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.