This post is part of a series of posts about what it means to love God with our minds. In the process, I touch on a number of issues that are sure to raise questions. If you have questions for me regarding any of this, you can post them in the comments or feel free to contact me directly through this site or my Facebook Page.
In my previous post, I shared a bit about my story with Christian antagonism toward science, but today, I wanted to address something a bit more fundamental than that. In this post, I want to address why Christians are so prone to anti-intellectualism in general. You see, we have biblical reasons.
Consider these verses (taken out of context for important reasons):
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NIV
This is one of the most famous verses quoted by people who are trying to sound spiritual while giving a reason for their own opposition to intellectual pursuits. On the surface, it really seems like the Apostle Paul was saying that nothing was as important as a clear, simple presentation of the gospel, a presentation that was reduced to the fundamental truth of who Jesus is (Christ) and what he did (died for us). Of course, Paul doesn’t mention the resurrection in this tiny verse, nor does he mention the deity of Christ or the reason for his death, all essential components of the faith, but Christians love to read this verse in a selectively reductionist way. It’s because Christians are just like everyone else.
We all want something simple and straightforward to hold on to.
There’s something abundantly appealing about a simple answer to complicated questions, and there is nothing wrong with Christians trying to package the message of the gospel in as simple and appealing a way as possible.
This is what we are doing when we translate the Bible into other languages. It’s what happened with the invention of the printing press. The ability to get the Bible to as many people as possible packaged in a way they can understand has been a major and worthwhile goal of believers for hundreds of years now. However, the danger predicted by the Catholic church has fallen upon us today. That is, the common people have access to the Bible without any commitment to rigorously understanding it and careless or nefarious teachers have taken advantage of that opportunity to lead people astray.
Consider the narrative of the origin of Satan.
The Simplistic Myth of Satan
It is a widely held belief that Satan was the first and most important of all the angels, that his beauty was beyond compare, but that he became jealous of God, desired to usurp the throne of God, convinced a third the angels to join his side, but failed in his coup and was cast out of heaven. That narrative appears to be bolstered by passages like this one:
How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.
Isaiah 14:12-15 NIV
There’s just two problems:
- The passage in Isaiah isn’t talking about Satan.
- Nowhere else in the Bible is the origin story of Satan ever taken up.
Let me show you.
First, in the Isaiah passage, the context matters. Continue reading one verse more and you see this:
Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble,
Isaiah 14:16 NIV
The very next verse, after people stop reading, shows that the previous verses were talking about a man and not an angel. Furthermore, just go back to the introductory comments of the prophecy and you see this:
…you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended!
Isaiah 14:4 NIV
The whole prophecy is a taunt song against the king of Babylon who thought he was a god on earth but who will be brought low, thrown down and humiliated when God brings the kingdom of Babylon to nothing. Those who are familiar with the story of the early Old Testament should remember that Babylon was the site of the ancient tower of “Babel” where the people of the earth said they would ascend to the heavens to become like God himself. It’s abundantly clear to anyone who really knows the story of the Old Testament that Isaiah 14 is a prophecy against the king and land of Babylon and not some kind of origin story about Satan.
So how did people ever start thinking this was a passage about Satan in the first place?
Well that’s complicated, but one of the reasons is that the word translated “morning star” in verse 12 is the Latin word, lucifer. Have you ever heard that “Lucifer” was another name for Satan? Well, that comes from a bit of circular reasoning that resulted from the King James Version of the Bible deciding to turn that word into a proper noun instead of translating it. The reasoning goes like this:
- The KJV says “Lucifer” has fallen from heaven after having desired to be like the Most High.
- Therefore, Lucifer must have been some heavenly being that desired to be like God.
- That sounds like a good origin story for Satan.
- Therefore, Lucifer must be another name for Satan.
Then, later on, someone says, “See, it says Lucifer right there. It’s talking about Satan!”
In other words, we think Lucifer is the name of Satan because the story sounds like it’s about Satan, and we think the story is about Satan because it has the name Lucifer right in it! The reason we think Lucifer means Satan is this story. The reason we think Satan fell from heaven is this story. But knowing the context and translating the word properly solves the problem for us. It’s a taunt against the king and people of Babylon who thought they were so great but fell anyway.
Now, I hear you say, “But what about all the other passages that talk about Satan’s origin story?”
If I were being snarky, I would make you tell me what passages you are talking about, but because I’m working on my own humility, I won’t make you find them. I’ll show them to you anyway.
There are three other passages that are used to formulate this narrative about Satan.
They are Ezekiel 28:13-17, Revelation 12:1-9, and Luke 10:17-20.
You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: carnelian, chrysolite and emerald, topaz, onyx and jasper, lapis lazuli, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.
Ezekiel 28:13-17 NIV
A “cherub” who was in Eden who became proud and who was driven away from God and thrown to earth? Wow! It sounds like Satan right?
Well, wait a minute. Why do you think that passage sounds like Satan? Isn’t it true that it sounds like Satan because you already know the supposed Satan origin story? In fact, there are a lot of parts of this passage the don’t sound like Satan.
First, notice that this guardian cherub had a positive association with Eden, but the Satan we know about was a negative influence in Eden. If this is talking about the Eden of Adam and Eve, then it can’t be talking about Satan and vice versa. Beyond that, the problem is not that this being rebelled against God, but that this being engaged in violence that came from the wealth of trade. Finally, we know from the book of Job that Satan had permission to enter the presence of God and converse with Him, but the character in Ezekiel has been banished from the place of God. Once again, the character in Ezekiel can’t be Satan.
Then, by reading the opening words of the prophecy, you see this:
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “ ‘You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
Ezekiel 28:11-12 NIV
Again, the introduction lets us know God is talking about a king, the king of Tyre, a region of great beauty in the ancient world, a region close to where the ancient people thought Eden had been.
Then, by reading the concluding two verses of the prophecy, we get this:
By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries. So I made a fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching. All the nations who knew you are appalled at you; you have come to a horrible end and will be no more.’ ”
Ezekiel 28:18-19 NIV
Here, we see the real sin was “dishonest trade” and religious desecration, and that the result was total destruction visible to all the surrounding nations.
The context requires us to see this as a prophecy against the nation-state of Tyre and its people, and all the metaphors make sense in relation to Tyre while many of them can’t make sense in relation to Satan.
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Luke 10:17-20 NIV
This passage has Jesus directly telling us that he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. It obviously seems to confirm the idea that Satan was cast out of heaven right? However, there are two important things to recognize:
- There are two ways to take Jesus’ opening quote: “I saw Satan fall from heaven and it looked like lightning.” or “I saw Satan fall as dramatically as lightning falls from heaven.” We don’t know exactly which way Jesus meant it, but it’s clear he wasn’t trying to teach a lesson about the Satan origin story because he didn’t give any more detail about it.
- The context clearly indicates that the disciples were rejoicing over the submission of demons and Jesus takes it to another level.
Nothing about this passage requires us to think Jesus is talking about any long-ago event. It’s possible that Jesus is talking about the present moment in highly metaphorical terms. The demons are being defeated, Satan himself is being defeated. Sure, if the Satan story is real, then Jesus’ words here could be a reference to that, but Jesus’ words do not require it to be so. Using Jesus’ words here as proof of the Satan narrative is putting the cart before the horse.
(1) A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (2) She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. (3) Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. (4) Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. (5) She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (6) The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
(7) Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. (8) But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. (9) The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Revelation 12:1-9 NIV
Finally, we come to the passage in Revelation that gives us the most vivid portrayal of this narrative yet. Notice in this passage, the dragon is identified as Satan (v. 9), he loses his place in heaven, he is hurled to earth, he takes angels with him, he swipes a third of the stars out of the sky. It sounds very similar to the myth we described above. However, as before, there are a few important things to note:
- This passage in Revelation happens in the future. The passage immediately before this section rejoices that the final judgment is at hand. The passage immediately following this section has the saints rejoicing that the “accuser of the brethren” (the word Satan means “accuser”) has finally been defeated.
- The sin in this passage is that the dragon is trying to destroy a miraculous child, not that the dragon is trying to usurp God’s throne.
- The number 1/3 is used in reference to the destruction of stars in the sky not the corruption of angels.
- No scholar actually understands the meaning of this section of Revelation. It’s too deeply shrouded in layers of metaphor for us to fully understand what John saw or what we are supposed to learn from it other than the fact that God will eventually win over Satan and his companions.
Conclusion about the Satan Origin Story
I’ve taken a long digression into this origin story to try to prove a point. Christians want simple answers to difficult questions. So when it comes to the difficult question of who Satan is, why he is opposed to God’s people, and where he came from, it is wonderfully comforting to tell this origin story. Furthermore, once you have heard this origin story, all these other complicated passages become easier to understand. The metaphorical language can be taken literally: the “guardian cherub” has actually “fallen from heaven.”
But the simplicity of the story doesn’t make it true.
Sure, it’s possible that parts of the Satan origin story are true, but the Bible never actually teaches it. The Bible never tells us who Satan is, how he got to be that way, or why he’s against the people of God. We literally don’t know the answer, and God’s Word never attempts to teach us that answer.
Back to the desire for Simplicity
It’s strange, but not having an answer to a difficult problem drives us to do the un-intellectual thing of making up an answer or “finding” an answer that isn’t really there. The process of “finding” such answers can actually feel intellectual. We think we are uncovering hidden information. We think we are seeing things other people can’t see. We get explanations for problems other people can’t solve.
It all makes us feel really smart, but it’s not true inquiry. It’s not true study. And since we didn’t get there through the proper application of honest inquiry, we find ourselves threatened by others who apply such scholarly methods.
This desire for simplicity goes far beyond the desire to share the gospel with people in a way they can understand. It also leads us to think the “plain reading” or the “literal reading” of the text is the best one. The Bible says “Lucifer”! The Bible says “guardian cherub”! It must be talking about Satan right?
But once we enter that way of thinking, we find ourselves in a very vulnerable place:
- First, we build up other doctrines and beliefs based on the faulty foundation of our overly simplistic understandings and therefore, we end up with bad and sometimes harmful doctrines.
- Secondly, because the foundation is so fragile, we put up defensive walls against anyone who would challenge one of these fundamental oversimplifications.
In my next post, I’m going to continue this same conversation by considering another overly simplistic solution Christians have embraced that puts us at odds with modern intellectual rigor: Young Earth Creationism.