This is the continuation and conclusion of my blog Theodicy. I left off in the last blog commenting on how science and technology have given us a very different – truly global – perspective on the world and how this has changed our understanding of evil.
So how do these changes in perspective or paradigm shape our understanding of Satan and of God?
It seems to me that one thing the modern worldview can actually embrace is that the power of Satan has been shattered. A global view of the world enables us to foresee many natural events in the making and thus reduces our tendency to blame Satan for what is simply happening naturally on earth. A global satellite view enables us to see human actions in the making as a result of human effort – not some sudden and surprising act of Satan. We Orthodox sing that we now see the “devil’s delusion destroyed” in the Resurrection Tone 3 “Lord I Call” verses.
Sadly despite Christianity announcing the end of the Satan’s kingdom many in the Christian world still seem to fear Satan as much as or even more than they fear God. On the other hand the modern/scientific world simply scoffs evil into non-existence, and yet today even the most hardened atheists still speak about evil. We recognize it when we see it, even if we don’t attribute it to a personal power known as Satan. The fact is by accepting a scientific paradigm we in effect diminish Satan’s power in the world; we realize he simply isn’t very powerful at all.
It also seems to me that our modern paradigm has the tendency to push us toward a more “deistic” understanding of God: We don’t want to attribute to or blame God for every natural disaster which indiscriminately kills the good and the evil. So we are more hard pressed how to account for all the “evil” that goes on in the world, except by ceding ever more power to Satan which is really the opposite of what our Orthodox hymns claims is happening in the world as a result of the resurrection of Christ. Constantly blaming “Satan” for all the world’s problems really is a form of denying that the resurrection has made any difference in the world – for it says Satan/evil is as powerful if not more than ever.
St. John Chrysostom was writing at a time when Christianity was on the ascendency in the world. The Roman Empire (which they thought was the most powerful empire on earth and which they assumed controlled the civilized world) had embraced Christianity and so it seemed as if the Kingdom of God was in control of the world. Chrysostom could not imagine God allowing the Roman Empire to be defeated by a superior military power. In his commentary on the Psalms he actually notes that there was some spiritual advantage to the Jews being held in exile/captivity as they came to rely on God instead of on human military power for survival and salvation. St. John seems to think his own flock’s faith is weak because they no longer know persecution and defeat. He is assuming however that it is a Christian emperor and Christian Empire which assures the peace which God’s kingdom brings.
Chrysostom assumes that the sign of God crushing Satan is the Empire’s embrace of Christianity. That God might cut asunder this marriage or allow the Empire to be crushed by another military power (and different religion!) seems beyond Chrysostom’s purview. Later Byzantines were utterly dismayed at the rise and success of Islam as they could not imagine God or the Theotokos abandoning their God protected empire. And yet Allah “out-generaled” the Theotokos and the God-loving Byzantine army and the God-protected Constantinople were defeated by armies following a foreign God and were swept away in history.
In all of this, I see Christianity (or maybe Christianity outside of Orthodoxy) as no longer looking to a national/imperial power to uphold the peace of God which comes through Christ. Islam on the other hand has not yet come to believe this. They still see military might and violence as a necessary means to attain the peace which Islam promises (they much more rely on earthly power to achieve what they think is God’s goals). Islam has not (in their own eyes at least) as of yet suffered such a catastrophic military defeat as to cause them to abandon the notion that imperial power is the way to establish God’s will on earth.
On the other side of this, it seems possible to me that increasingly Americans do believe military power is the way to defeat Satan on earth and thus Americans (especially conservative ones) think increased funding to the military is always correct. But one Byzantine Emperor (I think Justinian) boasted his armies would defeat Satan. We find that idea ludicrous, and yet in recent years America’s leadership used that same kind of language – our enemies are Evil, but our military will defeat Evil.
I am offering only a stream of consciousness here and not drawing any hardened conclusions. We Christians face the task of explaining how if God is good and all powerful, and if Christ came destroying the power of death, evil and Satan, why is there still evil in the world? Why do we attribute so much power and blame on Satan, when we also say in prayer that Satan doesn’t even have power over swine?
We would do well to make the Gospel stories central to our lives, proclamation and ministry to show the world how Christ makes a difference in history and in our lives. In the baptismal exorcism, we spit toward Satan to show our fearless contempt of him – we treat him as the nothing he really is rather than magnifying him into the world’s second greatest power.