All have faced, or will face, tragedy, misery, illness and death. Events will occur that appear unfair, leading most of us to question if any sense of cosmic justice and mercy truly exists.
Natural disasters will claim thousands of lives, and the victims will include the innocent.
Many have referred to this dilemma as the theodicy question. How can an all-loving, all-powerful God allow evil to occur?
Jesus asks, “What person among you, if asked by their child for a loaf would give a stone? Of if asked for a fish will give a snake? If, then, you, who are evil, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those that ask?” (Matthew 7:9-11).
Yet, reading the morning paper, one finds stories where many suffer under moral evils (those actions caused by humans) and natural evils (those actions caused by nature).
When we consider the billions of senseless deaths, tragedies and atrocities that define human history, it would seem that history denies more than it confirms the paternal love of a caring and merciful father God.
One is forced to ask: Where is God?
Comparing Jesus’ words with the reality of evil in our global economy seems to indicate that earthly parents, rather than God, know better about how to care for their children.
It is God who appears to be giving the tens of thousands who die each day of hunger and preventable diseases a stone when they are begging for bread, or hands them a snake when they are praying for fish.
In a very real way, the search for the historical Satan is an attempt to justify God’s grace while legitimizing the reality and presence of evil in human history.
It appears that the development of Satan was, to a certain extent, trying to save God from appearing as the source of evil that is so much a part of the reality of human suffering and death.
The Scriptures attempt to convince us that God is still worthy of our worship despite the presence of evil, even though the most troubling conclusion derived from the Judeo-Christian biblical text is the discovery of a God who is the cause and author of all that is good – and all that is evil.
“If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Amos 3:6). “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I Yahweh do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). This is a God who sends evil spirits to torment, as in the case of Saul (1 Samuel 18:10) or Jeroboam (1 Kings 14:10).
Evil befalls a person like Job because God directs it to be so. We are left with the troubling answer from God as to why evil befell such a faithful person: “Because I wanted to” is the heavenly response we hear.
The early shapers of sacred texts and religious traditions found themselves in the position of having to protect God from accusations of being the source of evil.
As it became less acceptable to have aspects of God represented in evil elements or events, independent evil figures had to be birthed. If Satan did not exist, then perhaps he would have had to be created to serve as an adversary so as to vindicate God.
As troublesome as it may be to conceive of God as being the author of malevolent acts, more bothersome yet is the creation of another supernatural being in competition with God within a strictly monotheistic religion.
A simple good-versus-evil binary understanding of reality leads to an ethical perspective that might cause more evil than good.
A world where everyone and everything is either with or against God leads to great atrocities by those “with God” in their defense against the perceived threat of those “against God” (who those on God’s side usually define as satanic).
Because such an ethical framework causes more evil than good, we are in need of a new way of understanding what is satanic, what is Satan.
What if, instead, our understanding of Satan was influenced by the concept of the “trickster” figure that seems to be present in the Hebrew Bible?
Learning to interpret Satan as the ultimate trickster, rather than the embodiment of absolute Evil, can lead to ethical praxes that are more liberative because they deal with the causes of oppressive structures in the physical world rather than simply blaming the present reality on the metaphysical reality of evil or on the moral depravity of humanity.
Tricksters create situations that force the one being tested to look for new ways by which to deal with the discord that has entered their life.
What society normalizes can mask oppressive structures that make resistance seem futile as both those who benefit from and those afflicted by those structures are lulled into complicity.
Seeking new alternatives to the surrounding trials and tribulations can lead the one being tested to discover opportunities previously unrecognized.
Likewise, it could raise the consciousness of the one benefitting from the status quo, leading them to repentance and to a more liberative course of action that can result in the former oppressors discovering their own salvation.
Satan’s role becomes a bit more complex than being simply evil incarnate. The trickster’s role can lead to good, as in the case of raising consciousness. But it can also lead to destruction.
Trials and tribulations can lead Christians to be of good cheer because they recognize that Christ who is with them has overcome the world. Or they can lead them to greater misery and destruction because they refuse grace.
If they believe the deception of Satan’s tricks, rather than rise above it, they can face devastation. It does not depend on Satan, an implement used by God, but rather, it depends on humans and the choices they make.
The de-emphasizing of 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.
How many religious leaders, congregations and movements attempt purity and self-righteousness only to ignore their darker side, and in so doing, fall victim to what they proposed to battle by persecuting others who fall short of their lofty and righteous expectations?
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.