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Here’s this week’s Q:
What’s your take on the devil, hell, demons, angels, ghosts, aliens, etc. ?
I’ve been saving this question for this Halloween weekend. It just felt right. I think many of us would assume that the devil, hell, and demons have always been part of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. That just isn’t the case.
The devil, as a figure, doesn’t appear at all in the Hebrew Bible. There is a word, that pops up in the Hebrew scriptures that is transliterated into English as “Satan.” However, in the Hebrew text the word Satan is preceded by the definite article, making it ha-satan, or “The Satan.” This isn’t a personal name, but a title. In the Bible it’s used attributively. Let’s look at an example:
Numbers 22:22 - This is the story of Balaam and the talking donkey. The text reads, “God's anger was kindled because he (Balaam) was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary.
It’s important to note that “angel of the Lord” is often used to talk about God, so when that occurs in the text, we can understand it to be a reference to God, indirectly. This verse calls God Balaam’s Satan!
This usage also pops up in the Hebrew text to refer to various kings who are acting as Israel’s adversaries. Their name isn’t “Satan,” they are being Ha-Satan, the Adversary.
The reference many of us probably think of for the Satan is found in Job, where God and the Satan end up in a kind of contest to see if Job will remain faithful when his life falls apart. In this story, the Satan is a kind of prosecuting attorney, surveying the world and reporting back to God. The Satan is part of God’s council, not God’s cosmic opponent or opposite.
It wasn’t until after the Babylonian exile, and the subsequent interaction with the Persian empire, that the Jewish Tradition incorporated several elements: Satan/Devil, as a cosmic evil figure, demons, and even the afterlife were imported into the Tradition during this period (c.586-539 BCE). All Jews didn’t embrace these theological shifts, one particular group being the Sadducees, who were the maintainers of the Jerusalem Temple. They didn’t incorporate these new ideas into their understanding. We are told in the New Testament “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him (meaning Jesus, Luke 20:27),” and asked a question about the next life (which they didn’t believe in). The Pharisees, on the other hand, were more liberal (shocking, right?) and embraced these new ideas. There is little doubt in my mind that the emergence of Satan, demons, and an afterlife came from this interaction during the exilic period.
One final note. There is a text in Isaiah 14:12, which says, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!” The KJV renders it, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” The word translated Day Star, or Lucifer in the KJV, is heylel in Hebrew, and it means “Shining One.” It’s often assumed to be about the fall of the king of Babylon, but many scholars believe it is actually about the king of Assyria, likely Sargon II, not some devil figure.
About hell: I believe in hell in two ways. First, there’s the actual geographical location of Gehenna (the Greek word translated as “hell”) just outside the city of Jerusalem. Gehenna means, “Valley of Hinnom,” and in Jesus’s day it was a garbage dump. During the era of the Kings, Gehenna was the site of child sacrifice. The image of a place of waste, where these terrible things happened, with a fire that is constantly burning, is a powerful one. I tend to read these texts most often as a warning from Jesus about what will happen if the people choose armed resistance against Rome (which happened in 70 CE).
The Valley of Hinnom, By Deror avi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2944917
The second way I believe in hell is as a this life and this world reality. We tend to focus on afterlife destinations, but there are so many people living in hell on earth, right here, right now Some are living in hells of their own making, and so many others are living in hells that have been created because of injustices and unjust systems that are being perpetuated against them. I believe that Jesus’s message speaks to both, the invitation to leave the hells of our own making, and the call to actively work to dismantle the hells we have created for others. In terms of the afterlife, I am generally agnostic. I don’t know what happens when we die, and I am trying to avoid finding out. However, I will say that I share the sentiment of Marcus Borg when he said,
“So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don't have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know."
About demons, ghosts, etc.: I love watching suspenseful movies about these kind of things, and hearing people share stories about their experiences and encounters. Alas, I must say I am generally skeptical about their reality. Yet I also know that just because I can’t fathom it doesn’t make it untrue. For now, I’m an open skeptic.
About aliens: It just seems to me that in the immense vastness of creation, in an expanding universe, with the 700 quintillion planets therein, it seems unlikely that we are all there is. If I was betting, I’d give the odds at 50:50.
Thanks for the questions!
Do you have a burning question you’d like to see addressed on Free-for-All Friday? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.