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An Atheist’s Perspective: Thoughts on the Devil

I am most familiar with the devil as a kind of boogey man. Something that I was told was bad. It was a being that scared little kids or a character in some of the stories that I had to read. The most important of the biblical stories always featured the devil—and now, in retrospect it seems odd that God’s drinking buddy figures so prominently in all of the Abrahamic religions. It’s almost like we need the devil to fulfill some purpose.

From the fall in the garden (although I’m not convinced that the snake is necessarily the devil, we get that not from theology but from Milton), the book of Job (problematic because the author that started Job isn’t the same author that finished it), the temptation in the desert, and at the end of the Revelations where “a devil” is thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur (Rev. 21:10, it’s not “the devil” mind you but simply “a devil”). Run through that list and everything that is taught to kids is in there, at least for the Catholics. Every one of those stories is a central block for the pillar of the Catholic faith and they all feature the devil. Not just include but feature him.

Even stranger is that the devil doesn’t have an origin story in the bible. He’s just always there. Timeless, ageless, just like the god he apparently opposes. The role of the devil seems to be like that of Loki of the Norse Sagas—a tempter, one that in opposition to the Abrahamic God uses guile rather than force. Milton claims that he was cast out for not wanting to kneel before man, because if god orders you to worship a false idol you better do it…and/or for disobedience. Origen writes that the devil is a fallen angel based on Isaiah, but this fallen creature is clearly the ruler of Babylon and clearly also a man. The problem with the figure of the devil is that as punishment for his actions he’s sent to hell. Now, that kind of makes sense—he does the worst crime an existent being can do without harming another creature so he must be punished. Yet, what kind of punishment is it that he receives?

Hell, again that makes sense, but according to modern Christian stories he isn’t really being punished there. I mentioned in a previous post that hell cannot exist because, briefly, it actually violates the principles of justice that we hold for the supreme god it can only serve as vengeance. We know there’s a lake of fire, sulfur, etc.; but the devil isn’t in either of those. No the modern scary boogey man devil is actually granted the role of king or warden of hell. He gets to go home on the weekends, possess bodies, tempt people into sin. If he is being punished for his disobedience then why is he granted so much wiggle room on where he can go and what he can do when he gets there. I’ve the ministers talk about the devil walking the earth, influencing heavy metal music, the usual stuff to poison our moral natures. The point, to reiterate, is that if the devil is in prison how is he able to get away with causing 9/11, Katrina—oh no wait, that was god punishing us for our immorality just ask Pat Robertson. If the devil stalks the earth that leads us to one of two possibilities: either hell is a shitty prison or god is a shitty jailer.

This is a semi-modern phenomenon. Dante Alligheri puts the devil locked in the ice of lake Cocytus. Machiavelli, in the Belfagor, places a different figure in charge of Hell the god Pluto. The Devil we assume is locked away in the back, but the focus ought to be on the fact that these two Florentines understood that if the devil is in Hell, he can’t be in charge of it. Certainly it would be foolish to give him an army of like minded souls for which they serve to corrupt the people of the material plane. It just seems that the worse you are the better you are going to do in hell. It’s reminiscent of the last two seasons of Oz, where the maximum security prison was more like a men’s club than a place of punishment. Goethe and Milton elevated the devil into a character had actual power, but it must be remembered that these are characters in fictional works for the purpose of entertainment. If, say, Christianity as laid out in the bible were literally true then there would be nothing to worry about because everything is fated to work out just fine. It’s why there was no real tension in the Left Behind series, we knew how it was going to turn out. Yet, even the characters in the book couldn’t understand that certain things had to happen in a specific order (plus those books were terribly written with horrible characters and a horrible interpretation of Christianity).

Does the adversary have a chance? What has he accomplished in the Abrahamic tradition? If he is the serpent in the garden then he got Eve to eat the fruit by telling her the truth. He was allowed to torture a man at God’s behest in the book of Job, and really that’s about it.

The devil’s role is to serve as nothing more than a boogey man. It allows people to justify terrible events without having to blame the supreme being for their occurrence. Yet, when that is done all that is really being said is that there exists a force that is, opposite and equal. It’s a rehash of Zoroastrianism with its good and evil forces. This is all without getting into the strange creation that is the devil to begin with. A benevolent god ought not to create something whose only role is that of a betrayer, it doesn’t stand to reason.

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