The Devil’s in the Details

Witches’ Sabbath by Francisco Goya

Many names, colors, and symbols have often been associated with the satan. Colors like red and black, symbols like the inverted cross and five pointed star, and names like lucifer and the devil. But one main idea, more than any other, has wrongly been associated with “the satan” from the Abrahamic tradition, and that is the idea of chaos, disorder, and darkness.

“If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.” – Psalm 139: 11-12

This association can most clearly been seen by how frequently satan is portrayed as the ruler of hell in popular culture. Hell is the embodiment of chaos and destruction, and in the Christian tradition the satan is sent there to be destroyed with all things that oppose God. It’s also not common to refer to satan as “the satan” and I will mention that a bit later.

So if the devil is not meant to represent or be associated with chaos and disorder, then why is it so common to see him depicted in that way? It’s simple really, if that which opposes order can be defined as evil then anything that opposes the people or the system responsible for maintaining order can automatically be labeled evil.

By contrast those people and systems in charge of “keeping the peace,” can by default be thought of as good, but we know this is not always the case. Fascism itself is the ideology which worships order as good and condemns disorder as evil. The entirety of the Abrahamic scriptures, however, tell the story of God’s people escaping corrupt empires, and overthrowing systems imposing unjust orders.

Abraham fled from the Chaldeans, Moses rescued the Israelites from Egypt, Daniel confronted Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and Christ and the apostles preached peace in the age of Rome. Lucifer can be more closely associated with the powers that fell than he can with the chaos and disorder that remained.

In the Christian tradition the satan is described as the accuser or the spirit of false accusation, and we can see that even in the story of Adam and Eve and the temptation of Christ. In both stories the figure of the satan can be seen falsely accusing God. In the garden, the serpent accuses God of lying, and in the temptation the devil is essentially accusing Jesus of not being the son of God.

That’s what makes this distortion so dangerous, those in power often falsely accuse those seeking reform or revolution. To be fair, those in power can be falsely accused as well, but it’s usually those on the fringes or outside of the system who are wrongly identified as satanic and then occasionally adopt the pagan form of the practice.

This post is already longer than my usual, so I don’t want to make it even longer with a full explanation for why I’ve been using the phrase “the satan” rather than the personal name Satan. It’s a habit I picked up from pastor and teacher Brian Zahnd several years ago and he explains his reasons in a message titled The Fall of Satan, which you can listen to here. He probably explains it better than I could anyway.

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