Reading sacred texts about an all-loving and all-powerful God raises questions and concerns when that image is compared to the realities of life. All have faced, or will face, tragedy, misery and death. Events will occur that appear unfair, leading most of us to question if any sense of cosmic justice truly exists.
Many have referred to this dilemma as the theodicy question. How can an all-loving, all-powerful God allow evil to occur? Would a parent allow his child to unjustly suffer if he had the power to prevent it?
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?” (Mt 7:9-11).
Yet, reading the morning paper, one finds stories about tornadoes that have wiped out good Christian families, innocent children who perished at the hands of murderers, good decent individuals who die in freak accidents and many others who suffer under moral evil (those actions caused by humans) and natural evils (those actions caused by nature).
One is forced to ask, where is God? Comparing Jesus words with the reality of evil in our global economy might one to conclude that earthly parents know better than God how to care for their children. Is God giving the tens of thousands who die each day of hunger and preventable diseases a stone when they are begging for some bread or a snake when they are praying for some fish?
For evil to exist–and God to be acquitted from complicity and retain his all loving and powerful nature–injustice must somehow be reconciled with God. For many, evil exists because of three possible reasons:
1. Human depravity makes no one innocent (hence the concept of Original Sin rooted in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.)
2. It is part of some master cosmic plan whose end purpose is to mature followers of Christ. As Paul would say, “all things work for good to them that love God.”
3.) There is a devil, a father of misery and darkness, who can be blamed for all the evil and injustices that exist in the world. Satan literally becomes a necessary evil–an evil that excuses God.
In a very real way, the idea of Satan is an attempt to justify God. At least this seems to be what was occurring with the birth of Satan. The development of the doctrine 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 reality.
The most troubling conclusion derived from the biblical text is the discovery of a God who is the cause and author of both all that is good and all that is evil. As the prophet Amos reminds us, “If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Amos 3:6).
This is a God who sends evil spirits to torment, as in the case of Saul (1 Sa 18:10). Contrary to popular opinion, the biblical text does not introduce its readers at first to Satan as the Prince of Darkness and enemy of God whose primordial spiritual warfare continues to manifests itself in our times. Rather, this concept is developed over centuries.
What if we were to answer the theodicy question by simply reducing evil to a punishment for sins? If evil befalls you, you deserve it for some offense committed. Unfortunately, the book of Job deals with the theodicy question by illustrating that evil befalling an individual is not necessarily caused by any sins with which that individual may have engaged. Rather, evil may befall a person, like Job, because God directs it so.
The early shapers of sacred text 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 they had to create one so as to vindicate God.
But the problem was that radical monotheism made it difficult to simply develop any type of demonology. As troublesome as God being the author of malevolent acts, more so is the creation of another supernatural being in competition with God within a monotheistic religion.
Here then is the ethical concern: seeing Satan in the other. It cannot be denied that evil was, and continues to be, committed. But to reduce the other to a representative of evil justifies cruelties and atrocities to be committed by those engaged in the battle to save humans from Satan’s corruption. No evil ever dreamed up by Satan or his demons can outdo the atrocities committed by good, decent people attempting to purge such evil forces from this world.
Real satanic actions are committed by those who consider themselves to be in spiritual battle against the forces of evil. Scholar David Franfurter states it best: “Historically verifiable atrocities take place not in the ceremonies of some evil realm or as expressions of some ontological evil force, but rather in the course of purging evil and its alleged devotees from the world”
In short, we have seen Satan, and he is us!
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.