Gnostic Doctrine

Monday, 10 September 2018

Elaine Pagels on Satan and the Devil

Who is Satan?

'Satan' is a personification of what early Church fathers considered evil: like judgmentalness, materialism, lust, greed, relentlessness, usury, and the merchandising of Jesus' teachings. Satan is "the power of materiality." (158)

The relationship of Satan with sin appears late in the Old Testament, "he [Satan] is an accuser, a heavenly officer [of God], whose function it is to question and to test the genuinity of human virtue." (159) The appearance of Satan as a tempter (the devil is like God's prosecuting attorney in the book of Job), however, does not affect the Old Testament belief that man is, himself, the responsible agent of his sin.

Satan, in the sense of a demonic personification of evil, can be seen as scare tactics to keep those in lower stages of consciousness out of harm's way until they understood the Christ message.

We can liken parents using stories of the bogyman to scare children into obeying rules when they are too young to understand the purpose of the rules, to those who would use Satan to scare themselves and others into doing good until they wanted to do it on their own accord.

It is apparent in 2Co 11:13 that Paul is having trouble with those who claim to be Christian Apostles, but to Paul they were anti-Christs, who would use Jesus for their own personal gain, i.e. "ministers of Satan." (160)

"The scriptural doctrine of Satan is nowhere systematically developed [in the New Testament]...the source of evil is found in the flesh* and its passions, in self-love and ignorance, rather than supernatural personalities." (161) In short, Satan is a personification of evil, not a real character.

Exorcism can be seen as a concentrated effort to purge the consciousness of false standards, not to extract demons. See Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satin, Pgs. 34 and 38, Vantage Books.

Fallen angels are those who have reached Stage IV, but are too weak in their commitment and understanding of Jesus' Christ teachings. They do not carry it into their daily lives. The term 'backsliders' is synonymous with fallen angels.

(156) Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul, p. 84.
(157) Ibid., p. 85.
(158) Ibid., p. 67.

(146) Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, p. 97.
(147) Ibid., p. 112.
(148) Ibid., p. 141.
(149) Ibid., p. 143.
(150) Ibid., p. 107.
(151) Ibid., p. 108.
(152) Ibid., p. 106.
(153) Ibid., p. 143.
(154) Ibid., p. 143

Elaine Pagels

Others have come to the same conclusions by different paths. Students of the history of ideas have found that the idea of a personal satan just isn't there in the Old Testament; and yet they've traced the development of the idea through the centuries, noting how various non-Christian ideas have become mixed in, a tradition developed and then picked up more and more accretions as time went on.

Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, is perhaps the highest profile writer and thinker to express agreement with our position about the devil. Her best selling book The Origin Of Satan is well worth a read if you're interested in this theme (4). She begins where we have done- that Christianity and Judaism taught only one God, and this left no place for a devil / satan in the orthodox sense. We have said time and again that one true doctrine leads to another, and Pagels grasps that clearly. One God means no devil. Simple as that. And so she comments: “Conversion from paganism to Judaism or Christianity, I realized, meant, above all, transforming one’s perception of the invisible world”. And this had a radically practical outworking- as does belief in any true Bible doctrine: “Becoming either a Jew or a Christian polarized a pagan’s view of the universe, and moralized it”. The pagan worldview would've felt that anything like a volcano or earthquake was a result of demonic activity. But instead, the Bible clearly describes the volcanoes that destroyed Sodom as coming from the one God, as judgment for their sins (Gen. 19:4). People were not just victims of huge cosmic forces; they had responsibility for their actions and met those consequences. We can easily miss the radical implications of the moral way the Bible describes such things which were otherwise attributed to demons /pagan gods. There was a huge political price attached to rejecting belief in ‘demons’. Rusticus, prefect of Rome, persecuted Christians because they refused “to obey the gods and submit to the rulers”. The Romans considered that their leaders were agents of the gods; and if the gods didn’t exist, then the Roman leadership lost its power and authority. For this reason, the Romans called the Christians ‘atheists’.

The following quotations from Pagels exactly reflect our own conclusions: “In the Hebrew Bible…Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an “evil empire”, an army of hostile spirits who make war on God…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 (mal’ak) into Greek (angelos)… In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character… the root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary”... But this messenger is not necessarily malevolent… John dismisses the device of the devil as an independent supernatural character… Paul holds a perception that Satan acts as God’s agent not to corrupt people but to test them” (pp. 111, 183)”.

But Elaine Pagels isn't just out there on her own. Neil Forsyth comments likewise: “In… the Old Testament, the word [satan] never appears as the name of the adversary… rather, when the satan appears in the Old Testament, he is a member of the heavenly court, albeit with unusual tasks”(5). Several respected commentators have pointed out the same, especially when commenting upon the ‘satan’ in the book of Job- concluding that the term there simply speaks of an obedient Divine Angel acting the role of an adversary, without being the evil spirit being accepted by many in Christendom (6). Commenting on the 'satan' of Job and Zechariah, the respected Anchor Bible notes: "Neither in Job nor in Zechariah is the Accuser an independent entity with real power, except that which Yahweh consents to give him" (7). A.L. Oppenheim carefully studied how the figure of a personal satan entered into Hebrew thought; he concludes that it was originally absent . He considers that their view of a Divine court, or council, such as is hinted at in the Hebrew Bible, was significant for them; but they noted that in some Mesopotamian bureaucracies there was a similar understanding, but always there was an "accuser" present, a 'satan' figure (8). And the Jews adopted this idea and thus came to believe in a personal satan.

(4) Elaine Pagels, The Origin Of Satan (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 1996)

(5) Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan And The Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 107.

(6) See P. Day, An Adversary In Heaven: Satan In The Hebrew Bible (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1988) pp 69-106.

(7) C.L. Meyers and E.M. Meyers, The Anchor Bible: Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2004 ed.) p. 184.

(8) A.L. Oppenheim, "The eyes of the Lord", Journal of The American Oriental Society Vol. 88 (1968) pp. 173-180.

(9) In addition to Pagels op cit, see Knut Schaferdick, “Satan in the Post Apostolic Fathers” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) Vol. 7 pp. 163-165 and George F. Moore, Judaism In The First Centuries Of The Christian Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927) Vol. 1.

(10) Elaine Pagels, op cit pp. 100,111.

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