My earliest experience with the devil and hell comes from attending our neighborhood United Methodist Church with a friend when I was about 5 years old and coming home crying and saying that I was “going to hell.” Somewhere between there and seminary I stopped believing in hell and the devil. However, it’s only been in the last 5 years or so that I’ve taken an interest in the history of how the concepts of the devil and hell have evolved. My research has helped to substantiate my belief that these are mythological concepts used to control and demonize.
In brief what I found is that the figure of the Devil or Satan has grown and changed significantly through the centuries. The root of the Hebrew word satan actually means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.” In the Hebrew Bible and in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan was NOT the leader of an “evil empire” nor did he run an army of hostile spirits who made war on God and humanity. In fact, Satan was not necessarily evil or opposed to God at all. In the book of Numbers, written in the 10th or 9th century BCE, the satan is an angel who obstructs the way of a man named Balaam, who was going somewhere God didn’t want him to go (Numbers 22:22-35). In the book of Job, written in the 6th or 5th century BCE, Satan is now a character whose role is adversarial, almost like a prosecutor. Still, Satan can not act without God’s permission.
The book of Zechariah, written about 520 BCE, Satan takes a more sinister role and acts independently of God by inciting factions among the people of Israel (Zech. 3:1-2).
But it is during intertestamental times (420 BCE – 30 CE) when the Essenes, a radical Jewish sect, elevate Satan to a cosmic being with super powers warring against God. For the Essenes, who were fighting against the Hellenization of Jerusalem and the Jewish people, the world was polarized. You were either a traditional Jew, or you were against the Jews. You were either on God’s side or the Devil’s. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, scribed by the Essenes, we find that they essentially rewritten the entire history of Israel in terms of cosmic war. They called themselves the “sons of light” and indicted the majority as “sons of darkness.”
This theology and cosmology was prevalent at the time the Gospels were written. With the oppression of the Romans, and then the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, it made sense for first century Jews and Jewish-Christians to see their political struggles in terms of cosmic war. So, in the Gospels we find that the character of Satan continues to develop into a being who promises worldly power and authority in turn for denying God. The Pharisees and the Sadducees are cast as a “brood of vipers” who have already sold out to the powers of Rome and Satan.
From early Christianity until today, through Biblical tradition, literature, art, movies, theater and music, even much of secular society has come to interpret events in the world as between the forces of good and evil. This battle cry has been wielded in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials and even in current day wars. The myth of the devil has successfully been used to vilify, not only our enemies, but all those who may be different. It’s time humans take responsibility for their own actions, prejudices, anger and hatred, stop hiding behind myths and fear based theology and evolve to the next level of spirituality where we recognize that we are all ONE.