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Gospel Disproof #6: Satan

One of the most noticeable flaws in the Gospel story is God’s obvious Superman problem: if the hero is both invulnerable and unstoppable, how do you find anyone stupid enough to oppose him? Too many super powers make your hero “super”-ficial. There’s no drama (and thus no realism) because prospective bad guys haven’t really got a chance.

In monotheistic theology, the problem is even worse. If there’s only one God, and He’s both perfect and omnipotent, then the religion loses its ability to explain the existence of evil. If God can do anything, and if He would oppose evil, then evil cannot exist. But evil does exist, a fact that can neither be denied nor reconciled with a monotheistic God alone.

From such necessities, Satan is born. He is created, not by a perfect God, but by the narrative demands of the story. We can tell he’s a made-up character because what little we know about him reveals him as a shallow, two-dimensional character contrived specifically to supply God with a suitably threatening adversary. His nature and his personality are defined for him by the role in which he has been cast, and he never strays from that role. How could he? He’s just a character in a story!

For instance, Satan is supposed to be smart. Not just a little smart, but blindingly brilliant, more intelligent and experienced and cunning than any human who ever lived (which oddly enough does not stop ordinary believers from thinking they’ve been out-smarting him on a regular basis for years). So if he’s so smart, why doesn’t he realized that opposing God is self-destructively stupid? Here you are facing an omnipotent and omniscient Deity Who can turn you into dog food just by saying “Alpo.” You’re going to fight that? Duh.

But Satan is going to oppose God. No matter what a real person would do in Satan’s place, his narrative role requires him to be God’s adversary—at whatever cost to himself—and so God’s adversary he will be. He’s not intelligently selfish enough to value self-preservation, because if he were genuinely selfish, he’d realize there were more productive outlets for his talents than wasting them on a futile attempt to undo reality. A real Satan would be too smart to take the role the Gospel wants to hand him.

Or what about his perverse delight in evil? Again, narrative necessity overrides the constraints of ordinary realism. The story demands that Satan hate what is good and love what is evil, no matter how bizarre and unmotivated such affections would be in real life. Ok, so suppose Satan really does live by a value system that is the exact converse of God’s. Should he not, then, seek to lose the battle, to fail in his evil schemes, to behave stupidly and self-destructively, in order to avoid such good things as satisfaction and accomplishment and victory? Evil for the sake of evil ends up imploding from self-contradiction—even super villains have to pursue goals that are “good” as seen from some perspective.

Try as he might, Satan cannot escape the unrealistic and even contradictory requirements that his role forces upon him. The result is a cartoony, shallow charade, a caricature of what a villain ought to be, an unwilling straight man for the hero’s witty jibes. His motivations make no sense. His actions serve no real purpose, not even for himself. He exists purely as a plot device, someone for the Good Guy to be victorious over.

Granted, you can improve on the Gospel’s nemesis. Imaginative believers can take that role and embellish it, though each new storyteller will create a new devil, drawing from their own imaginations and cultural background in order to improve the tale. (Ever notice how the most realistic demons are the ones least suited to the role the Gospel would like to put them in?) But if you go back to the sources, if you go back to the Scriptures themselves, you find only the hollow, monomaniacal stock character, as immutable as he is impossible.

Satan is a major figure in Christian mythology, and yet there is surprisingly little that can be learned about him from the Bible. There is no Old Testament prophet who is the first to tell us about him. Moses says nothing about him (not even in Genesis 3—read it again). The patriarchs know nothing about him. David and Solomon and their successors are unfamiliar with him (the singular mention of him in I Chron. 21 may be a later addition). He shows up all of a sudden in post-Exilic literature as an already-familiar figure mentioned briefly in Zechariah.

The most ink Satan gets in the Old Testament is in Job, a strange little book whose theology is as foreign to the rest of the Old Testament as the people, places, and nations are foreign to the geography and history of Palestine. Though Job’s message—that God has a reason for allowing His chosen ones to suffer—is a message that has given it instant popularity amongst suffering believers, no pre-Exilic believer shows any familiarity at all with Job’s story, which would be pretty unusual if it had been part of godly tradition since before Abraham. It makes a lot more sense if Job’s story, and indeed the whole God-vs-Satan dualism, were a foreign import, brought back from Persia by the Pharisees (whose name, incidentally, is a pretty good transliteration of the Hebrew word for “Persian”).

Satan as a foreign import explains why Jews before the exile show virtually no awareness of Satan (and indeed, not even God pays any attention to him, according to Moses), while Jews after the Exile know all about him. They met him in pagan lands during their exile, and liked him so much that they invited him to come back home with them for a permanent gig. To cover up his status as an illegal immigrant, they “borrowed” some old passages, like the prophecy against the king of Tyre, and applied them retroactively to Satan. Sure, the verses don’t all fit, but just ignore that, because it’s the best they’ve got, Scripture-wise. Call it his certificate of adoption.

Yet, though New Testament figures seem to take Satan for granted, and speak of him frequently, there’s not much that can be said about him other than the idea that he is God’s enemy, and wants to do evil. He’s a boogey-man: when the NT authors want to threaten believers with some terrible danger, he walks out on stage and makes horrible noises and menacing gestures. Then he’s off again. He’s also a scapegoat: whenever anything goes wrong, and believers suffer consequences they don’t like or didn’t expect, here comes Satan to take the blame. He also serves as a warning (cue the background animation of the devil and his angels being cast into the eternal lake of fire).

What’s in it for him? Nothing, really. He’s got a job to do, a role to play. In fact, he is the role. Everything about him is defined by God’s need to have an adversary to blame evil on (and thus neatly avoid having to assume any responsibility Himself). As narratives go, it’s shallow, poorly thought-out and crudely executed. The only thing he does really well is to expose the Gospel as a myth. And even that’s not intentional.