Hump retrospective 8: the origin of spiritual evil

Satan before the Fall

Because it’s unfashionable to think about Satan in science-faith discussions (which goes along with the semi-deist viewpoint that reduces the whole of existence to “God” v “Nature”), the question of what the devil was doing before the Fall, in an old earth scenario, gets little attention.

But it occurred to me way back. The problem is simple: you have a creation 13 billion years old, with a mighty angelic being (according to the commonest idea) involved in some kind of pre-creation rebellion, exiled to earth, and somehow turning up in Yahweh’s special Garden to corrupt Adam and Eve.

Immediately we have the insurmountable problem that Genesis describes the creation week’s results as “very good,” though in fact if this scenario is true there was evil lurking at its highest levels, and down on earth too.

We also have to account for what this evil being (and his demonic hordes) were doing before man turned up on the scene. According to the “traditional view” I ended up challenging in God’s Good Earth he would have been causing all the “natural evils” of the world: carnivores, parasites, dinosaurs with arthritis, asteroids immolating dinosaurs, and even (accepting the “selfish” view of evolution common at BioLogos in the early part of last decade) the corpse-strewn, red-in-tooth-and-claw process of evolution itself.

In fact the idea of creation as covered with the “slime of the serpent” turned out from my research to be the very last stage of the Promethean denigration of nature I discovered in my studies of the old theologians: even when natural evil came to be attributed to sin itself or to God’s punishment, Satan only seems to have got the credit from about the time of Wesley.

Such an idea, though, ceases to make Satan an angelic being, and makes him instead a Demiurge more responsible for the actual phenomena of creation than God (much as the theistic evolutionists’ “autonomous creation,” personifying nature rather than the devil, did). And of course, it is also a straight denial both of the “very good” assessment by God of his finished work, including mankind, and of the numerous Scriptures affirming the goodness of all things God has made (and affirming that God made everything except sin).

I began to doubt this “pre-creation fall” idea when I read it, heavily embellished, in Milton’s Paradise Lost back in 1993. Milton placed Satan’s expulsion before time, but Jesus witnessed Satan’s fall from heaven as his disciples went out with the gospel, expelling demons in Jesus’s name. It was the work of Jesus that lost the devil his place in God’s assembly. Given his quintessential evil, why only then?

Once again, Satan’s evil deeds, as recorded in the Bible, and his self-appointed role as “accuser of the brethren,” relate only to mankind. We do not actually read (as a popular idea has it) that Satan ever had any plans to destroy God, but only to destroy man. And that makes sense, because it is only the brutish ignorance of mankind that allows him to fancy he might destroy God, or even stand in his presence; and that ignorance is not shared by the heavenly beings who gather before him (Job 1:6).

So I began to reason that the self-corruption of Satan likely occurred only in relation to man: Satan’s sin originated in the Garden of Eden, as a direct result of what God was seeking to do there. As much is implied in the famous “king of Tyre” metaphor of Ezek 28:11-19, in which the glorious “guardian cherub” is told:

You were blameless in all your ways
from the day you were created
till wickedness was found in you.

(Though I must add that some scholars think this passage refers to Adam, effectively granted the status of a sacred guardian in the garden.) But developing Genealogical Adam as a basis for biblical theology, by drawing Eden back into real, relatively recent, history, forces attention on Satan’s role and, to me, clarifies it and (as a bonus) links it to historical theories of the atonement that have been neglected.

Irenaeus, in particular amongst early writers, sees the purpose of Eden as a new “secret plan” of God beyond the Genesis 1 creation of mankind to subdue the natural earth. Taking his cue, I think, from Psalm 8 and the commentary on it in Hebrews 2, Irenaeus writes that God intended to prepare Adam’s race as the ruler of his whole creation, uniting the physical realm of earth with the spiritual realm of heaven. You will notice that this is exactly what remains the ultimate Christian hope in the light of Christ, who succeeded where Adam failed (Heb 2:8-9).

But it is not hard to imagine, at least in human psychological terms, how the demeaning idea of having a naked ape promoted over his head might awaken, in a glorious angelic divine councillor, jealousy, arrogant pride – and finally subtle malice. Whether Satan was in the garden by right as a member of the divine council (as Mike Heiser argues cogently), or co-opted an actual serpent, it appears his plan was to work through Eve to induce the covenant head, Adam, to break God’s direct commandment. Adam’s ensuing destruction would be necessary for Yahweh to exercise both justice and truthfulness, and would neatly remove mankind from the scene.

That, at least, is how Irenaeus and other early writers saw it: God could not justly punish Satan unless he also brought the promised destruction on Adam’s race, and Satan knew that the God of love was unwilling to do so. Satan’s ongoing accusations (from which, of course, the name “Satan” derives) were a reminder to God that he hadn’t yet fulfilled his word of judgement.

Cut to the finale, and we see that in the work of Christ, Jesus dies on behalf of sinful man, and yet being innocent rises from the grave, uniting those who participate in him by faith both in his death and resurrection. In so doing, God’s original intention – to unite heaven and earth in glory through humankind created in his image – is fulfilled to the letter, whilst greater glory comes to the Son he loves, for whom and through all things were made, than would have been the case had Adam never sinned.

Satan, of course, deprived of the trump-card of God’s condemnation of humanity, no longer has any defence against his own judgement, and is expelled from heaven. Now, according to several Scriptures, he acts purely from malice, knowing that his end will come with the return of Christ. And as a parody of Mao’s Little Red Book aptly put it, to the Christian who knows the situation, “Satan is a paper tiger.”

This idea is very close to what was in Patristic times called the “ransom theory” of atonement, whose weakness was that it was hard to conceive of God paying a ransom to such a malefactor as the devil. Once you realise that Satan’s claim on mankind was based on God’s own words, then the sacrifice of Jesus becomes (as far as the devil’s part in it goes) entirely a matter of God’s love and justice, and not at all a reward for an evil angel.

This kind of idea (like all theology subject to refinement by others) puts angelic corruption, though still a mystery, in a very limited temporal context. It was a tawdry court intrigue, intended to force God’s hand, as Darius’s courtiers forced his hand against innocent Daniel, rather than to usurp the throne of God. If Adam is indeed a recent historical figure, that rebellion affected only the affairs of earth, from a few thousand years ago until the finished work of Christ at Calvary (in effect) and until his return (in final consummation). That’s a mere blip in eternity, and even in natural geological time – but it’s the key to a troubled human history.

And none of it contradicts the findings of science, folks!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Hump retrospective 8: the origin of spiritual evil

  1. swamidass says:

    How many parts to this retrospective?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Just these eight (answering my original list of topics), unless anybody suggests significant areas that I’ve forgotten. Essentially I came to the field with a general interest and “all the old chestnuts,” so any questions others have wondered about were probably on my radar too.

      Maybe I’ll create a category for them, in case anybody wants to reference them in future.

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