I never got the devil. Satan.
I never believed it existed.
My earliest memories of Satan were the conflicted and stretched arguments of cartoons and Bible stories in church, none of which made the devil ever seem real. It was like thinking thunder came from God bowling in the clouds or stepping on a crack would actually hospitalize my mother.
Which is to say, it was more superstitiously and skeptically kept than believed.
I became much more interested in what Christian tradition teaches and what it has taught through history. Satan wasn’t a counter-god deep in the earth to be believed in the way I believe in God, but more like a theological curiosity; a puzzle to complete. There I found fascinating stories like the one in which the Adversary has been locking up the Hebrew people forever until one Good Friday, Jesus tricks him by dying and letting the Son of God into the prison with his special God’s Love lock pick to free the prisoners from eternal damnation. I also learned that Satan isn’t a deeply developed and universal Christian concept.
In fact, I discovered what I had always intuited: not only is belief about Satan not required of Christianity, it is the least-developed and most depressingly incompetent super villain of all time.
Imagine Lex Luther without kryptonite. Then imagine Lex Luther’s very existence depends on Superman thinking it’s an awesome idea to make him. Oh! And then, let’s imagine Superman making Lex Luther his equal, for spit and giggles.
The whole legend of Satan is insane.
You don’t get to have a counter-god to the one GOD. That’s not monotheism.
And you can’t wiggle your Satan out of that narrow paper bag of ridiculous theology by talking about God making a yin to God’s yang. That’s dumb. It’s projection and meaninglessness. The self-sabotage argument is stupid.
In fact, the whole legend of Satan, cultivated from tiny snippets of moments in scripture and codified into dogmas of churches by way of Dante and medieval obsessions with piety and metaphysics is predicated on personifying evil. That part actually isn’t stupid. Trying to make sense of evil through metaphor is pretty fantastic, actually. What’s stupid is turning that poetry into dogma. Trying to balance a whole metaphysic on a few references from scripture is as specious as our worst impulses to protect slavery and xenophobia with scripture when the bulk of scripture tells a different story. The whole book reveals a God of freedom, liberation, and hospitality. You have to pick and choose to make it justify exemptions to this. Which we should admit is a pretty crappy way of approaching the Bible.
This is the trouble with the devil as a dude dancing in the fiery hell of eternal conscious torment: it has scant pieces of evidence in scripture and a whole lot of Bible telling a different story.
The more compelling vision
In the Synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Satan appears twice. There he is simply referred to as the adversary, who first comes to tempt Jesus in the desert with illusions of power and empire.
His second form is in the form of Peter, trying to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his actual mission: by tempting and obstructing.
My friend, David Henson has been looking at the gospel through this lens of Jesus’s temptation and how it effects the whole gospels. He is really onto something and you should check him out.
But the link here is what Jesus is teaching right before Peter becomes Satan for him; obstructing his journey. Jesus was just talking about stumbling blocks. He was talking about not getting between people and God. And not just any people: children. The children we are supposed to be like. The children we are to protect and not destroy.
Children who were, in that culture, property. Children who were “to be seen and not heard” and really best ignored. Be like them and don’t screw them over.
But the image was of the stumbling block. Don’t put yourself at the feet of someone else to make them stumble and fall because of you. Like the one giving booze to the alcoholic. Actually, no. Like the one giving the booze to the child so that they might become an alcoholic. There is a big difference between the two.
The stumbling block is a beautiful metaphor for causing someone else’s pain. They didn’t trip over their own feet. They aren’t causing their own pain through self-destructive behavior. You are. And you do it by putting yourself where they aren’t going to notice you. You are deceiving them and manipulating them when you should be encouraging and helping them.
So Peter is the manifested adversary when he is a stumbling block to Jesus.
Think about it: Satan isn’t some metaphysical construct made to balance out creation so there is an evil god to match the good God. He isn’t even a he (or a she). Satan is the metaphysic itself. Satan is the mantle of the stumbling block and its realized example. It is us when we hurt someone and make them think they did it to themselves. Like gay conversion therapy or speaking of human sexuality like a lifestyle choice and then bullying them for it. Every attempt to make these little ones of God’s feel broken and far from God is the face of Satan and literally anti-Christ. Every teenager who completes suicide because some yahoo quotes the Bible at them and makes them feel less than dirt—anything less than the beautiful, grace-filled child of God that s/he is—that is Satan: the stumbling block.
We become Satan when we put ourselves between people and God, obstruct the Missio Dei (mission of God), and cause them to stumble. When we are responsible and refuse to acknowledge it.
Best not mess with Satan.
Like any good theology, it’s easy to make Satan into a defense of itself. To be Satan by trying to not be like Satan. Such as trying to call each other Satan.
The more common issue, however, is harder to deal with. Sometimes we are being satanic and calling it something else: Christ-like.
We all know that sometimes the loving thing to do is to tell people the hard truth. Yes, that is true. But that statement becomes the excuse for saying some pretty hateful things which cause people to stumble. Like our brothers and sisters who believe in conversion therapy. For all the sickness such an act causes people, they are doing it out of love. While you and I strain to call it love, they are convinced it is. The truth and the stumbling block become hard to recognize.
For many, Jesus driving the money changers and dove-sellers out of the temple was an example of Jesus being a stumbling block, in much the way many today see public demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience as stumbling blocks.
In this way, our vision of Satan becomes pretty hard to see as anything but the personal experience of being challenged by someone else.
But here’s where all those stories and our childhood vision of the devil actually come in handy. They can remind us of the other half of the stumbling block.
It isn’t just that you put yourself in front as an obstacle. It’s that you pretend you are trying to help them. Satan isn’t only about hurting another; it’s causing them pain and making them think its their own fault. Or tempting them with power when God doesn’t want them to have it.
It’s about manipulation
So it isn’t just minor inconveniences like blocking a street or sidewalk, but the manipulation away from God. Like driving children of God to think God hates them. Or, as in the case of the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes, and elders, going along with Rome in exchange for safety and political power. Then they turn around and aid in the exploitation of their people, convincing them not to see the devilish deal they have made and all the ways the people are being led astray.
In this way, it is possible to be the stumbling block by preventing the children of God from making the dream real, by seeking unearned peace or guilting each other out of dialogue to protect a false harmony. A stumbling block like Peter, trying to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem or if he had tried to prevent him from teaching in the Temple.
We don’t only manipulate others to take on our world view for power. Sometimes we make like those Jewish leaders and do so to moderate and avoid the truth about our culture and systems of power.
Maybe it’s best we not mess with Satan.
If only it were that easy. We’re the real devils. The satans manipulating our friends. And we’re also children of God. And Jesus shows us that the only way to tell the difference between which one we’re being is whether we manipulate others to make God’s dream real.