Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
I sat in the minister’s office on a Wednesday night, nervous with my parents seated on either side of me.
“Why now?” he asked.
“I’m not ready,” I replied.
Confusion spread across the minister’s face, and he glanced at my parents doubtfully.
My dad turned toward me and asked gently, “Then why are we here, David, if you aren’t ready?”
My heart pounded and I saw this moment — my most important moment — begin to slip away from me, and I knew I couldn’t let that happen. I might not get this chance again. If I didn’t seize this moment, I feared I might never get another one, and it would be too late.
“No, no, no,” I replied, voice shaky and quiet. “I’m not ready to die.”
“What do you mean?” asked my youth minister.
“If I died, I think I would go to Hell,” I replied.
The room grew quiet.
I was 10.
Just a decade old, I had become convinced that I needed to be saved from the specter hell and an eternity with Satan.
Despite the fact that I had attended church for my entire life, whenever the doors were open — Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday nights. Despite the fact that my family religiously read the Bible together. Despite the fact that I already had faith in Jesus, in God. Despite the fact that Jesus loved me, this I knew.
My youth minister talked briefly with me, before finally deciding that I was indeed of the age of accountability and could be baptized. He asked if I wanted to “come forward” on Sunday or just go ahead and be baptized that night.
The situation was much too urgent to wait four days. It was now or never.
Within a half hour, after he scrounged up some witnesses and I donned thin white clothes, I had been baptized. Until I felt the cool rush of the waters, I was terrified that something would happen and that I would perish unbaptized, unsaved, destined for Satan’s clutches.
But it took years, another decade almost, for the fear to stop.
Richard Nixon reportedly once said, “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.”
But, in truth, that is the exact messages echoing throughout Sunday Schools and churches throughout Christianity, where sermons based on fear of Satan and eternal damnation move more people toward the altar than sermons inspired by God, justice, generosity and love.
In my own experience of salvation, Satan loomed much larger — and more powerful a motivator — than did God. I didn’t want to commit my life to God because of the divine love offered to me but because I was a terrified 10-year-old. I had the hell scared right out of me.
Now, this is the perfect place to criticize fear-based religion, to lampoon the notion of sinners dangling in the hands of an angry God. Instead of grasping at low-hanging fruit, however, I want to propose something else. In addition to being psychologically damaging and spiritually abusive, the figure of Satan is fundamentally unorthodox, at odds with Christianity’s claims of monotheism.
In other words, Satan, as much of Christianity has conceived of him and how the idea of him has functioned, is heresy of the highest degree.
And it is a heresy that Christians for millenia have embraced.
Suppose for a moment you were studying a new religion. In it, there was an eternal being, with supernatural powers to influence the world and humanity, who commanded a legion of angels to do his will, and who would stop at nothing to gain the allegiance of humans.
This paragraph describes a god. It certainly could be said to describe traditional Christianity’s God. But it could equally be said to describe its traditional understanding of Satan.
Christianity, in effect, through its discourse about Satan, has mutated from a monotheistic religion to a ditheistic one, with rival gods battling for the souls of humans. Christians will pay lip service to the notion that God is all-powerful and has or will defeat Satan, while at the same time, acknowledging that the temporal battle is all but lost to the forces of evil.
In any other religion, such a dualistic counterpart, locked in eternal warfare with God, would also be considered a god and monotheistic claims would be sneered at.
At some point, Christianity needs to face its own unspoken anathema — the theological Frankenstein it created — that Satan has become a god.
Now, to be clear, I don’t believe that a being called Satan exists. Neither do I think it is biblical or reasonable to do so. At most, I would say that Satan is the human personification of the evil that is present in the world, conceived as a theodicy of sorts to balance the sorry state of affairs on earth with the belief in a good God.
A clear example of this can be found in the Old Testament during a census ordered by King David. There are two accounts of this story in different books, and they are exactly the same, save for one significant detail. In the earlier one, it is the anger of the Lord which goads David to take the census. In the latter one, it is Satan.
An adversary has been made.
A scapegoat created. But it is not a scapegoat to carry away the sins of the people. Rather, it is a scapegoat created by the people for the misbehavior of their God.
Eventually, Satan comes to function as humanity’s scapegoat as well, the animal that carries off the sins so far away into the dark wilderness that we no longer can claim responsibility for our sins at all. Over the centuries, the figure of Satan has been used to justify all sorts of bad behavior in the world. Humanity’s moral failings are blamed on the influence of Satan, lifting responsibility for deplorable evil to a supernatural level outside the control of humankind. In other instances, our evil work — the Inquisition comes to mind — is justified as a righteous attempt to stamp out Satan’s work. Further, humanity’s infatuation with violence, racism and war are blamed on the work of the Evil One rather than our cravings for power and security.
Honestly, Satan can be an attractive alternative to the truth of our own culpability in injustice and evil. It is much easier to blame a metaphysical boogeyman with horns, a pitchfork and a fiery lair beneath the earth than it is to look at the blood on our own hands. While Jesus might offer forgiveness of our sins, Satan offers us the chance to disavow responsibility for them completely.
It’s no wonder so many Christians seem to focus more on Satan than on Jesus.
What seems more attractive, confessing our failings or blaming them on someone else?