Today begins a three-part series on the subject of Satan. Today's sermon will focus on the essential character and function of Satan. Next week we will take a broader look at Satan's appearance as a character in mythological and literary creations, seen in as much historical perspective as possible. The third sermon will be on demon possession, beginning with examples from the Bible and then on to various other examples of that horrible reality.
Let me be clear from the outset that, although further on, we will be speaking of Satan in terms of mythologies and other types of literature concerning him, I hope that you do not, for one minute, conclude, from this, that I am suggesting that Satan is not real, that he is like a hero in a story, or that he is in any way some kind of good guy. I have firsthand knowledge of this entity as a living personality, and I do not wish to imply by any stretch of the imagination that by discussing Satan as a mythological figure I am taking away from the absolute reality of him.
I believe that, for the practicing Christian, it is less important to understand Satan's character than it is to understand his function: the bottom line of any interpretation of Satan's character is that his function is to ensnare us and to enslave us. His wiles are often highly intellectual, sometimes purely physical, but always his aim is to divert us from the spiritual path. The possible reasons for this, we will discuss in greater detail later on, but let us establish the ground rules of the outset: whatever positive things I end up quoting about Satan, have no illusions, I distrust him, and, without the support of the armor of God, I totally fear him.
Indeed, there are various interpretations of his person, some of which portray him as a tragic figure, sensitive and misunderstood, or, ultimately, as a servant God. We will get into that, but I want to underline the bottom line: if Satan is possessed of any virtue at all, because of his ultimate origins or cosmic function, the person himself is never to be trusted with anything we value. I do not want you to get the idea that I feel anything but self-righteous hatred for him. One his wiles is playing on our sympathies to draw us into his webs of deception. This sermon is very much about paradox, and there will therefore be many statements that reflect almost affectionately on Satan, poor kid; but don't for a minute get me wrong, whatever his virtues, Satan is not a good guy.
"You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
History tends to offer very black and white (mostly black) interpretations of him as the ultimate evil and as the totally negative force in the universe. However there are other interpretations of Satan that imply a more positive spin on his nature, and his reason for being. No matter what his purpose, he is still the accuser, the tester, and the above-all- to-be-avoided person in the created cosmogony. Nevertheless it is of interest to look into some of these original and somewhat contradictory or paradoxical interpretations of the person.
C.S. Lewis wrote this in the introduction to The Screwtape Letters:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.”
We will return to the various interpretations on Satan's character in a moment but first let's begin with a generic survey from Wikipedia:
"Satan (Hebrew: הַשָּׂטָן ha-Satan, "the opposer,") is a character appearing in the texts of the Abrahamic religions.
The original Hebrew term, satan, is a noun from a verb meaning primarily to, “obstruct, oppose,” as it is found in Numbers 22:22, 1 Samuel 29:4, Psalms 109:6. Ha-Satan is traditionally translated as “the accuser,” or “the adversary.” The definite article “ha-,” English “the," is used to show that this is a title bestowed on a being, versus the name of a being. Thus this being would be referred to as “the satan.”
Book of Job
In the Book of Job, ha-Satan is a member of the Divine Council, "the sons of God" who are subservient to God. Ha-Satan, in this capacity, is many times translated as "the prosecutor", and is charged by God to tempt humans and to report back to God all who go against His decrees.
At the beginning of the book, Job is a good person "who feared God and turned away from evil" (Job 1:1), and has therefore been rewarded by God. When the Divine Council meets, God informs ha-Satan about Job's blameless, morally upright character. Between Job 1:9–10 and 2:4–5, ha-Satan merely points out that God has given Job everything that a man could want, so of course Job would be loyal to God; if all Job has been given, even his health, were to be taken away from him, however, his faith would collapse. God therefore grants ha-Satan the chance to test Job. Due to this, it has been interpreted that ha-Satan is under God's control and cannot act without God's permission. This is further shown in the epilogue of Job in which God is speaking to Job, ha-Satan is absent from these dialogues. "For Job, for [Job's] friends, and for the narrator, it is ultimately Yahweh himself who is responsible for Job's suffering; as Yahweh says to the 'satan', 'You have incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.'" (Job 2:3)
[Sidebar: With this paragraph, we encounter the first in a long series of comments to come, suggesting that Satan's mischief (so to speak) is actually in obedience with the Divine Plan. Usually, we will see Satan pictured as an evil demon whose pride has set him up in opposition to God, in competition with God; but there are just as many interpretations of Satan that make him out to be a faithful servant of God--whose temptations are not only condoned by God, but ORDERED by God: the function of these temptations is to temper the souls of those entities trapped in the lower planes, and prepare them to graduate to higher planes of existence. Those who succeed in passing the temptation-tests of Satan are free to move on up the ladder of spiritual evolution--those who fail, are sent back down to try again.
Thus, demons may be seen to FUNCTION in a way that is for the ultimate good of the flowering Christian, in the same way that a cruel army drill sergeant may be seen to work in service of the training recruit. Twice, in the Old Testament, once in the case of Job, and earlier in the case of Abraham and his son Isaac, God is seen in the role of a tempter; in both cases, the purpose is to test and temper the will and the faith of a man in question. In this way, negative energy may be said to bring forth positive energy.
Similarly, even though the ugly and ferocious gargoyles, atop the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, are fearsome and threatening, their purpose is beneficent: they are meant to frighten the people INTO church, so that the folk may be saved from the Hellfires out of which these demons momentarily spring. (Note that the people must pass right by the horrible dragon-headed monsters to get into the church.) I guess right action isn't necessarily pretty. So it is that it becomes easier to imagine Satan not as a negative force in the universe, but merely as a component in the purification process of man's soul as he evolves ever upward toward a more perfect spiritual union with God.
A similar positive spin on Satan appears in the New Age religion, Eckankar, inspired by the teachings of Paul Twitchell. Eckankar is described in this way by GotQuestions?org:
"Of all the strange and bizarre belief systems in the world today, Eckankar has to be one of the strangest. Sadly, it is also one of the most dangerous."
The Satan figure in the Eckankar cosmography is called KAL NIRANJAN. Kal Niranjan is characterized as the:
"Full name of the Negative Power, often shortened to Kal. Niranjan means "beyond illusion,"and is applied to Kal ("Time") because he is the creator of illusion. (Time beyond illusion.)"
Kal is described in Eckankar writings in terms very similar to the way Christian writers discuss Satan, especially in terms of his service to God (here, Sat Puruch) as a tempter:"Although Kal fell, his original beauty is not completely destroyed; it makes his claim to be God more credible and his temptations more effective. Why should Sat Purush have been pleased with this devotion? Kabir never explains this, yet it is a pivotal point in the development of Anurag Sugar.
Kal means "Time,"and since the devotion described implies the suspension of all his activity, for incalculable periods of "time," it would appear that the practices done by Kal please Sat Purush because of their implications when done by him, rather than because standing on one foot has any particular objective merit. The period of Kal's austerities-seventy yugas- is more than fifteen times as long as the period of creation--four yugas.
By stopping himself dead for such long periods, he postponed his own fall and thus allowed the jivas (souls) that much more time with their Father before being sent into the lower worlds. If this is true, it certainly is a cosmic paradox: his devotion postponed his fall, but it also brought it about. But, as we have seen, the fall of Time was probably inevitable once he was separated from the One."
[Sidebar: Notice, in the preceding claims of some positive virtue of Satan's activities in the grand scheme of things, there is still the question of the fall. The implied contradiction is that: even though Satan's tempting is by divine decree, and with divine ratification, it is still performed by a fallen angel. How the fallen Angel can be both functioning in the service of the Father, and also functioning in opposition to the Father is a paradox of tremendous interest. I myself have no rational solution to this paradox, except to suggest that all God's creations are not only, or even mainly, perfect in themselves, but perfect in relation to each other.]
To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, ha ha, the following excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that Satan may have been pre-ordained to rebel against God, not only FROM the very beginning of Creation, but even BEFORE the beginning. The section has much to say about time and the very instant of creation:
"As might be expected from the attention they had bestowed on the question of the intellectual powers of the angels, the medieval theologians had much to say on the time of their probation. The angelic mind was conceived of as acting instantaneously, not, like the mind of man, passing by discursive reasoning from premises to conclusions. It was pure intelligence as distinguished from reason. Hence it would seem that there was no need of any extended trial.
And in fact we find St. Thomas and Scotus discussing the question whether the whole course might not have been accomplished in the first instant in which the angels were created. The Angelic Doctor argues that the Fall could not have taken place in the first instant. And it certainly seems that if the creature came into being in the very act of sinning the sin itself might be said to come from the Creator.
[Sidebar: Note how this sentence affirms William Blake's theory of contraries,
". . . the very act of sinning the sin itself might be said to come from the Creator."
If that's not a wild suggestion, I don't know what is!
However, remember that we are dealing with a spiritual world in which we encounter paradox at every turn in the road; that no moral imperative can remain untouched or unaltered by the flow of events through a warped window of time; furthermore, remember that Blake insists that it takes positive and negative to make a world, so why should not this characteristic not extend into the domain of the Mind of God; if He made such a world, how could it not?
Back to the Catholic Encyclopedia:]
"But this argument, [that "the very act of sinning the sin itself might be said to come from the Creator"] together with many others, is answered with his accustomed acuteness by Scotus, who maintains the abstract possibility of sin in the first instant.
But whether possible or not, it is agreed that this is not what actually happened. For the authority of the passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel, which were generally accepted as referring to the fall of Lucifer, might well suffice to show that for at least one instant he had existed in a state of innocence and brightness."
Isaiah 14:12“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!"
To modern readers the notion that the sin was committed in the second instant of creation may seem scarcely less incredible than the possibility of a fall in the very first. But this may be partly due to the fact that we are really thinking of human modes of knowledge, and fail to take into account the Scholastic conception of angelic cognition. For a being who was capable of seeing many things at once, a single instant might be equivalent to the longer period needed by slowly-moving mortals.
This dispute, as to the time taken by the probation and fall of Satan, has a purely speculative interest. But the corresponding question as to the rapidity of the sentence and punishment is in some ways a more important matter. There can indeed be no doubt that Satan and his rebel angels were very speedily punished for their rebellion. This would seem to be sufficiently indicated in some of the texts which are understood to refer to the fall of the angels. It might be inferred, moreover, from the swiftness with which punishment followed on the offense in the case of our first parents, although man's mind moves more slowly than that of the angels, and he had more excuse in his own weakness and in the power of his tempter. It was partly for this reason, indeed, that man found mercy, whereas there was no redemption for the angels. For, as St. Peter says,
2 Peter 2:4"God spared not the angels that sinned."
This, it may be observed, is asserted universally, indicating that all who fell suffered punishment. For these and other reasons theologians very commonly teach that the doom and punishment followed in the next instant after the offense, and many go so far as to say there was no possibility of repentance."
The imbroglio of complications surrounding the issue of the fall occurring in the second instant of creation works to support the idea that Satan's function in the cosmogony was an element in the total divine plan from its very inception. If Satan's fall occurred at the very instant of creation then it can be seen, or at least suggested, that the fall of Satan was not an act of pride on the part of the person himself, but was always part of the divine plan in the mind of God before creation. Furthermore this goes to support the idea that, rather than being a rebellious angel, Satan is merely an Angel performing the function for which he was he was created in the first instant by God. It was a dirty job, but SOMEBODY had to do it.
Back to wikipedia:
(Greek diabolos; Latin diabolus).
The name commonly given to the fallen angels, who are also known as demons. With the article (ho) it denotes Lucifer, their chief, as in
Matthew 25:41:"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
It may be said of this name, as St. Gregory says of the word angel, "nomen est officii, non naturæ"--the designation of an office, not of a nature. For the Greek word (from diaballein, "to traduce") means a slanderer, or accuser, and in this sense it is applied to him of whom it is written "the accuser [ho kategoros] of our brethren is cast forth, who accused them before our God day and night". It thus answers to the Hebrew name Satan which signifies an adversary, or an accuser."
With the statement of St. Gregory's that the word "angel" denotes an "office" not a "nature", we once again have the suggestion that Satan is not a "character" but a "function". Therefore, it might be said that the "office" of Satan is to "tempt", and is, therefore, as integral a part of the the vast cosmic structure as is the "office" of Jesus to mediate and redeem.
The preceding suggestions of Satan's positive function in the divine hierarchy do not necessarily negate the concept of Satan's fall. We have it on pretty good authority that he screwed up--big time. However, there are two attributes of Lucifer's character which must be mentioned--attributes which must play a part in our overall understanding of Satan-- one of them is the ambitious pride of rule:
As we said before, many people believe that Satan's fall was due to pride--that he wanted to compete with God; he wanted to replace God; to be as powerful as God.
But the other one is concerned with the feeling that it was unfair of God to create the Angels, and then suddenly turn around and create man, and put man above the Angels:
Lucifer is sometimes described as the angel who was most in love with God, who most cherished God, and therefore was most threatened and upset by the arrival on the scene of man, whom God seemingly allows to replace the Angels in his affections.
from Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell, 1972
"One of the most amazing images of love that I know is Persian — a mystical Persian representation of Satan as the most loyal lover of God. You will have heard the old legend of how, when God created the angels, he commanded them to pay worship to no one but himself; but then, creating man, he commanded them to bow in reverence to this most noble of his works, and Lucifer refused — because, we are told, of his pride. However, according to this Moslem reading of his case, it was rather because he loved and adored God so deeply and intensely that he could not bring himself to bow before anything else. And it was for that that he was flung into Hell, condemned to exist there forever, apart from his love.
Now it has been said that of all the pains of Hell, the worst is neither fire nor stench but the deprivation forever of the beatific sight of God. How infinitely painful, then, must the exile of this great lover be, who could not bring himself, even on God's own word, to bow before any other beings!
The Persian poets have asked, "By what power is Satan sustained?" And the answer that they have found is this:
"By his memory of the sound of God's voice when he said, 'Be gone!'"What an image of that exquisite spiritual agony which is at once the rapture and the anguish of love!"
Thus, it is a twisted tale of unrequited love that brings us closer to the actual character of Satan; it also brings us closer to an essential character, or, certainly, an ingredient of sin: which is love or pleasure.
Remember the quote we read last week from Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell :
"... hellish fire is self-love and love of the world, it is every craving that belongs to those loves, the craving being an extension of love because a person constantly craves what he loves. It is also a pleasure, since when a person gets what he loves or craves, he perceives it as pleasant. This is the only source of heartfelt joy for man. So hellish fire is a craving and a pleasure that well up from these two loves as their sources... "
In the paradoxical nature of love, the two-sided aspect of love, there is much food for thought; the conundrum may, ultimately, find its solution in the very essence of the Divine Nature. Certainly there is a duality here that bears on the problem. The two sides of love are:
the object of the love, andwhen these two become confused, there is sin. The following Wikipedia comment on William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell affirms the idea that a world without paradox is not in conformity with the Personality (in the most idealized sense of the word) of God:
the lover himself;
"Moreover he explores the contrary nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people existed: the "energetic creators" and the "rational organizers", or as he calls them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the "devils" and "angels". Both are necessary to life according to Blake."Blake's idea of the energetic, as opposed to the passive, was, again, a reflection on the the sort of carnal or material-based character of sin. Blake insisted that the paradoxical nature of existence is to be embraced and has a positive function, even though it is still possible for the opposites to become confused and really start to tear each other down.
Indeed, it was the love-hate dimension of Satan's relationship to God that laid him low; whether we take the tack that Satan loved God too much to bow before Adam, or the tack that Satan identified with God so much that he wanted to BE God, the bottom line is that Satan confused himself with God in an unwholesome way. This seems to me to be a very important aspect of Satan's character, in that this carnal energy comes from a place of high affection for God. Satan's over-the-top self-involvement with God erupted in energetic action that crossed some kind of line. It was the too-egocentric affection, the too-narcissistic affection for God, that was Satan's downfall. If he could simply have put God first, then God's decrees would have never been in conflict with his love. But his love became narcissistic; he became obsessed with himself, and in himself he lost sight of his love. Thus, a love, that is too wrapped up in itself, becomes a perversion of that love, and the price must be paid. This is a lesson we must all bear in mind: it is very easy to lose sight of the one we love, by loving too much, or finding in our love of the other a too-vivid reflection of ourselves.
Regarding Satan's Fall, remember Blake's proverb:
"You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough."Clearly, Satan learned what was more than enough the hard way!
[How often do we learn what is more than enough, and how often are we forgiven? It's too bad that Jesus did not die for Satan's sins--he might have been forgiven too; but there is no forgiveness for angels.]
Here is a parallel prophetic passage in Ezekiel's lamentation upon the king of Tyre:
Ezekiel 28:12-15:There is much in the context that can only be understood literally of an earthly king concerning whom the words are professedly spoken, but it is clear that in any case the king is likened to an angel in Paradise who is ruined by his own iniquity.
"You were the seal of resemblance, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. You were in the pleasures of the paradise of God; every precious stone was thy covering; the sardius, the topaz, and the jasper, the chrysolite, and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire, and the carbuncle, and the emerald; gold the work of your beauty: and your pipes were prepared in the day that you were created. You a cherub stretched out, and protecting, and I set you in the holy mountain of God, you have walked in the midst of the stones of fire. You were perfect in your wave from the day of creation, until iniquity was found in you."
There is something here that very intimately connected to our sermon of last week: we talked about the razor's edge between the sin that damns and the sin that saves. Clearly, the perversion of love into a mockery of itself should be one of the tell-tale signs that pleasure has turned to sin.
I believe that the pivotal question in the discussion of Satan and the discussion of sin is this: at what point does the pleasure turn to sin? There is a not insignificant connection here between the moment of Satan's fall (in the first or second moment of creation (whatever)) and the moment when WE have crossed the line. We have spoken many times of the epiphanic moment when spirit descends into the physical. I am sure there is a similar epiphanic moment that separates good from evil, right from wrong.
It is well understood that most sinners live in denial; that even the most ruthless murderer sees his violent acts as justified, in some sense, by a twisted inner motivation; in his mind lurks the thought, if ever so dimly, that he is doing something right, something that, on some level or other, is okay. When does the thought finally come to him that it was not okay, that obsession with self has worked a wrong against the common good? When will he see that his actions, which he mistook for pleasures, were really constructions, elaborated in his mind, on a mental template supplied by the Devil?
Satan does not use argument in anything like the way of making rational sense--he uses words to befuddle us and to make something bad sound like something good. When we speak of Satan's "persuasions" we are speaking merely of a low vibrational sing-song that fills plastic bottles with empty phrases that tempt our lowest (most easily got at) impulses. As Screwtape says:
"Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!"If the demon succeeds in luring the sinner's mind away from any potent expressions, his mind will be distracted from the emptiness of his life, a life buoyed up like a helium balloon, and just as doomed to drop. As one unfortunate sinner said, in The Screwtape Letters:
"I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked".Satan, as the Accuser, might be seen to be performing a meritorious function, by pointing a finger at the sinner's transgressions . . . if it were not for the fact that Satan may NEVER be relied on to tell the truth: he always accuses us of something we are usually not even guilty of; Satan's accusations of sin encourage the sinner either:
to turn his back on the truth, or, more likely,a diversion which allows the sinner to justify his sinful deeds in is mind; as C. S. Lewis points out, above, Satan's accusations are not meant to teach; his accusations are meant to direct the sinner away from the truth, not point him towards it; that judgmental function is reserved for Jesus on the last day.
to divert his attention to some other perversion of the actual truth--
Sooner or later, the sinner will to stand before the Mediator and be astonished to discover, when Jesus shines the true light of judgment on his heart, that he has been sinning against himself all along; he will realize, at last, that, all through his career, when he was doubtless feeling that he was a wronged man doing battle against an unfair world, that the unfairness was in himself--and his own sense of shame will condemn him.
It is a contemporary philosophical commonplace that there is no black and white--only gray; but this position allows contemporary man to dig a very comfortable buffer for himself between his sins and their spiritual consequences; this buffer allows him to excuse his sins, his gray-area sins, as exceptions to a rule which he has made so flexible it can hardly bear any weight at all. This, no doubt, pleases Satan immensely. Blocking the truth from our eyes pleases Satan the most, because it allows him to divert our attention into all sorts of sidelines.
The truth is that, in a vast cosmic expanse of eternity upon eternity, there must be at some point an actual right and an actual wrong. There are waves and there are particles, (these two are one), but there is a moment when a wave becomes a particle, a real actual, discernible moment. Likewise, when we cross the border from right into wrong, we choose to condemn ourselves, because this choice is always made, on some level, consciously.
In next week's sermon, we will make the very important point that Satan always makes a great deal of sense-- but his lies cannot penetrate to the heart; only the authority and the compassion of Jesus can do that.
The philosophical edifice of impenetrable mysteries overwhelms the mind with insoluble paradoxes. No matter what we SAY about sin, whatever thought we have about Satan's function in the cosmic hierarchy, the inescapable bottom line is this: Jesus, and only Jesus stands between us and the desperate fate of the Fallen Angel. So sin, stated as simply as possible, is really turning our backs on Jesus; and when we turn our backs on the light of Jesus, we turn to the shadow realities of Satan, and experience, with that turning away, a fall from grace like his.
Next week we will speak, again, about the armor of God which allows us to deflect the lies of Satan from entering into our consciousness; for now, let us end with this thought:
It may be that Satan's function, his office as ordained by God, is to tempt us away from the Father, from the Son, and from ourselves; but our commission is to turn away from Satan's lies into the comforting and revealing light of Divine Truth.
Let us pray: Jesus help us block from our minds the words that make our world into a paper moon. Give us the reality of your love that blinds the evil one, that illuminates our path, so that we do not stumble into traps and snares, and which drowns out the rasping voice of the tempter with heavenly music. Amen.