Monday, June 27, 2011
Satan—Myth or Sinister Reality?
THE origin of evil has intrigued thinkers from earliest times. A Dictionary of the Bible, by James Hastings, states: "At the dawn of human consciousness man found himself confronted by forces which he was unable to control, and which exercised a baleful or destructive influence." The same reference work also says: "Early mankind instinctively sought for causes, and interpreted the forces and other manifestations of nature as personal."
According to historians, belief in demon gods and evil spirits can be traced back to the earliest history of Mesopotamia. The ancient Babylonians believed that the underworld, or "land of no return," was presided over by Nergal, a violent divinity known as "the one who burns." They also feared demons, whom they tried to appease by means of magic incantations. In Egyptian mythology, Set was the god of evil, "represented as having the features of a fantastic beast with a thin, curved snout, straight, square-cut ears and a stiff forked tail."— Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.
Although the Greeks and the Romans had benevolent and malevolent divinities, they had no predominant evil god. Their philosophers taught the existence of two opposing principles. For Empedocles, they were Love and Discord. For Plato, the world had two "Souls," one causing good and the other evil. As Georges Minois states in his book Le Diable (The Devil), "classical [Greco-Roman] pagan religion knew of no Devil."
In Iran, Zoroastrianism taught that the supreme divinity Ahura Mazda, or Ormazd, created Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, who chose to do evil and thus became the Destructive Spirit, or Destroyer.
In Judaism, there was a simple presentation of Satan as God's Adversary who brought about sin. But after many centuries, that became tainted with pagan ideas. The Encyclopaedia Judaica states: "A great change had taken place . . . by the last centuries B.C.E. In this period the [Jewish] religion . . . took on many traits of a dualistic system in which God and the forces of good and truth were opposed in heaven and on earth by powerful forces of evil and deceit. This seems to have been under the influence of Persian religion." The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia declares: "Protection against d[emons] was afforded by observance of the commandments and by the use of amulets."
The Babylonians believed in Nergal (far left), a violent divinity; Plato (left) believed in the existence of two opposing "Souls"
Apostate Christian Theology
Even as Judaism adopted non-Biblical concepts concerning Satan and the demons, apostate Christians elaborated on unscriptural ideas. The Anchor Bible Dictionary states: "One of the more extreme of ancient theological ideas is that God redeemed his people by paying Satan for their release." This idea was propounded by Irenaeus (second century C.E.). It was further developed by Origen (third century C.E.), who claimed that "the devil had acquired a legal claim on men" and who regarded "the death of Christ . . . as a ransom paid to the devil."— History of Dogma, by Adolf Harnack.
To quote The Catholic Encyclopedia, "for about a thousand years [the idea that the ransom was paid to the Devil] played a conspicuous part in the history of theology," and it remained a part of church belief. Other Church Fathers, including Augustine (fourth-fifth centuries C.E.), adopted the idea that the ransom was paid to Satan. Finally, by the 12th century C.E., Catholic theologians Anselm and Abelard came to the conclusion that Christ's sacrifice was offered not to Satan but to God.
Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine taught that the ransom was paid
to the Devil
Although most of the Catholic Church councils remained remarkably silent on the subject of Satan, in 1215 C.E., the Fourth Lateran Council presented what the New Catholic Encyclopedia terms a "solemn profession of faith." Canon 1 states: "The devil and the other demons were created good by nature, by God, but of their own doing they became evil." It adds that they busy themselves trying to tempt mankind. This latter thought obsessed many people during the Middle Ages. Satan was behind anything that seemed unusual, such as unexplained illness, sudden death, or bad crops. In 1233 C.E., Pope Gregory IX issued several bulls against heretics, including one against Luciferians, supposed Devil worshipers.
Belief that people could be possessed by the Devil or his demons soon gave rise to a collective paranoia—a hysterical fear of sorcery and witchcraft. From the 13th to the 17th century, fear of witches swept across Europe and reached North America with the European colonists. Even the Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin approved of witch-hunts. In Europe witch trials based on mere rumor or malicious denunciations were conducted by both the Inquisition and secular courts. Torture was commonly used to extort confessions of "guilt."
Those found guilty could be sentenced to death either by burning or, in England and Scotland, by hanging. As to the number of victims, The World Book Encyclopedia states: "From 1484 to 1782, according to some historians, the Christian church put to death about 300,000 women for witchcraft." If Satan was behind this medieval tragedy, who were his instruments—the victims or their fanatic religious persecutors?
Fear of witches led to the execution of hundreds of thousands
Current Belief or Disbelief
The 18th century witnessed the blossoming of rationalistic thought, known as the Enlightenment. The Encyclopædia Britannica states: "The philosophy and theology of the Enlightenment endeavoured to push the figure of the devil out of Christian consciousness as being a product of the mythological fantasy of the Middle Ages." The Roman Catholic Church reacted to this and reaffirmed its belief in Satan the Devil at the First Vatican Council (1869-70), reiterating this rather timidly at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Officially, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia concedes, "the Church is committed to a belief in angels and demons." However, Théo, a French dictionary of Catholicism, admits that "many Christians today refuse to attribute evil in the world to the devil." In recent years Catholic theologians have been walking a tightrope, precariously balanced between official Catholic doctrine and modern-day thinking. "Liberal Christian theology," says the Encyclopædia Britannica, "tends to treat the biblical language about Satan as 'picture thinking' not to be taken literally—as a mythological attempt to express the reality and extent of evil in the universe." Regarding Protestants, the same reference work states: "Modern liberal Protestantism tends to deny the necessity of belief in a personal devil." But should true Christians consider what the Bible says about Satan as mere "picture thinking"?
What the Scriptures Teach
Human philosophy and theology have not offered a better explanation of the origin of evil than that given in the Bible. What the Scriptures say about Satan is fundamental to understanding the origin of evil and of human suffering, as well as why the worst imaginable violence gets worse each year.
Some may ask: 'If God is the good and loving Creator, how could he create a wicked spirit creature like Satan?' The Bible lays down the principle that all of Jehovah God's works are perfect and that all of his intelligent creatures are endowed with free will. (Deuteronomy 30:19; 32:4; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21) The spirit person who became Satan must, therefore, have been created perfect and must have deviated from the way of truth and righteousness by deliberate choice.—John 8:44; James 1:14, 15.
In many ways, Satan's rebellious course parallels that of "the king of Tyre," who was described poetically as "perfect in beauty" and 'faultless in his ways from the day of his being created until unrighteousness was found in him.' (Ezekiel 28:11-19) Satan did not contest Jehovah's supremacy or his Creatorship. How could he, since he had been created by God? Satan did, however, challenge the way Jehovah was exercising his sovereignty. In the garden of Eden, Satan insinuated that God was depriving the first human couple of something to which they had a right and upon which their well-being depended. (Genesis 3:1-5) He succeeded in causing Adam and Eve to rebel against Jehovah's righteous sovereignty, bringing sin and death upon them and their descendants. (Genesis 3:6-19; Romans 5:12) Thus the Bible shows that Satan is the root cause of human suffering.
Sometime before the Flood, other angels joined Satan in his rebellion. They materialized in human bodies to satisfy their cravings for sexual pleasures with the daughters of men. (Genesis 6:1-4) At the Flood, these renegade angels returned to the spirit realm but not to their "original position" with God in heaven. (Jude 6) They were abased to a condition of dense spiritual darkness. (1 Peter 3:19, 20; 2 Peter 2:4) They became demons, no longer serving under Jehovah's sovereignty but living in subjection to Satan. While apparently unable to materialize again, the demons can still exercise great power over the minds and lives of humans, and they are doubtless responsible for much of the violence we are witnessing today.—Matthew 12:43-45; Luke 8:27-33.
The End of Satan's Rule Is Near
It is clear that evil forces are at work in the world today. The apostle John wrote: "The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one."—1 John 5:19.
Fulfilled Bible prophecy, however, shows that the Devil is intensifying earth's woes because he knows that he has only "a short period of time" left to wreak havoc before being confined. (Revelation 12:7-12; 20:1-3) The end of Satan's rule will usher in a righteous new world, where tears, death, and pain "will be no more." Then, God's will shall "be done on earth as it is in heaven."—Revelation 21:1-4; Matthew 6:10, New International Version.