Friday, April 04, 2008

Zoroaster and the Devil

Did you know that we have the Zoroastrians to thank for the good/evil polarity that most Christians now ascribe to God and Satan (i.e. God is only and all good, Satan is only and all evil)? Most of the Pentateuch was written between 900 and 540 BCE; Zoroas ter lived around 600 BCE and was influential in shaping Christian theology in later centuries.

So here's the thing about the Pentateuch: as this website puts it, "There are no passages within the older parts of the Hebrew Scriptures where Satan is portrayed as an evil devil - the arch enemy of God and of humanity. At most, he is described as a henchman who carries out God's evil instructions. There is no dualism here between two powerful supernatural entities: an all-good God and an all-evil Satan. God is portrayed as performing, directly and indirectly, both kind and evil deeds." (See especially Isaiah 45:6-7 and Lamentations 3:37-38.)

Then Zoroaster came along, with remarkable similarities to Jesus' story. From the same website: "Like Jesus, he was recorded as having been tempted by Satan; he performed many miracles and healings and was considered a supernatural being by his followers. He introduced a major spiritual reform and created what is generally regarded as the first established monotheistic religion in the world."

Zoroaster promulgated the idea that God was all good and had a twin brother who was the "God of Evil." It seems that the polarity of God and Satan developed within the Hebrew/Christian religion only after Zoroaster's time, and has today become a cornerstone of the Christian story.

I find this historical arc of what is a major tenet of modern Christianity totally fascinating. And it really discredits, for me, the idea that the Bible contains "eternal truths" and shows us the "unchanging nature" of God. Think of how modern Christians bend over backwards to justify and otherwise explain how God ordering genocide in the OT is fundamentally a "good" act. Those who wrote the Hebrew scriptures apparently didn't believe the nature of God to be fundamentally or wholly good, and they were okay with it.

So why are modern Christians trying to "rewrite" who God is? How is their version of who God is any closer to the truth when you consider that it seems to be borrowed from another religion altogether? If it's not a "rewriting" of God's character and is instead a revelation or development in our understanding of God, the obvious question to me is: why would God 'reveal' himself to one group of people as author of both good and evil, but 'reveal' himself to another group as only good?

I used to be a huge believer in a literal Satan and for a time was into book series like Left Behind. C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters scared the bejeezus out of me. But when I experienced some mental illness (depression), it just didn't ring true to believe that it was because of sin or because Satan was trying to distract me from God. My depression had its roots in chemical and emotional problems that, once treated, disappeared.

It seems that when Christians try to pin stuff on Satan, medical science or technology or even basic knowledge later exposes the 'thing' to not be supernatural at all. A (conservative) Christian then has to argue either that "well, Satan might have manipulated your emotions or your chemical makeup to produce the depression" or "okay, maybe Satan wasn't involved in that, but he still totally tempts or even possesses people in these other kinds of situations..." Neither of which sounds convincing to me today. If Christians weren't already invested in a specific theology of Satan and felt compelled to defend it despite evidence to the contrary, would it really hold up under their own scrutiny?

More broadly, can Christianity stand on its own two feet without Satan as a major theological construct? What happens to the Christian story without an evil archenemy?


Anonymous said...

You might enjoy reading a post at de-conversion about Satan.

Also, A History of God covers the influence of Zoroaster on the Abrahamic religions. It is interesting to contemplate how we would see the world if we didn't have the concept of absolute good and evil courtesy of Zoroaster. Other religions seem to lack the same kind of dichotomy. The desirable/undesirable dichotomy seems natural, but good and evil seem artificial to me.

OneSmallStep said...

**can Christianity stand on its own two feet without Satan as a major theological construct? What happens to the Christian story without an evil archenemy?**

Doesn't Judaism function without an evil archenemy?

The problem is that the concept of Satan is too tied into the concept of hell, sin, and atonement. If you eliminate Satan, then the serpent in Eden could no longer be Satan, but just a serpent. Then it would lead into why hell was created, if not for the fallen angels like Satan, and where the un-saved go. In a way, even the idea of the Trinity is tied into Satan, because of one of the original atonement theories -- the Ransom Theory, in that only God could fully pay what was due to Satan and so forth.

So I'm not sure. In order for Christianity to function without Satan, it would have to let go of a lot.

On the other hand, liberal Christians seem to make Satan a metaphor, so maybe it could?

jON said...

then the eternal supreme being would encompass both light and dark if there is no cosmic imp.

and if that is the case, could we handle that truth?

Slapdash said...

Hi Jonathan, thanks for the link! That post is what got me thinking about the topic. :) Thanks too for the reference to History of God. I will have to look it up.

Slapdash said...

OSS, interesting thoughts for sure. I don't know a ton about Judaism but it does seem their focus is much more on living right in the here and now, and much less on any afterlife. Plus, isn't their whole thing that they are in relationship to God and nothing can change that? Their whole story is, you're right, very different than Xianity.

I do wonder how liberal Christians formulate their story if they see Satan as a metaphor. Seems like there would be even bigger holes, gaps, leaps of logic one would have to make to have the story hold together.

Slapdash said...

jon: "and if that is the case, could we handle that truth?"

Good question. I'm not sure! Isn't part of the argument for why we should love, follow, and obey God based on the idea that he is wholly good and pure, untainted by any impure, unclean, bad thing?

Why should we follow a god who looks a lot more like a roman or greek god, capricious and power-mongering, doing evil as he sees fit?

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm in the process of deconverting, and came across your blog from Barbara's site (Blinders Off). I appreciate the honesty and transparency in your writings.

It's funny that you wrote on this topic. Quite recently I came across the same Religious Tolerance site that dealt with the matter. It's so exciting to see other perspectives and learn more about things I took for granted, only this time without the restraints of religion.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

jON said...

sorry for the delay. in my blogging solar system, you're kind of like jupiter or staurn, so it takes awhile to come around again...

i guess i'm curious what you think of as "evil." before that is defined here, it will be diffidcult to approach a common ground. i have just had so many thoroughly painful and wonderful things happen that my concept has been changed entirely. i mean, childbirth is about one of the most tragic events a person can go through on a "pain level." but when seen through the eyes of the end result, the picture becomes quite different.

so, to ask succinctly, are pain and evil synonymous in your view?

jON said...

not that i personally have been through childbirth... just a firsthand witness.

Kinky said...

In my opinion satan or devil is a synonym of 'ego'. Ego is a built-in barrier, standing between us humans and God. If we should lack an ego we should know we're God and the game (living in a world of controversies) immediately would be over. Jesus in the destiny is seduced by his ego. When he defeats it, he becomes the Christ. A parallel of this is to be seen in Siddhartha’s development. Sitting under the Bodhi Tree he resists all the seductions of his ego and becomes free of it (enlightened). Since that moment he is called Gautama Buddha.
I consider christians to be schizoid. They worship JHWH, a jealous and revengeful God, and at the same time ‘The Father’, loving and caring, introduced by Jesus. Or has the former been healed by psychotherapy?
About the serpent (that wasn’t a serpent because only afterwards God condemned it to crawl) Adam & Eve lived in The Paradise (the domain of the Absolute). The tree of Good and Evil is a symbol of the relative world to which the first humans are to be exiled. The snake with its ‘double’ tongue may be such a symbol a well.