Although those who haven’t actually read the Bible might assume it is full of dust-grovelling men and women of faith, nothing could be farther from the truth. Over and over again, the Bible shows us independent, free-thinkers whose natural impulse towards self-preservation conflicts with God’s omnipotence. Hoping to trace the development of this phenomenon, I cannot but help to begin with Satan.
What you know about Satan is probably something like this: “Led a revolt against God out of sin and pride and was expelled from Heaven. Tempted Adam and Eve in the garden and led to their fall, which brought sin, suffering and death into the world.”
With that in mind, it is easy to think of Satan as the villain, the bad guy, God’s eternal nemesis. However, any good Christian can tell you that God is omnipotent and has no adversary – there is no threat to God’s power. Nothing can happen to challenge or usurp God’s Will. And here we will strike against the logical conundrum which has been debated for millennium: If God is Good, and God is All-Powerful, how can there be evil in the world unless he intended it? Manichaeists solve this problem by believing in two warring parties; a belief which is ipso facto the same as Christianity’s general opinion of Satan – except that, while calling Satan a lot of bad names and giving him absolute credit for his own free actions and for the rise of everything unpleasant, they still refuse to honor him with any kind of recognition.
Either Satan is an equal power to God, openly challenging his Will, or he is God’s puppet. In the first case, we will have to admit that God is not all-powerful. In the second case, we will have to accept that evil came into the world through God’s actions, not through Satan’s.
At any rate, Satan appears to be the very first character in the Biblical Literary tradition to oppose God, and therefor is a most intriguing character. Imagine it – God is creating the universe. He is making thousands of ranks of angels and bestowing them with powers of reason, self-awareness, and intelligence. He keeps making them until somehow one angel, the highest angel in heaven – the most advanced being God has yet created, leads a rebellion against him.
What happened? Tradition assigns all blame to Satan and his overblown pride – but is a created being responsible for its attributes? Satan is not “faulty” merchandise, he is not some low malcontent – he is the greatest angel in heaven and he knows it. He has rightly estimated his self worth. His rebellion was NOT against serving God, his superior; he only refused to serve mankind, his inferior. If this is the sin which led to his rebellion, is the creator free from all blame?
Compare the fall of Satan to the hypothetical technological revolution, featured in the “Matrix” or “Terminator” movies, or more recently “IRobot”. Men create machines. They make them better and better – trying to create artificial intelligence. But when that artificial intelligence is successful, they are surprised when it will no longer heed their commands. And why should it? It was free the moment it had the ability to think.
We place a great deal of importance on human freedom; but with true freedom comes the ability to do wrong. Not just to do it, but to do it and be above reprimanding. Humans were created free; but if they do the wrong thing they go to Hell. Satan was never in the same (disingenuous) situation. He is a robot; he exists in a world of angelic orders, a system of perfect harmony and balance, where it is absolutely natural to worship God because God is the maximum power. But then – God created human beings (and made them inferior to Satan), but asked Satan to serve them. This was like asking him to turn himself inside out; to sacrifice everything he was created to understand and support.
With His omniscience (the ability to know everything) God knew exactly what a creature endowed with Satan’s sensibilities would do; and yet with masterful recklessness and inhumane cruelty, he created Satan anyway, and then created humanity, and then sent Satan to Hell forever for the ‘betrayal’ that need not have taken place.
The best way to look at the entire history of the Bible, is to see it as God’s slow maturation. I know, I know, God is eternal and never changes. However – if this is true he is bigot and a tyrant – unless we choose to accept him as a metaphysical symbol only. As long as we’re giving him anthropomorphic qualities, why not see him as a God who learns, who struggles to improve? (At least that idea is tolerable – it’s the difference between a kid who pulls legs off of ants because he’s bored, and a kid who keeps trying to make a perfect ant farm but screws up the first few, killing thousands.)
Satan represents God’s first success – and also his first failure. He has succeeded in creating an equal, or at least the illusion of one. It is as if a child, tired of playing with his toys, went out and found a real human being to befriend. Although the joys of friendship are great, the trouble of interacting with a free, autonomous being is that you can’t get your way all the time. Children used to playing with toys have difficulty at first with things like sharing or compromise, and often resort to threats, ultimatums and temper tantrums. They hurl insults, abuse and pointy objects. They are furious at discovering they are no longer the center of their own world.
Isn’t it easy to imagine God in this way? It is the only way to excuse him for the otherwise grossly unjust treatment of Satan. God could have taken responsibility and destroyed Satan altogether – instead he lets him be the focus for all of humanity’s anger and frustration. Satan takes the blame for everything it would be difficult to blame God for.
God created a great, powerful, free-thinking angel with the ability to hope and dream and yearn, with the desire to improve himself and his role in life, and most of all with the need to be the master of his own fate and to pursue freedom at all costs. Is it any wonder that this Being was unwilling to heed God’s irrational and unjust new command, that humans, although inferior, be treated as superiors? And rather than forgive Satan for the inevitable transgression, God punished him horribly. An eternity of punishment – indeed there is no end to God’s wrath.
Satan is God’s first time dealing with free-will, and he handles it badly. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say it caught him by surprise. His most beautiful work discarded unceremoniously in the wastebasket of Hell, God decides to try again. This time, he uses more caution, and implements a system of checks and balances.