Sunday, June 6, 2010

Why Does God Not Stop Satan? A Response to Lavern

There could, he reasoned, be only one Creator, God, who was or had been primarily benignant. Yet all the evidence pointed to the co-existence of an evil creative principle, a Satan. God, then, must be a split or dual personality, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, manifesting sometimes as the Devil. This duality . . . must be a form of what is commonly called schizophrenia.

~ Clark Ashton Smith [1]

Some months ago, I wrote a lengthy essay critiquing the ideas put forth by the infamous creationist Kent Hovind, specifically focusing on his “doctoral dissertation” that he wrote in the early 1990s and which has just recently surfaced. At one point in that essay, I brought into the discussion a point relating to the relationship between God and Satan as depicted in the Bible. I raised the question of why God did not simply destroy Satan in the past or destroy him now, especially given God’s alleged omnipotence. For according to a literal reading of the Biblical story, Satan is a thorn in the side of both God and humans, being as he is the driving influence behind evil and suffering in the world. I posed the question as follows:

The bewildering question is this: Why is God content to treat the disease and not cure it? Why does God not kill Satan, who is allegedly the thorn in the side of humanity who inspires [humanity’s] shortcomings? The biblical story in its literal form makes no sense.

Biblical literalists are often heard offering the explanation that God cannot destroy Satan now, because he's bound by the Bible to destroy Satan at the end of time. But then, the question that naturally comes next is who wrote the Bible? What they are essentially saying is that God bound himself to not incapacitate Satan, because God himself wrote the Bible which records Satan’s demise at the conclusion of all things, rather than early on [2].

The present essay is inspired by a video I recently came across, made by a freelance Christian theologian by the name of Lavern, which attempts to address this very question. This Christian commentator runs a YouTube channel whose handle is “TrustInJC” (which I can only assume stands for Johnny Cash), a channel devoted to short video messages discussing a number of different topics and issues relating to Christianity and the Bible. After having viewed the video, entitled “Why Does God Not Stop Satan,” I thought it worthwhile to review and analyze its message point-by-point, for the message given in it is directly relevant to the question I posed in that earlier essay [3].

“TrustInJC” (or Lavern) begins:

Hello; Lavern here, and thank you for joining me. In this video, I’m going to attempt to answer a question that was put to me. The question was “Why does God not stop Satan?” Now, before I get into my answer, I’d like to make it clear that I’d really like to know what other people think on this matter, because I believe there’s a lot of atheists who ask this question and even Christians who are unsure why it is that Satan is allowed to roam so freely in the world today.

Now, as far as my answer: The short answer is that God does in fact stop Satan. We have his promise in the prophecy that Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. So we do know that God eventually does stop him, and stops him cold and for all eternity. The question is, then, why does he not do it sooner? Why is he not already stopping Satan? Why does he allow Satan to continue with what many people would consider to be madness? Well, there are actually a number of reasons for this. I’m probably not going to be able to answer them all in this video.

One of the more common answers (and something I believe to be true) is that it’s not so much that God allows it, but rather that people allow it. And not just allow it; there are many people who embrace Satan. They reject God and embrace Satan. Scripture tells us that if we are not for Jesus, then we are against him. So consider all the people who are rejecting Christ. These people, then, are against him. So it can be no wonder then that Satan is so well accepted. People are actually embracing Satan; we see this in the media, we see this in government, we see it in the laws that are being passed, we see it in the movies, we see it in our music. People are embracing Satan. Now again, this doesn’t answer the question: “Well, why does God allow this?” So, I would say that it’s not so much that God allows it, but people are asking for it. And as long as people are asking for Satan, God’s going to allow it because they have the free will.

As we can see, the first explanation Lavern offers as to why God does not stop the efforts of Satan comes in the form of placing the blame on humanity’s alleged preference for Satan over God. Free will is then invoked to account for why this preference is upheld by the omnipotent deity. The first problem with this rationalization is that it is presented in the context of a gross oversimplification in the form of a black-and-white dichotomy that simply does not exist in the real world. Lavern subscribes to the transparently false notion that anybody who is not a Christian is against Jesus and is by default an ally of Satan. This idea, which displays an appalling level of understanding of diversity, is so obviously fallacious that it hardly warrants thorough debunking. By Lavern’s criterion, those who worship Satan would include Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintos, Scientologists, atheists/agnostics, and every single other belief system or viewpoint that does not fall within the category of orthodox Christianity. His claim that anyone who rejects Christ automatically embraces Satan is false primarily for the simple reason that Satan is a part of Christianity, while most other faiths and viewpoints listed are completely separate. It is also interesting to note close counterparts to the notion of evil in other religions. Muslims reject Christ, yet their doctrine also declares belief in and opposition to Shaitan, the Islamic equivalent of Satan and a comparable enemy of their God.

Lavern also specifically refers to those who generally “reject God and embrace Satan.” No atheist believes that Satan exists, just as no atheist believes that God exists. As I pointed out above, belief in Satan presupposes belief in Christianity or Islam, which of course presupposes distinct forms of theism. Even the very small minority of atheists who identify as Satanists do not actually believe in Satan as an actual literal being, but rather revere Satan as a symbol of freedom. There is a vast spectrum of belief in between atheism and theism, of course, for which Lavern’s black-and-white false dichotomy simply does not fit. Many people are not “for” Jesus in a religiously devout sense, but see no particular reason to be against his teachings and philosophy. In fact, a great many people hold great respect and admiration for the alleged life and teachings of Jesus, including some atheists, without taking the unnecessary step of accepting the religiously-inspired, unreachable pedestal constructed for Jesus by adherents of orthodox Christianity. It is also important to point out that the percentage of people in the United States who actually believe in Satan as a literal being and worship him is extremely small.

In view of this last point, one will notice the sheer ridiculousness of the level of paranoia Lavern harbors toward the world. He apparently sees Satan around every corner. He claims he can recognize the influence of the prince of darkness in the media, in government, in laws that are passed, in films and in music. Is this paranoia in the least bit warranted? I think not; such illusions of sensing evil everywhere often comes from an over-inflated sense of one’s own righteousness that is projected on everything contained in one's day-to-day purview to maintain and increase that delusional sense of ego-reinforcing self-righteousness. But perhaps this notion that a malevolent evil is around every corner provides a hint as to how Lavern might respond to the counter-arguments I raised above. I suspect he would respond by asserting that the majority of those who are not followers of Christ embrace Satan without knowing it consciously. But this amounts to a conspiracy theory run amok, and as with virtually every other conspiracy theory, this idea is unfounded and non-falsifiable. Unless Lavern can provide positive and convincing evidence that a being called Satan as understood by the Christian religion actually exists, and furthermore that Satan’s influence is everywhere exerted in society, we are justified in safely dismissing his conspiratorial claim that Satan’s machinations are everywhere around us whether consciously recognized or not. This means that in the context of the specific claims Lavern has made, one needs to ask him to identify specific examples of media outlets, government actions, laws, film and media that are the products of Satan’s inspiration, and specific reasons as to why these are legitimate examples. Otherwise, to simply assert that “Whatever is not of God is of Satan” is a meaningless statement. God has never been satisfactorily defined in such a way that all can agree what God is through independent verification.

All these considerations aside, placing the blame for Satan’s continued dabbling with the creation of a supposedly all-powerful God on the free will of people who prefer Satan over God is singularly unsatisfactory as an explanation, at least in view of what Christianity actually teaches. The Bible contains numerous accounts of God intervening in human affairs in such a way that the volition of humans is placed on a back burner. God is apparently willing to intervene and directly violate the intentions of people at some times, and not at other times. The God of the Bible is a very arbitrary character in many ways. Why should the continued existence of his number-one antagonist and the source of humanity's problems be an exception? Why is God obliged to grant humanity their alleged preference of lord and master, but not obliged to grant humanity their other desires and choices? Many Christians are fond of describing God as a caring parent-figure who is only looking out for his creations’ best interests. This portrayal is often put forth as their explanation for why God does not always allow people to experience what their free will choice would result in. If Christians such as Lavern are correct in arguing that it is not God so much as it is people that allow Satan his continued existence through their free will preference, then Christians who adhere to the “caring parent figure” picture of God are obviously not taking this into account or their conception of God is simply wrong. If Lavern’s deity and devil really do exist, then perhaps we should all be desperately wishing, in the interest of humanity, that Garth Brooks was speaking of real possibilities in his song “Unanswered Prayers,” in which he sings,

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers / Remember when you're talkin’ to the man upstairs / That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care / Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
Moreover, if God is so very constrained by the free will of his creations that he is bound to refrain from decisively curing humanity's disease, why speak of him as all-powerful?

Lavern continues:

But there is more to it. There is another answer as well. And for that we have to go right back to Genesis where it all began, where Satan had the first contact with humans, that being Adam and Eve. Scripture tells us, through the writings of Enoch, that God planted the Tree for the purpose of revealing to Adam his sinful nature. For God knew the sinful and the carnal nature that was within Adam. But Adam didn’t. And so God planted the Tree for the purpose of revealing to Adam his sinful nature. And Satan was also part of this plan. Satan was allowed to tempt Adam and Eve. He was allowed to place into their minds these thoughts, these ideas that they could be like God if they ate of this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And so then, through this temptation from Satan, their lustful desires (that to be like God) and their prideful heart all came to the surface and was revealed through their actions when they finally gave in and ate of that fruit. And so we see that Satan and this Tree both actually had a purpose into revealing the true nature of Adam and Eve, their true sinful, evil, rebellious nature.
This is all very interesting in its wild speculation, as well as quite bewildering. Lavern is raising far more questions and quandaries than he is answering. My first point in response is a minor one, but one I consider worth raising awareness about. Almost all modern Christian creationists believe that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was the devil in disguise. But nowhere in the Bible is this either stated or implied, neither in the third chapter of Genesis nor in the Book of Revelation and in no passage in between. There is no unambiguous internal biblical support for thinking that the ancient authors of Genesis had what modern theologians think of as Satan in mind at all when describing the serpent in the garden. But I digress . . .

Lavern cites the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings of Enoch in his analysis of the Adam and Eve story, specifically for the purpose of supporting his interpretation that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was planted by God in proximity to Adam’s and Eve’s habitation as a means of intentionally tempting them into sin. This is interesting in a number of respects. First, Lavern’s interpretation implies that God created Adam and Eve with a built-in sinful nature that they were not aware of. Second, this interpretation likens the Tree of Knowledge to the Pauline interpretation of the Law of Moses. Lavern states that God planted the Tree of Knowledge for the sole purpose of intentionally provoking Adam’s dormant sinful nature into the open [4]. But the analogy to the Pauline doctrine concerning the Mosaic Law is unwarranted. God would have no need to reveal humans’ fallen nature as a means to demonstrate to them their need for his salvation if God had not created humans with an inner evil nature to begin with. Such an “installation” makes no sense whatsoever. Most interesting of all, Lavern states that Satan was a central part of God’s purposes. What he suggests is that God allows Satan to continue wreaking havoc in the lives of people because Satan is conveniently conducive to “revealing our true nature.”

If what Lavern is suggesting is true, the implication is that God created the first humans with a “sinful, evil, rebellious nature” at the outset and that God’s first occupying interest in humans was to tease their evil natures out of their dormant state and into a manifestation that would reveal to Adam and Eve this nature they did not know they possessed. Does this understanding strike anybody else as very odd? What possible reason would God have to create the first humans with a built-in evil nature lying just under the surface? And what is God’s motive for wanting to reveal this dark side of their nature to them as his very first exercise in interacting with them? Perhaps a motive to compel his creations by guilt to be subservient to him is what is at work here.

In my aforementioned essay critiquing Kent Hovind and creationism, I write, “God’s first mistake was to facilitate the first two humans’ fatal screw-up by placing the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the Garden of Eden, not to mention arbitrarily declaring it forbidden.” Apparently, Lavern would agree that the fall of the first humans was, in fact, facilitated by God (with the help of Satan no less), but that it was no mistake and was intentional. In that same essay, I also posed this question and comment: “What is the divine reasoning behind staging and choreographing situations and conditions in just such a way that disaster is predictable, including the placing of these people in a specific locale in close proximity to a constant temptation? This is rarely addressed by the biblical literalists and never given an explanation that preserves God’s powers of reasoning.” Lavern has actually addressed this question. He has also furnished an explanation, derived from a pseudepigraphical text, that does in fact preserve God’s powers of reasoning (although very loosely). But this is done at the undeniable expense of a picture of the God of the Bible that is omnibenevolent or one whose intrinsic nature is goodness and love. The God that Lavern describes is strikingly malevolent and capricious. Lavern’s interpretation of the biblical God does rationalize what otherwise appears to be fatal errors of judgment, but the rationalization is immediately recognized as irreconcilable with his alleged nature of perfect goodness and love. Then again, my statement in the same essay referred to above may also apply: “If the fundamentalist version of Christianity were actually true, God is perhaps best conceptualized as a teenager who is experimenting on a cosmic scale, not fully understanding exactly what he is doing with our race.”

The major point to take home from this is that, in the process of attempting to answer the question of why God does not stop Satan, Lavern has stated unambiguously that God and Satan are allied together for a common purpose. God is using the skills of Satan to throw guilt in the faces of his new creations for some twisted reason, which is presumably what Satan is also interested in doing. They both glean something out of this tempting game, and so they work together. The implications of Lavern’s statements appear to have escaped his own attention. If God and Satan are working together for a common purpose, then the reason God does not stop Satan is obvious! In Lavern’s scenario, stopping Satan would be against God’s interest! Not only does this mean that Lavern cannot say God is omnibenevolent and remain consistent, but his scenario also means that God is not all-powerful on his own to accomplish his twisted purposes. In view of the first reason Lavern offered above, perhaps it is little wonder that God is willing to grant humanity their alleged preference of Satan. If Satan works for God, perhaps he finds this indulgence convenient to his designs and plans!

Lavern continues:

We also see in Scripture that there are other things that God uses to reveal our nature. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Law of Moses was given to us so that we would see our sinful nature, so that that part of us would be revealed. Scriptures themselves are given to us to reveal ourselves. Scripture is like a two-edged sword. It reveals not only who God is to us, but it also reveals who we are. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins, so the Holy Spirit reveals to us our true nature. So, so much about our life is done in order to reveal our nature. Even suffering has this purpose, and we see this in the Book of Job. In the story of Job, we see that Satan comes to God and he asks for permission to test Job. And God allows, he gives permission for Job to be tested. So we see here that Satan is actually a test for us, that he is allowed to test us to reveal our nature. And it was Satan’s purpose to try and reveal that Job is not as righteous as what Job would like to believe or what God is claiming. And what we see is that after the second phase, Job actually does falter. He begins to question God. And what this reveals to us is that, like Jesus tells us, the rich man has a very difficult time in entering heaven, and the reason is because of the pride and the lust and everything that they have for the things that they have, their health and so on.

Now, in the story of Job, from the story of Job, I just want to read a couple passages. Because what we see in Job is that it does reveal Job’s nature. And a young man by the name of Elihu is the one who really reveals this. And he asked Job, in chapter 33, beginning verse 19: “So why are you bringing a charge against him [meaning God]? Why say he does not respond to people's complaints? For God speaks again and again.”

And then going on to chapter 34, beginning verse 7: “Tell me, has there ever been a man like Job, with his thirst for irreverent talk? He chooses evil people as companions, he spends his time with wicked men. He has even said, ‘Why waste time trying to please God?’”

So we see here that through Job’s suffering, he finally breaks, and his true nature is revealed. The suffering breaks him down to his core self. It’s like peeling an onion, and it just breaks him down. And from that place, his true nature is revealed. But then from that place, Job ends up repenting. And from this place he actually becomes closer to God, and he actually knows God a whole lot better. We see this in the end of Job. But before I get to there, just one more verse I’d like to read: Chapter 36, verse 21 (this is still Elihu talking): “Be on guard, turn back from evil. For God sent this suffering to keep you from a life of evil.” So through this suffering, it’s actually saving Job, preventing him from a life of evil.

Now, it ends in chapter 42. And reading from verse 5 (this is now Job talking): “I had only heard about you before. But now I have seen you with my own eyes. I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” And this is Job talking about God. Just to repeat this, I had only heard about you before. But now I have seen you with my own eyes. So we see that through his suffering, Job was brought closer to God, and he was able to hear his voice and he was able to see him. And none of this would have been possible if he had not first lost everything that he’d had.

Here Lavern expands on his argument that God allows Satan to continue to thrive for purposes of self-revelation by arguing that Satan is a tool by which the faith of humans is tested. According to him, the influences at work in peoples’ lives to reveal our nature includes the workings of Satan, hence the mention of human suffering as a consequence of Satan’s actions. Not surprisingly, Lavern uses the most clear and thus most forthcoming example in Scripture, that of the story of Job in the Old Testament. In his discussion of Satan asking permission of God to torment Job, Lavern makes a very interesting series of statements. For instance, his comments concerning the rich having a difficult time entering heaven because of their possessions and pride leads me to doubt just how carefully Lavern has read his Bible. The Book of Job indicates fairly clearly that Job was at his most pious and righteous at the height of his prosperity and wealth. Before going into an inventory of his wealth, the opening verses of Job tell us that he was “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1-5).

But again, this is a minor point in the context of the overall question we are asking. Lavern’s overarching point is that Satan’s harmful workings and the suffering he inflicts on the world serve the purpose of testing the strength of the faith of the righteous. This occasions an important question: If the God of the Bible is omniscient or all-knowing, why is the testing of his followers’ faith required? Of course, if Lavern stands by the statements he has made so far concerning God’s nature, perhaps the God he has in mind is not all-knowing, all-powerful, or possessed of an impeccable morality. If we take Lavern’s previous statements seriously, we are presented with a God who employs Satan to help him accomplish his capriciously meaningless purposes because he is apparently not all-powerful and thus cannot achieve his purposes without inflicting suffering. Thus, perhaps this God may not be all-knowing or possessed of clear judgment either. But even given a God who is not all-knowing, one wonders why the “God” conceived by Lavern’s theological imagination would even care to be convinced of the strength of his subjects’ faith in the first place. After all, Lavern has stated that God knowingly created humankind with a built-in evil nature that he took pleasure in throwing in their face via the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge that he dangled in front of their faces, so to speak. If God created human beings for the purpose of gleaning a twisted sense of pleasure from watching them wallow in guilt, one would tend towards the conclusion that he is not very interested in seeing them rise above that guilt, which by the accounts of most Christians and Jews is achieved through piety and devotion to God.

If this kind of God actually exists and the accompanying scenarios really did occur, and if Job was aware of this state of affairs in the agenda of this deity, then Job is perfectly justified, as is all humanity, in levying the kind of charges against this deity that the character of Elihu disapproves of in the quote given above (which is actually found in Job 33:13, not verse 19). In light of Lavern’s conception of God, the contemptuously rhetorical question Elihu poses in Job 34:7-9 is grossly misplaced. Because Elihu is speaking in pious defense of God, we can wonder just how “evil” and “wicked” the men he disapproves of really are. A “thirst for irreverent talk” would in this case seem to amount to an authentic morality that opposes the juvenile capriciousness exhibited in the particular portrait of God we are examining. Why waste time trying to please this kind of God indeed?

Some of my readers may at this point charge that I am focusing too heavily on this one individual’s idiosyncratic conception of God and interpretation of Scripture. While this may be the case – since this is a response to his personal attempt to explain a question I have raised in past writings – I should also point out that similar criticisms apply to the more mainstream Christian and Jewish apologetics surrounding the philosophy contained in the Book of Job. According to mainstream interpretation, the moral of the story is that if we unquestioningly trust in God, he will provide for us even if we do not understand his motives in allowing hardship and suffering in our lives. But in the story of Job, God does more than just withhold from Job an explanation of his reasons for allowing Job to suffer tremendously. Job makes several inquiries as to God’s reasoning, with no initial response forthcoming. Finally, God responds indignantly by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much” (38:4). God then proceeds to embark on an obnoxious tirade, repeatedly making statements such as, “Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know!” (38:18), “Do you know the laws of the universe? Can you use them to regulate the earth?” (38:33), and so on and so forth. In essence, God’s response can be paraphrased as “Were you present when I created the universe and can you grasp all of its intricacies? No, so how dare you inquire!”

However, God’s motive in allowing Job to experience such suffering is made known to the reader of the text at the outset. The settling of a bet was his motive. This should strike all readers as extremely petty. One can also apprehend more than pettiness on a cosmic scale when one considers that all of Job’s children and servants were unwittingly involved, with the result that they all perish at the beginning of the story. They had no direct relation to the petty bet between God and Satan, and no explanation is offered as to how they could possibly be deserving of death. If such senselessness is required in “preventing Job from a life of evil” and in bringing him “closer to God” as Lavern says, one can only wonder how perfectly good, loving and all-powerful this God really is.

Lavern continues and concludes as follows:

Now, jumping to the Gospel of John, chapter 9: This is the story of the disciples coming to Jesus and asking him about this blind man. They ask him “Why is it that he is blind? Is it because of the sins that he committed or the sins of his father?” And this is how Jesus responds: “’It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered. ‘This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.’” So it had nothing to do with sins, it had nothing to do with anything that this person had done wrong, but rather was to glorify God and his Kingdom, and at the right time in God's timing, this is what happened. And Jesus ends up healing this man, and the glory of God is shown.

So, there are so many different reasons. It’s not just one or two as to why Satan is allowed to continue to have his way in this world. Some of it is people actually want him. People are drawn to Satan because of their own evil natures. Some of it is because we are being tested. Some of it is to reveal our own nature, so that we can come closer to God.

Alright, I really look forward to comments. Till next time, peace and blessings.

The third and final story Lavern cites as illustration of his reasons for why God does not stop Satan is thematically reminiscent of the preceding two. In all three stories, God is far more culpable than Satan for the sufferings of the characters described in the stories. Let’s review: • In the first story, God creates the first humans with a dual nature already in place in their spiritual constitution for the sole purpose of facilitating their downfall through deliberate temptation, such that the two created people will feel compelled by guilt to be subservient to him. Our bold theologian implies that God enlisted the services of Satan to aid him in bringing about the desired result and essentially wrote the script for the serpent’s dialogue found in Genesis 3.

• In the story of the sufferings of God’s servant Job, God dabbles in a petty wager with Satan to test the strength of Job’s loyalty in the midst of pain, a wager that costs the lives of Job’s entire family with the exception of his wife.

Finally, in the story of the healing of the blind man by Jesus in John 9:1-3, we are given yet another insight into how God is aided in elevating his show of power by teaming up with the helpful scapegoat who is Satan. As Jesus states in the passage, the lifelong blindness experienced by the man was inflicted upon him from birth for the sole purpose of providing a public show of God’s power and “glory” later in life through being healed. The blind man in this story was robbed of a lifetime of sight for no other reason than to allow God (in the person of Jesus) an outlet for glorifying himself by stooping to heal him. If Satan is understood to be a major source of pain and misery in the lives of God’s special creation, we see another example of God enlisting the services of his supposed arch-enemy to attain a self-glorifying end.

Conclusion

Taking Lavern’s mini-sermon as a whole, to what conclusion can we arrive as to how he answers the question he sets out to address? According to his analysis, it would seem God does not stop Satan because God and Satan routinely work together and cooperate with one another to achieve ends that are desirable to both. In concluding this response and further establishing why Lavern’s explanations actually does damage to the character of the God he claims to serve, a discussion of other Biblical passages that refer to the relationship between God and Satan is in order. For consistency of form, the passages I cite are from the New Living Translation of the Bible, the version which Lavern uses in his quotations.

The Bible’s treatment of this relationship appears to justify Lavern’s morally-damaging statements. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, one translation of the term applied to Satan bespeaks a divine messenger sent by God to be an adversary on his behalf. In the story of Balaam as recounted in Numbers 22, for instance, Balaam is visited by God in a dream and instructed to meet Balak, accompanied by the princes of Moab. The next morning, Balaam attempts to evade God’s instructions. In his anger, God sends a messenger (or angel) to kill Balaam as he travels on a donkey across the country. The messenger is invisible to Balaam but is seen by the donkey, who takes immediate action to avoid the danger, bolting off the road and into a field. In his frustration, not knowing that the animal was acting in the interest of his life, Balaam physically beats the donkey. The donkey then speaks to Balaam, asking him why he was beating her. Balaam (who apparently is unfazed by being confronted with a talking donkey), replies, “You have made me look like a fool!” At this point, the messenger appears to Balaam visibly and informs him in verse 32 that he has been sent by God as a satan (satan being a commonly-used Hebrew verb which translates to mean “one who opposes” or “adversary”).

Another use of the Hebrew term describing the adversary’s actions translates as a “divine counselor” of sorts. One example of this is found in a comparison of I Chronicles 21:1 and II Samuel 24:1. In the former, we read that “Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel.” In this account, the census is said to have been encouraged by Satan, for which David is severely punished by God with a plague that kills seventy thousand Israelites. In the latter account, the identical event is described, with the one difference being that here it is God who influences the census rather than Satan: “Once again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census. ‘Go and count the people of Israel and Judah,’ the Lord told him.” Despite this, God still becomes infuriated and punishes the Israelites with the aforementioned plague.

Most scholars of the Hebrew Bible consider the writings in II Samuel to be the original account from which the editor of the I Chronicles text received his information. It is widely believed by scholars that, at the time the text of II Samuel was compiled and edited around 560 BCE, the editors subscribed to the belief common among that religious community at the time that God was the ultimate source of all supernatural actions, whether good or evil. This perspective had changed slightly by 400 BCE, at which time I Chronicles is believed to have been written. The author of the account in I Chronicles views God as one who works indirectly through helping agents. Thus, when we read in I Chronicles 21:1 that Satan rose up and inspired David to take a census of his kingdom, we are likely not reading an account of an adversary working against God, as evidenced by what we are told in II Samuel 24:1.

In Zechariah 3:1-2, Satan is portrayed as a member of God’s council in the court of heaven, in much the same way as he is portrayed in the first two chapters of the Book of Job. In his role on God's council in this passage, Satan objects to the selection of Jeshua as the high priest: “Then the angel showed me Jeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord. The Accuser, Satan, was there at the angel’s right hand, making accusations against Jeshua. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘I, the Lord, reject your accusations, Satan. Yes, the Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebukes you. This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.’”

New Testament theology paints a picture of Satan and his role in the world that is dramatically different than his portrayal in the Hebrew Scriptures. The evolution of the figure of Satan from a loyal servant and ally of God to the arch-enemy of God and of all mankind has been traced by many scholars as a transformation that developed during what is called the “intertestamental period” between the close of the Protestant Old Testament and the start of what eventually became the New Testament canon.

The shift in Jewish conceptions of Satan during the transitional intertestamental period was largely occasioned by the influence of the Babylonian religion of Zoroastrianism. In particular, the concepts of angels, of the immortality of the soul, and of Angra Manyu, the God of Evil, were incorporated by Jewish thinkers into their theological system of belief [5]. The Zoroastrian concept of dualism began to surface in a number of Jewish writings, especially those of the Essenes, and eventually became fully integrated into Jewish thought. Shahriar Shahriari quotes J. Duchesne-Guillemin as saying that the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism and Christianity was such that “First, the figure of Satan, originally a servant of God, appointed by Him as His prosecutor, came more and more to resemble Ahriman, the enemy of God” [6]. John Gray remarks that “The development of the concept of Satan as the personal power of evil, who had his counterpart in the archangel Michael, the champion of cause of man in God’s purpose of creation, was probably developed under the influence of Persian Zoroastrian belief in the two conflicting spirits of good and evil” [7].

Thus, the strongly-held Protestant conception of an all-evil opponent of an all-good God who falls from heavenly service and resides over fallen man and hell is taken directly from late period Jewish writings such as the Book of Tobias, Ecclesiasticus, and the Book of Enoch, which were heavily influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. The irony of this fact is that one of the major reasons Protestants give for their rejection of texts such as these is that, in their understanding, neither Jesus nor his followers refer directly to them. Of course, our friend Lavern takes a different approach and strongly admonishes other Christians to consider the Book of Enoch to be inspired by God. But Lavern’s views represent another irony; he accepts the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal and non-canonical text, as an inspired writing from God in order to emphasize the conflict between God and Satan from a source that describes this conflict in greater depth than any canonical book of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament. At the same time, he inconsistently adopts a view of the relationship between God and Satan that writings such as the Book of Enoch largely served to dispel, namely that God and Satan hold common interests and cooperate to realize these interests.

As a result of this integration from influential pagan sources, God came to be understood as wholly good, rather than the source of both good and evil. Satan was conversely characterized as profoundly evil, wholly opposed to God. History was suddenly viewed as a cosmic battle between God and Satan, and the originally-held concept of Satan as God’s helper or lackey disappeared from orthodox systems of theology. Satan and his demons were then believed to be humanity’s greatest and most threatening enemies, and Christians and skeptical nonbelievers alike began to ask the question that is pondered to this day: Why does our all-powerful and perfectly good God not put an end to Satan’s ministry?

NOTES

1. Clark Ashton Smith, “Schizoid Creator,” in Tales of Science and Sorcery (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1964).

2. Nathan Dickey, “Inside the Mind of a Creationist: A Critical Analysis of Kent Hovind’s ‘Doctoral Dissertation,’” Nathan Dickey’s Blog, 23 February 2010, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2010/02/inside-mind-of-creationist-critical_23.html (accessed 6 June 2010).

3. TrustInJC, “Why Does God Not Stop Satan,” YouTube, 31 December 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrNX5RFBC0o (accessed 6 June 2010).

4. On his channel, Lavern has also produced a thirteen-part series of very interesting messages, entitled The Book of Enoch is God Inspired, in which he discusses why he believes the pseudepigraphical and apocryphal Book of Enoch is inspired by God. This series is available at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFD7A02C95EA58BB0&feature=plcp (accessed 6 June 2010). In Part 2 of this series, Lavern goes into fuller detail concerning the conception he has been given from this apocryphal text that humanity was created with two conflicting natures at the outset and that the Tree of Knowledge was a device deliberately used by God to draw out Adam’s and Eve’s dark side of their nature.

For example, he states in this second installment,

“Enoch explains that God understood and knew of Adam and Eve’s evil heart. He understood that they had a rebellious, evil, sinful nature. But they did not understand this, they didn’t know this, and so God used this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to reveal this to them. And so when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened. But it wasn’t because there was something in the fruit that opened their eyes, but rather the act itself. For when they ate of the Tree, their eyes were opened to the fact that they had this evil, sinful, rebellious nature and that they had rebelled against God, and that that sin distanced them from God. Paul understood this, and he had a revelation and understanding of this. And that is why Paul was able to write about the reason and the purpose of the Law of God. God’s Law, Paul explains, was created for the purpose of revealing to us our sinful nature, in the very same way that the Tree of Knowledge was put in the Garden of Eden to reveal Adam and Eve their sinful nature. So this was not some kind of new revelation that Paul received, but rather it was a revelation and an understanding of the writings of Enoch” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lu1Qkl6yLI).
The question Lavern fails to address is why God found it necessary to create humans with an evil nature to begin with. Does this not render God, not Satan, responsible for human rebellion and resultant human suffering, especially given his idea that it was God who orchestrated the temptation in Eden?

5. These concepts are developed in Zoroastrian Scriptures such as the Zend Avesta, the Pahlavi Texts and others. These texts are available online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/ (accessed 6 June 2010).

6. Shahriar Shahriari (July 1997), “Influence of Zoroastrianism on Other Religions,” http://www.sullivan-county.com/z/zor7.htm (accessed 6 June 2010).

7. John Gray, Near Eastern Mythology (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1985), p. 127.