This article is part of a 6 part conversation – see also the following:
- Part 2: Belief in hell
- Part 3: The identity of Satan
- Part 4: The nature of Satan
- Part 5: Fear of hell
- Part 6: Another few remarks
My first question is this: If there is a devil who wants to steal my soul, what exactly does he want to do with it? What does he gain from this? Evil is the absence of God, but I believe that nothing can exist without God. Therefore absolute evil is not a possibility for me.
Thanks for your questions. I am going to try my best to give you a coherent reply on how Satan and hell are to be understood from a Christian point of view. Of course my answers do not claim to exhaustively treat any issue, and this leaves the possibility of generating more questions than it is supplying answers. But at the least I hope to show in which direction some of the subsequent answers may lie.
You touch on issues that contribute to the single most vociferous reason why people find Christianity unpalatable: The problem of evil and suffering. Most people entertain a lot of misconceptions on these issues, which cause them to regard it with intellectual contempt. What complicates matters further is that in its broader scope, the issue of Satan, hell and suffering carries tremendous emotional weight. For this very reason it has, for some, evolved into an almost insurmountable mental obstacle in considering the truth of Christianity.
As to your first question: I believe your premise that “nothing can exist without God” is true. I also agree with you that absolute evil is impossible. The problem is with the hidden assumption that ‘evil’ as “the absence of God” is something that exists absolutely. Something is absolute when it is not depended on or qualified by anything else. But evil does not exist in this way. Evil exists, and can only exist, in relation to what already exists as good (with all goodness having originated with God). Evil does not signify a thing, something with an essence, form or substance. In fact, evil cannot be a thing if we accept that an absolute good God would create only good things and therefore did not create anything evil.
What does it mean then to say something is evil?
Evil can only exist, because and if, goodness exists. A definition of evil is dependent on what goodness there already is. Goodness exists absolutely and its essence is not defined by the absence of evil (for example, one would describe the essence of darkness as the absence of light, but one would not describe the essence of light as the absence of darkness.)
Evil, therefore, is the absence of goodness, or more precisely, the privation of goodness. Privation implies the absence of the good in something which would, by the nature of what it is, be expected to have that good. The important thing to understand is that evil is the absence of the good that should be there.
(It might be helpful to notice the subtlety here: Evil is not merely the absence of good, because not every absence of good is evil, since not everything good is part of something’s nature. For example, the fact that a rock doesn’t have eyes, is an absence of something good (the ability to see), but not a privation and therefore not an evil, because a rock by its nature does not have the ability to see.)
It follows that as a privation of good, nothing absolutely evil can exist. Evil doesn’t exist as a thing in itself, but only as a privation of good. Privation means something falls short of its true nature. But something that falls short of its true nature absolutely, would not exist, since it would have to fall short of its very existence as well. Therefore absolute, pure evil simply does not exist.
This seems to suggest that even Satan is good in so far as he exists as a created being. The Christian conception of Satan is that he is a created being and as a creature of God, he is ultimately dependent on God for his existence like any other creature; he continues to exist because God allows him to do so. (Satan, therefore, does not exist as an independent, but equal power – the evil opposite of God, as Manichaean dualism would assert.)
So, if evil can only exist in relation to what is good, how did actual privation (evil) came about? The answer is found with beings endowed with free will. For God to have created beings (angelic and human) with the ability to make free choices, is a good thing. But free choice implies the ability to choose that which is evil (even if it merely means choosing the lesser good of the creature over the greater good of the Creator). Therefore free choice makes evil possible.
It was free creatures’ (angelic and human) own act of choosing that eventually made evil actual. By choosing to be less than God intended them to be, evil (privation) became a reality. Notice, therefore, that God did not in any sense create evil. Because God created good beings with the goodness of free will, evil became a necessary possibility, but the actualization of evil (which was never a necessity) was entirely contingent of free creatures.
The result of Satan’s choice as an angelic being to turn away from what God intended for him, can be described as a wish to be autonomous and make his own way without acknowledging his dependence on God (incidentally, this also describes the human condition in relation to God). This is a privation of his goodness, and it is evil to the degree in which he ultimately deviated from God’s intended purpose for him (which seems considerable given his original status as an angel of light).
Satan, being an angelic being, seems to be able to exert considerable power, but because of his perpetual rebellion against God (a privation of the will), does so with evil (demonic) intent. Satan’s main purpose seems to subvert the goodness of God (His creation and His intentions) and therefore he actively tries to advance privation. One way of doing this is to try to influence human beings, tempting them to apply their free will to do what is evil and contrary to their true nature.
The metaphor of Satan ‘stealing’ souls might be appropriate in the following ways:
1) Stealing is the privation of entitlement; Satan wants to subvert God’s entitlement over what is God’s by virtue of creation.
2) Stealing implies a change of ownership; souls ‘stolen’ obey a new master, even if it is merely by virtue of rejecting the former master.
3) A stolen item is often used to promote further evil; Satan wants to influence ‘stolen’ souls to promote more evil.
4) A stolen item is most likely not looked after; Satan’s ultimate purpose with a ‘stolen’ soul is its utter destruction.
It is important, though, to notice where the metaphor of Satan ‘stealing’ souls breaks down (my reason for putting ‘stealing’ and ‘stolen’ in punctuation marks.) Stealing denotes the taking of something without permission. But since humans have free will, any participation in acts of privation (to which Satan is absolutely and ultimately committed) is willful, not involuntary. Satan tempts and coaxes, but the subsequent choices humans make are deliberate and their own. Satan therefore cannot really ‘steal’ anybody’s soul, but for a human being to be a co-conspirator in evil, is often metaphorically represented as a ‘soul having been stolen.’
(There does seem to be a sense in which habitual evil choices diminish the ability to freely choose – it’s called addiction – so it might be plausible to think that such habitual tendency towards evil can ultimately lead to the complete retraction of the ability for free choice. Hence a possible explanation for Satan’s unredeemable state of depravity and why he will not ask forgiveness.)
Satan, although a being of considerable power and ferocity, is limited in achieving his evil purposes. God, being both omnipresent and omnipotent (of which Satan is neither), has the ability to orchestrate the evil that does exist for his good purposes (one of them being that of establishing a relationship with people) and does so without violating any free agent’s will, whether it be angelic/demonic or human.
I don’t really see why it is improbable or unreasonable to believe in the existence of a created being like Satan who has chosen freely against what God has intended for him and now thrives on evil intention. As the writer Peter Vardy says in his book The Puzzle of Evil:
“The traditional Christian position is straightforward and persuasive. It holds that there are two realms, the earthly and the heavenly. If there is, indeed, a heavenly realm then there is no reason at all why free will should not exist in this realm as well as on earth. Agreed, there is an assumption here, but it is not a ridiculous assumption if human beings do indeed rise from the dead. If there is to be a life after death, then this life is not on earth and must be somewhere else. A heavenly realm is, then, not just a possibility but a necessity as well. If there is such a realm with free will, then the existence of a force of evil, representing those heavenly forces that have turned away from God, follows logically from the initial assumptions.”
Vardy also makes the following poignant observation:
“It does not seem to be necessary for a Christian to affirm the existence of a force of evil ontologically distinct from the human psyche, but it does seem likely that such a force may exist. If this existence is a reality, then the first move of any such force would logically be to convince everyone of its non-existence… The fight against this reality, the struggle to master and overcome it, is one that should last any individual his or her whole lifetime and one which may never be finally overcome this side of the grave. The worst temptation of all is to believe that no struggle is necessary and that the fight against evil, whatever its form, is a thing of the past. Once this view is taken, evil has triumphed.”
So, can you accept the Christian faith if you don’t believe in the devil? Well, one doesn’t become a Christian by believing in the devil! To affirm the existence of a force of evil like Satan, only seems necessary if it is true. And if it is true that Satan is on a mission of destruction, then it would be irresponsible to think it is not important whether he exists. Then it is like Vardy says, trying to convince everyone that he doesn’t exist may be one of his greatest strategies in promoting evil.
One of the most unfortunate reasons people feel Satan doesn’t exist, is because they’ve been deceived into thinking about him in childish and unbelievable ways (the silly chap in the red tights with a big pitchfork and pointed tail; or the fiery demon from hell torturing little children for pleasure.) The more ridiculous and outrageous the notions about Satan, the less likely his existence seem to be real. But imagination and reality are often two very different things.