The history of the idea of Satan and Satanism

The idea of Satan was litde developed m early Judaism, although it has been pointed out that the Old Testament did contain references that might be taken to refer to evil mystical beings. Suffering and misery was attributed merely to the inscrutability of God's will. Then the Hebrew term sataiias originally meant adversary or opponent and referred not to a being, but to the act or function of opposing. In afflicting human beings, a satan's role as a servant of God was to test the strength and sincerity of the commitment of human beings to God. However, during the persecution of the Jews and particularly dunng their Exodus into Persia, Judaic thought, under the influence of Zoroastnamsm, began to express a sense of dualism, of forces of good and evil in opposition. On their return, the misery of their, situation developed an apocalyptic notion of the world's being dominated by independent forces of evil which could not be changed but would one day be destroyed by God. The animal epithets, particularly that of'beast', that were applied to these external forces of evil and contrasted with humanity and with good, were later to be applied to a Christian Satan. But the evil of Satan and his associated lesser satans and demons lay not so much in opposition to, or rebellion against, goodness but m the ability to disrupt the relationship between humanity and God. Moreover, it was believed that the Great Satan could be combatted by the exercise of human will. Demonic power was limited by this human self-control.

The dualism of good and evil and the apocalyptic tradition was transmitted to Christianity at its inception and, later, Islam showed a similar concept of evil spirits. "Within its original home the idea of Satan faded into insignificance with the passage of time and of the three religions, the idea of the Devil is now least important in Judaism. In the Muslim world there are many who believe in evil spirits (jimis) or demons that possess human beings and may be exorcised and controlled in healing rituals. 'Shaitan\ the Arabic equivalent of 'Satanas'm early Hebrew, may be used m the plural to refer to demons as satanas also was; it does not denote a single embodiment of evil dominating the rest. Moreover, not all the possessing spirits are clearly representations of evil; they may reflect many forces that are believed to cause human misfortunes but are not evil in themselves. However, belief in demons and possession by spirits is not doctnnally orthodox; the "good Muslim' has no truck with such matters. Indeed, the conviction that such beliefs and actions are not proper to Islam is so strong that it has even been transmitted to some Western writers about Islam. Many of them claim that these ideas are survivals of pre-Islamic 'animistic1 religions. However, if the previous religions were 'animistic', by which is meant they were based on a belief in spirits, one would expect to find some of these religions existing outside, but adjacent to, areas where Islam had spread. Alternatively one could expect to find them within similar areas that had been converted by Christian rather than Muslim missionaries. But although possession by spirits can be found in nominally Christian areas, neither of the situations that might lay claim to the indigenous nature of possession by spirits can be firmly established. On the contrary, there is counter evidence. One anthropologist of the East African coast, David Parkin, states that the ideas of the Muslim Swahili resemble those of the West, whether Christian or not, much more than they do those of the pagan Mijikenda among whom they live (Parkin, 1985b:231—2). One is led to the conclusion that, however unorthodox belief in devils is, the ideas are, in fact, indissolubly linked to the religious tradition of Isiam. Nevertheless, concepts of evil beings in Islam are different from Christian ideas of Satan; one of the most important is that Muslims who take part in rituals designed to exorcise and control evil spirits (usually in order to heal their unfortunate human hosts) are not deemed to be worshipping Satan or any devil figure; they are merely failing to be good Muslims in having to do with evil spirits.

Early Christian doctrine did not reject the post-Exodus dualism of the Jews when it broke away from the Judaic religion. Having developed an idea of an all-powerful and beneficent God, the essence of pure goodness, the existence of suffering and evil was left as an unexplained problem. Either God was unable to prevent evil and was therefore not omnipotent, or did not wish to do so, and was thus responsible for the existence of evil. The figure of Satan as adversary of God and representing the sum of all evil, seemed to offer a solution to this problem. His attempt to achieve dominion over the earth and over human kind and his defeat by God's Son developed the Judaic dualism into a series of opposed powers, good and evil, that stretched between mankind and God. A complex hierarchy was gradually developed consisting of a multiplicity of figures of good (angels) and evil (demons). The idea of Satan became linked to the idea of a revolt ¿gainst God among the angels led by Lucifer. God punished the rebels by perpetual banishment from heaven to the world, where they continued their battle against good, through seducing human beings into evil.

Protestantism swept away the hierarchy of spiritual powers, both good and evil, leaving the battle between Satan and Chnst in stark isolation.

Moreover, as historians have pointed out, the apocalyptic vision which Christianity had taken over from Judaism allowed the temporary triumph of Satan before his final vanquishing by Jesus. But Christian faith provides human beings with the power, through faith, to resist Satan and expel the demons he sends to torment the righteous. Nevertheless, he is cunning and human beings must be constandy on their guard against his wiles. In particular, he lures his victims step by step onto the downward path and it is only when it is too late that they perceive their danger. In the late twentieth century it has been the Protestant ideas of satamsm that have been the more significant, although it is on the human servants of Satan, rather than on subordinate devils or on the figure of Satan himself, that the myth of modern satamsm focuses.

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