A known shape-shifter, the devil refuses to be pinned down, even in pop culture. In a new London musical version of John Updike's 1984 novel, "The Witches of Eastwick," and in the new remake of the Peter Cook screen vehicle "Bedazzled," he (and she) is the androgynous, campy demon whose simple message is that we'd all have a lot more fun if we could relax and not take ourselves too seriously. Wearing this mask, the devil is sophisticated, wickedly charming, jealous of God's good press, and altogether lightweight. A middleweight but more theologically positioned devil turned up in last year's blip of an animated sitcom "God, the Devil and Bob," and Satan crops up as a classic Hollywood heavy in a new rash of would-be-terrifying anti-Christ movies (with more on the way), not to speak of the recent revival of "The Exorcist."

"God, the Devil, and Bob" quickly disappeared into the ratings underworld. "Bedazzled" may or may not do much better. "The Exorcist," these days, stirs almost as many chuckles as shrieks. In the end, the trouble with all these versions of the devil is that playwrights and screenwriters don't really own the rights. No one does. The devil's origins are so far-flung and his roots by now have sunk so deep in our religious consciousness that no one ever quite gets to the bottom of him. Many pursue him, but the dastardly dude always escapes. In this regard, if in no other, he has something in common with God.

In an engaging 1996 book entitled "The Devil: A Biography," Peter Stanford quotes a Latin proverb that comes close to putting the life story of the devil in a nutshell: Sine diabolo, nullus deus: "No God without the devil." In human experience, that is, good is so mixed with evil that we must have a devil to whom the evil can be attributed, or else God himself must be a kind of devil.

The world's religions offer many examples of deities in whom good and evil are mixed so that there is no need for a devil. For much of his long life, God was that kind of god. "I am the Lord, I alone," he said to Isaiah (45:6-7), "I bring forth the light and create the darkness. I make peace, I create catastrophe. I the Lord do all these things."

The gods of Canaan, though they differed from the Lord in some ways, were like him in this regard. They too could be alternately benevolent and malevolent, merciful and vindictive, toward mankind. Whence, then, comes the consistently benevolent, merciful figure so dear to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike?

In a word, he comes from Persia, and the thinker most responsible for him is the sage Zoroaster. Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who lived in the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., broke with the Aryan polytheism of his day--a polytheism like that of India--in favor, not of monotheism, but of something close to ditheism: belief in two equal gods, one good and one evil. Zoroaster called the good god Ahura Mazda; the evil god was Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman. All the other gods, though he did not trouble to deny their existence, were utterly inconsequential alongside these two cosmic principals.

Zoroastrian thinking spread westward when Israel came under Persian rule, late in the sixth century B.C.E. Some decades earlier, Israel had been conquered by Babylon; and though during the 50 or so years of Babylonian rule Israel had picked up a good many Mesopotamian ideas, Babylon's polytheism, however, and, most of all, Babylonian idolatry appalled the Israelites. The exiles rejoiced when Persia conquered Babylon. They even acclaimed Cyrus, Persia's king, as the Messiah. Zoroastrianism, arriving under these far happier political circumstances, proved far more appealing to the Israelite mind.

Satan had been a marginal figure in Israelite tradition before the Persians arrived. But by the end of Persia's peaceful 200 years, Satan had grown into someone resembling Zoroaster's evil god Ahriman. God's responsibility for evil began, as it were, to be "outsourced," and God was increasingly free to be responsible for good alone.

The fact that good is expected eventually to defeat evil in the Zoroastrian vision makes that tradition theoretically a monotheistic tradition--a fact that the Parsees, who have continued to practice a form of Zoroastrianism down to our own day, insist on. Functionally, however, Zoroastrianism is dualistic. En route to final victory and final unity, it "gives the devil his due," to cite another idea with a buried Persian pedigree. Yes, there is a Supreme Being, and at the end of time he will triumph. In the meanwhile, all hell may break out at any moment.

In fact, Zoroaster's most far-reaching contribution to Western religion may be the ongoing clash he set up between Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda. It's not fashionable these days to read the New Testament as a duel between Christ and Satan (the "historical Jesus" conducted no such duel), but such is the tale that the gospels tell. Satan's evolution over the last centuries before Christ into something like a Jewish anti-God--both wholly evil and capable of rivaling God--made it possible, paradoxically, for God to become by degrees the wholly good God we worship today.

"No God without the devil" is debatable for God of the Old Testament, at least if we consider its most shocking, rarely read pages. But the same saying is beyond debate when it comes to the New Testament. Christ is so invincibly good that if the devil hadn't already existed, the Evangelists would have had to invent him.

Since "the Good Lord" has made its mark on the imagination, the devil has became more necessary than ever. Questions beginning "How could a good God permit...?" have no meaning if God is only sometimes good, much less if he is sometimes actually evil. If God is both wholly good and all-powerful, the devil provides the answer: Whatever goes wrong is the devil's doing, and the devil's shadow stretched as far into the future as judgment day and the end of time. As "faith" in the devil, thus understood, has faded, the choices, all heretical, have become three: demonize mankind, re-demonize God, or un-deify God by denying his omnipotence.

Demonology, in short, is as complex a study as theology, if only because, in the West, the two are inseparable. Like God, the devil's image is a hybrid or fusion of earlier superhuman beings: his forked tongue, scaly skin, and insinuating manner bespeak his association with the dragon goddesses of the ancient Near East; his cloven feet and lascivious habits are his link to Pan, the goatish Greek god of revelry and debauchery; Norse culture gave him his horns (think the Valkyries of Wagner)--and so forth, almost endlessly.

Like God, the devil defies summary, and perhaps rather more than God, he can easily enough be written into a comedy. But like God, the devil matters even then.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad