Halloween is just around the corner. As I decorate my house with hideous diabolical symbols, my thoughts return to a book historian Albert Hernandez and myself wrote a few years back, titled “The Quest for the Historical Satan.”
Śātān appears nine times in the Hebrew Bible as a noun and six times as a verb. The word signifies “adversary(ies)” or “accuser(s)” and means “oppose,” “accuse” and/or “slander.”
Anyone or any creature can be a satan, an adversary. King David (1 Sam. 29:4) and even God’s messenger (Num. 22:22) were referred to as śātān. In time, śātān was personified, appearing 18 times throughout the Hebrew Bible, although limited to only three books (1 Chronicles, Zechariah, and Job).
Adversary gains agency. It’s important to note that these biblical books are post-exilic (after 597 BCE) when Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity. With the fall of Babylon, Jews were exposed to Persian thought, specifically Zoroastrianism and its apocalyptic belief that individual choices determined if their souls rose to heaven or descended to hell.
Although the personification of Satan played an insignificant role in the Hebrew Bible, Satan’s presence grew and became fully developed as the personification of evil during the intertestamental period, specifically in the writing of the Pseudepigrapha. By the time of the New Testament, Satan’s presence is noticeable. The satan introduced by Job and Zechariah, originally presented as a faithful servant in God’s divine council, becomes God’s cosmic arch enemy.
For most of Christendom, Satan was someone to fear, and Satan’s followers had to be destroyed in the name of all that is pure and holy. Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) taught that the gods of non-Christians were fallen angels cast out of heaven after they, along with Lucifer, rebelled against God. The quest to destroy followers of Satan led to the greatest genocides of Christendom.
On November 1, 1755, at 9:40 am, Satan, as the personified reason for why evil occurs, died when an earthquake struck the devout Catholic city of Lisbon on All Saints Day. Sixty thousand people died in the initial seismic wave, while thousands more died in the ensuing chaos of hunger, dehydration, tsunami tidal waves and fires.
How can God allow the faithful to perish on such a holy day? Was it the work of Satan?
The theological foundation of Christianity and the role of Satan were also shaken by the earthquake. Simple dichotomies between good and evil failed to provide an answer.
Religious leaders explained the cataclysmic earthquake as God’s punishment for Lisbon’s sins. But anti-religious skeptics of the Enlightenment pushed back.
Voltaire’s poetic reflection captures their sentiment: “Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice, Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?” Kant rooted evil within human nature, refusing to demonize it or those who do evil, for even the wicked person does not will evil for the sake of evil, but chooses to ignore and abandon moral law.
There is no original sin or original goodness of humans, except what originates within human free will and radical autonomy. Evil becomes a choice. If humans externalize evil in the form of a Satan, then they fail to deal with its root causes in human choices and actions.
Just because Satan lost its sway doesn’t mean Satan ceases to exist. More important than any dialogue concerning the reality of Satan are the consequences of personifying evil. The simple good-versus-evil binary established by moralists created an ethical perspective proven to cause greater evil in the defense of good.
What if instead of defining Satan as the personification of evil, Satan is understood as the ultimate trickster— regardless of Satan’s existence or not? Tricksters, after all, create situations that force the one tested to look for new ways by which to deal with trials and tribulations faced.
What if we read the Bible conscious of Satan’s role as trickster? We might discover a Satan used by God for the benefit of humans or a being used by God for their ruin— think of Job or Jesus in the desert. Satan’s role becomes a bit more complex than being simply evil incarnate, for the role of the trickster can lead to good, as in the case of conscientization, or to destruction.
Deemphasizing a binary system of either absolute Good or absolute Evil moves us away from the impossible task of maintaining an ethical framework where either we emulate God’s pure goodness or we become wretched creatures under Satan’s control.
Satan’s tests and tricks can lead oppressors to become conscious of their complicity with the racism, sexism and classism embedded within social, political and economic structures while providing the oppressed with previously unseen responses. Tricksters can lead the oppressed, upon becoming conscious of how these structures operate, to discover their ability to transform or overthrow these structures.
The role of the trickster creates situations that raise consciousness of those relegated as “objects.” Satan as trickster, as the disruptor of norms, can illuminate new paths for the oppressed, even to the point of assisting them to become “subjects” of their own destiny.
God can use Satan, as God did in the case of Job and Jesus in the desert, to assist those who are seen as “non-persons” to discover their identity and the causes of their oppressive situation. This is a starting point for all critical analysis, moving the disenfranchised from complicity.
So as I hang the cutouts of demons on my front door, maybe they are not as scary as I was led to believe.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.