The Devil: Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 1

I've been interested in the psychology of Satan for some time. Not Satan's psychology, mind you. But how Satan, as an psychological construct, functions in the minds of people. How do people use Satan to describe and explain their experiences?

Obviously, such an approach sets aside questions of ontology and focuses on the psychological dynamics. As a psychologist I can't address the question of Satan's existence, but I can study how people think about Satan. I have the tools to do that kind of research.

Currently, I'm in the middle of some research investigating if Satan functions as a theodicy in the minds of religious believers. Last spring I presented some preliminary data on this topic at the annual Southwestern Psychological Association conference held in Austin, TX (a great city!). The title of that paper is the title of this series: The Devil: Satan as a Functional Theodicy.

First, just to get everyone up to speed, what is a theodicy? A theodicy is a theological attempt to reconcile a loving and all-powerful God with the experience of human suffering and pain. C.S. Lewis called it "The Problem of Pain." The lament psalms also speak to this situation. Why would a powerful and loving God allow so much pain and suffering? Answers to this question are forms of theodicy.

Well, there is some theological speculation that Satan functions as a theodicy. That is, Satan, and the warfare metaphor he is embedded in, allows believers to explain the etiology of certain experiences of pain. To wit, Satan is behind the painful experience.

But let's back up a bit. One of the striking features of the bible is the rise of the Satan concept as we move to the NT from the OT. Why is this? In the OT, Satan appears but isn't really fleshed out as a dramatis personæ. But in the NT we see much more work done on Satan as a dramatis personæ. Why this increase in characterological development?

Some theologians speculate that this interest in Satan as a cosmic player was due to the failure of prophesy. That is, as the OT comes to a close Israel is facing a prophetic crisis. God promised fidelity to the nation, but exile and enemy occupation have caused some to wonder if the prophecies were wrong.

Two approaches to the failure of prophecy can be noted. First, the prophecies were spiritualized. That is, the "nation" was no longer seen in physical terms. Concretely, the reign of God was not over physical kingdoms but over hearts. Simplistically, God was less interested in being Major of Jerusalem than Lord over our hearts and lives. God is to be enthroned in our hearts. Clearly, Christianity inherited this intertestimental impulse.

The second approach to the failure of prophecy is to adopt a military/warfare metaphor. That is, the fulfillment of prophecy is delayed because we are at war. You begin to see the rise of this metaphor in the book of Daniel. This metaphor tends to solve the delay of prophecy eschatologically, where the physical reign of God will occur after the final defeat of the enemies of God. This impulse is also seen in the NT and many Christians emphasize it (see the Left Behind series).

Broadly speaking, Christians tend to emphasize one or the other of these approaches. Some fully spiritualize the notions of God's reign and see God as disinterested in establishing a physical kingdom. God isn't all that interested in nations or politics. These Christians don't see a failure of prophecy in that they spiritualize prophecy.

The other group tends to believe in a literal fulfillment of prophecy (God will reign on earth) so they believe in prophecy delayed. Specifically, they see the delay as due to cosmic warfare and rebellion. And, to get this cosmic warfare, you need a robust notion of a cosmic general leading the hosts of evil. Specifically, you need Satan to play a bigger cosmic role than he did in the OT. So, in the NT, we see the development and elaboration of the Satan character.

All I want to do in this post is to make this observation: The rise of the Satan construct was due to theodicy concerns. Why had the prophecies failed? Or had they failed? Israel needed to explain her suffering. And one of the ways she did this was to adopt a warfare metaphor and elaborate the hazy OT character of Satan. And the early Christians inherited this theodic formulation.

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