Magazine article The Christian Century

The Quest for the Historical Satan

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Quest for the Historical Satan

Article excerpt

The Quest for the Historical Satan

By Miguel A. De La Torre and Albert Hernandez

Fortress, 256 pp., $20.00 paperback

According to Albert Schweitzer, the quest for the historical Jesus ends with the questers looking down a well and seeing their own reflections. Could the same be said of a search for the historical Satan? With few exceptions, we have tended to see Satan in the face of the other. Satan has proved to be a useful foil to describe one's enemies and to make sense of the continuing presence of evil and suffering in the world, whether or not one believes in a literal Satan.

A quest for the historical Satan has been undertaken for the purpose of understanding how this image came to be, how it has been used in history and how, despite technological progress, it is still used to explain the fact that evil remains with us. Leading this quest are two professors from Iliff School of Theology, ethicist Miguel De La Torre and historian Albert Hernandez. They begin in the present, introducing us to the ways in which Satan is portrayed by Hollywood and by various religious communities. From there, they go back to Egyptian mythology and move through early Jewish developments and on to evolving Christian and Muslim understandings.

Satan began as a trickster with an ambiguous identity and became the embodiment of absolute evil. The evolution of this image is fascinating and enlightening, and as we delve into it, we discover that many of our assumptions about Satan and evil are misguided and mistaken.

Why this book? The vast majority of Americans say they believe not only in God but in a literal Satan. A 2000 Princeton survey suggests that 75 percent of Americans believe in Satan, and a 2007 Baylor survey reached similar results. Books and movies, whether religiously oriented or not, give evidence of our fascination with the dark side of reality, and some American Christians believe that the United Nations is a satanic entity. Ali the evidence suggests that we continue to believe that "Satan is alive and well on planet earth" (as in the title of a 1972 book by Hal Lindsey).

In their quest to tell the story of the evolution of human understandings of the figure of Satan and other personifications of evil, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu, the authors discovered that through the ages there has been great variation. In the book of Job, Satan is a member of the heavenly court whose responsibility is that of accuser and prosecutor. Whatever mischief Satan causes is at the direction of God. Later, especially after the postexilic encounter with Zoroastrianism, a dualism set in, and Satan began to emerge as a powerful opponent of God. By the time of the New Testament, Satan was often seen as the personification of absolute evil, a view that continued to develop into the patristic era and on through the medieval era.

As an exclusivist Christian monotheism engaged the Hellenistic syncretism that dominated the Roman Empire, it interpreted such options as expressions of the demonic and the Satanic. …

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