Really? The Devil Made Me Do It?

There’s a lot of demonizing these days?  Some paint President Obama as the devil incarnate; others say Romney.  Iran (formerly Persia) used to call the USA The Great Satan.  Fundamentalists of every stripe love to talk this way. Oh, and in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, Jesus calls Peter (yes, St. Peter) Satan.  What’s up with that?  Horns, pitchfork, and a tail?

First off, the word “devil” is not in the Bible.  “Devil” is an English word.  In the Old Testament the word was satan.  In the New Testament the word was “diabolos” as in diabolic.

In the Old Testament the word satan appears three times; and in all three cases satan is not the embodiment of evil and has nothing to do with hell.  It’s not even a proper name.  The satan was a job title, like butcher, baker or candlestick maker.  The most famous example is in the Book of Job.  The scene is a courtroom.  God is the judge.  Satan is the “adversary,” which is what the word satan meant.  A satan was a prosecuting attorney.  A satan was a lawyer!  And he/she worked for God.  He accuses Job of pretending to love God so God will give him the things he wants. See? The satan’s job was to expose hypocrites and bring them to trial.  So, in the Bible Jesus taught from, the satan was an adversary.  Think maybe that’s why Jesus called Peter satan, for being so adversarial?  Makes me wonder. If satan was really such a big deal don’t you think God would’ve mentioned it more than three times in Jesus’ Bible?

In the New Testament, written a generation after Jesus died, satan appears 33 times.  In many cases Satan has now become a supernatural enemy of God, the embodiment of evil, the Prince of Darkness.  What happened?  Where did this radically different idea of satan come from?

Biblical scholars point to the 500 years between the Old Testament and the New. In 539 B.C.E. the Persians conquered Babylon and let the Jews go home.  For the next 200 years they lived under the influence of the Persian Empire, Persian culture, and Persian religion.  In the ancient religion of Persia people believed in a good god above and an evil god below, caught in a cosmic battle to win human souls.  The bad god was responsible for all the sin and evil in the world.  Love it!  Now we have a way to avoid responsibility. “Gee, God, it wasn’t my fault; the devil made me do it.”

Over the next 2000 years devil mania grew and evolved, a witch’s brew of popular myths, legends and folklore.  In the Middle Ages the devil grew horns and a pointed tail.  In Southern Europe the devil was red; in the north he wore black.  In Eastern Europe he looked a lot like Dracula.  In the American colonies devil mania fueled the infamous witch-hunts in New England.  In 20th century America a revival of devil mania rode the wave of the new fundamentalist movement that spread like wildfire across the U.S.A.

And all along, for thousands of years, the rabbis have said people must not pass the buck.  Ditto, Jesus.  Ditto,Paul.  The devil didn’t bring sin into the world; we thought that up all by ourselves.

You and I know that sin and evil are very real.  We’ve all known a snake in the grass who wanted to lead us astray.  But we don’t believe everything we see on TV, radio, movies, tabloids, or the Internet, do we?  But whether it’s the end of the day or the day of days, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the letters of Paul, all attest that in the cross of Christ we already know the verdict.  Our attorney for the defense is Jesus Christ who took upon himself the sins of the whole world.  God’s perfect love, God’s amazing grace, God’s mercy, God’s power, and God’s victory, these, my friends, you will find all through the Bible and in every one of the Christian creeds.  It’s like what Paul said in Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?”  What a great question.

In the name of our good God, and for the sake of not fanning flames,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.


Hotter Than Hell Here

Gehenna, Post Urban Renewal

In Texas these days it really is hotter than hell.  We do the best we can.  We know that relief will come one fine day.

Years ago a TV evangelist told me I was going to Hell.  Appropriately concerned I looked up what the Bible says about that.  “Hell” is an English word used to translate the Hebrew word “Sheol,” the Greek word “Hades,” and the Hebrew word “Gehenna.”  In the Hebrew Scriptures the word Hell appears 31 times in the King James Version; in the original Hebrew it’s not there at all.  The original word was Sheol, a dark watery place under the ground.  Dig a hole.  The deeper you go the darker it gets; eventually you’ll hit water as well.  Six feet under is a safe depth, except in Venice or New Orleans.  So in the Scriptures that Jesus knew and loved, the Bible he preached from, Sheol (where we go after we die) was not a place of fiery torment.  For Jesus and the Jews, the afterlife had more to do with this idea in Psalm 139: “Where can we go away from God’s presence?  If we go up to heaven, God is there.  If we go down to Sheol, God is there.”  Dark and watery down there in “hell.”  A far cry from the 103 degrees we hit today in Austin.

In the New Testament whenever you find the English word Hell, the original word was usually the Hebrew Gehenna or the Greek Hades.  All I know about Hades is what I heard in Greek Mythology 101.  Hot stuff, as I recall.  But I do know something of Gehenna.  I’ve been there twice.  To get to Gehenna all you have to do is walk from the heart of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem out through the Dung Gate; which should give you a clue about what the valley of Gehenna was used for in ancient times, why it was always burning, why it stank, and, perhaps, why you might be motivated to behave if your parents threatened to send you there.  Ancient peoples practiced pagan sacrifices in Gehenna; or went there to consult with sorcerers and wizards.  Yep—all the Bible.  Back then Gehenna was an evil place indeed.  According to they’ll only see a high of 90 degrees there tomorrow.  Sorry neighbors, Austin is hotter than Gehenna, too.

It’s a sad truth about humans that we are so keen to judge and condemn each other.  We did it all through the Bible.  Even Jesus was judged and condemned.  But in John 3.17 we learn something wonderful about God: “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  All through scripture God said, I require mercy.  While dying on the cross Jesus forgave the very people who crucified him.  In the earliest days of the Christian movement Christians believed that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world, that everyone would be saved.  Look at the Nicene Creed, the earliest official statement of what Christians believe, adopted in 325 C.E.  Find anything in there about hellfire and damnation?  How about the Apostle’s Creed?  Nope, not there either.  But there’s a noteworthy line right after the one about Jesus dying and being buried.  The line says, “and he descended to the dead.”  The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth once said, if anyone went to Hell it was Jesus; he went there to bring everyone out.

What might this mean for us?  For me it means that I can trust Jesus’ Bible when it says, go up to heaven or down to Sheol, either way, God will be with me.  God is everywhere and God is love.  It also means, if the Christian Creeds are to be believed, that Jesus and only Jesus will be my judge.  And that’s really excellent news, as much as that may upset that TV evangelist who took such pleasure in damning me to hell all those years ago, God love him.  No matter how hot or hellish life may get sometimes, I know and trust that relief will come one fine day.

Be well and cool,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.