Give the Devil his due, but he's still diabolic

Satan
December 22, 2006

A life of Lucifer portrays him as an important figure who has been unfairly maligned, but Francis Watson is unconvinced

In the brief Epistle of Jude, one of the New Testament's more marginal writings, the author expresses grave concern at corrupters of the faith who have secretly gained admission to the Church. It appears that these people go so far as to speak disparagingly of the Devil - something that even the Archangel Michael did not dare to do, even while he and the Devil contended with one another for possession of the body of Moses. The author appeals to this otherwise unknown legend to inculcate a proper respect for the Devil and to warn against those who recklessly slander him. It is a most curious argument.

Henry Ansgar Kelly's engagingly written "biography" of Satan is moved by a similar concern. Centuries of Christian tradition have converted Satan into a wholly malevolent figure, the spiritual embodiment of all that is evil, the archetypal adversary of God and of humankind. Kelly's mission is to set the record straight. Satan (the real Satan of the Bible) is not an attractive figure, but he is nowhere near as bad as he has been made out to be. His reputation has been unfairly besmirched and he is due for rehabilitation.

According to standard post-biblical theology, Satan was an archangel fallen from Heaven through pride, who acted through the serpent in the Garden of Eden to corrupt the first human couple, and who has plotted and schemed against the human race ever since. He is the ruler of a place called "Hell", where he presides over hordes of demons - a dark counterpart to the heavenly realm of God and the angels, from which he and his underlings frequently emerge to wreak spiritual destruction on Earth. In this, they are astonishingly successful, even though their heavenly opponent is possessed of omnipotence and could exterminate them with a mere gesture if he so wished.

Using bullet points, Kelly sums up the situation as follows:

* Evil genius from outer space tricks clueless naked couple

* Genius gets to keep couple, now clothed, and all their descendants

* God devises rescue plan, sends Son

* Plan partially successful; millions still bound for Hell, but some are saved.

It is a caricature, but a recognisable one. Kelly seeks to trace this scenario back to its post-biblical roots.

The origins of this story are tangled, but may be reconstructed as follows.

In the 2nd century, Christian theologians became increasingly interested in parallels between the gospel story of redemption and the Genesis story of primal disobedience in the Garden of Eden. As a result, the Genesis story took on new significance, narrating "the Fall" and encapsulating the human condition apart from Christ. In the gospel story, Satan played a significant role, especially in the episode of Jesus's temptations in the wilderness - from which Jesus emerged triumphant, succeeding where Adam had failed. For this contrast to be fully effective, however, it was necessary to read Satan back into the Genesis story. The intelligent talking snake became a mere mouthpiece for a far more sinister adversary; and so Satan became the instigator of a catastrophic event that determined the entire subsequent course of world history. Although a relatively marginal figure in the New Testament texts, he is now elevated to a leading role in the world drama of redemption.

Having established Satan's malevolent presence in the Garden, a motive had to be found for his conduct. What was he up to, and why? There were two possible answers. First, he could be said to be jealous of the privileges bestowed on the first human couple. An archangel himself, Satan deplored the divine solicitude for inferior creatures formed from the dust of the ground. On this account, his own fall from grace is closely related to that of Adam and Eve. By way of a Christian "Life of Adam and Eve", this version of events found its way into the Koran, although as a freestanding story and no longer as an element in a metanarrative of fall and redemption.

In a Christian context, the motif of an envious Satan was superseded by a grander scenario inspired by prophetic texts ostensibly referring to earthly monarchs but "really" referring to a superhuman figure. The prophet Isaiah had written:

"How he fell from Heaven, the early-rising Lightbearer (Latin: Lucifer)! I You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to Heaven, above the stars of Heaven I will set my throne on high, I I shall be like the Most High.' But now you are cast down to Hell, and to the foundations of the Earth."

Although this is addressed to the king of Babylon, early Christian theologians were adept at finding the true sense of a text behind and beyond its literal sense. So Lucifer became Satan, and Satan became Lucifer. His fall was now independent of Adam's, and stemmed from his overweening ambition to rival the Most High. This dramatic event took place at some unspecifiable time before the creation of the world, which means that the newly created world was exposed to the threat of satanic intervention from the very first. In using the serpent to seduce the first human couple from their proper obedience, Satan was presumably motivated not so much by envy as by a desire to avenge his ignominious ejection from Heaven.

And so Satan begins to acquire a biography. Assigned only a minor and dispensable role in the Gospels, he has become a major player in the world drama. Even within the gospel story, a more significant role is found for him, although it involves him in a serious setback. After Jesus's death, the canonical evangelists tell only of the burial of his body. Later writers were more interested in the whereabouts of his divine spirit during the brief period of separation from the body between death and resurrection. While his body is being laid to rest in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus himself descends to Hell (or Hades) to liberate the righteous dead from Satan's jurisdiction. In vain, Satan attempts to secure the gates of his kingdom against the powerful intruder, realising that, in having Jesus crucified, he has committed a major tactical blunder. As former captives ascend to paradise in triumph, Jesus instructs his accompanying angels to bind Satan in irons to await final punishment at the Second Coming. His career had begun with a spectacular fall followed by a remarkable comeback; but now his defeat is irreversible.

It is this post-biblical biography of Satan that Kelly seeks to refute. In good Protestant fashion, he argues that the true biography of Satan is to be found in the Bible, and in the Bible alone. There, Satan is assigned a variety of roles by God himself. Even when he tests and tempts and is generally obstructive and unpleasant, he serves the greater divine purpose.

Kelly does not expect us to warm to his authentically biblical Satan, but, like the Epistle of Jude, he wants him to be treated with respect.

The argument is not particularly convincing. Although it is true that some popular beliefs about Satan are not found in the Bible itself, the roots of these later developments are clearly to be seen there. The Satan of the New Testament is already a thoroughly malevolent figure. He is "a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour". He is the sinister "prince of the power of the air". He is the instigator of unbelief, of persecutions and of deviancy within the Christian community. When the Apostle Paul states that he has been "hindered by Satan" from visiting one of his congregations, he is transferring mundane difficulties - lack of financial resources, non-availability of transport, or whatever - into the sphere of a cosmic battle between Good and Evil. Then, as now, reference to Satan is always rhetorically powerful - and, perhaps, dangerous. Kelly's various strategies for minimising that rhetorical impact go against the grain of the texts. The Bible and subsequent tradition cannot be so easily prised apart.

A more promising line of inquiry is suggested by Kelly's brief discussion of the appendix on the Devil in Friedrich Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith - unquestionably the most significant product of 19th-century Protestant theology. Schleiermacher states bluntly: "The idea of the Devil, as developed among us, is so unstable that we cannot expect anyone to be convinced of its truth. Besides, our Church has never made doctrinal use of the idea."

Here, the first sentence simply reflects the intellectual outlook of the Enlightenment. The second is more suggestive. Protestant Christianity, Schleiermacher claims, has "never" assigned to the Devil any indispensable role in its various doctrinal constructions. It is not simply that modernist, post-Enlightenment Christianity has dispensed with the Devil as an embarrassing mythological vestige from earlier, unenlightened times.

Rather, it is pointed out that theology (at least, Protestant theology) has never required the Devil to do any serious conceptual work. Even in the case of the Fall, Satan merely represents the extrinsic occasion of that unhappy event: for the Fall is universally regarded as "Adam's fault". Only eight of the 1,500-plus pages of Calvin's Institutes are concerned with the Devil, and they consist merely of paraphrases of biblical material. Were these pages to be excised, nothing else in the whole vast work would be affected. Calvin believes in the Devil on biblical grounds, but he does not need him.

Even in the premodern era, there are wide tracts of Christian history and reflection in which Satan is a marginal figure. Like other biographers, Kelly has succumbed to the temptation to make his subject seem more important than he actually is.

Francis Watson is professor of New Testament exegesis, Aberdeen University.

Satan: A Biography

Author - Henry Ansgar Kelly
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 360
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 521 84339 1 and 60402 8

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments