dianoigo blog

Monday 18 November 2013

The Devil as Personification

Modern Western Christians have a difficult time believing in the devil as a literal, personal being. This has become apparent in population research among American Christians which shows that belief in a personal Satan is now a minority viewpoint. More and more Christians, it seems, see Satan as merely a symbol of evil. Christadelphians welcome this shift in thinking, because it is what they have been preaching for the past 165 years.

It may be assumed that some of these Christians are simply ignorant of what the Bible says about Satan. However, other proponents of the symbolic view of Satan have been brilliant Bible scholars. These have often arrived at their conclusion through a method of biblical interpretation most widely associated with the influential New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, known as "demythologization." Bultmann acknowledged that Paul makes mythological statements about demonic powers, including Satan. However, he argues that it is valid for us to give these powers an "ultimately unmythological meaning", which he expresses thus:
"The spirit powers represent the reality into which man is placed as one full of conflicts and struggle, a reality which threatens and tempts. Thus, through these mythological conceptions the insight is indirectly expressed that man does not have his life in his hand as if he were his own lord but that he is constantly confronted with the decision of choosing his lord."1
In short, Bultmann's point is that in light of modern science we cannot accept the letter of the New Testament writers' mythological teachings about Satan and demons. However, we can re-conceptualize them in a way that is true to the writers' ultimate purpose and so be faithful to the spirit of their writings.

Bultmann's conclusions probably would not resonate with many Christadelphians. Because Christadelphians generally have a high view of biblical authority, most of them would object to his method of interpretation. Christadelphians believe that the New Testament writers themselves conceived of Satan as merely a symbol of evil and not as a personal being. Thus no 'demythologization' is necessary.

Christadelphians frequently use the term 'personification' to describe how the New Testament presents the devil or Satan. This term needs a bit of unpacking, especially for those of us who are a few years removed from high school English classes. Most dictionaries list two definitions for the word personification. The following is typical:
1) the attribution of human characteristics to things, abstract ideas, etc., as for literary or artistic effect: Hunger sat shivering on the road
2) a person or thing regarded as an embodiment of a quality: he is the personification of optimism
It is important to distinguish between these two meanings. Many scholars would be prepared to describe the devil as a personification of evil in the second sense, the embodiment of the quality of evil in a person. For instance, historical theologian J.B. Russell writes, "The Devil is the personification of the principle of evil", which sounds very Christadelphian, but he adds that the devil is "sentient", and "willing and directing evil."This shows that he has the second meaning in mind.

In light of their use of the title "the Evil One" it is plausible that the New Testament writers viewed the devil as the personification of evil in this second sense. However, when Christadelphians say that the devil is the personification of evil, they have the first meaning in mind. The devil is not really a person but an abstract idea: fallen human nature or (to put it in a more Jewish way) the yetzer hara, the evil impulse in man. Personal characteristics are attributed to this impersonal idea as a literary device. (Some Christadelphians might nuance this definition by saying that the devil is not simply another word for the yetzer hara, but specifically a term for the personified yetzer hara).

In the next few blogs I want to highlight some reasons why I think this view of the devil as merely a literary device is unsound. The first reason is what I call constant personification. According to the first Christadelphian explanation above, the devil is actually an abstract idea; an 'it'. If this were the case, it would not be surprising to find that the devil were occasionally personified in the New Testament; after all, the word 'sin' is also personified in Scripture (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16; 7:9-13; James 1:15). How do we know that 'sin' is personified, rather than actually being a person? The answer is that there are plenty of other passages which clearly identify sin as an abstract idea. For instance, sin is defined as 'lawlessness' in 1 John 3:4. Even in the contexts in which sin is personified, it is also treated as impersonal: in John 8:34 and James 2:9 sin is "committed", which makes no sense if sin is a person. Paul in Romans refers to sin being "reckoned" (Rom. 5:13), and "increasing" in juxtaposition with grace (Rom. 5:20), which again shows he did not literally see sin as a person.

We find the same with other things and ideas which are personified in Scripture. Wisdom, wine, Jerusalem, death and wealth are all personified in the Bible, but there are plenty of other passages which treat them as impersonal, which is why no one views any of these entities as actual persons.

Similarly, if the New Testament writers actually saw Satan/the devil as an abstract idea, it would not be surprising for them to personify this idea on occasion. However, we would expect to find other passages which clearly express that Satan/the devil is an impersonal entity. In fact, there is not a single such passage in the New Testament. While there are some texts in which it is possible to take the devil/Satan as an impersonal entity, there is not a single text in which it is grammatically or contextually necessary to do so.

The devil/Satan is referred to in personal terms constantly, across the different genres and authors within the New Testament. The titles themselves are personal, meaning 'the slanderous one' and 'the adversary'. As the subject of verbs the devil/Satan is depicted as coming and going, speaking, tempting, taking away, murdering, lying, putting ideas in people's hearts, oppressing, scheming, capturing, working, disputing, throwing into prison, deceiving, binding, demanding, entering into people, destroying, outwitting, disguising himself, harassing, hindering, leading astray and dwelling.

As the object of verbs he receives opportunities, is condemned, destroyed, cast out, seized, bound, released, tormented, he falls from heaven, is crushed, and has people delivered to him. His other attributes include having angels, having messengers, having children and being a father, having a self, having a will, having power, having wrath, having designs, setting traps, having operations, having a throne, and having a synagogue.

Where is the evidence that the New Testament writers regarded the devil/Satan as an impersonal entity? If there is none, the only way one could possibly claim that they regarded the devil/Satan as impersonal is if it could be proven from sources outside the New Testament that first century Christian readers from a Jewish background could be expected to know that the devil/Satan was an impersonal entity.

In fact, the available evidence points in the opposite direction. sathan (diabolos in the Septuagint) always refers to personal beings in the Old Testament, and as the Second Temple period progressed, the concept underwent considerable development. Although the Jewish idea of Satan remained diverse, it is clear that by the end of the intertestamental period, Satan was widely believed to be a specific angelic being.3

However, there was also a current of Jewish thought in the intertestamental period which denied or at least marginalized Satan's personal existence. Sacchi summarizes these two competing notions as follows:
"The figure of the devil is presented in Second Temple Judaism with two basic aspects. 1) The devil can be the principle of evil and explains its origin, its arche, but is no longer active. 2) The devil can be understood, on the contrary, as a will continuously active in history, rebelling against God and harmful to humans...The formation of this way of understanding the devil was favored by the existence, attested only in canonical texts, of an angel of God called 'satan' because of its function."4
Instances of the first view cited by Sacchi include Sirach and the epistle of Enoch, both dated to the second century BC. Sacchi translates Sirach 21:27 thus: 'When the impious curses the satan, he only curses himself'. He comments, "For Sirach, therefore, the devil does not exist: Satan is only a metaphor to indicate our worst instincts."5 The epistle of Enoch (now part of 1 Enoch) affirms human responsibility for sin while omitting any reference to Satan, which for Sacchi indicates a conscious effort to eliminate Satan.6

Writings of Second Temple Judaism which affirm the second view, i.e. the existence of a personal Satan/devil, include the Book of Dreams (now part of 1 Enoch), Wisdom of Solomon, Book of Jubilees, Testament of Moses, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Apocalypse of Abraham and Testament of Job (note that some of these may post-date part or all of the New Testament).

The first view came to dominate post-70 AD Rabbinic Judaism; as Sacchi notes, "in Jewish writings at the end of the first century the devil suddenly disappears".7

Thus, it is apparent that much diversity and debate existed about the nature and existence of Satan in Judaism leading up to and during the apostolic period. It is widely accepted by scholars that the New Testament writers were heavily influenced by apocalyptic Judaism. A typical statement is Branden's: "The influence of apocalyptic eschatology on the New Testament is clear."8 Thus the writers of the New Testament and their Jewish readers were almost certainly aware of the different viewpoints. In view of this, the question we must ask is, which side of the fence were the New Testament writers on: metaphorical Satan or personal Satan?

This is where the constant personal language hits home. In the absence of explicit indications otherwise, personal language about Satan/the devil in the New Testament would have most naturally been read as referring to a personal being. The writers would have known this, and thus, had they intended to convey that Satan/the devil was not a person, they would surely have said so to avoid misleading their readers.

Said another way, it is very unlikely that the New Testament writers would have used the literary device of personification, without qualification, to liken Satan to the very kind of external personal being whose existence they rejected! In view of this, the only plausible explanation for the constant, unqualified personal language about the devil/Satan in the New Testament is that its writers held the devil/Satan to be a personal being.

1 Bultmann, R. 1951. Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1. Baylor University Press, pp. 257-259. 
2 Russell, J.B. 1987. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Cornell University Press, p. 23.
3 See summary of intertestamental views in Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., and Bromiley, G., eds. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1. Eerdmans, p. 151.
4 Sacchi, P. 1996. Jewish Apocalyptic and its History. Continuum, p. 211.
5 Sacchi, P. op. cit., p. 223.
6 Sacchi, P. op. cit., p. 114.
7 Sacchi, P. op. cit., p. 231.
8 Branden, R.C. 2006. Satanic Conflict and the Plot of Matthew. Peter Lang, p. 17.