Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Traditional theology proposes that there is a secret hidden force which drives or tempts us to acts of evil. This force is a personality variously called Satan or Lucifer or the Devil. As long as no other explanation for evil could be found, the Satan myth worked well enough. But those who think evil is real (and not everyone does) would say we now know roughly how evil works and something of its origins [3]. For many in the West, Satan is no longer a necessary hypothesis and should be banished.

Satan is alive and well in the minds of people throughout the world. If recent surveys of Western populations are accurate, about a third of us in the West still think that Satan is a real, living entity [1]. Others think that Satan represents a sort of evil force lurking in creation and which seeks to harm people.

In the popular mind, Satan's prime activity appears to be to roam all over the world, trying to persuade individuals to sign a contract to sell their soul to him in exchange for special powers or wealth. Satan does not seem particularly intelligent. He is easily tricked by humans. He's also thought of as a type of warden with administrative responsibility for Hell, where wicked individuals go after death.

According to an article in the Religious Tolerance Website, the Pope discussed Satan during one of his Wednesday meetings with the faithful in 1999. He is reported to have explained how Satan was vanquished by Christ. However, he said, Satan is still today attempting to seduce individuals into committing wrongful acts.

Before that, in 1872, Pope Paul VI had insisted,

The evil which exists in the world is the result and effect of an attack upon us and our society by a dark hostile agent, the devil ... a living, spiritual, corrupt and corrupting being. A terrible reality, mysterious and frightening ... the devil is enemy number one, the source of all temptation. Thus we know that this dark and destructive being really exists and is still active ... [2]

It seems that if absolute evil does exist, then it must be equal and opposite to absolute good - that is, to God. But to Christians it's not good theology to place anyone on a par with God, who can be defined as "that which nothing either greater or equal exists." 

Perhaps that's why traditional Christian doctrine has proposed that Satan is not God's equal but a fallen angel. In that case, Satan is God's inferior because God created him. 

The name Satan comes from the Hebrew hassatan which means "the accuser." It occurs as a proper name only in 1 Chronicles 21.1: 

"Satan wanted to bring trouble on the people of Israel, so he made David decide to take a census."

It seems that by the time of Jesus, the idea of Satan was established in the popular mind. The Dead Sea Scrolls from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC tell of a contest between "Sons of Light" and "Sons of Darkness." At about the same period inscriptions on amulets used for exorcisms refer to the "Destroyer."

Paul seems to refer to Satan when he prays (well before the date of the Gospels) that others may be kept "safe from the Evil One" (2 Thessalonians 3.3). 

In the Gospels the name "Beelzebul" may a a euphemism for Satan. Matthew's Gospel speaks of the diabolos who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and who is the enemy of his mission. The Greek word diaballein means "to traduce" or "lead astray." In both Matthew and Luke the term diabolos is interchangeable with Satanas.

The Church developed its ideas about Satan and demons over many centuries. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, for example, pronounced as a matter of good teaching that 

"... the Devil and the other demons were created by God good in their nature but they by themselves have made themselves evil."

Satan over the ages has been perceived primarily as the great tempter. It is he who somehow attracts us away from what is good. If we are tempted, we should beware because Satan will use us for his own deeply evil purposes.

If God has innumerable, usually invisible, angels in heaven, and a visible church of believers, it is reasoned that Satan must likewise have devils as helpers and a visible, but secret, assembly of human Satan worshipers. The church of the Middle Ages imagined the existence of a network of people who had sold their souls to Satan and dedicated their lives to harming other people - an early type of conspiracy theory.

So what are we in the 21st century to make of Satan? Does he exist and are we subject to his wily ways?

My first point is that "proving" Satan's non-existence is impossible. Indeed, proving the non-existence of anything is notoriously difficult.

How, for example, can anyone demonstrate that there is no life on Mars? An easy answer might be to go there and see. There's truth in that. But once on the surface of Mars how is anyone to know that buried in some hidden corner of the planet a small colony of bacteria doesn't exist?

Similarly, because Satan is supposed to be an incorporeal "spirit" (whatever that may actually mean), no physical scientific test is going to prove his existence one way or the other. We can't measure his magnetism. He has no mass. No chemical reaction will reveal his constitution. He has no genetic makeup.

Second, one might suppose that it's possible to "prove" that Satan does exist. Apart from a scientific examination of our environment, I know of only two ways of attempting this.

[1] Perhaps it's possible to argue for Satan's existence from first principles. For example, one might state that ...

Everything has its opposite. God exists 
and therefore God's opposite, Satan, must exist.

This is not intended as a serious argument, but rather to show the kind of a priori case which has been made for nearly three thousand years to "prove" Satan's existence. Humanity's greatest minds have failed to do so. No a priori argument for the existence of either God or Satan by this means has stood the test of critical analysis. 

Arguments from first principles are, it seems to me, useful only for an entirely different type of case. They rest on the nature of logic and language. A a priori truth exists independently of experience. 

Thus the knowledge that "two plus two equals four", once grasped, no longer needs confirmation by instances of it. I don't have to constantly re-learn it. Once I know this truth, it is self-evident. Similarly, the statement If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal is self-evidently true. 

Another example of a priori knowledge is the idea of space. I don't have to prove that I move around in a four dimensional space/time continuum. It's something which is obvious to us all. It forms an almost unquestioned part of the way we experience reality. It's what some call a "properly basic" belief [5].

It's clear that Satan doesn't fit into this category of knowledge. His existence isn't self-evident any more than God's existence is self-evident. Nor is belief in Satan properly basic like my belief that I had an orange for breakfast yesterday.

I suggest that failure over such an extended period indicates the strong likelihood that it's impossible to prove by a priori argument that either God or Satan exist.

[2] On the other hand, it might be that you experience Satan in some way. Perhaps you hear his voice or see visions of him or are conscious of his impact on you in some other way. Perhaps you think you are in communion with Satan, you feel his evil power, you sense his hatred within you. If you claim to have experienced Satan's existence, I can't dispute that. Only you can say what you experience and what you don't. You are not likely to deny your own experience.

It bears saying, however, that if you experience Satan and nobody else does, it might be wise to test the validity of that experience. The same would apply to experiencing God.

For example, it's now widely known that human beings sometimes displace psychological stress by projecting its causes onto others. A child may blame a teacher for his or her poor performance, while remaining unaware of the real reasons. In more extreme cases - say of deep-seated anxiety or deficiency in abstract reasoning skills -  we can attribute insights, emotions and sometimes hallucinations to an esoteric cause. Satan might well be one such.

There are other problems with the experiential approach:

  • No matter how convincingly I experience Satan, you can't share my experience.

  • If I don't experience Satan and you do, neither of us can logically contradict the other, since all experience is subjective. We can both only report our experiences.

  • You and I may agree that we have both experienced Satan. We may also agree that our experiences are similar or even identical. But mutual agreement is no test of the actual correlation of one set of subjective experiences with another.

Thus experience of Satan by a person or group isn't proof of Satan's existence. If a large majority of human beings report experiences of Satan, the probability of his existence increases. But the possibility that they are all wrong remains.

One frequent argument for Satan's existence as a real entity in the world is that nothing else can account for evil. God, the argument goes, is by definition good. That is, God is incapable of evil. We experience evil in our lives, so we know it exists. But that cannot in any way be attributed to God's will or actions. So evil must come from another source, and Satan is as good an hypothesis as any.

But this argument rests, I think, upon a cause-and-effect fallacy. A medical example may illustrate what I mean. My father once contracted a stomach ulcer. This was due, said the doctor, to excess stomach acid stimulated by stress at work. That is, he claimed a correlation between stomach acid and ulcers. It was not until the late 1990s that it was shown that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium. As a result they can now be quickly cured by antibiotics.

It's easy to make a similar mistake when searching for a cause of evil. Something happens to us, or we observe something happening which we think must be terrible for others. Particularly if the event has a human agent, and if it's something we ourselves would not or could not do, we naturally ask, "How could anyone do that?"

Until comparatively recently, it has been impossible to find any cause except to call the human agent "evil" and suppose that, because humans would not normally do such things, the evil must have come from somewhere or someone else.

In a pre-modern age, we must remember, the natural world was thought of as a continuation of heaven or hell. What I mean is that almost everyone thought that our natural world shades imperceptibly into the supernatural world. God and the angels - and in the case of evil, Satan and his demons - were thought of as moving constantly between our world and theirs.

What could be more normal in such a reality than for Satan and his spiritual tempters to try to subvert God's purposes by corrupting humankind?

Of course, there's nothing intrinsically wrong in thinking along those lines even in the 21st century. Many millions do - and they may be correct. I'm writing, I suppose, mainly for those who can't perceive the world in this way. Perhaps the term "spiritual" has little meaning or relevance to their lives, apart from being an unsatisfactory allusion to "that which can't be seen, heard, touched or otherwise analysed."

For such people - and I'm among them - the evil which is commonly attributed to Satan needs a different kind of explanation.

I don't pretend to have a complete answer. Such as I have is perhaps best split into two parts:

[A] Not everything we may term "evil" is evil.

I have often heard people referring to certain events as " a terrible evil." They will, for example, talk of the evil of malaria which kills millions each year, or the evil of earthquakes which devastate the lives of entire communities. We're all familiar with the Old Testament supposition that natural disaster is a consequence of human sin. If anything has become clear today it's that this isn't correct.

The world - and indeed the universe - is, as is often pointed out, a tough place to be in. Individual lives are frequently precarious. Even the life of an entire species may be destroyed. At bottom, nature is red in tooth and claw. Being alive is inherently dangerous, frequently unpleasant, and rewarded by inevitable death.

There are two main ways of responding to this hard fact. First, one can say something like, "That's the way it is, and we just have to cope as best we can." Another way is to say, "God made it that way, and we must trust that this way is the best way."

The central point, however, is that nothing in God's creation is evil. When a person is crushed to death by lava, we must recognise that without volcanoes the world as God created it could not exist. Bacteria and viruses have always been with us and will always be with us. That means that disease must be part of God's plan. And if so, it is not evil.

This is not to say that humans can't precipitate natural disaster. So, for example, we can suffer evil when poor farming methods create a dust bowl. We can starve when our industrial pollution kills life in the sea. However,  in such cases it's not nature which is evil but we ourselves.

[B] Evil is a human creation, not Satan's

If, like those who have gone before, we had no way of explaining evil today, perhaps we would still have to entertain something like the traditional explanations of evil.

While I don't claim to have a complete explanation of evil, I do think that a reasonably complete explanation has evolved over the last century or more [3].

It's not possible to give more than the most brief of summaries of some points here. My main assertion is that to the modern mind, such explanations are much more satisfactory than traditional ones.

The myth of spiritual evil propagated by Satan seems to me to involve at least these incorrect conclusions:

  • Humanity was tempted and fell, thus corrupting all. At some point our progenitors, it is said, were tempted by Satan and did what is evil. That evil persists like a spiritual virus in all of us. This belief has, in my opinion, long since been exposed as nonsense [4]. Nothing of what we know about the universe today validates it. Nor does the nature of Scripture as we know it today allow it. This is not to say that the myth of original sin was not once a valid and viable way of addressing the problem of evil. But it is to say that we can no longer validly resort to it.
  • Those tempted by Satan to evil wantonly hurt others and enjoy doing so. All evidence indicates that this is not true. Those who commit what we call evil acts are either mad (and I include psychopathy in that) or perceive that they need to defend themselves against other evil people. Very few people ever claim to be evil. Enjoyment of evil behaviour is fleeting and comes only after a long process desensitisation. Social evil comes about most often when enough individuals are too weak to stand up against extremely powerful corporate pressures. Individuals are often introduced to evil in imperceptible steps by those already deep into evil behaviours. But evil, if it ends with some sort of perverted pleasure, does not begin with it. Nor is the process of being evil pleasant. That humans bear the guilt and acute discomfort of evil behaviours indicates that evil is almost always - if not universally - engaged in as a matter of perceived necessity.
  • Those who are innocent are justified in condemning evil people. This variation of "God is on our side" might hardly be credited if it were not so clear. Anyone who claims absolute truth theoretically has at hand absolute justification. The judgement about which Jesus warned so trenchantly becomes not only possible, but required. Outsiders, those who don't "believe" those absolute truths, must either come inside or face the righteous wrath of God through his agents - that is, those who are not evil. These righteous people claim to be essentially harmless. But what they don't realise is that those they call evil perceive them in similar terms. The final result is two camps, each calling the other evil. I wonder if that's not the meaning of "Judge not, in case you too are judged."
  • The difference between God and Satan, between good and evil, is clear. It seems to me that this conclusion is dangerously mistaken. Only when absolute values are applied to life, can apparent clarity be obtained. When that happens, others pay the price because they can be classified evil with equally absolute certainty. Judgement becomes easy, convenient, and personally rewarding to those who perceive morality in black-and-white terms. In contrast, the love which Jesus lived by is difficult, demanding, sacrificial and nothing less than frequently ambiguous.

In summary, evil can be adequately explained without resort to a mythical Satan. If there is a disadvantage in this way of thinking about evil, it is that we are identified as the originators of all evil. We can't blame our evil acts on Satan. Explaining how evil arises, how it develops in a person, and how it is perpetuated, doesn't get rid of the fact of evil. But it does banish Satan to the realms of myth and fantasy.

Far from dismissing evil as a creation of religious bigots, modern studies confirm its existence. We are able to describe it in reasonably certain terms - though I for one have little doubt that there is much work to be done in this respect. Nevertheless, we are rapidly progressing towards a reasonably full understanding of the lineaments of evil.

Some perceive evil as derived as much from inadequate social structures as from poor parenting and a host of other causes.

But to dismiss evil as a product of disadvantaged human beings is extremely dangerous. In my opinion, to do so encourages parents to avoid giving their children what one author calls a "strong early warning system" about evil. It permits society to go easy on criminals on the grounds that there are mitigating circumstances for their evil acts. Modern utopian movements such as Communism are a direct result of failure to recognise the deforming force of evil in humanity [3].

It will be fatal if humanity fails to preserve a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the reality of evil. We must, it seems to me, constantly reiterate that there is such a thing as evil behaviour and spell out the devastating consequences such behaviour has for us all. Part of affirming evil is to also affirm that it comes about through our own choices. We are not tempted by an external power. We can't blame it on the serpent. We, and only we are responsible for evil in our world.

Blaming Satan provides many with an escape hatch. Surely, I say, it's much more effective to admit that the evil in my life has come from my own evil choices and the evil choices of those around me. If enough people admit the same, then surely an entire nation might be able to avoid evil outcomes of evil choices on a large scale. Isn't this what is meant by repentance?

To sum up: evil exists - but Satan is not a necessary hypothesis. Only we ourselves are able to combat evil through our choices, individual and social.

[1] Religious Tolerance Website  
[2] From The Ratzinger Report, V Messori, Fowler Wright Books, 1985
[3] For an excellent summary, read Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty,
      R F Baumeister, 1996
[4] See Richard Holloway, The Myth of Original Sin
[5] Alvin Pantinga, Reformed Epistemology, in A Companion to Philosophy
      of Religion
, 1999

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