For centuries, popular culture has treated Satan as God’s nemesis – an angel consumed by pride and cast out of heaven to run his own evil empire.
But Henry Ansgar Kelly says poor Satan has gotten a bad rap. For decades he has pleaded the devil’s case, arguing that Satan is simply one of God’s celestial agents with the dirty job of gauging humanity’s virtue.
While that job has made Satan cynical and jaded over time, Dr. Kelly said, it doesn’t make him the mastermind of evil.
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“Christian tradition has laid a lot of blame on Satan for things they’re causing themselves,” said Dr. Kelly, 72, a former Jesuit exorcist and now a medieval scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of three books about the devil. “I am pessimistic about human nature. I think we are totally capable of doing what we have done. You can blame it on psychosis if you want.”
But you can’t blame it on Satan, he said.
During a three-day “Satan Seminar” at Loyola University Chicago last month, Dr. Kelly – the author of Satan: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, $19.99) – preached his controversial gospel to an understandably tough crowd of biblical scholars.
But after three days, students found themselves with a newfound appreciation for the celestial agent who, according to Dr. Kelly, acts as God’s heavy.
“I assumed what is assumed in popular culture – that Satan is evil personified,” said Stephen Binz, a writer from Little Rock, Ark., who develops materials for Roman Catholic adult faith formation. “This reaffirms that God is in charge of the world – its history and its future.”
Dr. Kelly’s attempt to exonerate Satan comes just months after the unveiling of the so-called Gospel of Judas, an ancient manuscript which argues that biblical back-stabber Judas Iscariot actually conspired with Jesus to fulfill his mission on earth.
However, Dr. Kelly dismisses the revision of Judas’ role in the Crucifixion as “Gnostic rubbish.”
He makes his case for clearing Satan’s name using traditional Scripture, saying church fathers twisted the Old and New Testaments to portray Satan as God’s enemy rather than something more on the order of a jaded employee. A careful examination of the sacred texts, he says, reveals a quite different story.
For example, the serpent that tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden had nothing to do with Satan, he said – it was just a conniving animal trying to trick Adam and Eve. God tests humanity by asking Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son. (Abraham passes the test with flying colors.)
It is in the Book of Job that Satan makes his debut, already showing his cynical side. There, Satan reports to God that Job is not as righteous as he pretends to be.
God permits Satan – his hired heavy, Dr. Kelly calls him – to put Job’s faith in God to the test, subjecting him to a succession of hardships – painful boils, destroyed possessions, dead children. Job doesn’t waver.
“People don’t want to see God dirty his hands,” Dr. Kelly said. “So he cleans up his dossier and has his henchman do it instead.”
While few biblical scholars disagree with Dr. Kelly’s Old Testament analysis, his interpretation of the New Testament raises more questions.
Dr. Kelly said Satan’s job was no different in the New Testament: He hazed Jesus for 40 days and nights in the wilderness to make sure he was up to the task God intended for him.
Satan tempted Judas to betray Jesus and Judas succumbed, Dr. Kelly said, thereby helping to engineer the Crucifixion – all part of God’s plan.
He also argues there is evidence in three of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – that Jesus, Satan and God had a conference call of sorts. Satan gained God’s permission to test the Apostle Peter, while Jesus made sure Peter’s test was not as harsh as Job’s.
“[Satan’s] motivations in the New Testament are the same,” Dr. Kelly said. “He is suspicious of human virtue and he wants to check it out. He doesn’t want people to be given a free ride if they’re no good.”
The evolution of Satan’s role can be traced back to third- and fourth-century theologians who interpreted the fall of “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14 as the story of Satan’s prideful rebellion against God, who then cast him out of heaven.
Dr. Kelly said, however, that Lucifer was merely the metaphor for an arrogant Babylonian king.
Even the Quran, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, speaks of a Satanic figure.
But it wasn’t until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 that church fathers defined the devil as the instigator of sin.
From there, the notion of Satan as a monster crept into pulpits and pop culture. In the Middle Ages, he acquired a fetid odor and horns.
The Rev. Gregory Mobley, an American Baptist minister and Old Testament scholar who co-wrote The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots, said there is no absolute truth about the Prince of Darkness – only stories.
Popularized by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the stories that became canons of popular culture originated in ancient Jewish texts that never made it into the Bible.
“In those stories, Satan is the Professor Moriarty of the universe,” Dr. Mobley said, referring to the criminal mastermind in Sherlock Holmes. “The reason bad things happen is because there is a secret organized force dedicated at all times and all places to fouling the wellsprings of happiness.”
He praises Dr. Kelly’s approach.
“But it’s never going to garner mass popularity because people like a good ol’ cowboy movie where good guys and bad guys are against each other,” Dr. Mobley said.
Dr. Kelly, a self-proclaimed “diabologian,” published his first defense of the devil in 1964. He could not accept church teaching that Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience was instigated by the devil to stain humankind for eternity.
Most Catholics believe all of humanity fell from grace at that moment they call “original sin.” Dr. Kelly does not.
His theories do not sit well with traditional theologians, and he said he could understand why.
Erasing original sin takes away the guilt and threat of damnation used by established religion for centuries to galvanize the faithful.
“If that [original sin] didn’t happen,” he said, “a lot of rewriting has to be done in Christianity.”