moral Circle, Part 2
- Taboo Psychology
- The Morality of Mentality
- Moral Conviction
- Holiness and Moral Grammars
Experiments in Quantitative Ecclesiology
The Theology of Everyday Life
- Faith as Honoring
- This Ritual of Hallowing
- The Impossibility of Calvinistic Psychotherapy
- Hating Pixels
- Dress, Divinity and Dumbfounding
- The Kingdom of God Will Not Be Tweeted
- The Ethics of :-)
- On Snobbery
- The F-word
- Can you sin on a deserted island?
- Ironic Christians
- Everything I learned about life I learned coaching tee-ball
- Gossip, Part 1: The Food of the Brain
- Gossip, Part 2: Evolutionary Stable Strategies
- Gossip, Part 3: The Pay it Forward World
- Sinning in Your Heart?, Part 1: The Morality of Mentality
- Moral Progress, Part 1
- Moral Progress, Part 2
- Human Nature
- On Humility
Dogmatism & Doubt: Curing the Religious Disease
Sticky Theology (Why is Bad Theology so Popular?)
- Love and Freedom
- On Hell and Holocausts: Comparing Annihilationism and Universalism
- Being Hopeful and Dogmatic
- Holiness in Heaven?
- Universalism and the New Perspective on Paul
- A Googolplexian Hell
- The Best Ending to the Christian Story: An Exchange with Daniel Kirk
- Universalism and the Bondage of the Will
- Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination
- Universalism and Theodicy
- Universalism FAQ & Answers
- Universalism: A Summary Defense
- Why I Am a Universalist Series (and Resources)
Alone, Suburban & Sorted
The Theology of Monsters
Original Sin: A New View
The Theology of Ugly
A Walk with William James
- Part 1: The Jamesian Situation
- Part 2: Habit
- Part 3: Belief as Vote
- Part 4: Pragmatism and the Emerging Church
- Part 5: Theology is a Fork
- Part 6: Ontological Emotion
- Part 7: Religious Surrender
- Part 8: Introverts at Church
- Part 9: Bubbles in the Sun
- Part 10: Ghostbusting
- Part 11: The Empirical Trace
- Part 12: Saintliness
Preparing for the Cartesian Storm (Free Will & Souls in the Age of Neuroscience)
Musings On Faith, Belief, and Doubt
- A/theism and the Transcendent
- Kingdom A/theism
- The Ontological Argument
- Cheap Praise and Costly Praise
- Wired to Suffer
- A New Apologetics
- Orthodox Alexithymia
- High and Low: The Psalms and Suffering
- The Buddhist Phase
- Skilled Christianity
- The Two Families of God
- The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity
- Evil and Evolution: Thoughts on Enns and Smith
- Theodicy and No Country for Old Men
- Doubt: A Diagnosis
- Faith and Modernity
- Faith after "The Cognitive Turn"
- The Gifts of Doubt
- A Beautiful Life
- Is Santa Claus Real?
- The Feeling of Knowing
- Practicing Christianity
- In Praise of Doubt
- Skepticism and Conviction
- Pragmatic Belief
- N-Order Complaint and Need for Cognition
- Kingdom A/theism
The Theology of Humor
Game Theory and the Kingdom of God
- Advent: Learning to Wait
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 1
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 2
- It's Still Christmas
- Easter Shouldn't Be Good News
- The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Meditation
- Palm Sunday with the Orthodox
- Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation
- The Liturgical Year for Dummies
- "Watching Their Flocks at Night": An Advent Meditation
- Pentecost and Babel
- Ambivalence about Lent
- On Easter and Astronomy
- Christmas & TV, Part 1: The Grinch
- Christmas & TV, Part 2: Misfits
- Christmas & TV, Part 3: Charlie Brown
- Sex Sandals and Advent
- Freud and Valentine's Day
- Existentialism and Halloween
- Halloween Redux: Talking with the Dead
- Jesus Would Be a Hufflepuff
- The Moral Example of Captain Jack Sparrow
- Weddings Real, Imagined and Yet to Come
- Michelangelo and Neuroanatomy
- Believing in Bigfoot
- The Kingdom of God as Improv and Flash Mob
- 2012 and the End of the World
- Chocolate Jesus
- The Polar Express and the Uncanny Valley
- Why the Anti-Christ Is an Idiot
- On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies