The personification of evil
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture — “I believed, and so I spoke” — we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”–for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
In the Bugs Bunny Cartoon, the Devil’s Feud Cake, Yosemite Sam is being a bad boy, robs a bank and forces bugs Bunny to fly him away in a plane. Yosemite Sam takes the only parachute and jumps out of the plane, only to find out that Bugs Bunny has switched the parachute and Yosemite Sam crashes and dies.
The next scene is Yosemite Sam on an elevator going down to hell and when he gets there he meets Satan who looks at the records and tells him he has been a very bad boy.
Satan makes a deal with Yosemite Sam to send him back to earth and live, if only Yosemite Sam will kill Bugs Bunny so Satan can get his hands on Bugs Bunny.
The rest of the cartoon is about Yosemite Sam trying to kill Bugs Bunny, who always turns the tables, and Yosemite Sam dies instead. Eventually Yosemite Sam tells Satan, that if he wants Bugs Bunny he can go get him himself.
This is a silly cartoon, but it basically takes one understanding of Satan that has been quite common throughout the centuries, that Satan is somehow the boss of a place call Hell, where people are tortured, and that Satan has his minions to do his bidding, and that Satan is a person or a creature of mythical proportions who is real, does magic and lives in another dimension, but can come to earth and do terrible things.
It really is a medieval understanding of Satan and hell. The picture of Satan in the scriptures and how Satan works, is much less fleshed out beyond a few references and a couple of stories. But in the middle ages the whole idea of the realm of hell and Satan was very popular.
Dante’s Inferno which was the part of the Divine Comedy where the author Dante Alighieri goes and explores 9 levels of hell, is considered one of the finest bits of World Literature.
Dante’s Inferno contributed to and came out of this whole medieval understanding of a literal Satan and a literal hell which was a huge and complex place of torture and punishment. In Dante’s vision the closer you got to the centre the greater the torture, until at the very center at the ninth level, representing betrayal, Lucifer or Satan who has three mouths, chews eternally with his fiercest mouth on Judas Iscariot.
And even though it is an allegory which means that each of the parts has deeper meaning or multiple meanings and it is not literally true, that literal understanding of hell has predominated for hundreds and hundreds of years.
There is no concept of hell in the Old Testament as a place of punishment. The first use of the word Satan is used in the story of Balaam’s Ass or Balaam’s donkey where an angel jumps in the way of the donkey as a “satan” an adversary.
In the only real passage in the Old Testament that Satan is talked about, Satan is like the crown prosecutor up in heaven standing before God’s throne accusing Job of only being faithful to God because Job is wealthy and blessed with good things.
Not the same image at all as the medieval Satan torturing people in hell.
However in our rush to be modern scientific people with a modern understanding of scripture, let us not be too hasty to just chuck the image of Satan and his demons into the garbage bin.
While in a pre-scientific world it was common for people to explain unseen realities.. with the invention of unseen beings, super or magical beings…
It does not mean that the unseen realties were nevertheless things that were not real.
One way to handle evil was to postulate that there was an evil being responsible for evil. Satan. Or by his other names, Lucifer. Beelzebul or Beelzebub. The Devil. In the 16th century the name Mephistopheles is used, possibly consisting of three Greek words, which are translated as “not” “life” and “love.”
Mephistopheles then is “not light and love.”
That is one way to handle the understanding of evil. An evil being is responsible.
But what if we were to handle Satan more metaphorically.
Satan not so much as a supernatural evil person, but Satan as the personification of evil.
Evil is real, therefore Satan as a force is real.
And Jesus came up against this force. In a book by one of the leading Jesus Scholars, John Dominic Crossan says, the way to handle and understand the bible is to understand Jesus; and the way to understand Jesus is to understand the historical Jesus.
Look less at the doctrines about Jesus postulated hundreds of years after Jesus and look at what Jesus did and what Jesus said.
And of the things he did one of his ministries was healing. The other ministry was that of exorcism. He came up against the force of evil and he cast it out.
He set people free from the clutches of evil.
And believe or not this brought him directly into conflict with the authorities.
In fact, they started accusing Jesus of being crazy. They said that Jesus himself has a demon.
That is because when you take on the forces of evil in this world, the forces of evil are going to fight back.
And how to they fight. They accuse. They scapegoat.
Let me give a brief synopsis of how evil works, or Satan works, from the perspective of the French Theologian and Philosopher Rene Girard.
Basically we learn as we grow to desire things. And how we learn is to imitate. Somebody wants something, The child sees that somebody and inside their mind subconsciously thinks. That must be something good, so I want it too.
Normal imitative behaviour. But if we start all desiring the same thing it is going to bring us into competition and conflict.
I can remember back in grade eight. One girl would be popular and before long all the boys mostly wanted to go out with that girl, but of course all can’t go out with the same girl.
But what if there turns out to be real conflict and and fighting. How does it get resolved? By accusing one another, or even better yet, by accusing somebody else and ganging up on some poor sod who is a little different than everybody else. That person gets beaten up or shunned or excluded or tormented and it brings the others together.
According to Girard that is the Satanic mechanism that all human culture is built on. Accusation, exclusion and violence.
That is Satan’s power. Satan does not have power on his own or its own.
Satanic power resides in the way that humans organize themselves with certain people in and others out.
The way humans organize themselves as distinct and other, from other humans.
The way that humans organize themselves which produces classes and hierarchies.
The way that humans organize themselves and use violence to maintain the status quo, that keep the rich and powerful, wealthy and powerful.
The way that humans organize themselves that accuse those who threaten the system.
Because Satan, the evil force is always working to divide and separate. It feeds on ego and encourages hurt feelings and conflict. It pushes people to stand up and fight back physically and every which way.
It loves law and doctrine and rights and tradition, because Satan or evil wants to use those things as weapons to exclude people, to accuse people, to demean people, to cast people out, to hurt people and to even kill people.
Satan says that we are a whole bunch of distinct races and that some are better than others and some are not worth as much.
Satan says that some are not worthy of God’s love. They don’t have the right doctrine or the right morals, or they live the wrong lifestyle and they should be excluded.
Satan’s job is to accuse, to expel, to throw put, to create division, to stir bitterness, rivalry, envy, conflict and violence
And Jesus comes along and fights against Satan. Fights against the evil force that lives in human cultures and institutions….
And Jesus say that there is another way to organize. And that is to organize around love. It is to organize around forgiveness, It is to be a family that cares for every family member, no matter how bad, how broken, how sick, how poor.
It is to organize around equality. There are only humans and all are one big family.
And so Jesus says the new family of God, is not your race, your blood kin, your culture, your nation, your nationality.
Standing up for the national anthem and the flag is not the end all and be all.
How about instead, standing up for love, for justice, for equality, for sharing, for forgiveness, for inclusion.
The new family of God is the ones who do the will of God which is to love one another.
If we were to organize around forgiveness and love and inclusion and equality, then Satan’s power would disappear.
If we were to organize around forgiveness and love, around inclusion and equality, then our prayer that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven would come true.
If we were to organize around forgiveness and love, around inclusion and equality, then the words of the Hallelujah chorus would come true…
The kingdom of this world is become The kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ! And he shall reign for ever and ever! Hallelujah!
On the other hand the world that organizes around class and power and wealth and inequality and accusation and difference and conflicts and violence, is fueled by our competing desires that leads to conflict and scapegoating.
The mechanism of desire, conflict and violence is the strong man.
You may think that the biblical world is quite different than the world today, and certainly in terms of culture and world view and science and technology it is very different.
But in terms of power and control and evil it is not.
In Jesus’ day there was a lot of poor people on one hand and the few fantastically wealthy on the other hand. There was hardly any so-called middle class. It was a very precarious existence for most people. And yet for the very wealthy they controlled almost everything. They controlled the land. They controlled the legal system. They controlled the religious institutions. They controlled the army.
They maintained the status quo and used violence to keep it that way.
But is it that different today.
Today’s system which includes the public and private sector; domestic bodies such as the Canadian Treasury Board and the Bank of Canada; international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; commercial banks and pension funds; advertising agencies and the media; and stock markets and money movers are responsible for the more than 3 trillion unregulated dollars that cross national boundaries daily.
If you don’t participate in the system you are in trouble and it has meant that in most of the world, there are people who have nothing.
My dad lives in Thailand. There is no unemployment insurance. There is no Canada Pension. No old age pension. No welfare. No hospital coverage.
For the average person you work until you die or you are lucky enough to have family support you. Billions of people are outside the system.
You may think that moral lapses of judgement are evil and they are, but Satan works well in the human systems of the world that favour the rich and powerful, that create conflict and war, that build weapons, and shuffle that majority of the wealth into the hands of the superrich.
And Jesus comes to free us, by showing us there is another way to organize. A way of forgiveness and love.
It is the way of a family that includes and reconciles and solves problems and creates solutions and doesn’t get offended and is patient with one another.
And it starts here and now in you and me. If you ever notice how Jesus deals with the demons.
He faces them head on. He calls them by name and identifies them. He speaks the truth to them. He tells them to leave.
We also call that confession in the church. If you want to deal with the demons in your life, it is not that complicated.
You, first of all look inside and honestly name where you desire what others have, you name where you harbour rensentment and anger.
You name who you have hurt and who you want to hurt.
You call it by name what it is.
And you speak the truth to it. That it, you tell yourself that this is a way that leads to accusation, conflict, division and hell.
And you tell it to leave. Because the Jesus in you can bind the strong man, and you can be set free.
And the biggest confession that you and I can make is to confess when we were the strong man.
The times when we controlled and bound others, with our words, our attitudes and our actions.
The ways we have used our rules, and faith, and our sense of propriety to keep the losers and the undesirables out.
I close with a passage written by Debie Thomas, a writer on staff with the Journey with Jesus Foundation.
Outside the house stand the insiders — the family, the religious folk, the pious, the careful. They think they have God pinned down. They know what the Holy Spirit is supposed to look like, and Jesus doesn’t fit the bill. Inside the house sit the outsiders — the misfits, the rejects, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. They’re not interested in dogma or piety; they just need love and they seem to have found it in a man who heals the sick and feeds the hungry. And in the midst of them? Smack in the center of the sick, the insane, the deviant, the hungry, the unorthodox and the unwashed? There sits Jesus, saying, “This. This is my family.”