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PJ Slinger: With Satan, the devil is in the details

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PJ Slinger

By PJ Slinger

“At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

This is allegedly what Denzel Washington told Will Smith shortly after Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face at the Oscars ceremony on March 27. 

So, the devil made him do it?

Now, whether Washington meant the literal devil or was speaking more metaphorically, we’ll never know. However, it is known that Washington is a fervent believer in God, (“I’m a God-fearing man,” he has told The New York Times) so, it’s not out of the question to assume he is also a believer in the literal devil.

In fact, numerous surveys over the past dozen years or so show that between 50–60 percent of Americans believe in the devil as a real entity and slightly more (64 percent) believe in a literal hell. The two kind of go hand-in-hand in religious mythology.

So, let’s say that slightly more than half the people believe in the literal devil and literal hell. To quote the Church Lady from “Saturday Night Live”: “Well, isn’t that special!” 

But, what is it about the devil that they believe? I’m no theologian, so I’m not going to suggest I know more about the devil than anyone else. What I do “know” is what I learned at Sunday school as a child and from books, movies and discussions. What I understand about the devil probably isn’t too far off from what most Americans, including Christians, think.  

However, as an atheist, I believe in the devil exactly as much as I believe in God — that is, I don’t. 

So, what is it that I do know about the devil? Well, it’s a male. I’ve yet to see a female representation of the devil (other than Halloween costumes). He goes by several names, including Satan, Prince of Darkness, Antichrist, Lucifer and Beelzebub, among others. He has horns, hooved feet and a tail, and is often pictured with a thorny trident. He is associated with fear, punishment and immorality and his home base is hell.

In Christianity, the devil is God’s main rival and nemesis. According to many Christians, he’s mentioned right there in the first book of the bible, Genesis. They believe that the serpent who appeared in the Garden of Eden to tempt Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was actually the devil. 

One origin story says that at the beginning of time, the devil, still then an angel named Lucifer, defied God’s wishes and was therefore turned into the devil.

“In punishment for his rebellion, he is cast from heaven together with his mutinous entourage, which were transformed into demons,” according to the “devil” entry in Britannica.

Well, to believers, don’t all of us defy God’s wishes at some point in our Earthly lives? Shouldn’t we all be devils? Or do you have to be an angel first? Or is Lucifer the devil only because he was the first? (No fair! I wanted to be the devil!)

Since this also happened “at the beginning of time,” who else was around at that point? Was it just God, the devil and the angels hanging out (where?) until God decided to create the universe? What were they doing for all that time? How long between the beginning of time and the beginning of our universe? Was the devil pestering God to make the universe so eventually people would be around for him to tempt? Otherwise, what the devil is he doing with his time? 

We also have to assume that God created the devil. I mean, who else has the power to turn someone into a devil? It’s gotta be God, right? But, why would this allegedly all-benevolent being create such evil? (And, again, you can’t say “because God works in mysterious ways.” That’s a cop-out answer — and everyone knows it.) Is it so he can show off his goodness when compared to evil? After all, if there was no evil, how would people even know of such a thing if they lived in an all-benevolent world? Maybe the devil is just a pro-God marketing campaign.

Well, apparently there is a (questionable) rationale for how an all-benevolent God can create such terribleness.

“Christian theologians have come to this conclusion: If God created the universe, and everything God creates is good, then Satan must have been something good that went bad,” according to Jerry Walls, a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, as reported in an article on LiveScience. 

So, yes, that description includes the angel-turned-devil storyline, but it still doesn’t resolve the whole “evil” question. God’s omniscience should have known that evil would result from Lucifer’s rebellion.

Many theologians, however, have tried to play down the tale of Satan, saying he’s not a real entity, but rather more of an idea. But, some Christian apologists, including C.S. Lewis, say that the devil’s most heinous trick is to make people believe he isn’t real, and that, therefore, is proof of his existence. Ugh.

That’s like playing a game of hide-and-seek by yourself and claiming, because you’ve looked everywhere and can’t find any other players, that it’s because they are so good at hiding. 

So, what is the devil’s job, exactly? Some think he is the caretaker or proprietor of hell. You know, hell, that place where people will burn in agony for eternity, as most Christians believe. Ah, good times.

It is assumed that those who are sentenced to hell have made extremely poor choices in their Earthly life. Murder, rape, stuff like that, right? But, isn’t the devil a proponent of those atrocities, with him being the ultimate evil being? So, why is the devil torturing the souls of those who have done his bidding? Aren’t those his people? Shouldn’t the devil be like, “Yo, Jeffrey Dahmer, my man! You’ve done some good work up there!” 

Which brings me to the phrase, “There’s a special place in hell for him.” Excuse my ignorance, but isn’t hell basically just one big cauldron of fire and brimstone? How are the “special places in hell” different from regular hell? Are the fires hotter? “Oh, you were bad, sure, but not as bad as Hitler, so you only have to burn in 1,000-degree heat. Hitler, over there, he’s scooping lava 24/7 in 1,500-degree flames!”

Is the devil an actual physical manifestation, or does he reside solely in souls? From the Genesis story, it’s assumed the devil appeared as a serpent, so he is able to, at a minimum, create a physical body. Is his physical body present in hell, too? Or does he just live in the minds of the unfortunate beings down there? 

But, we “know” that he occupies people’s minds with evil thoughts during their time as living humans, too, so hell isn’t the only place where the devil works. Allegedly the Prince of Darkness can inhabit, much like God, billions of brains at once. That’s a pretty good feat! 

Which then forces us to ask: Does the devil have the same powers as God, except for evil rather than good? That would be a true clash of the titans.

Most Christians believe that God is omniscient and omnipotent. But if he’s all that, no other entity can be, including the devil. If you’re omnipotent, that means you are, by definition, all powerful. 

For example, let’s say that the all-benevolent God decides that, going forward, no human will ever murder another human. But the devil decides that humans will continue to murder other humans. Only one of these outcomes is possible. If somebody kills another, then clearly God is not omnipotent, or he would have prevented it. Or, if no murders ever happened again, clearly the devil was unable to exert his power, meaning he is not omnipotent.

So, what is it? Is God omnipotent or not? If he is, then why do people even worry about the devil? God can clearly outperform the devil in whatever situation that develops. 

And if God is omniscient, as many/most Christians also believe, he then knows exactly what will happen in the future. God knows whether he or the devil will ultimately prevail. But how could the devil possibly prevail if God has more powers? Seems like the game is rigged, again. 

It’s true that religions do need a devil, otherwise there’s no “bad guy” to be used as the foil for God’s all-perfectness. Gotta keep filling those church seats and coffers to keep the devil at bay! The devil becomes the scapegoat for believers when something bad happens, because God certainly wouldn’t allow that . . . or would he?  

I’ll let Epicurus, from around 300 B.C.E, take it from there:  

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

“Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

“Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

“Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

PJ Slinger is editor of Freethought Today.