Satan is with us. “Of course,” you say. Or, “No way.” Perhaps you scoff — or shudder. Whether he lurks in your belief system or not, the devil is often encountered as a caricature, metaphor or character on page or screen.
To most people of faith, the Prince of Darkness is real, either as entity or symbol. We talked with people from several faith traditions to find out what they believe about Satan.
BAHA’I: OUR BASER SIDE
Mark Rossman spoke for Twin Cities (Minn.) Baha’i:
“Satan is not a physical or actual reality, but more a man-made thought. Certainly he’s nothing God created. He’s a creation of man, and represents the baser side of man. He’s a metaphor for evil.”
CHRISTIAN (ROMAN CATHOLIC): A REAL BEING
John Martens, assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., teaches a class on apocalyptic literature.
“Whether my students believe in Satan as a being depends on whether they believe in a spirit world. That’s difficult for a lot of people in this fairly scientific world. But Roman Catholicism affirms the reality of Satan and his demons, and not simply in mythological or figurative terms. What often gets in the way is the cartoon image of devils. People respond most strongly to the reality of evil as they see it in themselves. When we find ourselves falling into the same traps over and over again even though we don’t want to, we begin to think maybe there is a force of evil, maybe it’s not simply images.”
CHRISTIAN (EVANGELICAL): A POWER HOSTILE TO GOD AND MAN
The Rev. Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minn., is the author of several books, including “Satan and the Problem of Evil.”
“I believe in Satan really, if not exactly literally. Our conceptions of Satan and demons are mythological, largely based on the gods Pan and Bacchus. Asking what Satan looks like is the wrong question. I believe in a demonic power — Satan — and other principalities and powers, a whole army hostile to God and to humans. Jesus was always confronting those powers because he refused to go along. We face them when we are moved by the stream of society in ungodly ways, or when we have decisions to make such as to love or not to love. But we should never say, ‘The Devil made me do it,’ because we have free will. In some ways it’s easier to believe in the devil in the 20th and 21st centuries than before. There is a demonic power behind racism, oppression, sexism. Also, one of the great temptations of the devil is our tendency to demonize our human enemies. If we do that, we think we don’t have to try to understand them.”
CHRISTIAN (LUTHERAN): NO DEVIL, NO REDEEMER
Prof. Walter Sundberg teaches a class on the devil at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
“Look at Luther’s hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’ What you’ll see is his theology — that existence is on a spiritual battleground between God and the devil. We stand between them. The devil, the Prince of the World, tempts Jesus by saying, ‘If you bow down and worship me, I will give you the kingdoms of the world.’ There’s an old saw, ‘No Devil, no Redeemer’ — if you leave the devil out of your theology, you can’t understand why Jesus died on the cross. Luther takes that very seriously. The experience of existence, he thought, is Anfechtung — constant attack by despair, affliction, death and the devil. Remember, in Luther’s time, the 1500s, 50 percent of people died by age 10. Luther taught the doctrine of consolation: The devil doesn’t attack people he already owns, so if you’re under affliction, that should console you, because it means the devil wants you. If you are deeply suffering, that’s a sign that you belong to God. To say that the devil is not central to Christian theology is simply incoherent.
CHRISTIAN (NONDENOMINATIONAL): THE TEMPTER
The Rev. Carmen Means is youth pastor at the Church of New Life Ministry in Minneapolis.
“From the viewpoint of many black churches, the devil is a fallen angel who challenged God. He got prideful. He’s the Prince of the Air, the Ruler of Darkness, and yes, a being — he goes deeper than a metaphor. But we’re responsible for whether or not we do the things he tempts us to do. Those cartoons with an angel on one shoulder, devil on the other are true in a way. But instead of people taking responsibility for their choices, they’ll say, ‘The devil made me do it.’ God has given us the authority to not do the things the devil tempts us to.”
HINDU: A METAPHOR FOR GREED
Anantanand Rambachan is a professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
“In the Hindu tradition, there isn’t a single figure similar to that of the devil in other traditions. If it’s used at all, it’s metaphorical. We might describe an action as devilish, but primarily the explanation for evil is within the human being. There’s a discussion in the Bhagavad Gita about what causes humans to do evil even against their own will. The text says it is greed. Why are we susceptible to greed? We would speak about ignorance of the spiritual truths that unite us all — and that would be God. God is like a string that connects a necklace of gems, a uniting presence.”
JEWISH (CONSERVATIVE TRADITION): A NEGATIVE FORCE
Rabbi Sylvan Kamens is interim senior rabbi at the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul:
“In Babylon, the Jews encountered Zoroastrianism, a dark and light dichotomy. Isaiah first, and then the rabbis, said, that’s not for us. There’s a wonderful verse, Isaiah 45:7: ‘I am the Lord and there is none else. I form light and create darkness. I make weal and create woe.’ God was saying, ‘I’m responsible for all of it, good and evil.’ There is only one sphere of influence. Satan plays the role of a negative force not equal to God. He’s an evil conscience, but not an equal weight. My sense is that our people would only see the devil on a fictional basis, like Mephistopheles persuading Faust to sell his soul. Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote ‘Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,’ when he was asked about 9/11, where was God? he said, ‘God is in the strength people have to put up with the realities in the world.’ That’s how I advise people.”
MUSLIM: THE FIRST RACIST
Damon Drake of Mosque al-Salaam in Maplewood, Minn.: “One of the things that differentiates Muslims from our Christian brothers is that we don’t believe Satan was a fallen angel. There’s a life form we believe in, the jinn, made from smokeless fire and put on Earth before mankind. Now, Shaitan, or Ibliss, was a powerful and righteous jinn who sat among the angels. When God created Adam, the angels asked him, ‘Why put someone else on Earth who will cause chaos and not worship you?’ God said, ‘I know better than what you know.’ When God told the angels to prostrate themselves to Adam, Ibliss refused. His reply was, ‘Why should I bow to man? You made me from fire, him from clay, so I’m better than him!’ He was the first racist. God will punish Ibliss, but he gave him time to prove his theory about man’s inferiority. Ibliss does not have physical powers, but is the whisperer. Say you get into a conflict at work. He whispers to you, ‘They never liked you,’ then withdraws, then whispers something later, then leaves what you’ll do up to you — because it’s your choice to forgive, or to make the situation worse.”
UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST: SATAN AS EXCUSE
The Rev. Wendy Jerome belongs to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis: “There’s natural evil, like a hurricane, and human evil. (Philosopher) Hannah Arendt said that we don’t really need Satan, that evil happens because someone has been casual about changing lanes and doesn’t look and hits someone, or doesn’t care and buys goods made under oppressive conditions, or starts a war because of casual inattention to the rights of other people. We see the devil as a personification of evil. But he’s too easy to use. Blaming him excuses us from acknowledging our own participation in evil.”
Satan’s image in art
Pop-culture images of Satan are as goofy as the fork-waving, horned red fellow on cans of Underwood Deviled Ham and as scary as Louis Cyphere (Lucifer), the long-nailed, eggswallowing character Robert De Niro played in the 1987 thriller “Angel Heart.” (The egg symbolized a soul.)
Musical references include both the eloquent (Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and innumerable blues songs) and creepy (Marilyn Manson’s “Highway to Hell”); cinematic treatments include “The Exorcist, “The Omen, “Rosemary’s Baby,” Constantine” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”
The devil has spiced many a literary work, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” to the “Left Behind” series.
Versions of the tale of Faust, who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for material knowledge, abound in every artistic genre. In Dante’s “Inferno,” the devil appears as a threeheaded creature trapped in a frozen lake and gnawing on prominent sinners’ skulls.
In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Satan is a proud, fierce, tragic villain who believes it is “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” and whose depiction, many scholars argue, is more vivid than that of God or Adam. The romantic poet William Blake was so impressed by Milton’s Satan that he wrote that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.”