03/09/2012 11:50 am ET Updated May 09, 2012

Our Obsession, Love, and Need for Satan

In the beginning of every semester I discuss ancient Jewish monotheism with my students in the World Religions and Western Civilization college courses I teach. In the process of exploring the underlying beliefs of the ancient Israelites, I make the point that to the Jews, there was no such concept of a Satan or a devil as we imagine in modernity. According to the ancient Israelites, God was omnipotent and therefore an evil agent that could rival God didn't exist. Evil therefore was not a metaphysical phenomenon but a moral one. It existed, not as a result of a devil's ability to make us do things, but because of our own disobedience to God.

Consistently each semester, my students immediately take me through the Jewish Bible, attempting to prove that, "No, the devil does exist and he is real." They begin with the serpent story in Genesis; move on to the presence of Satan in the heavens in Job, then recount Lucifer's banishment from his position as a musician in heaven to earth. I respond by noting that the Genesis text never identifies the serpent is Satan and the "Ha-Satan" figure identified in Job is not the evil rival we perceive Satan to be today but rather an angel of God. We then discuss the figurative language utilized (identify where) and the persona of Lucifer (who only the Latin Vulgate translates as such) as merely metaphorical depiction of the historical king of Babylon who is believed to have fallen not from heaven, but from his throne.

At this point, a few of my theist students typically become outraged. They cannot accept that the ancient concept of Satan was not an actual figure, but simply a title for an accuser or adversary, one who could indeed either be an angel or a mortal being. Satan was not an a mythical figure with horns and a pitchfork, Satan was simply a term for adversary. (When translated from the Hebrew, at times the Bible retains its original Hebrew terminology (Satan), and at others the translated terms of "adversary" or "obstacle" are used). Later the actual figure Satan appears in the New Testament, partly due to the influence of Persian and Greek dualistic thought. However, the fact remains that Satan as a personal name or evil red man is not present in the Jewish Bible.

The dedication of my students to the belief in the representation of a physical Satan in the Jewish Bible always sticks with me. I wonder about the resistance and downright intellectual denial of the facts. It is one thing for me to teach that God does not exist and receive backlash. To teach that Satan does not exist (at least in the Jewish Bible) and to still get backlash however, is mind blowing. It seems that this news should be received as a kind of gospel. "Hey, the guy we've been fighting against all our lives is in actuality non-existent, cue the music!" But no, it seems that some people are dedicated to the idea of Satan existing just as much as they are dedicated to God's existence.

What lies behind this belief? Perhaps theists' desire for a Satan is tied to the ancient Chinese yin yang philosophy. Believers in the existence of a Satan may argue that in order for good to exist there must be evil, therefore, in order for God to exist, Satan must exist. I do not, however, accept this rationale. Opposites may cause us to appreciate or even recognize the "other", but the existence of one thing does not conditionally require a converse.

Believers in God may also find a need to believe in Satan because it provides justification for evil in the world. God is good and therefore cannot be blamed for the mayhem, thus the devil is responsible. Satan has been the most popular scapegoat throughout millenia for the pain, sufferings, and wrongdoings in the world. Perhaps the challenge for us is to take responsibility, like the ancient Jews, for our own actions instead of blaming someone or something else.

Lastly I think theists may be dedicated to the idea of a Satan because the reality of a Satan also suggests the reality of hell and also a heaven. It perpetuates the notion of punishment and reward in the hereafter for what we do here on earth and therefore an incentive for righteousness. My response to this idea is why can't we serve God for God's sake and not because of fear of damnation or the promise of reward?

My goal is not to persuade my students to disbelieve in Satan, but simply to inform them that the ancient Jews did not accept the same present day conception of an "evil figure." What I am met with is an absolute resistance to this notion. What I learn is that those who are God loving are perhaps just as in love with or in need of a Satan.

What I hope is that for just one day my students, and all people who follow, embrace and study religion will have the mindset of the ancient Jews by resting in the knowledge that just perhaps, God is too all powerful and loving to create something as evil and potent as an actual Satan figure. I also hope that after it's all said and done, we will discover that the evil person we thought we were fighting against down below was really the person in the mirror, who we had full self-control of all along.