A Carleton University professor throws new light on the Prince of Darkness, Jennifer Green reports
By Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen September 25, 2010
The devil is not who we think he is. In fact, for much of ancient history, he wasn't even a "he," says Kimberly Stratton, who is teaching a new Carleton University course on the history of Satan.
The earliest Biblical references use "satan" as a verb, meaning to block or prevent something.
In the Book of Numbers, an angel blocks or "satans" Balaam from cursing the Israelites. "In the original Hebrew, the verb is to 'satan' him," says Stratton. "The angel himself was a normal angel of God." In the Book of Job, "satan" is a job title, something like a Crown prosecutor who seeks sinners and brings them to justice.
"He is still an angel in God's court. There is no indication that he is an opponent of God. He just seems to be an angel doing his job. If anything, he has a higher-ranking position in heaven." Even in the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew, the Devil tests Jesus in the desert, but then he disappears, and ministering angels come in. "So it's not clear there that he isn't still part of God's entourage. ... acting somehow as the Crown attorney." Stratton outlines in her course how man's ideas of God and goodness, evil and misfortune, are shaped by history.
In 586 BC, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, the sole place of Jewish sacrifice, and dragged the nation into exile.
Once there, they tried to reconcile their misfortune with God's justice. They also started to believe there was only one God -- their own.
"If your god uses other nations to punish you, he must be in charge of those other nations and if he's in charge of those other nations, he must be more powerful than those other gods," says Stratton. "Eventually, you conclude there is just one god." The other gods became characterized as demons, traced back to the race of giants mentioned in Genesis, the offspring of "fallen angels" who came down from heaven and mated with human women. Stratton stresses that this is the only mention in the Bible of fallen angels, later stories notwithstanding.
The early church father Origen of Alexandria first suggested several hundred years after Christ's death that Satan fell because he refused to bow down to humans.
We also hear that he is the snake in the garden, trying to tempt Adam and Eve, but we are never told why, says Stratton.
"We're left with some guy who's evil for no reason. He is just an opponent of God, out to create havoc and ruin the world and ruin mankind, just because." In the Middle Ages, the devil becomes a useful tool for inflicting horrific measures against whoever might be in the way. If Jews or women or Knights Templar control too much of the economy, don't submit to their husbands, or own too much land, those in control could accuse them of worshipping Satan, making it perfectly acceptable to seize their goods, torture them, and burn them at the stake.
In the 16th century, as Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church, both competed to enforce moral reform, clamping down on women in particular.
"So there starts to be this association that women are running amok, striving to overthrow their husbands, and overturning domestic duties. They are so sexually insatiable they have to go to the devil to be satisfied." Once they have sold themselves to the devil purely for sexual reasons, they are in his thrall.
In preparation for the course, Stratton spent the better part of one summer looking at movies about Satan. Her favourite, Bedazzled, a 1967 movie with Dudley Moore, is surprisingly close to the Old Testament.
"(Satan's) job is to throw little things in (people's) way, to see how they react, and whether they roll with it and manage to keep their faith." Six years later, The Exorcist scorched the popular imagination. But, as creepy as it was, offers a surprisingly lazy devil. "This is the arch enemy of God and the worst he has to offer is a girl swearing and masturbating?" Al Pacino's Satan in The Devil's Advocate calls himself the first humanitarian, and offers this critique of religion: "God gives you all these desires and passions and then he gives you all these rules: look but don't touch, touch but don't taste, he's up there laughing." The devil in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is so androgynous that Stratton figures the director was linking Satan with homosexuality, another vilified group.
One scholar on Stratton's recommended reading list argues that Satan is not really that important, not even in the Bible.
Nor is he all that evil, writes Henry Ansgar Kelly in Satan: A Biography.
Kelly, distinguished professor emeritus in UCLA's English department, calls for a return to the original biblical view of Satan as a sort of prosecuting attorney rather than an embodiment of evil bent on destroying humankind.
Kelly says the latter characterization of Satan tars God with the same dark brush: "The ... vilification of Satan as the great enemy of God, to whom God delivered the entire human race for punishment, casts God not as the merciful father of the gospels but as an inept and irrational tyrant." Christ's sacrifice redeems relatively few, leaving millions of others, conceived and born in the state of guilt without having committed any personal sin, to suffer in Hell forever.
He writes: "It's a miserable picture isn't it? And it is owing in the large part to the unjustifiably bad press given to Satan over the centuries." Moving away from the "Prince of Evil" nomenclature brightens our view of God and human nature, allowing us to focus "on the real causes of the evil actions that people actually commit." At the end of all this research, Stratton believes there is no devil out there. "But what we have is people who create devils by believing in devils." Her course, limited to 20 students in the third or fourth year of the bachelor of humanities program, meets once a week for three hours.
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