Elaine Pagels is a scholar of early Christianity, perhaps best known for her book, The Gnostic Gospels — an exploration of theological diversity in the New Testament world and, indeed, among early strains of Christianity.
Along the way, she’s also explored the development of ideas around sin and evil and, specifically, Satan. When, for instance, we meet the character called Satan in Job he’s a court prosecutor — the satan, Hebrew ha-satan, or “the accuser.” (Job 1:6) Pagel’s book, The Origin of Satan, looks at how the figure of Satan changed from a member of the heavenly tribunal (Job), and a rather insignificant character throughout most of the Hebrew Bible, to a predominant force in early Christianity. This development, she asserts, began in the time between the Old and New Testaments, the time that gave rise to much of the worldview that informed Christianity. As she said in an interview,
“[W]hen you look at groups that became followers of Jesus of Nazareth, or the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, these are Jewish sects who saw themselves as separate from the majority of the Jewish community. And so instead of saying, ‘we’re all following God,’ they began to say, ‘the supernatural world is split between Satan and God, and right down here on Earth, we’re God’s people and they’re Satan’s people.’ That became a way of talking about divided communities.”
The Origins of Satan moves from early Christianity’s Hellenistic context to connect the dots as to why we have deep-seated animosity toward those who differ from us. We have been trained, Pagels asserts, to want to eliminate those who differ from us because we have been taught that differences of opinions are actually manifestations of a fundamental split in the supernatural world.
I’ll leave her assertions there. Mostly, I want to look at one element she puts forward as a unique development in Judeo-Christian thought. In the gospel appointed for Wednesday in Holy Week (John 13:21-32), we encounter the character, Satan (v.27). The setting is the Last Supper which, in John’s gospel, features foot washing. Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him. He dips a piece of bread in a dish (v.26), hands it to Judas and then: “After [Judas] had received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.” (v.27)
I recognize in John’s gospel, specifically this thirteenth chapter, Pagel’s suggestion that by the time of John’s writing a nascent but nonetheless distinct Christian understanding of sin, evil, temptation and – yes – Satan has emerged. There is much we can learn here.
Have you ever asked: Why do bad things happen in this world? Has someone ever asked you: Why do people die unexpectedly? Why do bad things happen to good people? (Rabbi Harold Kushner popularized that question.) Heck, why do bad things happen to bad people? People ask these questions all the time. What they’re circling around are larger questions of theodicy — the working term for theories about the existence of evil and what God has to do with it, if God has anything to do with evil at all.
Our New Testament writers and, indeed, theologians (the gospel writer, John, is certainly a sophisticated theologian) lay some solid foundations for what has become a distinct Christian theodicy. If, as Pagels asserts, Christianity is built on a worldview that sees brokenness as a manifestation of the fractured nature of God’s kingdom, then the presence of Satan in (John’s) Passion narrative is no casual addition. It’s a clear indication that this betrayal and trial, Jesus’ crucifixion and death was not supposed to happen. This is a truly bad thing, and it doesn’t matter that it happens to a good person (Jesus). Bad things happen all the time. That’s what it means to live in a fractured, broken, anxious world.
Temptation and sin are always around us. We know that firsthand as human creatures, and part of our Christian response is that this is necessarily (yet sadly) the case, especially given the fundamental break in the supernatural order beyond our control. We are never removed from brokenness. This frightens us, and it moves us to do stupid things.
“Before man fell the devil fell,” wrote my go-to thinker on questions such as these, one of the 20th century’s most impactful Christian theologians — Reinhold Neibuhr: “To believe that there is a devil is to believe that there is a principle of force of evil antecedent to any evil human action.” (Nature and Destiny of Man, vol.1, p.180) Everything we do, Neibuhr wrote, is “infected with the sin of pride. Man’s pride and will-to-power disturb the harmony of creation.” (Ibid., p.179) Neibuhr knew that there is an individual element to sin, but what primarily concerned him were sin’s social dimensions — how a moral man lives in an immoral society, to use the title of his best-known contribution.
The Bible defines sin in both religious and moral terms. The religious dimension of sin is man’s rebellion against God, his effort to usurp the place of God. The moral and social dimension of sin is injustice. The ego which falsely makes itself the centre of existence in its pride and will-to-power inevitably subordinates other life to its will and thus does injustice to other life.
Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1, p.179
“Man is insecure,” Neibuhr asserted. Even though this insecurity makes us deeply anxious and frightened, and even though our fears can make us do stupid things, it is not at all stupid to search for meaning. It is in fact wise, Neibuhr would assert, if that search leads us to a right mind and proper relationship with God; if that search leads us to act for justice, even if such actions might appear to bend black-and-white moral distinctions.
This is where I’ve often found Neibuhr most helpful in dealing with questions around evil, sin, and God. Some critics have argued that Neibuhr is nothing more than a political philosopher who uses theology as a backstop. I can see how someone would come to that conclusion, but only if they don’t know how Neibuhr works theologically. It’s true: he does not believe that you and I are bright enough, inspired enough, creative enough, godly enough to come up with great solutions on our own. In fact, our own attempts to believe are, at times, what deceive. Neibuhr recognizes that evil very much exists in this world. Even more boldly (surprisingly?), he contends that God is not victorious over evil in history. Evil has not been defeated. So Neibuhr:
The perfect love which [Christ’s] life and death exemplify is defeated, rather than triumphant, in the actual course of history. Thus, according to the Christian belief, history remains morally ambiguous to the end. … Suffering innocence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the problem at the point when it is seen as the revelation of a divine suffering.
Neibuhr, Faith and History (1949), p.135
But, Neibuhr says, we do know the a decisive difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Nothing is merely relative. We will often lose when we stand up to evil, but that is not sufficient reason to give up or grow discouraged. Nor should our losing (or winning) be measured on our scale, and for our sake. The value of the things we seek after is already revealed by God in Christ, even if that revelation looks upside-down and wrong-headed, such as Satan entering Judas at the Last Supper, or the Lord of all Creation hanging to die on a tree.
And this, I suppose, helps me explain why I don’t hear faithful, church-going Christian women and men ask the question all that often: Why do bad things happen? Sure, everyone asks it, but I don’t hear it asked as much from faithful followers of Jesus so much as I hear it from others. Frankly, most of the time it’s tossed out as a philosophical objection to believing anything, generally uttered from someone who once believed something, or wants good cause not to believe anything. What I’m trying to say is that the question of evil need not bother Christian people. I say this not because it’s a categorically bad question (I actually believe it’s important), but because the answer only inevitably turns back to me and my relationship with God in Christ.
And thus it’s really a question about we live in this world — a broken and, yet, sometimes downright beautiful world. How do we live questions around temptation, sin, brokenness and evil? How do we live these questions in such a way that the questions don’t fundamentally bother us? This, to me, is the far more interesting pursuit. This, to me, looks like what Frederick Buechner wrote in his beautiful little book, Beyond Words:
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. …Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.