Monday, 3 June 2013

Why the Devil?

For some reason, I’ve recently been very conscious of the devil and his works — not all of them, but enough to give a sulphurous feeling to the air (almost literally at times). As well as the particular issues involved, this has also made me think about what the devil actually is and that old chestnut, why there should be a devil at all.

For some of the time, this has taken place in the context of studying and teaching the biblical Wisdom literature, where of course the devil has a part to play in the story of Job, where he appears as ‘the Satan’ or, to use a more literal translation, ‘the Challenger’.
And it is this idea of the devil as ‘the Challenger’ that I will take as a starting point for some tentative thoughts.
What, for example, does the devil ‘challenge’? At very least, it would seem that he challenges the character of God in his relationship with the human race. Thus, in the case of Job, it is the challenge that any regard a person has for God is built on God’s protection towards them:
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9–11, NIV84)
The accusation is that Job’s (and, by implication, every other person’s) love of God is a ‘cupboard love’, based on what they get from him.
Similarly, in Genesis 3 we also find a ‘challenge’ regarding God’s relationship with humanity:
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4–5, NIV84)
According to the serpent, God’s threat is empty and his motive is self-interest.
But then we must recall that the serpent is God’s creature. As Genesis 3:1 explicitly says, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” And this raises (or certainly ought to raise) the fundamental question: why would God make a creature (the serpent or the Satan) that would apparently put at risk his own work?
Now here is where, in some people’s eyes, I will slip over into blasphemy, for I admit to having sympathy for the concept of ‘necessitarianism’ (of which the American philosopher Norman Kretzmann was something of an advocate).
Necessitarianism basically says that God does some things because he has to, and the problem with this is obvious because it suggests that God is constrained, when we would normally take the notion of ‘God’ as requiring an absolute freedom.
Even in Scripture, however, we find the acknowledgement that there are some things God cannot do. James, for example, writes that, “God cannot be tempted by evil” (1:13), and that is because this would be contrary to God’s character.
As I understand it, though, ‘necessitariansim’ goes beyond this in saying that there are not only things God cannot do, but things he must do, even though this is still on the basis of his character, rather than because he is constrained by outward circumstances.
Now in the case of the Satan, my speculations (for that is what they are) start with the suggestion that the creation of a self-image of God (as described in Genesis 1:26-27) involves a moral hazard. That is to say, the act of bringing human beings into existence brings with it the possibility of evil. And certainly the text of Genesis 1-3 would seem to bear this out, for Genesis 2 quickly invokes a moral risk:
16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Gen 2:16-17, NIV 84)
Furthermore, we need to recognize the vast significance of this development, for until God creates anything there is (presumably) no moral hazard at all. God ‘as God’ is good. And although (according to the doctrine of the Trinity) God ‘as God’ is also relational, the relationships within the godhead are always and only good.
Yet (presumably) God’s goodness is also always real. It is not that, in the absence of an alternative, God lacks any opportunity to be anything other than good — a sort of ‘goodness by default’. He actually is the good God we experience as his creatures.
When God creates, however, then the possibility exists of the ‘not good’, for that which is ‘not God’ in its essence may, presumably, be ‘not God’ in its nature. In short, precisely because God is truly good (not just ‘good by default’, good because there is no alternative), that which is ‘not God’ may be evil.
The possibilities, however, depend on what God creates. If it is — say — a rock, then the potential for ‘evil’ is actually non-existent. A rock falling on my head may be unfortunate for me, but it is hardly immoral on the part of the rock. But even a sentient creature may lack the true capacity for evil. I am sure that my cat has a form of consciousness – dim and partial, no doubt, but real none the less. Yet when the cat catches a mouse and toys with it, I do not rush to ‘judgement’. The cat is just doing what cats do.
No, it requires something which has a higher character than a rock, or even a cat, for true evil to exist. And it is therefore significant that, according to Scripture, we are made in God’s image, for this means that we can therefore display a character not just like that of our creator, but contrary to his own. We can be evil precisely because he is genuinely good.
But then the question arises, which are we? Are we good, or are we evil? And here again I invoke, albeit it very tentatively, the notion of the Challenger, for as the first chapter of Job shows, if God behaves towards us according to his own character, the nature of our relationship with him is always questionable.
According to the Satan, Job’s unimpeachable character is only such because God takes care of him. But why would God do anything else? It is in the character of God to love us, to care for us, to protect us. Yet as the Satan says, “Does Job [in that case] fear God for nothing?” (1:9).
At this point, however, I must try once again to stress the profound nature of what is involved.
It is significant, I think, that even atheists generally think we live in a moral universe. There is a certain paradoxicality to this, insofar as atheists are also fond of telling us that the universe is morally indifferent. But they are, I think, right to recognize that with the kind of consciousness and freedom we self-evidently possess comes moral responsibility. This is a property which creatures of a certain kind possess by their very nature. We are moral in a similar way (according to Genesis 3:22) to that in which God is moral.
But as I suggested at the outset, our ‘morality’ brings with it a moral hazard. Like God, we possess the knowledge of good and evil. Unlike God, we can break the wrong way. Yet why would we, provided God is to us entirely according to his own character?
Thus the question is (potentially) always there. God might say, as he does of Job, “Have you considered my servant ... he is blameless and upright, fears God and shuns evil.” And the Challenger might reply, “Does he fear you for nothing?”
To move beyond this, the challenge must move from the theoretical to the real. And therefore — dare I suggest this? — the Challenger must (of necessity) be real, not theoretical. Hence the devil, perhaps.
Well, that is my first attempt at some thoughts. I hope you, the reader, will understand I am trying out some ideas. But I hope you will also feel it is worth the effort. Perhaps in the light of any responses I will be able to improve on what I have presented here.
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  1. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever read a decent book or article on a Biblical Theology of evil. Lots of speculation about where did the devil come from or what kind of being he is, but not a well thought out, comprehensive treatment on the subject. One of the questions that interests me is, What is the Bible trying to tell us when it specifically mentions the devil's activity? There's plenty of other evil done in the Bible without referring to the devil's involvement. Another interesting point is the very few references in the OT, and then the Gospels constant references to evil spirits and Jesus' teaching on driving out evil as part of the disciples' role.


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  2. It is a difficult area – and I think it is curious that word ‘Devil’ does not appear in the Old Testament, nor does the word ‘possession’ or ‘possessed’ in the context of demons. Old Testament prophets did many things, but there is no record of any driving out demons. The only mention I can remember of a man being afflicted by a troublesome spirit is King Saul and it was God himself who sent this spirit: ‘Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him...’ 1 Sam 16:14

    Here it is possible – as has been achieved by various Gnostics and those deemed heretics - to conclude that God is both the author of Good and Evil. Or there is a temptation to wander into the world of dualism – as Augustine did before his conversion to orthodox Christianity – seeing the world as a battle place of good and evil (an error common today in much Charismatic theology (or lack of same...)).

    Personally I think it is very difficult to say that the character of ‘the Challenger’ in Job or the Serpent in Genesis is the same character as ‘The Devil’ or ‘Satan’ we find in the New Testament (the latter seems to have borrowed heavily from other middle-easter, Greek and Roman religions and traditions – e.g. the notion of Hades). They do not marry very well into ‘one’ from the point of view of either a theological continuity from Old to New Testament – nor do they match up from the point of view of linguistics – the Hebrew is unclear. The ‘Satan’ of Job is there to do God’s bidding, in effect he is the counsel for the prosecution - yet nevertheless, a servant of God.

    In fact the Devil is a minor character in the Bible and it is appears that much of his identity was sculpted in the middle-ages by the Catholic Church and a good dose of folk – and probably pagan – tradition.

    The problem for many Evangelical or even Bible Believing Catholics is that the Bible is (as it is on many things really) rather contradictory on the concept of the ‘The Devil’ and (in my view) demonstrates just how different themes and perspectives from diverse cultures make up what some see as whole and complete and what many (including myself) see as a disparate collection folk tales and wisdom literature that are partially (and occasionally wholly) inaccessible because they are reliant on an understanding of the culture and the symbolic universe of the authors at the time of writing that is lacking in the present day.

    Although a clever quip at the start of your post, you note that there has been a ‘sulphurous feeling to the air...’ – as if this is something that is pertaining to the Devil. Perhaps it is as well to remember that out of the ten or so mentions of ‘sulphur’ in the Bible (or ‘Sulfur’ if anyone is planning to search using!) that God is the provider of this sulphur, not the Devil – which again, I think demonstrates just how muddled is much of the thinking on this character – and the character of God for that matter.

    Whatever an interesting post – many thanks.

    P.D. NW7

  3. PD,apart from how in Rev 12:9 & 20:2 the serpent of Genesis 3 is identified as both Satan and Devil. & the promise of his crushing at the end of Genesis 3 is alluded to in Romans 16:20, where he's called Satan. So the Bible writers have one individual in mind.

    Rather than understanding the Bible as disparate folk tales brought together, how about a progressive revelation that sheds more light and between the books builds up a bigger picture.

    Darren Moore

    1. Quite right Darren. We should not pick holes in the scriptures. Rather assimilate the whole through it's various parts and accept that God brought it together for our benefit.
      Norman Yardy

  4. John,

    But if God necessarily creates evil, then He must be the author of Sin? I think Luther was a neccesitatrian in Bondage of the Will, but Calvin is a voluntarist (though perhaps Edwards is necessitarian as well - see Oliver Crisp here).

    It seems to me that the problem is insoluble. God created all persons good (including angels & humans). But it does seem that they voluntarily used their free will to choose the bad. Why a good person would choose the bad is quite inexplicable. Psalm 35:19 quoted by Jesus in John 15:25, says "they hated me without cause". That is the only thing we can say: Sin is irrational and causeless.

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth