Guest Post: The Problem of Satan
Today's post comes to us from my British doppelgänger (or am I his American doppelgänger?), Recovering Agnostic. Like me, he blogs anonymously about de-converting from conservative Christianity to agnosticism. He's guest posted here before.
Check out his blog, twitter feed, and Facebook page.
Years ago, when I was young, pious and enthusiastic, I used to think a lot - some things never change! One day, I became uncomfortable at being taught that there was not only a personal devil, but that he had genuine power over the world.
The explanation for this claim, one that was sufficiently mainstream for Michael Green to use it in I Believe in Satan's Downfall (a book I read in an attempt to understand), was that if there was no Satan with independent power to tempt, goad and commit evil acts, all evil must be God's fault. It didn't entirely satisfy me, but it made a certain amount of sense at the time, and however difficult I could be, I still felt that I should avoid too much questioning and argumentation.
For a while, this kept my disquiet under control, but not forever. One Sunday afternoon, after studying Genesis, I started to scratch that itch again. Starting from the question of why a perfect creation contained unnecessary and destructive features like an evil snake and what could be considered a "Doomsday Tree", I began to question the whole nature of what I'd been told.
I long ago settled on an interpretation of the Creation Myth that satisfies me, but that whole Satan thing was a big problem, which maybe shouldn't be a surprise given how much of the popular image is extra-Biblical. But still, this idea of an actual person who opposes God and has sufficient power to cause and promote evil is thoroughly mainstream.
The trouble I had wasn't exactly with the belief itself - that was far from the strangest thing I believed at the time - but the way it conflicted with other things I'd been taught: God is sovereign; God is good; God is omniscient. So Satan must be subservient, and God must know what he's up to. But if that's the case, why let him do it?
It's basically the problem of evil yet again, but with the only halfway-decent explanation of "free will" replaced by a malicious imp who is licenced to act like some sort of supernatural bully. He taunts, lies, screws things up, and (so I was told) can make our lives a misery, while God looks on like an overworked teacher trying to avoid the hassle and paperwork involved in actually noticing this and doing something about it.
So why the lack of interest? I concluded that either God was standing by while someone else took the blame for the sucky bits of life, or He couldn't do anything. That viewpoint got a certain amount of support from various people who were into "spiritual warfare", with the implication of a balanced struggle between good and evil. But somehow, they still claimed to believe that God was sovereign. I, on the other hand, had a lower tolerance threshold for cognitive dissonance.
Suffice to say, I completely rejected this belief before long. If God's sovereign, it doesn't matter what evil creatures you invent, as they can only do bad things as long as God allows it. You end up with exactly the same problems as if they didn't exist, and William of Ockham starts to get very irritable. To insist on the existence of Satan as a genuine opposing force, you must deny the truth of Biblical passages which portray God as omnipotent.
Even if the Bible painted a consistent, coherent picture of some sort of devil, ignoring other parts of the Bible is a strange way of dealing with that.