Dumping Satan: It’s Time to Let Go

The history of Christianity, as atheists are fond of reminding us, is one that has been drenched in blood. Whether religious war, inquisition, or colonial violence, there’s been great evil committed in the name of God. What role has the idea of Satan played in the development of this culture? Theologian Miguel De La Torre, with co-author Albert Hernàndez, has just published a book, The Quest For the Historical Satan, that takes this question by the tail.

I spoke recently with De La Torre about the disastrous legacy the idea of Satan has bequeathed to Christianity, the dark side of God, and about the persistence of that Obama-as-Antichrist campaign.

What’s the general idea behind this new book?

God’s portrayal as a character of absolute goodness is the result of a theology that is read into the Christian Scriptures, yet which is not necessarily supported by a close reading of the texts.

Not only is this theology challenged by the Bible, it is also challenged by existentially and morally comparing such a theology of absolute Good versus absolute Evil with the realities of life. All have faced, or will face, tragedy, misery, illness, and death—events will occur that appear unfair, leading most of us to question if any sense of cosmic justice and mercy truly exists.

When we consider the billions of senseless deaths, tragedies, and atrocities which define human history, it would seem that history denies more than it confirms the paternal love of a caring and merciful father God. One is forced to ask, Where is God?

In a very real way, the search for the historical Satan is an attempt to justify God’s grace while legitimizing the reality and presence of evil in human history. It appears that the development of Satan was, to a certain extent, trying to save God from appearing as the source of evil that is so much a part of the reality of human suffering and death.

One of the fascinating things about the book is the way you trace the changes in conception across language, as with the Greek word daimonion which simply meant “god” or “spirit.” Did you think that shifts across languages reflect some of the later themes in terms of demonization of Otherness?

That was one of the things that we immediately discovered, that making the Other the demon or the representation of evil allowed those defending truth and honesty and righteousness to commit all types of horrors upon that they had defined as monstrous. That led us to thinking about how can we rethink Satan in such a way that will not lead us to demonize others.

You conclude with the idea of Satan as a trickster figure. Is that idea something you imagine contemporary Christians will be drawn to?

Quite frankly, the image of the trickster was always there, specifically in the Hebrew Bible; it’s a tradition of re-interpretation that makes Satan into the figure of absolute evil. My co-author and I look to the Hebrew Bible with an understanding of the ambiguity of goodness and evil. How will Christians today accept that? I don’t think that people are going to be waking immediately to this understanding, because we’ve had over two thousand years of conditioning. But I’m hoping it will at least begin a conversation.

You suggest that the personified Satan emerges as a solution to the central question of what theologians call “theodicy”—how can God be good when evil exists?

The book definitely wrestles with the whole theodicy question: how can an all-loving all-powerful God allow such evil to occur? But when we looked at the Hebrew Scripture, we really noticed that there’s a dark side to God. Even in Judaism today, there is this recognition that God does have a dark side.

What the creation of Satan has done is really save God from how the scripture understood God. Amos reminds us, “If there is evil in a city, has Yahweh not done it?” (Am. 3:6). The prophet Isaiah understands God to say, “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I Yahweh do all these things” (45:7). This is a God who sends evil spirits to torment, as in the case of Saul (1 S. 18:10) or Jeroboam (1 K. 14:10). We take those texts very seriously in trying to ascertain the very character of God.

So in some ways you’re re-evaluating God as well as Satan.

Well at the end of the book, we conclude that if Satan is indeed nothing but a servant of Satan, then it is God who is ultimately responsible for all that God does—especially if you look at the book of Job. If that’s the case, that brings us some very disturbing questions about the very character of God. 

In many ways, the picture you draw of Christendom is almost two thousand years of evil committed in the name of preventing evil. Is a religionless Christianity, of the kind imagined by death of God theologians, a way out of this?

No, not really. I think that’s a very liberal approach to the issue. I don’t think either of us, Albert Hernandez or myself, is conservative or liberal, theologically speaking—that’s a very Eurocentric divide within religious thinking. We’re instead trying to understand religion from the perspective of marginalized people, people who are suffering, of people who are the Other—whether it be the women during the witch hunts or Jews or Muslims during the Inquisition.

We’re not denying God; what we’re trying to do is understand is what is this character of God that seems to be absent when millions upon millions of people die horrible deaths in the name of Jesus. That’s what we’re trying to wrestle with. And in that wrestling, we didn’t exactly come to a tidy conclusion.

Does a trickster Satan offer an insufficient image for the evil of things like the Holocaust?

We do spend some time talking about the Holocaust. But when we demonize the Nazis to such a degree and default to us being the good guys, that allows us to not pay attention to the evil we were doing here: medical experiments we were doing on African Americans in Tuskegee, and also on Guatemalans and Hispanics during the same time period. While the Nuremberg trials were going on, we were also involved in human experiments. 

It’s not to dismiss the evil of the Holocaust, but rather to recognize that there by the grace of God go we—we also are capable of doing that evil. And that’s what we were trying to get at. If we concentrate on absolute good and absolute evil, we’re always able to save ourselves from being represented as absolute evil. And to a certain degree, we have to remember that in the minds of the Nazis, they were the absolute good, protecting the German people from the absolute evil of Jews. These terms, depending on who’s using them, can excuse the use of all types of atrocities.

In many ways, this seems a critique of American exceptionalism.

Absolutely. No question about it. We tried to show this in the book, that when we Americans continuously refer to ourselves as the beacon on the hill or the lighthouse of the world, we imagine it excuses us of all the evil that we’re engaged in globally. 

There’s a picture of President Obama as the Antichrist in the book. How widespread are those images?

Very. When we were doing the research, we found literally hundreds of images of Barack Obama as a demon, with “666” on his forehead, and horns. That was just one of the images that we were able to find. If you do a Google search of “Obama” and “Satan” you may be shocked by just how much he has been demonized by a segment of the US population—whether it’s as specific as the Antichrist slur, or just that he’s satanic and evil.

What are the historical links between these images of Obama and other demonization of men of color in this country?

That’s always been part of the tradition. I’m old enough to remember when John F. Kennedy was shot, and people were expecting that he was the Antichrist and was going to rise from the dead and create the New World Order—and that was because he was a Catholic. So you’ve always had politicians being demonized as an extent, but quite frankly not to the extent that Obama has been. I can’t recall any previous president who was considered to be Antichrist material, with the exception of Kennedy, so I’m left wondering how much of this is because he’s a black man; and, as part of the conversation has been also been about if he’s a secret Muslim, how much that is playing into it.

You trace a general rise in the demonization of Muslims after September 11. How much historical baggage does that have?

I think a tremendous baggage. It does not allow us to consider what grievances Muslims have against the United States. The answer to 9/11 was, officially, well, they hate our freedom, without any real, critical thought—when obviously there had been frustrations that went on for generations that erupted in such violence. It’s hard to seriously listen to anyone when you’re busy demonizing them. The result is that we never have an opportunity to really talk. I mean, it’s as if having a conversation with Islam is negotiating with Satan himself—this demonization is preventing us from honest discourse and peaceful resolution.

Is there a bridgeable gap between those who see any kind of reconciliation as Satanic, and those who might see it as divinely-mandated, through images of hospitality?

There are certainly those within faith traditions who believe that the making of peace is a religious mandate. Unfortunately, especially within this country, we have such a vile reaction to Islam that I fear that those who believe that any conversation with Muslims, or anyone who has a different opinion of us, is compromising with evil and therefore even treasonous—well, that seems to be the dominant discourse in the politics of this country.

And here I think it goes back to how we have come to understand Satan. If instead of looking at Satan as the manifestation of total evil, but were able to see the evolution of this figure, and the ambiguity it holds, we might not have this knee-jerk reaction where we can’t have even a conversation with whomever we define as our Other.

You can see the same demonization occurring across the political field—with undocumented immigrants, for instance.

I remember when Hispanics were considered hard workers from a noble race. And just five, six years later, Hispanics are just these evil criminals who are coming to kill you and kill me and rape our women and steal our jobs. It’s been so quick that my head is spinning.

It’s interesting given that Hispanics have historically been Catholic. Do you think there’s a Protestant/Catholic thing going on there?

No question about it. There are many Protestant groups that look at the Vatican as the Antichrist, the Pope as the Antichrist. They look at the Roman Catholic Church as the Church of Satan. I’ve seen it in many fundamentalist churches, some Pentecostalist churches—this demonization of Roman Catholicism. And that’s problematic again.

You kind of see that going on with Mitt Romney. You see this “he’s Mormon, therefore he’s not Christian, we have to watch out for him.” You see that stirring now. Not as strong as when JFK was running for office, but it hasn’t gone away.

Do you think the demonization of the other is built into American DNA?

It definitely undergirds our politics and how we see the world, but I don’t want to limit this to just America—it’s just very visible right now in this society and this culture. My Spaniard ancestors, for example, demonized Native Americans and committed genocide to an extent that hasn’t been witnessed since. That’s why the historical pieces are so important in the book; we kept going through history to see how this sort of demonization reared its ugly head every so many centuries, and the devastation it created.

All people can fall into this trap. Unfortunately for us as Christians, we’ve done such an excellent job in this demonization process that by now we have it down pat. That’s the sad thing, that those of us who claim to be following the Prince of Peace have made the Prince of Peace into this warrior that’s given us license to slaughter whoever we see as the enemy. That’s what the heritage of Satan has given Christianity.

One of your more shocking conclusions in the book was when you suggest we might need to discard Satan altogether, just throw out the whole idea completely.

I think that Christianity as a whole would do a lot better if we did not have this constant presence of evil. Maybe then we could notice that this ambiguity that exists in other people also exists in us and we wouldn’t have this mandate to destroy whatever we define as absolute evil.

In some ways when we destroy the Other we destroy ourselves.

Oh, absolutely. Because not only do we destroy the other but in so doing we lose our own humanity.