Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 10

Letting Satan have his way

Since this is Good Friday, we should pay homage to Matthew’s effort to merge Halloween with Easter. He reported that when Jesus died on the cross, many people came alive in their tombs, then on Easter morning walked around Jerusalem. (Matthew 27:52-53) Even many Christians dismiss this as a tall tale, but this is awkward: how can they argue that the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a tall tale as well?


Now, on with today’s topic.


How much time and energy have Christian apologists devoted to figuring out why God allows so much suffering? In fact, apologetics is quite an industry; there is so much incoherence in Christian theology that has to be dealt with, but especially suffering. I once found a stunning bit of information in a July 1993 article by Peter Steinfels in the religion section of the New York Times. He reported the amazing achievement of scholar Barry Whitney:


“Whitney has constructed an annotated bibliography of more than 4,200 philosophical and theological writings on the problem of evil published from 1960 to 1990—nearly one publication every 2½ days, and that is only in English. His book is titled Theodicy, the term German philosopher Leibniz coined from the Greek words for ‘God’ and ‘justice’ for efforts to reconcile the goodness of God and the existence of suffering.”


So Christians have realized there’s a lot of explaining to do. But the fact that 4,200 writings were produced in just a thirty year period suggests that nobody is quite satisfied, and that the traditional arguments, no matter how fined tuned they may be, fall short, e.g., God punishes us, tests us, works in mysterious ways; his wrath gets stored up and he is bound to unleash it from time to time. Theologians who witnessed the horrendous suffering during the Black Plague in the 14th century knew for sure that God was getting even for rampant human sin.  


Sometimes, however, reality smacks down even deeply felt piety. Rudolph Vrba describes a grim scene in his book, I Escaped From Auschwitz:


“We were nearer now and could hear the faint whiplash of commands, see a figure stirring here and there. I gripped the arm of Moses Sonenschein beside me and said, ‘Those poor bloody girls. They’ll freeze to death. They’ll die of exposure in this weather.’ Moses, son of a Polish rabbi and a sincerely religious man, murmured, as he always murmured, ‘It is the will of God.’ 


“I hardly heard him. The full meaning of the horrible vista was slowly becoming clear to my mind, which at first had been numbed by the sight. ‘Do you know what it is, Moses?’ I said. ‘It’s a typhus inspection. If they don’t die of exposure, half of them will die in the gas chambers!’ ‘It is the will of God.’


“The engines of forty lorries roared simultaneously, shaking the still air, dominating it, but they were not quite loud enough to cloak the shame of the deed. From the throats of those thousands about to die came a banshee wail that rose shriller and shriller and became louder and louder and went on and on and on, a piercing protest that only death could stop, and then came the panic that was inevitable. The trucks started to move. A woman flung herself over the side. Then another…and another. 


“The SS moved in with their sticks and their whips to beat back those who were trying to follow. Those who had jumped were being beaten too and were trying to clamber back. They fell beneath the quickening wheels while this funeral for the living dead went faster and faster until we could see it no more. Moses Sonenschein murmured, ‘There is no God…’ Then his voice rose to a shout: ‘There is no God! And if there is, curse Him, curse Him, curse Him!’”


But cursing God is abhorrent to many. Why not find someone else to blame?


So it has been common to blame demons—including the Supreme Demon—for the havoc we see in the world. Belief in evil spirits is common enough in the modern world, even after all we’ve learned about causation. But evil spirits were taken for granted in the ancient world, and these superstitions were fully embraced by the gospel writers. 


Giving prominence to Satan, the Devil or lower ranking demons is a major Bible blunder. “Well, the authors were men of their times, what else should we expect?”—so the apologists say, as they resort to allegorical or metaphorical interpretations. But if their scriptures have been inspired by God, shouldn’t we expect that God might have taught humans a thing or two about how the world really works? Given us a head start on figuring out causation? 


Christian theologians struggle mightily with incoherence, that is, the tension that arises from incompatible doctrines: God is good, loving, and powerful—yet doesn’t prevent so much suffering that surely must be within his power to stop; hence the ongoing struggle of the apologists. But the incoherence is compounded when theologians seek to blame the devil, i.e., shift the blame to a powerful rival. Why would God tolerate an evil rival even for a moment? Moreover, this leaves unanswered the really big problem of the devil’s origin: how did the devil happen in the first place? In the Book of Job he may have been a literary device, but he went far beyond that as Christianity developed. If you’ve advocating belief in an all-powerful God, then he has to take the blame not only for the inexplicable evil, but also for tolerating or even creating his rival. Was Jesus himself to blame? At the opening of John’s gospel (1:3) we find this verse about Jesus: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” 


So Christians are stuck with the devil. With the description of Jesus as an adult at the opening of the New Testament, the Devil makes his entrance, tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Mark had given a scant two verses to this episode, Mark 1:12-13:


“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”


Matthew expanded this to eleven verses and depicts Jesus and Satan having a talk; the latter even escorts Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and to a mountaintop. How could this not encourage belief that the devil is real?


We can’t really fault apologists who distance themselves from this ancient worldview; they do want to clean up Christian theology, and are honest enough to admit that Satan is a clumsy effort to get God off the hook. But other Christians are sure that the devil and demons are real, and ignore the results of incoherence. Joseph Daleiden once said, “Looking at the mess the world is in, it might seem easier to prove a Devil than a God.” (The Final Superstition: A Critical Evaluation of the Judeo-Christian Legacy1994). 


Yes, that’s a problem. With such colossal evil and suffering in the world, how can we be sure that the Christian God really is the one in charge? Maybe, after all, he ranks below Satan. There can be endless speculation when you’re trying to figure out hierarchies in the spiritual realm…with “faith” as one of the tools for getting the job done, along with prayer, meditation, séances, and ouija boards.     


Full-blown superstition in modern forms surely does more harm than good. It’s maddening, frightening to witness magical thinking embraced so blatantly, as we see from this recent headline on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist Blog:


Pope Francis: The Devil Is to Blame for COVID-Related Distrust and Desperation 


“Pope Francis, fresh off of the Catholic Church insisting that it still opposes marriage equality, spent his Palm Sunday sermon explaining how Satan was making the most of the pandemic.”


Said the pope: “In this historical and social situation, what is God doing? He takes up the cross. Jesus takes up the cross, that is, he takes on the evil that this situation entails, the physical and psychological evil — and above all the spiritual evil — because the Evil One is taking advantage of the crisis to disseminate distrust, desperation, and discord.”


This is theological white noise that priests and preachers specialize in. How in the world does Jesus on the cross make any difference whatever, how does this positioning of Jesus amount to “taking on the evil that this situation entails”?  


Hemant Mehta was blunt: “Sure. Because as we all know, distrust, desperation, and discord didn’t exist until roughly March of last year. But then Satan saw an opening and just went for it.  


“While this is standard religious rhetoric, Reuters correctly points out that this isn’t just a metaphor for the pope. Catholics believe Satan is real. While it’s true that the pandemic has caused a lot of emotional and psychological pain, it makes no sense to blame that on anyone else. It’s been tough for everyone. The Devil isn’t responsible for how we reacted, though.

“In the same speech, by the way, the pope didn’t bother blaming God for the existence of COVID or thanking the scientists who discovered vaccines against it.”

“Catholics believe Satan is real.” Of course they do, because—pardon my cynicism—the spiritual realm is big business. There are thousands of Catholic saints, Mary the mother of Jesus being especially prominent: Catholics flock to the shrines by the millions. But there are the demons as well, hence the Vatican has a staff of exorcists, presumably trained at the Vatican, not Hogwarts. 


Does the pope actually buy into all this? Or, as the CEO of a multi-billion dollar business, does he do what he has to do? I once asked an Italian journalist if the Catholic hierarchy really believes the superstitions the church has promoted for centuries. His guess was that maybe half of them do—but, hey, you know, it’s a job. 


A big helping of reality-based thinking would be welcome: get rid of the costumes, which promote the holy-man bamboozle; fess up that the virulent homophobia promoted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI needs to be condemned (see Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy). And we would welcome Pope Francis holding a monthly press conference —without fail —to bring the world up to date on what he is doing, every day, every week, to stop child rape by priests (see Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church ‘s 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, by Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe & Patrick Wall). 


If the pope really wants to defend the devil’s existence, then his Exhibit A could be this horrible pattern of priests raping children, and the church covering it up.


This would be progress: Christians and their church putting behind them ancient superstitions about the devil and demons. This is bad theology—and it was a major blunder that the Bible authors went along with it. John Loftus has pointed out:


“This ultimate conspiracy theory is that there’s a cosmic war between God and Satan over your precious little mind because YOU are that important! Only evidence-minded people can resist this.” (on Twitter, 13 January 2021 @johnloftusw)  


John can be such a nuisance: always asking for reliable, verifiable, objective evidence to back up claims about God. He’s got some nerve.


[My brief video commentary on this topic is here.] 


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.