We've seen that the New Testament exhibits contradictory versions of Satan. By the time of the Church Fathers, though, this indeterminate species of Satan will become extinct, and the Devil will become evil incarnate—Tempter but never Tester. A work that cannot be ignored in this development is The Life of Adam and Eve. According to Forsyth, the original book, now lost, was written in Hebrew or Aramaic as early as the first century BCE and contains the first explicit equation of the Edenic serpent with Satan. In this version of Genesis, Satan first seduces the serpent (“Be my vessel, and I will speak through thy mouth words to deceive her”) and then Eve. It should be emphasized that, as Forsyth puts it, “the violation of the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil is absent”; all sin proceeds, in Enochic fashion, from lust.
I’m persuaded not only that this is indeed the first time Satan is identified with the Edenic serpent, but also that the author of Revelations, most likely writing late in the first century CE, made the same claim because he’d read The Life of Adam and Eve in the original. For one thing, he states nothing explicitly; he simply alludes to that “serpent of old” as though it were common knowledge, nor does he bother to elaborate, suggesting the story has already been set down in detail. For yet another, it would explain why he would make such an observation when nowhere else in the Bible is there any more than a remote implication that Satan at some point took the form of a serpent.
The misinterpretations and fanciful fabrications of the Church Fathers begin with Justin Martyr, (c. 100–165 CE). Taking his cue from Revelations, he cements the belief that Satan and the serpent are one and the same. However, since Jesus was not involved in the first fall, and, like most new converts, Justin is a little overzealous about glorifying the Savior, he simply posits a second fall in which Satan is defeated by Christ. Justin bases the future fall on a single verse in Isaiah [27:1] that clearly has nothing to do with Satan; the verse simply predicts the slaying of Leviathan by God. Since Leviathan is described as “that twisted serpent,” that is close enough for Justin. Moreover, according to John, Patriarch of Antioch, Justin believed that what is clearly the demise of the Babylonian king described in Isaiah 14 must have been an allegory for Satan’s second fall. Justin, then, may be the first to explicitly spin out a link between Lucifer and Satan.
It is of particular interest that John of Antioch records Justin as saying, “Isaiah, fashioning a tragedy, revealed the whole dramatic working out prepared for the Devil under the mask of the Assyrian.” [Kelly, p. 177] In other words, Justin believed Isaiah used a king of Babylon (which Justin conflates with Assyria) as a dramatic metaphor to tell the story of Satan.
Not likely. Isaiah was a Jew who hadn’t the slightest concept of Greek tragedy, while Justin was a thoroughly Hellenized pagan who eventually converted to Christianity; it was consistent with his education to see a Greek tragedy being laid out in Isaiah—a tragedy much too good to be wasted on an unnamed Babylonian king.
Like Justin Martyr, Tertullian (ca. 160–225 CE) decided that Satan fell before Creation and was scheduled for another tumble sometime in the future. Tertullian, speculating rather wildly, took “the creation of the animals in Genesis to be an allegory of the creation of the Angels.” [Kelly p 178] What’s more, Tertullian decides—though it says this nowhere in scripture—that Satan was as resplendent as a sunset until he sinned against humankind.
Another key player in the fusion of Lucifer and Satan was Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the first half of the third century CE, who seems to have been the first to lock onto the idea that Satan deceived Adam and Eve out of envy. “[Satan] had been maintained in Angelic majesty, an intimate and beloved of god. But once he beheld man, created in the image of god, he erupted into jealousy and malevolent envy.” [Cyprian, Jealousy, ch. 4, as quoted in Kelly, p. 181] Where he came up with this is anyone’s guess. Mine is that Cyprian was something of a drama queen, and he added what he thought the story lacked.
This nearly contemporary conception of Lucifer/Satan was elaborated upon by the fourth century CE version of the aforementioned Life of Adam and Eve. After Adam is created in God’s image, Michael commands the angels to worship God’s handiwork. Satan, however, defies Michael: “I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. […] He ought to worship me.” Despite Michael’s warning, other angels join in, and Satan boasts, “If [God] be wrathful with me, ‘I will set my throne above the stars of heaven and will be like the Most High’.” [Latin Life of Adam and Eve, ch. 15, as quoted by Kelly.] Satan has pulled his quote right from Isaiah 14—a good trick since Isaiah’s birth was still centuries off.
All the elements are at last brought together and burnished to a fiery glow in Milton’s Paradise Lost. What Justin Martyr began with various misinterpretations, Milton finished with his own—after all, what good would the shadowy wayfarer in Job have been to Milton? He was writing a Christian epic to surpass The Iliad, a tragedy meant to be more memorable than the downfall of Achilles, and he had one in the story of Lucifer, a paragon of angelic beauty doomed by a single flaw: pride. If your hero must fall, what greater height than heaven? Hence, in Paradise Lost, God’s favorite angel rebels against Him; there is war in the celestial realm; Lucifer, the star of the morning, is cast into Hell along with one third of the heavenly host.
What drama can top that? And, as the fictionalized John Quincy Adams says in the film Amistad, “In my experience, the lawyer who tells the best story wins.” The evolution of Lucifer is a case study in the mechanics of how an appealing fiction can replace, if not precisely fact in this case, a rather lackluster original version of events. (Facts are never safe from alluring fictions either, or Hollywood would have gone bust long ago.)
The overriding question Forsyth poses in The Old Enemy is “Was history within the scope of human responsibility, or was it simply the battleground for superhuman forces?” [p. 148] In other words, who takes the rap for evil? In most of the Old Testament, God is the author of good and evil. Beginning with Chronicles, however, the blame shifted to the Devil.
Unfortunately, the current concept of Satan has effaced the original, which was both sophisticated and ambiguous. We have returned to the world of Persian dualism—black and white, evil and good, us and them. The very mark of a poor author is one who sees morality in facile terms such as these and fails to account for shades of gray. It’s not just a cheap comic book; it’s a dangerous worldview that is dangerously easy to adopt.
Primo Levi devotes a chapter of The Drowned and the Saved—appropriately enough titled “The Gray Zone”—to the universal tendency to simplify complex historical phenomena and to revert to a dualistic worldview:
…perhaps for reasons that go back to our origins as social animals, the need to divide the field into “we” and “they” is so strong that this pattern, this bipartition—friend/enemy—prevails over all others. Popular history, and also the history taught in schools, is influenced by this Manichean tendency, which shuns half-tints and complexities: it is prone to reduce the river of human occurrences to conflicts, and the conflicts to duels …” [p. 37]
Levi goes on to point out that even the camps, where we might expect less ambiguity, “could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors.” [p. 37]
If Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had allowed the satan to remain a lower-cased noun with a definite article, to be an office that could be occupied by angel or human, the Church would not have been able to justify the burning of thousands of women at the stake by claiming “She’s in league with the Devil!” (or worse, sleeping with Him). The Crusades might not have been quite as easy to sustain if Muslims hadn’t been labeled servants of Satan. And the reverse applies for the Islamic jihads: “The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the Devil. Fight then against the friends of Satan …” [Qur’an, 4:74–4:76] Torturing heretics might not have produced such immaculate consciences without Satan’s shadow looming over the victims. As Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, “the relentless torture of the accused was given a perverse rationale: the devil, it was believed, made his charges insensible to pain, despite their cries for mercy.” Centuries later, little has changed. Jean Edward Smith, George W. Bush’s biographer, was asked in a WNYC radio interview, which aired on September 9, 2016, about Bush’s decision to permit torture, and Smith replied that it wasn’t a hard choice. After all, they were torturing “agents of the Devil.”
Torture, murder, war (murder on a vast scale) are all the more easily justifiable in a world where evil is personified and propaganda successfully portrays an individual or a group as satanic—in other words, in a dualistic world. Odd as it sounds, removing Satan from the equation would mean people remain human.
A nondualistic world might entail attempting to understand the contrary position—the adversarial position we might say. And if we are opposed by human beings rather than evil incarnate, might it not behoove us to consider whether our way is the right one, and even if it is, what achieving it is worth?
No one, of course, is so naïve as to think a more accurate concept of the Old Testament satan would cleanse the world of evil, but we know from Holocaust survivors that the Nazis assuaged their guilt primarily by convincing themselves that Jews were subhuman. This cognitive adjustment becomes that much easier when “evil” is an independent force “out there” and when people are characterized as its confederates, children, or disciples. Thinking ceases at that point, and the issue is decided for us. If we can pull a trigger without thinking, we can kill without guilt. And guilt is what nature gave us to prevent us from repeating our mistakes.
While a non-evil satan certainly won’t put an end to atrocities, it is that much less material for the propaganda machine; it’s one less tool in the hands of manipulative leaders—secular or religious—and it’s a warning against making facile identifications, against accepting the party line without rigorous cross-examination. More importantly, demoting satan to a figure out of Primo Levi’s Gray Zone removes one of the supporting struts from dualism’s splashy billboard, makes it wobble in the wind and renders it unappealingly flimsy. At the very least, leaders like Pat Robertson, who can blame an earthquake on a “pact with the Devil,” would sound ridiculous to all but the deeply deluded.
In Under Western Eyes Joseph Conrad wrote, "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." In other words, the fault lies not in the morning star but in ourselves.
This is the final installment of a four-part article. The previous installment is here.
Vincent Czyz received an MA in comparative literature from Columbia University, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. He is the author of the collection Adrift in a Vanishing City and the novel The Christos Mosaic, and is the recipient of the 1994 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Boston Review, and many other publications.