Sympathy for the Devil


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Sympathy for the Devil
By Bobby Neal Winters

Satan is a controversial figure to say the least.

The name Satan is mentioned in 47 verses of the Bible, and all but 15 of those are in the New Testament and 11 of the 15 references are in the Book of Job. There are doubtless other references to Satan that are not direct, such as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, but my point is not to make an exhaustive survey rather to get some sort of perspective.

The references given in the New Testament are to someone whose character is thought to be well-understood by the audience. To me, at least, it is not so clear that his character is understood by the modern audience.

Before I proceed any further, let me explain that I don’t believe that belief in Satan is necessary in order to be a Christian. In ancient statements of our faith such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed, there is no reference to Satan. The center of our faith is on God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Saints are mentioned in the creeds and the prophets but not Satan.

Yet Jesus does speak of him and is tempted by him in the Gospels. For many this settles the question, however, Jesus often spoke in parables, so we are limited in how far this may be pressed.

I do think that I may state, regardless of whether Satan is the concrete sort of entity envisioned by some, he does have a character the understanding of which was considered important by Jesus, others of his time, and of those who proceeded him within the Tradition to which those of us who call ourselves Christians belong.

In my calling as a Lay Speaker of the United Methodist of the church, I pass among groups of people who regard Satan with varying degrees of concreteness. Among some, Satan is viewed to be entirely concrete and the source of all evil. The question that arises among them is why God allows Satan to be free.

It is my opinion that Satan is an important part of God’s creation. I will now attempt to defend that view.

As I mentioned earlier, 11 of the 15 Old Testament references to Satan are in the Book of Job. In Job, far from being cast in a fiery realm, far away from God, Satan is presented as a member of God’s court. God points out Job to Satan as an example of a fine man, and Satan replies with alternative explanations for Job’s good character. Job, according to Satan, is only good because God has treated him well. God then allows Satan to test Job.
Satan is subject to God. This is something that has to be clear if we are to understand the concept that is trying to be conveyed.

In my current existence, as someone who serves on committees both at the church where I serve and at the university where I work, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe how humans think as a group. When the committee is called in order to solve a particular problem, its members often haven’t thought about the issue on their own. When solutions are offered by charismatic leaders in the group, there is a tendency to accept that solution without discussion simply to get on with “more important things.”

Those who have spent time going to and fro on the earth and walking up and down it know how dangerous it can be not to explore all of the ramifications of our actions.

There are those, however, who will stand up against even the most charismatic and respected of leaders in order to offer alternatives. This is important to the human process of decision making. Humans need to discuss things and ask questions in order to truly understand them. Often, the discussion will reveal flaws in a proposed solution which had not been foreseen on first blush.

Even if the group ultimately accepts the first proposed solution to a problem without a jot or a tittle changed, the discussion process gives those involved the language necessary in order to explain the decision to others.

Of course, at some point, discussion must at least pause in order for a decision to made, but the reality-check offered by a discussion of intelligent, informed participants is something we omit at our peril.

Those of us who are Christians seek to approach God. We are limited because the means by which seek him are necessarily anthropomorphic because we are anathropos.

The character of God is revealed to us from the beginning as one who is a planner. God plans out the construction of the earth, and, when he destroys the world in the time of Noah, he plans not only its destruction but its salvation.

In the story of the Fall, God has offered Adam and Eve his plan. They are not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or they will die. There the Serpent, which is widely regarded as a manifestation of Satan, offers Eve an alternative to God’s plan.

This happens again to Jesus as he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. The Father has a plan for Jesus. The plan is the way of the Cross. Satan offers Jesus alternatives to this plan.

This is echoed in a pericope repeated in Matthew and Mare as Jesus rebukes Peter. In this incident, Jesus predicts he will have to suffer many things, but Peter refuses to accept this, thereby offering an alternative. Jesus responds by saying “Get behind me, Satan.”

These temptations faced by Jesus were real. It was not like offering a bowl of ice cream to a man whose stomach is full. Jesus was fully human and so could be fully tempted. Satan providing an option shows us that Jesus did have a choice. God had his plan, but Satan offered his alternative. Jesus, very man of very man, chose God’s plan over Satan’s alternative, and in doing so, proved that a man can overcome even the ultimate temptation. In allowing us to see this, Satan is serving God.

This is a paradox, but paradoxes are ultimately more instructing than confusing. We are led to ask questions and engage in discussion. To what extent is Satan’s offering an alternative to God’s plan actually a part of God’s plan? Did God the planner plan this?

We can look back at the earliest part of our story in the Garden of Eden. God put tree in the very center of the Garden and then instructed the very childlike Adam and Eve not to eat of it. No parent can look at that and honestly be without a certain amount of suspicion. Did God have more in mind than a naïve reading might suggest?

What I’ve said here is at odds with what many believe about Satan and their view of God.

I offer it as an alternative.

(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writer, and lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. His new book Confessions of an Ice Cream Socialist is available at
Dear Bobby/Okie,

Grrrr...this is quite possibly one of the most interesting and relative things anyone could ever ask. I growl because I have a deadline--hate them, hate them, hate them (to everything, there is a season). I do not have time to respond properly at the moment--but good for you! It is a brave question.

For what it is worth at the moment, I cannot help but think of George Burns and John Denver in "Oh God!"

Well, I sign off here still growling...on to perhaps lesser studies.

(You do Ada proud--even if you are from "Nowhere".)

Allow me to quickly rephrase that: You do "nowhere" kinda proud....

Gotta go...grrr....

Starting with the end...very bold punchline, Okie :D .

Your last question is very thought-provoking and I think just the type of launching point we need to dig deeper into the Bible. So much can be lost from a superficial reading.

Keen observations about the act of group "consultation." Something that more of us, myself especially, should keep in mind in a group dynamic and as voters.

And finally, this part is my favorite:

God had his plan, but Satan offered his alternative. Jesus, very man of very man, chose God’s plan over Satan’s alternative, and in doing so, proved that a man can overcome even the ultimate temptation. In allowing us to see this, Satan is serving God.

It captures Satan's role, and our choice, so very concisely.

Thank you,
Hello, and Peace, All--

I still don't have the extra minutes I desire. Hopefully (as I am ever hopeful), that will change soon.

But "stuff" like this does not easily dismiss. Until the Truth we all seek is fully revealed to us all, I think that what you have written about, Okie, will continue to be a mystery.

I am thinking about Judas Iscariot. Was he a servant?

I could keep typing, but to no avail, because I really do not know the answer.

Essentially the same interesting spin on the Devil/Satan found in a very interesting book, "Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition," by Richard Smoley. On that subject besides the good example of Job Okie speaks of he reminds us that the Bible in Isaiah 45:7 does state "I from the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things." Yes "evil" seems to serve some "higher good." InLove, you rightfully ponder re Judas. Without trying to wrap my head around issues of "free will" and predestination, fate vs. destiny, one should wonder would there have b een a religion called "Christianity," if all the evils/misjustice that befell Jesus had not occurred? (ps, love Stones music) Take care, Earl
Thank you for all your comments. It was a nice surprise to come back from a conference in Colorado and see over a hundred views of the piece.