Looking for Christianity’s Satan and Hell in the Old Testament

Jun 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Are you tired of being told you’re going to hell? I know I am. We hear it all the time: Satan this and hell that. I’m told because I honor the gods of my ancestors that I worship Satan, a guy I don’t believe. I’m told by not believing in him I’m doing his work. Likely some of you have heard things like this. And Satan and God seem to be falling over each other trying to destroy America. I’m not sure any longer who the real enemy is. And, of course, hell is waiting for all us “sinners.”

The Christian Anti-Defamation Commission’s site DefendChristians.org asks, Who is to Blame for Hell?

An ancient controversy recently re-erupted when TIME magazine made the topic of hell its cover story this past April. This was precipitated by Rob Bell’s controversial new book, “Love Wins” which resurrects old, heretical, universalistic ideas about the nature of hell.

What’s amusing from the outside looking in is that originally, Satan, today’s devil, was just God’s lieutenant, on God’s council for crying out loud, doing his bidding faithfully, as in Job.[1] Now Job got screwed, don’t get me wrong, but the devil could honestly say, and with a straight face, “God made me do it.” Who is the bad guy in this picture? You decide. As Elaine Pagels writes, “the figure of Satan has been a standing puzzle in the history of religion.”[2]

Frank M. Cross puts forward the idea that YHWH was originally an epithet of El and in time became the principle cult name of El. and that YHWH split off from El “ultimately ousting El from his place in the divine council, and condemning the ancient powers to death (Ps 82).”[3]

Look for a second at YHWH’s similarities to the much older El, as long as we’re looking at all the hell and Satan stuff:

  • YHWH’s “role as judge in the court of El (Psalm 82).” This is an image based on tablets from Ugarit which depict El surrounded by the “sons of El” or the “sons of god.”
  • YHWH’s kingship (Exodus 15).
  • YHWH’s “wisdom, age, and compassion.” El was seen as a sage old man.
  • YHWH as creator and father.[4]

And hell? Hell was not a place in early Jewish thought. Sheol, the original place all dead people went, was just a place dead people went, sort of like Heathen conceptions of afterlife, where we think in terms of the “halls of our ancestors” – the place where all our dead family go. No big deal. No punishment; no reward.[5]

Of course, Heathen’s thought about after life and the early Jews did not: As Psalms 6 demonstrates (“Turn, O Lord, save my life…For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”) the Jews of the biblical era has no belief in a life after death, much less of an immortal soul in need of salvation.

As far as conceptions of hell go, Heathenism has a goddess named “hel” but there is absolutely no evidence that in Heathen times anybody thought of a place called “hel.” Later on there were ideas of  a place called Valhalla, a place for heroes to go, but you didn’t get to decide to go there. Odin had to pick you, Odin, the Valfather, the “Father of the Slain.” His Valkyries would scoop you up and bring you to Valhalla, there to fight by his side and drink mead. A warrior’s paradise.

Freyja got some of the dead too, and I’m sure no warrior complained about that, though it’s unclear how or why this sharing of dead heroes came about.

And Heathens didn’t even have a bad guy. Like the Jews, really. Even later on the Heathens didn’t have a bad guy, while in Judaism and Christianity poor old Satan got worse and worse press, until the devil had been invented. It didn’t happen all at once of course; it was a progression.

Not that you’d know that by reading things like this article by the ACDC. If you pick up a Bible and read about the Garden of Eden, you will find (perhaps to your surprise) that the snake was just a snake. Your Bible likely cites Paul as evidence that this snake is Satan. But Paul’s conception of Satan was not that of the author of Genesis, who wrote many centuries before Satan became the architect of evil (165 BCE to 100 CE).

Even today, Pagels writes,

“Satan is scarcely present in traditional Judaism to this day and not present at all in classical Jewish sources – at least not in the form that later Western Christendom knew him, as the leader of an ‘evil empire,’ of an army of hostile spirits who take pleasure in destroying human beings.”[6]

Food for thought, eh? Another thing you wouldn’t know from fundamentalist Christian propaganda. You’d think they and the Jews are in this as solid allies to the bitter end against Satan. But as Pagels writes, it was left to sectarian Jewish groups like the Essenes, to develop the idea of Satan as an adversary. In fact, as she writes, “Had Satan not existed already in Jewish tradition, the Essenes would have had to invent him.”[7]

As for the Christians and Muslims:

Certain followers of Jesus of Nazareth, including the authors of the Gospels of the New Testament, adapted and elaborated similar themes…Yet while the majority of Jews, from ancient times to the present, have largely left characterizations of Satan to marginal and sectarian groups, Christians (and later Muslims) place this cosmic battle, and their own campaigns against those they have regarded as intimate enemies, at the center of their cosmology.”[8]

They close the article with a prayer,

May God have mercy on you and open your eyes that you might loathe your sin and throw yourself on the mercy of God through the merits of Jesus Christ and save your immortal soul. Then all the unimaginable glories of heaven and eternal life will be yours forever to the glory of Almighty God.

But neither this heaven nor the hell said to be opposed to it existed in the Jewish thought embodied by the Old Testament. We are threatened with invented rewards and punishments and a pretended “Judeo-Christian” linkage that are inventions of Christianity. The more fundamentalism turns toward the Old Testament, the less it seems to pay any real attention what it really says.[9]

[1] For more on Job’s persecution by God, see Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (HarperOne, 2008). This biblical council is, by the way, a holdover from Canaanite polytheism, stolen as it were (as Christianity later stole things from Paganism). For the Canaanites, El was the big guy and Asherah was his wife. Only later did YHWH steal Asherah and the council, and then later kick the wife under the bus of misogyny.

[2] Elaine Pagels, “The Social History of Satan, the “Intimate Enemy”: A Preliminary Sketch,” HTR 84 (1991), 105. Pagels refers to Satan in Job as “a kind of divine prosecuting attorney.”

[3] Frank M. Cross, “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” HTR 55 (1962), 256-257. See also idem, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1973) in which Cross demonstrates the similarities between Canaanite religion and that of the Israelites.

[4] Frank M. Cross (1962), 258. See also André Caquot, “At the Origins of the Bible,” Near Eastern Archaeology 63 (2000), 224-227.

[5] When the Jewish Bible got translated into Greek c. 200 BCE, the word “sheol” got replaced by “hades.”

[6] Pagels (1991), 105.

[7] Pagels (1991), 127.

[8] Pagels (1991), 128. She develops this theme further in “The Social History of  Satan, Part II: Satan in the New Testament Gospels,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62 (1994), 17-58. Here, Pagels observes, “Each of the evangelists’ various depictions of the devil progressively correlates with the ‘social history of Satan’- that is, with the history of increasing conflict and opposition between groups representing Jesus’ followers and their opposition.”

[9] See also a recent piece on CNN, Actually, That’s Not in the Bible


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