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…all are the children of God, fruit upon the one tree of His love. God is equally compassionate and kind to all the leaves, branches and fruit of this tree. Therefore, there is no satanic tree whatever — Satan being a product of human minds and of instinctive human tendencies toward error. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 230.
Would you cry if Satan died? He may be dying a slow death. Here’s why:
Strange to say, but belief in Jesus, at least within fundamentalist Christianity, also entails a belief in the existence of Satan. What would Christianity look like without Satan? How would the “passion and work of Christ,” as systematic theologians put it, be different, if Satan is exposed for who he really is–or for who he really isn’t?
Did you know that Satan has a history? Yes, Satan has a long social history. He was born in history (even though there is a belief in Satan’s preexistence), developed in history, grew into what he is today, and, I submit, is now dying a slow death.
Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, wrote a best-selling book called The Origin of Satan. In it, she argues that, in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”), Satan first appears as an angel:
As he [Satan] first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (ma’lak) into Greek (angelos). – Pagels, The Origin of Satan, p. 39.
Pagels goes on to say: “In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character.” Pagels eloquently argues that the origin of Jewish belief in demons is the process of demonizing others. First, other nations were demonized. Then, within Judaism itself, rival factions were also satanized.
In a nutshell, Satan launched his career as one of God’s host, variously taking on the role of obstructer or tester or accuser. Over time, Satan became more specialized, first as a fomenter of discord, division and destruction within Israel, then as a rebel against God, a rival of God, and finally an inveterate enemy of God’s faithful followers.
Then, in the period between the Old and New Testaments, a group of books by Jewish sectarians appeared on the religious horizon. The disaffected, disfavored Jewish dissidents wrote the apocrypha (“hidden things”) and pseudepigrapha (“false writings”). These writings contain several stories of the origin of Satan and his demonic host.
Space does not permit a recital of these mythologies in detail. Although her book skips over the issue of possible Persian (Zoroastrian) influence on the rise of angelology and demonology within Judaism, Pagels’ conclusion, based on her research, is quite definite:
At first glance these stories of Satan may seem to have little in common. Yet they all agree on one thing: that this greatest and most dangerous enemy did not originate, as one might expect, as an outsider, an alien, or a stranger. . . Whichever version of his origin one chooses, then, and there are many, all depict Satan as an intimate enemy—the attribute that qualifies him so well to express conflict among Jewish groups. – Pagels, The Origin of Satan, p. 49.
Historically, the same process repeats itself in early Christianity. Opposing Jews, especially their leaders, such as the Pharisees, are demonized in the Gospels. Later, in the early church, pagans are demonized, and then Christian heretics as well.
The experience of injustice and evil is quite personal, and human nature tends to personify it. In brief, we’ve long used Satan to represent evil. Evil is in the eye of the beholder, however. In many cases, the demonizing arrow quickly flies back at the archer.
As the famous Elvis Presley refrain goes, “You’re the devil in disguise!” Once we expose Satan for who he really is (and for who he isn’t), we can agree with the cartoon character Pogo, who exclaims: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” At this point, Satan becomes the devil in demise.
The Baha’i writings do not discuss—or believe in—the origin of Satan. But they do recognize the origin of evil:
God has created all in His image and likeness. Shall we manifest hatred for His creatures and servants? This would be contrary to the will of God and according to the will of Satan, by which we mean the natural inclinations of the lower nature. This lower nature in man is symbolized as Satan—the evil ego within us, not an evil personality outside. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 287.