The Emotional Burden of Monotheism: Does Satan help us feel better about God?

This week at school I was privileged to share some of my research with the faculty. The presentation walked through my research concerning Satan and theodicy, something I have blogged about before.

What I call the "emotional burden of montheism" is simple enough to explain. Consider Isaiah 45:6-7 (KJV):

I am the LORD and there is none else. I form light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Obviously, in a strict monotheistic faith the theodic burden is acute. God is the source of both good and evil, weal and woe. Our engagement with God, then, is characterized by a mix of positive and negative emotions, something I called in the presentation "monotheistic lament": The startling mixture of praise and complaint, the dynamic seen in the lament psalms. I illustrated the Isaiah 45 dynamic in the following slide:

In contrast to monotheism, ditheistic faiths present a neater scheme, emotionally speaking. The benevolent deity can be experienced as the main or sole source of blessing and the malevolent deity can be experienced as the source of evil and woe. As a consequence, the believer's experience is less ambivalent. There are none of the approach/avoidance conflicts seen in monotheism. The experience of the gods is simple rather than composite. The ditheistic scheme:

Given these emotional contrasts between mono- and ditheism, from a theodic perspective we can see why dualistic formulations have been such temptations within Christianity. Consider the legacy of the great dualistic heresies:

Gnosticism (1st and 2nd Centuries)
Marcionism (1st and 2nd Centuries)
Manichaeanism (10th Century)
Catharism (13th Century)

It seems clear why dualisms are so alluring. They neatly resolve the emotional burden of monotheism. They "de-complicate" relationship with God. God can be experienced as predominately the Giver of Blessing.

Christianity has consistently rejected the great dualistic heresies. But in the concept of Satan we find a "soft dualism," which makes it reasonable to wonder if belief in Satan is partly a means of relieving the theodic pressures upon God.

Theologians have speculated that Satan is, functionally, a theodic innovation. Jack Miles in his book Christ: Crisis in the Life of God has speculated on the intensification of the Satan concept in post-exilic Israel. He suggests that the rise of the Satan concept in post-exilic Israel was due to a theodic crisis while undergoing an exposure to Persian ditheism:

“My translation reflects my belief that the linked angelology and demonology of Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity are ultimately Persian in origin…[First,] Yahweh began to function as exclusively a principle of good rather than as, simultaneously, a principle of good and of evil. The consequences are obvious: As God became both a consistently good god and the only real god, the question How could a good god permit…? suddenly became unavoidable and indeed is faced for the first time…

Just at this point in its history, as it happened, Israel was massively exposed to a persuasive answer to the new question. The empire that succeeded the Babylonian in Israel was the Persian, and Persian Zoroastrianism recognized two competing deities: Ahura Mazdah, the personification of good, and Angra Mainyu, the personification of evil. These two were not the only supernatural beings in existence, but all others were organized around them. The process by which Persian religious thought penetrated Israelite thought is impossible to reconstruct, for the record of their interaction during the two centuries when Persia ruled Israel is extremely slender. It is undeniable, however, that after this period the long Israelite entanglement with Semitic polytheism seems to be over, while a dramatic growth in the importance of Satan, or the Devil, is easy to document, not to mention a concomitant growth in the number and importance of angels serving God and of devils serving the “new” Satan…One sees this change most easily in the extracanonical Jewish literature of the last pre-Christian centuries…”
(Miles, 2001, pp. 300-302)

S. Mark Heim in his book The Depth of the Riches has also discusses to the Devil/Theodicy link:

“The devil offered a backdoor escape from the theodicy dilemma, by providing an informal vehicle for a manichaean or gnostic alternative to it. So the devil was sometimes tugged toward a manichaean status (a power equal and opposite to God, responsible for evil) or toward the gnostic status of a quasi-creator (a lower divinity responsible for the deficient character of material creation).” S. Mark Heim, 2001, p. 87)

Overall, then, Satan may be being deployed by believers as a means to resolve the theodicy dilemma, mainly from an emotional standpoint. Satan functions to create an orthodox dualism:

Theology and history aside, my research was psychological in nature. The question was simple: Does belief in Satan resolve some of the emotional burden of monotheism? As a psychologist I can do no research to determine if Satan does or does not exist. But I can examine the correlates of belief in Satan. I'm very well suited for that task.

If Satan is a theodic construct the predictions are straightforward. The relevant contrast would be between what I called in the presentation "monotheistic" and "dualistic" Christians. "Monotheistic Christians" would have an attenuated Satan concept. They may, abstractly, believe in Satan, but they don't really see Satan active in their lives. Psychologically, then, these "monotheistic Christians" would experience what I called a "theodic burden shift": They would tend to attribute both weal and woe to God. Consequently, their emotional experiences with God will be composite: A mixture of the plea and praise in monotheistic lament. Further, they will tend to blame God more for the pain and suffering of human existence:

By contrast, "dualistic Christians" have very robust notions of Satan and see the Devil's activity as a regular interference in their lives. As a consequence, these Christians experience little to no "theodic burden shift" and, thus, function as soft dualists. An emotional feature of this dualism is that the experience with God is more simple than composite, it is relatively free of lament. Plus, God is blamed less for pain and suffering:

As I've written about before, across two studies this model was supported by the data. "Monotheistic Christians" reported less rosy experiences with God and tended to blame God more for pain and suffering. By contrast, "dualistic Christians" reported more rosy experiences with God and tended to blame God less for pain and suffering. In sum, theology aside, it appears that there is good evidence to suggest that people are deploying beliefs in Satan to resolve much of the burden of monotheism.

The manuscript presenting this research is currently under review with the Journal of Psychology and Theology.

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32 thoughts on “The Emotional Burden of Monotheism: Does Satan help us feel better about God?”

  1. Hey Richard
    Interesting thoughts as always. I would be interested to hear how you chategorized Christians along this dimension... was it a self report item "do yo believe in the devil?" Alternatively, did you get at it more implicitly? I think the notion of implicit understandings of good and evil that go beyond our constructs is a difficult one to capture. With regards to the more simple notion of theistic belief (and no consideration of the devil), I am thinking of a Christian who doesn't act like there is a God that exists in their daily lives, or an atheist who acts in a way which suggests they may implicitly believe there is a God. Can these categories extend towards belief in the devil... i.e. can someone say they don't believe in the devil but implicitly ascribe to this concept as a psychological coping mechanism, and vice versa. How would this be captured?

  2. This is great stuff, Richard. I wish I could have been at that luncheon! Interestingly, in my short time as a hospital chaplain I've had very few people talk to me about blaming Satan for their sickness or accident. But it's all over the place in common everyday use.

  3. Hi Peter,
    I used self-report scale I constructed for the purposes of the research. It consisted of a series of likert-type questions where the respondent was asked to rate how active, present, or powerful they thought Satan was in their daily lives. The dichotomizing in the post/presentation was a simplified way of explaining the trends of the correlation coefficients (i.e., higher scorers on the scale would be "dualistic" and the lower scores more "monotheistic"; but at root the construct is a continuum and not a typology; but typologies are easier to communicate.)

    It would be fascinating to get at the implicit level. I've been exploring how I might use either priming or the Implicit Association Test in coming research. For example, an IAT might be set up using God and Satan as one stimulus set with Good/Weal and Evil/Woe adjectives as the other set. Respondents could then work through the IAT to see how much they associate Weal or Woe to God or Satan. The closer the association of both Weal and Woe to God would indicate a more monotheistic stance. If Woe was more associated with Satan than the stance is dualistic. At the implicit level.

    Hi Krister,
    In the Q&A we discussed how "severity" might affect this dynamic. That is, for mild to moderate pain Satan might be implicated. But in the face of severe tragedy God becomes the sole target.

    I also wonder if this isn't better framed as an ecclesial dynamic than a psychological one. For example, one of the African-American faculty members present noted that the AA church has a strong dualistic/warfare theodicy. And consistent with the model of the research the AA church is VERY resistant to accuse God. To express anger at God is, basically, seen as a sin. I've witnessed this myself last semester when an AA student strongly disagreed with me that expressing anger at God is okay and legitimized by scripture. She just couldn't see that as anything but a faith problem. So I wonder if the dynamic is best witnessed in ecclesial approaches to evil as witnessed in worship styles or sermons. For example, do the Pentecostal churches show the same dynamic as the AA churches? That is, are churches with strong warfare theodicies hyper-praise oriented?

  4. From a priming angle, I wonder if you would get different effects for people who have a more defined concept of Satan, v. those who do not. In other words, you prime everyone with Satan, and depending on their implicit construct of Satan, they respond in a different manner. I don't know what the different reaction would be, but I would imagine someone who has a clear construct of Satan would be much more likely to be impacted by the priming than someone who does not have a clear construct.

    Another way which may be interesting is to have people free respond the underlying reason for evil events, and to see what extent that is attributed to a supernatural entities ('spiritual warfare'), one spiritual entity ('god punishes'), or something with a more naturalistic bent. I think that would at least pull out the extremes in either camp, once you code it out, but perhaps not at clearly as a Likert measure, or the IAT work you have been thinking about. I used a fazio implicit task one time, but I am not sure how it would apply to this scenario.

  5. Richard,

    Three quick observations:

    (1) Manicheanism has powerful influences far earlier than the
    tenth century. Augustine was a follower in the fourth century and it was present and influential even earlier.

    (2) It might be helpful to make the distinction between pain and suffering. C. S. Lewis does that well in his two books: The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. In the former he gives standard fare, academic, bloodless theodicy. In the latter, which is about his personal suffering, he rejects any attempt at the former.

    (3) As I've opined before, theodicy ultimately is an irrational need-fulfilling, avoidant activity. It might explain pain but it in no way in any form ameliorates suffering. In fact, theodicy's only defense is that it might be a kind of intellectual narcotic. Theologically, theodicy, as Job suggests, may be a form of pride.

    Yup, the devil made you do this presentation. But thanks for sharing anyway.


    George C.

  6. Do you have any statistics on what the breakdown of dualistic and monotheistic Christians are? Or if some denominations tend to produce/attract people of a certain bais?

  7. Came across this last night in a biography about Emerson (by R. D. Richardson, Jr). The author is describing Emerson's reading of W. F. Thompson's account of Sufism where Thompson calls Sufism "practical pantheism of Asia... holding all visible and conceivable objects to be portions of the divine nature, it was impossible that they should admit the imperfection observable in them to have any real existence."

    I suppose they would hold that Satan is not real and is merely the personification of lack of knowledge, mistakes, ignorance, accidents, and good intentions gone wrong, etc. That's another alternative.

  8. Hi All,

    In Pascal's Fire (OneWorld, 2006) Keith Ward updates theodicy in light of recent science. It's a very worthwhile read, even though, in bringing readers up to speed, he goes over much that will already be familar to many of this blog's readers.

    And Richard, does Charlie Brown's iconic crimped smiley-frown prove that he too is a philosophical theologian?


  9. In my experience people have blamed God more than Satan because they know that God is more powerful anyway and he could have prevented whatever evil they suffered.

  10. Richard (and commenters) ~

    Are you open to an interruption in your current blog theme(s) to consider a question? As a first-time commenter here, perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I’ve just finished reading your blog (all of it). I’ve been interested in aspects of research I wasn’t aware of, and just as important -- given your openness, objectivity and observations -- and the fact that I’ve never had a religious affiliation -- your blog and its comments have given me a fascinating (and sometimes moving) glimpse into contemporary Christian thinking.

    I have a question that seems in line with your own interests, and some thoughts on the question. What catalyses shifts in moral sensitivity -- on both an individual and societal level? For example, the ending of slavery represented a substantial shift in moral sensitivity. As you have pointed out, such shifts emerge from feelings and are later interwoven into theology. So what catalyses -- or drives -- these changes in feelings?

    Perhaps one area of research that might begin to address this question, at least from one angle, is the discovery of correlations between specific worldviews (including folk-moralities) and (techno-ecological-economic) lifeways. Have you come across this research, and if so, do you have any thoughts on it? (In case you haven’t come across it, there is, for example, an alleged link between an honour culture and a herding lifeway, as reflected in the culture and lifeway of Bedouin and of the US southern States in their early years).

    I’ve been wondering if emotion, thinking and the practical business of living, dynamically interact in any transitional lifeway, and whether emotion exerts a continual pressure toward simplicity and moral universality within this mix. My reasoning rests on my sense that emotion has, as it were, an agenda, an inclination toward response modes that are simple and general as possible, that is, general/universal on both an individual and group level, and towards as many types of event as possible. I don’t know whether this idea is supported by psychological theory and research, but I think there are several factors that support it.

    Firstly, it seems well established that emotion is the core response to stimuli and driver of action, and that our evolved emotional responses to a wide range of stimuli fall in a relatively small range of simple, generalised emotional modes/categories, such as love, joy, fear, disgust and indifference. Secondly, emotionalism -- strong, explicit emotion that overwhelms thinking -- tends to oversimplify and over-generalise our responses, by seeing too much of the world through the lens of a single emotional category, and clustering together things that have little or no real connection. Thirdly, psychological research seems to support the idea that implicit emotion can also oversimplify thinking (such as unconscious racism).

    However this is emotion when it’s out of kilter, when it’s being suppressed or bursting out of suppression. When emotion is operating more simply -- and often largely implicitly, which we generally refer to as feeling -- I think it heavily underpins and drives even the most objective thinking. We not only want our conclusions to be logical, but we also want them to be as simple and universal as possible, to be in accord with our innermost feelings, to contain the “ring of truth”, the simple, pure note of a bell ringing.

    Applying this idea to the ending of slavery, there was an implicit conflict between slavery and the ideals of democracy -- that was initially tolerated, given the advantages of employing another race exploitatively, and by means of moulding our emotional response to slavery into the indifference category. Then -- at a tipping point of economic wealth and sustainability -- the northern States began to figure that, if we can live without this level of inequality, why can’t the southern States? I suspect that this thinking was driven by emotion’s implicit pressure, which also drove slavery to concurrently undergo an emotional category shift on a conscious level, to be seen as “barbaric”, i.e., intellectually inconsistent and emotionally impure, which transferred the response to slavery into the disgust category (explicitly or implicitly).

    What do you think? Is the idea of emotion’s agenda in accord with current psychological theory and research? Have any psychologists explored the triggers for, or stages involved in, emotional category shifts within individuals?

  11. Hey Richard,

    Very interesting stuff here. Jesus' treatment of Satan I think mediates all the conversations you've quoted in your post about the Hebrew "invention" or "borrowing" from Persia. I realize that Jesus could have been using a cultural fiction to help his followers understand The Way, but I doubt it.

    I am also interested in your response to the above comment. Cheers!

  12. Peter,
    I've thought about the free-response, attributional approach (like of like explanatory style in depression), as I think this is an attributional issue at root: How do I, from a spiritual vantage, explain a given event in my life?

    Great ideas!

    The devil has made me do lots of things. I'm sure this blog counts among them. :-)

    There was some discussion about the "monotheistic Christians" taking a stoical stance in the face of weal and woe That is, since God is perfect anything coming from God, weal or woe, would have to be, in some manner, "good." If so, then gaining insight into God's purposes would be a route to stoical acceptance. This seems similar to the sufism view.

    You make a good point. Even if Satan is causing woe some explaining still needs to be done. Why would God allow Satan to harm, tempt and hurt humanity? Shouldn't God quarantine Satan from humanity? That is, at the end of the day, due to the vast power asymmetries between God and Satan, God does seem to somewhat implicated in Satan's impact upon humanity.

    I was unfamiliar with Ward's book. It looks good.

    Wow, you read the whole blog?! It's hard to get people in my life to read one post. :-)

    Regarding your comments and question. I don't know of any psychological literature that charts or models how "moral tipping points" occur in societies. Clearly, you are right: Sympathy/empathy expands until it reaches a critical mass in a population. How this occurs may be unique at various times and places. But something has to happen to radically transform the moral sympathies of large numbers of people. The publishing of Uncle Tom's Cabin did this in the American North. Anti-Semitism was rampant and overt in America prior to the Holocaust. Afterwards not so much.

    But I also think there are protective and evil facets of emotions as well. The Holocaust made us sympathetic toward the Jews but 9/11 and Pearl Harbor inflamed negative feelings toward groups. Emotional contagion seems to work both ways. How do we account for the "dark agenda" of the emotions?

    In short, I see emotions as "moral potentialities." Emotions, like thoughts, can be turned for the good or for the bad. Either way, it is our sympathetic capacities that are involved. The issue is, who are we sympathetic toward? In-group members only? Or in-group AND out-group members?

    Those a just a few preliminary thoughts. Regarding things to explore:

    Adam's Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments: The classic articulation that human morality is based upon the universalizing capacity of human sympathy.

    Peter Singer's The Expanding Circle: A world famous ethicist discussing how our sympathy should grow to expand our "moral circle."

    Robert Wright's Nonzero: Not really a book about emotions, but an argument that evolution is moving us toward greater interdependence. If true, then our sympathetic capacity may indeed be the "agenda" of emotions, leveraging nature toward greater cooperation and, dare we say, morality.

    Pushing back a bit, wouldn't the idea of the Incarnation imply that Jesus would speak in the idiom of his day? That is, did Jesus know all we know about particle physics and relativity but just wasn't saying? Or was he bounded by history just as we are? Couched in the worldview of his time? For example, Jesus ascended "up" into Heaven. As Bultmann noted, this only makes sense in the cosmology of Jesus' time. But how are we moderns, in a Big Bang era, to read such texts? I have no easy answers, but I do think the issue is a lot more complicated than an appeal to "Jesus' teaching about Satan." Jesus' teachings begin the conversation rather than end it. IMHO.

    I hope you are having a blast in England!

  13. Richard ~ Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions. I should read Adam Smith. I’ve read Wright’s Nonzero (and The Moral Animal) and agree with Wright’s fundamental thesis. Although I haven’t read Singer, I’ve read your and others’ synopses, and the basic idea seems obvious to me (especially since I’m a lifelong vegetarian, so this idea was part of my upbringing, along with a serious distaste for war).

    I didn’t mean to suggest that emotion’s agenda operates solely in one direction, though what I wrote could certainly give that impression. (Also, what I wrote implies that there is indeed a reality and directionality in morality, i.e. that it isn’t purely relative, but I imagine we both agree on that point). I currently visualise emotional/moral brutality-sensitivity as akin to the J curve you referred to, except that I see it as more akin to an evolutionary landscape of peaks (prior to the rightmost take-off point), all of which can lead people backwards in moral sensitivity as well as forwards.

    Imagine simplicity and wholeheartedness of feeling as the vertical axis and simplicity and minimisation/re-ordering of emotional categories as the horizontal axis (or an n-dimensional horizontal space, rather than an axis). In this way, either emotionalism or an over-simplification in thinking can easily lead backwards toward a prior peak of relative simplicity of feeling. At the rightmost end of the graph, I visualise a hierarchy of simplicity in emotional categorisation, with -- at the top level -- a single, overarching category, that could be described as a full and intimate attunement with the fundamental nature of existence as a whole, including other human beings, other life-forms and non-life matter. From an evolutionary perspective, this could be seen as the epitome of human evolutionary adaptation, and from an emotional perspective, it could perhaps be seen as agape -- full and intimate attunement being a form of love (and requiring the wisdom of a snake as well as the peacefulness of a dove).

    Apropos of simplicity of emotional categorisation, as one moves rightward on the graph and emotion finds a simpler hierarchical order, there is less need to consciously feel an emotion (as opposed to simply being aware of an intrinsic feeling). For example, I suspect that one only needs to experience the emotion of disgust if one is partly tempted by the object/behaviour that can give rise to disgust, or one has been so inattentive that one has been unaware of its presence and has found oneself enmeshed in it. If one is not tempted or inattentive, there is no need for a conscious emotional feeling toward it. One simply and naturally avoids it, or prioritises its importance appropriately.

    What is not altogether clear to me is the way that thinking tends to fractionate and fragment feeling. Thinking can in one sense divide off from feeling, even though thinking is driven by feeling. Despite being generated by feeling, thinking itself can generate feeling, and these fragmented thought/feelings each have, as it were, their own agenda, often in serious internal conflict, and which also manifest in serious external conflict. In addition to fragmenting feeling, thinking can generate a profusion of convoluted, cross-category, thinking-linked emotional-response complexes, of far greater number than the simple emotional categories we inherited from our early evolution.

    Prior to the emergence of thinking in the human species, I suspect that we fully participated in existence in a way that we’ve subsequently lost (and this loss is metaphorically described in Genesis). If so, then our challenge is to recover this participation on a fully conscious level. Unfortunately, with every step forward in thinking, there is a danger of even greater fragmentation, and therefore going one step backwards in terms of emotional category re-simplification. Nonetheless, thinking can lead to thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness to the wisdom of a snake, so we’re not totally lost. :-)

    Don’t ask me to graph the latter part of all this, because a) it’s not clear enough to me and b) it’s verrrry n-dimensional! Of course, as you often do, I’m just floating a thought balloon. You’re most welcome to take some pot-shots at it. :-)

  14. Richard, I don't think we can make blanket statements about Jesus's using idioms of his day or his being bound by the history or context of his time. I think we must take it case by case. To me, there is a giant difference between his "ascending up" into heaven vs. his repeatedly referring to Satan and the devil as a sentient real being.

    Your point is well made--the spirit of God descending like a dove is an anomaly that I think also fits your argument--but I think there were plenty of things he said that were inexplicable to his listeners but that we understand now (or that they understood later).

  15. Chris,

    I didn't follow your comments entirely, but you may want to check out "Humanity" by Glover for a (recent) historical perspective on morality.

  16. Cole,
    "I think we must take it case by case."

    I understand. I would only suggest that taking the gospels "case by case" is extraordinarily difficult. What criteria are used to adjudicate within and across cases? In the end, we either read the gospel accounts as verbatim sermon notes and actual historical reporting or not. Either way we face difficulties. The only point I want to log here is that there is no simple appeal to "what Jesus said."

    Regardless, my research has less to do with the reality and scope of Satan than the psychological experience of Satan. Which does vary very much and in interesting ways across Christian believers.

  17. Hi Chris,
    How do your ideas interface with Buddhist notions? It seems, if I am tracking you correctly, that there are parallels in the model you describe. That is, loving-kindness is produced by an attunement with all things (a breaking down of subject/object dualities). Prior to that attunement the world is fractured with opposites, things Me and Not Me, things For Me and Against Me, and things I Like and Dislike. Thus, our emotions become fractured, disordered and conflicted. Only by unifying consciousness can the emotions be unified under the grand and simple feeling of loving-kindness.

    Am I seeing these parallels correctly?

  18. Richard ~ Yes, the parallels you draw are correct, though I think there are also parallels to the worldview of Jesus.

    My sense is that there is no fundamental distinction between the worldview of Buddha, that of Jesus and that of scientific naturalism, even though there are certainly inconsistencies between the interpretive frameworks that are often applied to these worldviews. Naturally, I’m talking about my personal reading of, for example, the worldview of Jesus, which is perhaps simpler than most, and perhaps not all that dissimilar from my understanding of your reading of Jesus. However, even though it may be a simpler reading, it’s not altogether easy to express in words. What I’m struggling to do is to bring this sense of the link between science, Jesus and Buddha to the forefront of my consciousness, to sift through it and examine it, and find the words to communicate it.

    One of the things I missed out in my last comment is the role of practical action in affecting the brutalisation or sensitisation of feeling, irrespective of the motive of the action, which goes back to the lifeway/worldview link. I think all actions have inevitable consequences on the human actor, and science is just beginning to unpack a few of these consequences. In other words, in the vernacular of today, there is an inevitable day of reckoning for everything, which is only metaphorically a specific day. I wonder if Jesus’s reference to the Day of Judgement may have been more or less equivalent in meaning to the current phrase “day of reckoning”. (This reading would mean putting aside aspects of the Gospel of John, but many biblical scholars have already put aside the Gospel of John).

    I certainly agree with your earlier comment that Jesus would have communicated in the language of the time and place. Naturally, if anyone is trying to communicate something that is not readily understandable by their listeners, misunderstanding can arise from the words and phrases that are being used, and the misunderstandings can multiply, particularly when the words are transmitted orally from one listener to the next, and even more so when they are being transmitted from one language and culture to another, quite apart from the problems of transmission over a gulf of millennia.

  19. Excellent post. Will be linking to it soon. I recently floated the idea that satan was a theodicy -- the making of an adversary, which nevertheless sparked some interesting debate.

    What I find interesting is the story of David taking the census. In the early version, he was prompted to by the anger of God. In the latter, he was prompted by satan.

    Sounds like a theodic development to me.

  20. It seems to me, Dr. Beck, you are arguing that Satan is a fictional figure, (nonexistent) and conjured by Christians because of what you call the emotional burden of monotheism. If this is not your thesis, please disregard my objection below.

    First, your use of the King James Version for Isaiah 45:6-7 is misleading because the KJV is an outdated and inferior translation. The word “evil” in verse 7 is translated from the Hebrew word “ra.” This word has multiple meanings, to include not just evil as we think of it, but also disaster, or calamity, depending on the context in which it is used. That is why the NKJV and ESV translate this word as “calamity.” The KJV is inferior in this case because when the modern ear hears the word “evil,” it evokes the idea of sin, rebellion from God and lawlessness, not “calamity.” Because languages change, and words are arbitrary symbols, we need updated translations. The rest of the Bible is clear God is not the origin or creator of evil in the sense that we understand the word – that is, God does not sin and is not rebellious or lawless to his own character. But, the rest of the Bible does confirm that God can and will send calamity on people (e.g. Sodom and Gomorra). So in this context, “ra” would be better translated as “calamity.” Otherwise, we might as well all be pantheists.

    Second, the idea of God as the source of all “weal” and Satan the source of all “woe” is a straw man of Christian thinking. For example, my daughter was just born with a serious birth defect where her intestines were exposed outside her abdomen. Although I believe Satan is a personal being, my wife and I didn’t blame him for this “woe” – and I don’t know many Christians who would. Most Christians agree God is sovereign in these aspects. I am aware this woe of mine is something God is in control of and probably using to refine and teach. Satan isn’t even considered. You seem to suggest that any Christian who believes Satan is a real and personal being is by default a “soft dualist.” This is overly simplistic, as you can see in my situation. Most Christians don’t see Satan as a figure with a red tail that seeks to make their present life miserable. He is more accurately seen as an enticer, a deceiver, and accuser. In this role, he can (and is) one that influences a person into weal, if it contributes to their corruption and rebellion.

    Third, your suggestion that people are “deploying beliefs in Satan” must include all the authors of the New Testament (plus Jesus), since every one mentions (or implies) Satan as a personal being who is leading an insurrection against God. (A few examples include all accounts of Jesus temptation, Mark 3:26, Acts 26:18, Rom. 16:20, 1 Pet. 5:8, 2 Cor. 2:11 and 1 John 5:19.) If God really is omnipotent, (and Satan a fable) I think God would have found a way to accurately communicate the truth in His inspired Word. New Testament authors were closer to Jewish antiquity than any of us are and had access to better historical documents that we do. Additionally, Luke and Paul were highly educated men and they along with all NT authors were capable thinkers. To assume they got it wrong and we got it right is an example of what C. S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery; that the philosophy, ideas or worldview of an earlier time are inherently inferior when compared to that of contemporary thinkers.

    If it is your position that Satan is fiction ...

  21. ... I’m not sure how you can accept the Bible as the inspired word of God (verbal plenary inspiration), as it claims itself to be. If you can accept that the authors of the Bible were wrong on this account, how can you be sure they are credible in other areas? If you were to convince me of this position, (and I was honest about it), I could no longer call myself a Christian; the Bible would be nothing more than a set of errant historical documents.

    Now, I’m aware that some argue the Jews adopted the idea of Satan through Persian and Greek influences over time. One reason this is argued is the relatively few occasions Satan is mentioned in the OT. But this doesn’t mean he isn’t real. There are multiple possibilities – I’ll list three:

    1) The role of Satan had little to do with the communication goal of the OT – that is the rebellion of humanity (where he is mentioned in Gen. 3), the establishment of Israel as a theocracy, Israel’s rebellion (representing Adam and all of humanity) and the need of an established sacrificial system to shadow the mission of Jesus.

    2) The reality of Satan may have been gradually revealed by God to the Jews. We get a very narrow picture of Satan in Eden from Genesis 3 and not much after that. But as time went by, God could have revealed more and more through the Holy Spirit to the Jews. This wouldn’t be the only time God gradually gave the Jews more knowledge about spiritual things as centuries passed. C. S. Lewis (in his book Surprised By Joy) pointed out that God gradually introduced the idea of an afterlife and the kingdom of heaven to Jews – that he revealed only Himself first. Until a certain time the Jews believed only in earthly existence and had an idea of retributive justice (do good, you will prosper; do evil, you will suffer). The Sadducees took this line.


    3) God could have introduced an accurate idea of Satan through pagan influences and revelation. God is known in the Bible to reveal special knowledge to Gentiles too. Melchizedek, Pharaoh, the Persian king, the wise men of Matthew and Cornelius are examples.

    The reason I’m taking time to write this is because I suggest if you take away the belief of a powerful, personal, corrupt being who rebelled against God and has an agenda to influence and deceive mankind, you are putting people in a very dangerous position. The Bible commits a moderate amount of text to warning people about Satan and his schemes, and to arm themselves against him. If we dismiss Satan, we are not likely to take these warnings seriously – and the warnings are there for a reason.

  22. Hi Russ,
    I think you make fine points.

    To clarify, this isn't a post about doctrine. It's about the psychological experience of Satan and how that experience affects the experience of God. I expect what Christians believe about Satan, as might be assessed on a multiple choice test, varies widely across Christian traditions.

  23. Wow - I didn't think you would ever see my comment since it was so deep on the comment list and on such an older post. Thank you for clarifying. I am, after all, a layman.

  24. I'm late to this discussion, since I just discovered this blog and am reading my way through it. I'd like to point out that Russ's response is the same one I get when I talk to christians about satan and about monotheism--that is, they deny from the get go that their particular brand of religion can be examined as though it were at all like, or unlike, other religious traditions. Because its true. And it must always be true even, or because, of the mental or moral contortions that are needed to square their personal idea of god with their personal experience of suffering, loss, horror, etc... If they believe in Satan they must and always will see themselves as believing in a necessary fact in the world--all historic or hermeneutic explications aside. If they don't believe in Satan they are comfortable with the "theodic burden" for other reasons or they have one foot out the door. You have no idea how many different kinds of christians I've had this conversation with and they all offer me a wide variety of "explanations" for why its "not a problem" because the notion of having a problem with god--whether because he's singular and responsible for all evil as well as good, or with a god who allows satan and evil when he could clearly suppress both--is a central issue in their theology.

    I guess what I'm saying is that from an outside the tradition perspective--a jewish perspective in my case--its clear that the "problem" of the "theodic burden" is really a problem with the notion of anger or rebellion against god's world and word. The believer can resolve it either by accepting the notion of a mysterious, teaching, manipulating, singular god or with reference to satan. But they can't resolve it by arguing with god, or cursing god, or finding god and his machinations unsatisfying.

    In the Jewish tradition, of course, we argue with god all the time. And sometimes we win. he's all powerful, and all knowing, but sometimes he's a jerk and we don't have too much trouble saying that. God--why not now? why not me? why this suffering? no, you told us something different and you cant change your mind now. These are all good jewish responses to suffering and even to the question of the calendar.


  25. As a note, my whole response was based on the premise that (a) belief in the existance of Satan does not necessarily follow that one is a dualist, and (b) if Satan is totally dismissed, large portions of the NT scripture must also be dismissed, which would punch a large enough hole in Christian doctrine that it would be unreasonable to hold the scriptures as Holy and faultless - something scripture claims to be.

    I don't recall making any attempt to defend God along with the hard situations he sets before men, (by way of apology for Satan). I believe the entire book of Job is a powerful example of the point Aimai is making, and of course, I agree his/her idea on that.

    I'm assuming your referrence to arguing (and sometimes winning) with God comes from the Talmud's story about a dispute over an interpretation of halakhah. When God obviously agreed with one rabbi, the other rabbi argued so cleverly that God laughed and said "My children of gotten the better of me!" (Bava Metzia 59b). This has some good teaching points, and is one of my favorites.

    But, of course, my thesis had nothing to do with manipulating a way to not find God unsatisfying. There is much room in Christianity for confronting, God, asking hard questions, and being angry.

  26. Doesn't it all come down to the innate human need to believe that there is something, anything, greater than ourselves out there? I think human nature forces us to believe that there is some "greater" power at work whether good or bad. And I guess if you believe in the good (God), you must also believe in the bad (Satan)

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  27. Can I first throw out a disclaimer?  You deep thinkers are so needed in the body of Christ we form.  I value you your thoughts and ponder them deeply.  However, I always lean towards a more simplistic view of our Heaveanly Father as preached by His son Jesus Christ who stated that "even babes can understand his message".

    We all know God lets the sun shine on the just and unjust.  Humanity is His living word in proof.  

    Am I wrong to understand that all Good comes from Him and that all Evil comes from Satan?

    Well it does.

  28. Why is it necessary that we experience anger with God or satan at all? Disbelief in satan should not, in and of itself, require a more "complex" experience with God. Ideally, it would facilitate a little personal responsibility. Maybe one can assert that good things come from God, but isn't it more realistic to recognize that bad things are generally caused by ourselves or others around us? Wouldn't anger (disappointment) be more appropriately directed toward ourselves than toward either God or satan?

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