The Probability of Encountering Satan Today is .0000000036

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Probability of Encountering Satan Today is .0000000036”

  1. Some of the gnostics moved in other directions to handle the problem of evil. In Philip, verse 9 it says:

    "The light with the darkness, life with death, the right with the left are brothers one to another. It is not possible for them to be separated from one another."

    This seems to indicate that one can't have the good without the bad. Isn't it true that to a certain extent we cannot experience pleasure without have a knowledge of what pain is? Perhaps Philip may be a wild eyed gnostic text but consider also Isa 45:7

    "I form the light and create darkness,I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things."

    And Lamentations 3:38 "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?

    But our story has a happy ending, for it also says just a few verses earlier (and this squares with your earlier posts about apocatastasis):

    31 For men are not cast off
    by the Lord forever.

    32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.

  2. I appreciate the reminder that we should not give Satan more credit than is due, and that we probably often do this just to push the blame on someone other than ourselves for choosing evil.

    Still, Peter seemed to think the odds were a little better of meeting Satan. He said (1 Pet. 5:8) that we should be alert because the enemy prowls...This seems to suggest Evil as a noun/subject that is active, and that Peter thought the odds considerable. And James (4:7) says that we should resist Satan. I haven't checked Greek tense or anything but this sounds like an ongoing, or at least likely to occur, thing.

    Your point, however, is interesting and has me wondering if this issue is another that shows the diversity of Scripture--some passages suggesting more the finitude of Satan and others implicitly suggesting greater abilities.

  3. I'm getting different numbers:

    If the world population is about 6.6 billion, then that would mean 6.6x10^9 hours of temptation, which is 275,000,000 days of temptation, which is closer to 742,000 years of temptation. Given that the Biblical Age of the Earth is what, 6,000 years, this means that Satan certainly couldn't have gotten around to tempting everybody currently alive, much less those who have already died!

    The 3.6x10-9 probability looks right, though. Astonishingly close to zero.

  4. Matthew,
    Thanks for the math check! I didn't have my scientific calculator at home so was working with my wife's (the one she uses to balance the checkbook). I couldn't fit 6.5 (the number I plugged in) billion into the damn thing. So I came at it a back way and, well, was WAY off. Yes, it's not 742 years, but 742,000 years! That's a wee bit different. Please correct me publicly on your blog so all my stats students can be referred to it when they make math errors on their tests:-)

  5. Dr. Beck,

    In your Nov. 11, 2006 blog about volitional vs. emotional models of love, you describe yourself as a "weak volitionist" and lay out a compelling series of arguments about how affective pressures influence cognitive processing of love. In the current post, you state that from the Bible's perspective, "Evil is not a noun. It's a choice" and as such something that humans choose to do. This seems to be a stronger volitional model than you hold for Love.... could you clarify this for me? I know its a bit off topic, but I see the volitional model as critical for understanding the theodicy questions in my own life.

  6. Jared,
    To clarify. What I was trying to point out in this post is that the bible has no real notion of Evil. It does, rather, have a notion of Sin which is generally defined as a transgression against God or man.

    My other post on volition takes up a different question: How should we seek to change people in the Kingdom of God? That is, we might all agree that an act is "immoral," "bad," "sinful," or, worst case, "evil." Both strong and weak volitionists can each disapprove of the behavior with no contradiction. Again, “evil” is an adjective we apply to a choice/behavior.

    The issue then becomes one of behavior change and here, as you see in my earlier post, strong and weak volitionists part ways. Strong volitionists believe strong appeals to choice will affect change (e.g., Stop being a racist! Stop being selfish! Love your enemies! Keep your promises! Stop using pornography! Don't do drugs! Abstinence!). By contrast, weak volitionists view Will as a weak, anemic thing and, thus, will try to work with context, situation, education, environment, training, and habit-formation. As I heard one preacher phrase it, "We need to replace trying with training."

  7. @Jared - "I see the volitional model as critical for understanding the theodicy questions in my own life."

    I remember saying something similar in one of my philosophy classes, because my best attempts at theodicy hung on the assumption that humans have free will.

    I'm starting to think that maybe this was wrong ... that maybe the idea of God as co-sufferer is better theodicy. Still mucking around with this approach, though.

  8. Good and evil are like hot and cold. Physics has no real definition of cold, only of heat. Cold is just the absence of heat. In the same way, evil is not an "it" on its own, it is an absence of good, i.e., a void in God's authority, a rebellion against His established order, His "Kingdom". In that sense there's no problem with "evil" existing as a choice prior to the fall or even prior to creation itself. It has always existed as a potential, because a good God has always existed, and therefore goodness has always existed as a potential. God did not become King at creation; He already reigned. And as long as there is a King, there is established authority, and by definition the potential for rebellion against that authority (otherwise what is authority?)

    Unless you want to elevate Dante to scripture, none of us know how Satan fell, nor when, neither are we safe assuming that angelity has the same moral pattern as humanity. We are created in God's image; they may not be. Perhaps their capacity for free choice is greater or less than that endowed to humanity, or maybe it just works differently. We do know their immortality is different from ours, for we are flesh and suffer death because of the curse, whereas angels never die, not even Satan. We don't know how long it takes them to do anything, even to reveal a message to a person, because we don't know what really happens when someone has a vision. Look at John recieving the revelation -- how many years of past and future did he see happening before his eyes, and how long did it take him to recieve the whole thing? Who knows? We do know that angels get around pretty good, they exhibit certain supernatural abilities that enable them to do their jobs (appearing out of thin air, shining like lightning, moving to and fro throughout the Earth, etc.) So perhaps he doesn't need to be sustained like you think, either. You're forcing him to play by our rules.

    Bottom line: I don't think you have to resort to the emotional toll of monotheism to explain a warfare model. I think it fits well with the revelations of scripture - better than you seem prepared to allow. I realize you're working the psychology here and not the theology. But be careful, because you seem prepared to paint with broad brushes and make an awful lot of tenuous theological assumptions in order to extrapolate some sort of conclusion from a very limited amount of data and revelation.

    God bless, brother, and thanks for the stimulating discussion!

  9. I think part of the whole picture that we are inclined to forget, is that we are not terribly skilled at discerning what is good and what is evil. We look at the surfaces of life, we pay an awful lot of attention to our own desires and our own pain, and the result is that we go around saying things are "good" and "bad" when we don't even know what we're talking about.

    I have learned, and continue to learn, this the hard way through struggles and unfulfilled desires. This mistake is quite normal, of course, since we have very limited viewpoints. But I think realizing our limitations would be a good step toward understanding. It's a terribly un-American thing to do, accepting one's limitations. But also terribly biblical.

    Since this is a psychologist's blog, it's helpful to think about reframing. We often look at events in our lives and are inclined to say, "This must have come from Satan, or from fallenness, or at any rate it cannot be from God." And years later when we can see the larger picture, we may very well see how what we thought of as evil turns out to be a merciful molding of our souls into His likeness. In a larger frame, it can look like a very different picture.

    That's not a direct response to anything anyone said, but I think it has to fit in somewhere when discussing theodicy.

  10. @ftwskies - "angels never die, not even Satan"

    Where's this come from?

    @Sheila - "we are not terribly skilled at discerning what is good and what is evil."

    I dunno, I'm pretty good at it:

    Pleasure, self-determination, love, hope, kindness = good.

    Suffering, oppression, hate = evil.

    That seems to cover quite a bit.

  11. I am borrowing from a host of other people here, so I claim none of these ideas as original. In Hebrew the word “Satan” is preceded by the definite article in nearly every occasion it is used, except once. While linguistic interpretation is often a subjective enterprise, this has led some to believe that the translation (particularly in Genesis and Job) would be better suited as “the Satan” as a role (like the Messiah) rather than “Satan” as a character. The most literal translation of “Satan” is “accuser.”

    The being that fills this role in these narratives could be understood as filling an essential role in the politics of a monotheistic heaven. If God has no other being to struggle with, then how can God be good, or loving, or just? Therefore God created a being whose job is to call God on the carpet, to challenge God’s actions, motivations and intent to see if what God is doing really up to snuff. The Satan (or the accuser) is the district attorney of heaven. If this is the case, then Satan as a character or being isn’t really evil at all, but fulfilling the task he was created to do. As we revisit the story of the garden and God’s conversation with Satan on the bookends of Job, I find a district attorney challenging the actions of God (the hybrid creation of God’s spirit and created matter in Genesis, and the Deuteronomistic theology of obedience leading to blessing and disobedience leading to cursing) a plausible interpretation. If Satan experiences a fall, then it would be one in which he moved from the role of district attorney, challenging God’s actions, to that of judge, condemning them.

    I mentioned that the definite article is present but all but one case, which is in Chronicles. It is widely agreed that Chronicles was redacted and accepted into the OT cannon at a late date, suggesting the development of Satan as a cultural idea somehow related to evil continued to advance. It is clear that Satan as a character in the narratives of the NT is evil.

    The only other suggestion I might offer is to be careful to pay attention to the genre of literature you are reading . . . particularly apocalyptic pieces within Paul’s work.

  12. May-June 2007
    Until 1990/1991, I had no interest in religion. I accepted that the process called evolution was the cause of us being here. But I had never given the origins of man or the universe much analytical serious thought. I regarded religious people as odd and quaint with nothing in common with me. I had always had an inquiring mind; never satisfied with superficial explanations. I always wanted to know how and why down to the basic level. I am very intelligent (I do not confuse intelligence with cleverness). I can talk intelligently about quantum mechanics, astronomy, religious beliefs, alternative medicines and philosophical subjects such as how do the neurons in the brain produce consciousness and awareness. I am no fool and not given to flights of fancy.
    At that period (1990/1991) I was not depressed, ill, taking drugs or drinking heavily (alcohol). I was in a secure relatively highly paid position and did not have any serious problems.
    It started with odd things occurring. And in retrospect, I did not see and understand how I was affected and changed. I found that I could open doors where others could not. If a person was struggling with a key and unable to open a door, I could easily do so. This happened on a number of occasions. I had two dreams one of which had religious significance. Other odd things happened such as my video recorder for a short time behaving in a most inexplicable manner. Objects moved a short distance with a loud noise. For the first time in my life, I became interested in religion and bought a bible. During that time, I spoke to an interested neighbour who tried to persuade me to contact the UK spiritual church (which I did not). He also suggested I make a journey to two places of spiritual interest, Bosham in Sussex and Walsingham in Norfolk, which I did (by car). The journey to Bosham was uneventful but the journey to Walsingham and back was filled with strange inexplicable incidents. One example occurred when I was getting near to Walsingham. I was driving down an empty tree lined road when I saw what appeared to be a dead animal in the centre of the road. I stopped to have a look. It was a dead still warm untouched stoat or weasel draped over a small log. I moved it to the verge of the road. How did it get there? As I got nearer to Walsingham, I was uncertain of which way to go. Up ahead I saw a car parked by the side of the road. I knew instinctively that I had to follow it. As I slowed down it started to move. I followed it and it led me to exactly where I wanted to go (I never spoke to the occupants of that car). More powerful strange and inexplicable events occurred during this period. They showed a complete control over the physical word down to the atomic level. Once I was driving home and when I looked at the traffic lights they changed from there normal colour to something different. I am not reporting all the things that occurred. Some of them were so powerful and inexplicable that it would be difficult to describe and not believed. But all demonstrated absolute control and power. I can’t remember exactly when but I had come to the conclusion that it was God who was the cause of all these things. One Sunday the Jehovah’s Witnesses called and persuaded me to go along to a meeting. I did go but this was totally out of character. Subsequently I became a Witness for exactly one year. In that time I read the bible for the first time in my life and was so dedicated that I was baptised as a Witness in a remarkably short time. During that one year period I changed completely, I call it my MAD PERIOD. I became a religious zealot and everyone that I had known probably thought that I had gone mad. In affect, I had. I left the Witnesses because I disagreed with there way of spreading the word and although they tried to get me to rejoin them I did not. Let me make it very clear at this point, I am now no longer religious in any way.
    With the preceding events behind me, (how I wish I had kept a diary for dates of events), he (Satan) revealed himself to me for the first of two times. I had gone to bed (no, it was not a dream) and still awake. It was late and with the curtains drawn completely black. Perhaps you might have seen a Star Trek film where Spock does what is called a mind- meld where he enters another’s mind. I only use this as an illustration, as I do not believe in aliens. Suddenly without warning, his (Satan) mind was in mine. It was seeing his mind as if he was standing besides me looking down at me. It was the most powerful and frightening thing that I had ever felt. His mind was extremely powerful, strong, ugly, violent, and malevolent to a degree that you could never understand unless it occurred to you. There was also a feeling of anger and impatience (and maybe frustration) directed at me. I was paralysed with fear and I estimated that it lasted for about no more than ten seconds. Then he was gone. How do I know that it was Satan? He made it clear that it was. The same thing occurred again a relatively short time later (about three months). Nothing I put down here could convey the extent of the uncaring controlling malevolent violence he deliberately let me see in his mind. To use a comparison if normal thoughts are a mild breeze his were a hurricane. I speak truly and accurately when I say that the religious Satan you think you know or have read about real or made up is NOTHING like the real Satan. He has complete and utter distain for all of his inferior manipulated human beings, and total control over everything here.
    Those meetings with Satan were the start of my journey to where I am now.
    You will not believe what I have written but it is true. You might also consider other valid alternative reasons to explain what occurred, you would be wrong. I am a philosopher (a searcher for absolute truths). Intelligence, observation and logic are the only grist for my mill. Those meeting with Satan were not the end of it; they were the start. You might ask what was his interest in me. What occurred from the period to now? Where was God in all of this? As Lord Byron wrote, the truth is stranger than fiction.

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