Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 4: Crypto-Jewish and Crypto-Zoroastrian Christians

As I have reflected on how Satan plays out in the minds of believers I've reached a few soft conclusions on the matter. If you are a regular reader, you know I like to spin out pet-theories on all things theological. So, here's a pet theory.

I think there are two kinds of Christians. Monotheistic Christians and Dualistic Christians. Or, more provocatively, crypto-Jewish Christians and crypto-Zoroastrian* Christians.

Monotheistic Christians tend to have a Jewish experience with God. If you look over my posts in this series, these Christians tend to have the following features/beliefs:

1. They tend to believe the Heavenly Census = 1. Or at least they experience the heavens in this way.
2. They tend to be N-Order Complaint people. Satan answers nothing in their experience. In regards to theodicy, Satan--less an Answer--is a Question that God needs to answer for.
3. Given #1 and #2, Monotheistic Christians tend to have complicated relationships with God. Both weal and woe come from God. Issues of theodicy are laid directly at God's feet. For a Monotheistic Christian there is nowhere else to go.
4. Thus, the emotional experience of Monotheistic Christians is, unsurprisingly, uniquely Jewish. The Monotheistic experience, we have noted, follows the landscape of the Psalms. That is, both praise and strong lament/complaint/accusation with God intermingle. The relationship with God is ambivalent, conflicted, and complicated.

Okay, in contrast to the Monotheistic Christian is the Dualistic Christian. Following my earlier posts, the Dualistic Christian will look more Zoroastrian. Walking through this:

1. They will tend to believe, or at least experience, the Heavenly Census > 1. More specifically, they will tend to see the heavens as a battleground between the Big Two: God and Satan. True, God is bigger and will win in the end, but the experience today looks very Zoroastrian.
2. These tend to be First-Order Complaint people. That is, Satan will functions more as Answer in theodicy discussions.
3. Given #1 and #2, Dualistic Christians, with their warfare theodicy, will be able to sort weal and woe more effectively. Some (if not all) of the woe can get "explained" by the War.
4. Thus, the emotional experience of Monotheistic Christians is less conflicted and ambivalent. There is less lament or complaint in the worship experience.

Okay, pet theory deployed.

The question for any theory is this: Can it make interesting predictions? I think this one can.

If a sub-set of Christians are crypto-Zoroastrian then we should see this: A implicit inflation of the Satan construct, where Satan beings to take on God-like (God with Big G) attributes.

I specify that the inflation of the Satan construct is implicit. It is a psychological not a theological phenomenon. Explicitly and theologically, people will reject this inflation. But implicitly, when you examine how the Satan construct functions, you see the inflation.

Two examples should illustrate what I'm talking about.

First, I have proposed the following counter-factual to many people: Imagine a world where Satan didn't exist. How would things be different?

Well, Monotheistic Christians tend to respond: "Not much." And this makes perfect sense given their monotheistic/Jewish orientation.

Dualistic Christians, and I've heard this repeatedly, tend to say this: "Evil would cease to exit." (Go ahead, ask around, you'll see this answer pop up quite a lot.)**

Now think about that answer, "Evil would cease to exist." The implicit theology is this: Satan is, ontologically, evil. Without Satan evil ceases to exist. Satan is God's Opposite.

See how Zoroastrian that formulation is? It's an inflation of the Satan concept to God-like status.

Second example.

God is generally held to be omnipresent and omniscient. What about Satan? Overtly, people would deny that Satan has these God-level abilities. But, when you begin to inquire about how Satan actually functions in the world, his abilities seem astounding, dramatically close to omnipresence and omniscience. Satan, apparently, is everywhere at once. Tempting me here in Abilene, you in your town, and someone in Asia all at the same time. There can be a variety of post-hoc explanations for this (e.g., Satan has hosts of helpers, spiritual agents can be "everywhere" in the physical realm) but functionally the outcome is the same: Satan is omnipresent.

Again, what we is an inflation of the Satan construct past what the biblical witness seems to endorse. Satan's power is increased so that he can oppose God is some strong way, strong enough to reduce complaint against God. This opposition is needed, I've suggested, to help some Christians avoid the emotional toll of monotheism. So they create, implicitly and covertly, what is, in essence, a Zoroastrian formulation.

*More precisely, a particular school of Zoroastrian thought.

**I love to do this kind of descriptive theology. How are people thinking theologically "on the street"?

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16 thoughts on “Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 4: Crypto-Jewish and Crypto-Zoroastrian Christians”

  1. This is fascinating. Your whole blog is fascinating. I wish I had not encountered it so late at night.

    I like your theory because it's logical and neat, but like so many logical and neat ideas, it doesn't fit with reality as I know it.

    I am definitely an N-order person who also does "have a Satan construct." I can't say that it simplifies anything for me, though, and certainly doesn't get God off the hook. And my belief system doesn't elevate Satan to equal power with God.

    Can you create another category?

  2. Shelia,
    You are right, of course. I tend to rush into reductive taxonomies. Occupational hazard.

    More seriously, humans are awe-inspiring in their complexity. No theory can explain all that diversity. So, when psychologists deploy theories we don't do so reductively. We speak of "explaining variance." That is, does the theory explain a piece, a part, a small thread of the much larger tapestry? I think this model does have some descriptive and explanatory Oomph. But I fully anticipate that exceptions would abound.


  3. I'm kinda in the same boat as Sheila, being what you've termed an N-order guy yet having been greatly impacted by the theology and ministry of the Ransomed Heart crowd, which is explicitly warfare-based. But what I find most challenging about what you're putting forward here is this question: if the dualistic Satan construct is off-track, then why does scripture mention him at all? He's either real and therefore relevant, or he's merely a construct, a handy theodicy.

    If he is merely a construct and not a fact, then I have to look at scripture as the personal works of it's human authors, influenced by (or even merely the product of) their own thinking and working-out of truth experientially. Thus scripture loses authority as being divinely revealed fact, for it posits him as fact from Genesis through the Revelation.

    But if he is a fact, then you have to either give in to dualism or come up with some tertiary explanation for the residual pain and evil that remains when Satan is removed from the picture.

    My Jewish-Christian friends like to talk a lot about "human nature", but I don't see how one can construct a theology of the fall in the garden without either some objectively evil outside influence, or else a total reconstruction of what it means to "sin".

  4. FTWSkies,

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    I'd like to think through that idea you posit of an "objectively evil outside influence" to explain the Fall. For if Satan is that "outside influence" then there had to be a Fall before that, Satan's Fall. So who was Satan's Satan? Or Satan's Satan's Satan? It’s a Russian Doll problem, where evil can't really get outside the system. So, it seems to me, there are only two conclusions:

    1. Satan/Evil is as eternal as the Good/God. This is the only way to avoid the Russian Dolls. I'm calling this the Zoroastrian formulation.


    2. Evil has no ontology. It does not exist "outside" the system. Satan is an “agent,” like you or I, who makes good or bad choices as they relate to God. But Evil is not ontologically separate from God. Evil is a relationship with God requiring no “outside” force. Thus, in this relational model, all you need is God; sin and evil can exist perfectly well without a Satan. Satan needs no Satan to fall. And, thus, logically, neither do we. This is the monotheistic formulation. The only thing existing outside the “system” is God.

    My point is that believers who assent to strong notions of Satan tend to reason about Satan as ontologically Evil (as you did) and that, I'm arguing, makes them look Zoroastrian (as regards the ontology of Good and Evil). (It's not meant to be an offensive commentary, just a descriptive one.)

    Regarding Scripture, I'm not doing metaphysics or a reading of Scripture. My posts are agnostic on that question. What I'm trying to do, as a psychology of religion researcher, is to describe the implicit metaphysics people subscribe to. I'm doing psychological descriptive work on how people think and use Satan. Whether those beliefs conform to different readings of Scripture I’m not qualified to answer.

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. Thanks, and I'm not offended by your commentary at all. I've been called worse things than "Zoroastrian" before. :D

    Here's a thought though: if evil has no ontology, and everything that exists within "the system" comes from God, then God has lied to us about Himself, because He said He's not the author of anything evil, neither is there any evil in Him. If Satan is merely an agent, then God either created something/one intrinsically evil (which is a troubling thought), or else God created evil as a possible choice for Satan (and us) to choose.

    I must think that evil (not necessarily Satan) exists outside of the system, if only as the default definition of everything God is not. Satan may be created, but evil (as an adjective, or an option, not an entity) must be timeless like God, else God must have created evil, and that's not something I can stomach.

    I guess that makes me another data point in your research! ;)

  6. @ftwskies - "Scripture ... posits him as fact from Genesis through the Revelation"

    I'm curious as to how you constructed the picture in your head that you label "Satan". Because most of the Christian Bible doesn't even mention the guy, and when it does we get very few details.

  7. fwtskies,
    I do think you've run up against the same issue I've run up against, "What exactly IS evil? And how does Satan relate to evil?" Since your comment I've been thinking it through. I'm not going to comment here as I would like to devote my next post to that topic. Check back! But be warned: A Psychologist + Theology = Weird Stuff!

  8. I am not a psychologist or a theologist, but I am a counselor who has several theology credits on her transcript, so I'll forge ahead.

    Does dualism not imply that God and Satan are equal forces? That's what I've always thought. (Well, not that I sat around thinking about this before third grade ...)

    If I see evil as the absence of good, or the choice not to do/be good, then evil is not on the same level as good. It is completely dependent on good, in fact, because its very definition stems from the prior existence of goodness.

    If Satan is an agent of evil, and if he happens to be a fairly powerful one, then he can be real and active, exerting influence in the universe....but never at the same level of power and influence as God.

    So, demons must flee when Jesus commands. And good triumphs over evil. And sins brought to the light lose their power. And lies exposed to the light shrivel up and die.

    And resurrection happens.

    Is this Zoroastrian thinking?

  9. Sheila,
    I wouldn't like to push the Zoroastrian label. That is a bit of whimsy on my part.

    Here's what I'm saying. Yes, you are correct that overtly and explicitly Christians will claim that: That God > Satan.

    But what I'm describing is more subtle, tacit, and even unconscious. I'm trying to illuminate how people actually reason about Satan. Often in ways they are largely unaware of.

    See, Satan is a sketchy figure in the bible. His origin, scope, purpose, and relation to God are fuzzy and mysterious. He is decidedly not the embodiment of evil in the bible. The bible doesn't even have a clear notion of Evil (capital E). Yet, given sketchiness of both Satan and the ontology of Evil, people flesh these ideas out in remarkably detailed ways. I want to know: How does this happen? How does a particular person flesh out the details?

    More interesting to me is how people flesh out the details in ways they are completely unaware of.

    Here's an example. 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 take 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 lightening 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 pick and chooses is 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-Zorastrian 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.

  10. Since my whimsy continues (I am, after all, a statistics teacher as well).

    Given the numbers above, and if the theology holds, the probability of encountering Satan in a given day is:

  11. Well, I love the way you think. I hope I can continue to follow this discussion.

    No doubt that people (Christians) have all kinds of ideas that are not biblical. And no doubt some of the Satan thinking is a way of...well, letting oneself off the hook. Or at least minimizing one's own tendency to not love goodness as much as one professes (and wants) to.

    We don't like to take responsibility. We don't, deep down, like that God gave us freedom to choose (a pretty biblical concept, I think). Satan is a good scapegoat who becomes the object of a lot of projection.

    I guess that's what you're more interested in, and I think it's important.

    But I still think there is room in there for a real Satan, a temptor, a stirrer up of evil. Not just a projection.

    And it's late. May God's non-omnipresent angels protect us this night from any evil, whatever its source. Good night. :-)

  12. I'd like to add, Dr. Beck, that your latest line of reason only holds up if Satan is an army of one. Yet in the gospels we have an account of Jesus casting so many demons out of one guy that they called themselves Legion, "for we are many". And Paul talks about a hierarchy of rulers, principalities and authorities, which seems to corroborate Daniel's account of his encounter with an angel who was engaged in battle with a plurality of "princes" involved. And no, it isn't lost on me that Daniel was in Babylon where Zoroastrian ideas were rampant. Nevertheless, scripture from both testaments bears witness to the existence not only of Satan as a lone figure, but of a plurality or perhaps even a multitude of demonic minions who are in rebellion against God. There's even a persuasive case to be made that the entire gospel of Mark is formed around this single propositional truth: that Jesus is Lord: over nature, illness, and even over the demons. It was central to Paul's theology.

    The details of Satan's nature and history in most Christians' minds are probably filled in by culture, such as exposure to Dante and the like. I'd tend to agree that most hold such notions without being able to pinpoint where they've lifted them from, and many probably think that the Bible tells the story of Lucifer in detail in one of those books they haven't read much. But I don't think you'll get very far by examining the psychology of Satan as a theodicy while taking Christians in a vacuum, secluded from the culture that has helped them fill in the blanks.

    My $0.019,

  13. Sheila and Ftwskies,
    It is late and my wife wants me to help hang Christmas lights:-)

    Listen, I appreciate the conversation with you both. Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment.


  14. A number of years ago I read Elaine Pagels "The Origin of Satan". Her thesis is that the concept of Satan that became "traditional" was arrived at via a process of development. You have to admit that Satan does not have much of a role in the Hebrew scriptures. For instance, in Job, he is not really projected as being evil but as having a testing function, if I remember right. It seems true to me that the exiled Jews were influenced by Zoroastrianism and they brought it home with them upon returning. After all, 2nd Isaiah praises the Persian King Cyrus and calls him the Lord's annointed and a shepherd. There are other clues to this as well. I'm glad that our fellowship does not make Satan prominent in the same way as some of the others do. I've always been turned off by "the Devil made me do it".

  15. I’m kinda astounded by one glaring omission: Satan doesn’t exist in the same world / dimensions as we do. The possibility of time travel is a fact (not that we’d ever be able to get enough energy to execute it, but it is a fact). Given that, this whole discussion becomes more or less meaningless. Then again, being an atheist, I find this whole thing risible to begin with.

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