The Bible Films Blog has an interesting post on how Satan is depicted in Jesus films. As he mentions, Satan and personified evil have also played an important role in many other film genres, including horror as I discussed briefly in The horrifying Nosferatu, personified plague and death (Satan 9).
There was a general decline of Satan in the wake of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and modernism (a decline in him being perceived as a real and imminent danger, that is). Nonetheless, he still remained alive and well within certain types of Christianity, particularly within the more conservative forms which do account for a large percentage of modern Christianity. Certainly not all of these conservative Christians subscribed to conspiratorial theories regarding Satan’s dastardly plans to undermine God’s activity. Yet there were — from the 1970s-1990s — a number of somewhat widespread notions of Satan’s evil machinations that are best described as conspiracy theories, two of which I will touch on here.
On the one hand were the very frightening claims of “Satanic ritual abuse“. There was a variety of contextual factors that fed the development of this particular conspiracy theory including the following:
1) There were general fears within some Christian circles regarding the many New Religious Movements (NRMs) — “cults” from this perspective — which were perceived as deceiving and brainwashing their potential members into joining. One of the results was a somewhat organized anti-cult movement, including groups such as the International Cultic Studies Association (a newer organization that follows in the footsteps of earlier groups), that produced substantial amounts of literature. The Church of Satan, or the unintentional worship of Satan via other “cults” generally, could naturally be subsumed within this framework.
2) Added to this was the actual existence and public visibility of an actual Church of Satan (founded by Magus Anton Szandor LaVey in about 1966 but especially visible in the 1970s) , which claimed to be the continuation of the worldwide worship of Satan that had been going on since ancient times.
3) Within certain circles of Christian social workers or therapists who held the view that there was a Satanic conspiracy, certain methods developed (namely suggestive interrogation) which resulted in a high number of cases where children and adults reported or confessed to involvement in Satanic rituals, often as victims. In some cases, the results of such approaches regarding stories of Satanic abuse were published in popularizing books, including Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers of 1980.
In essence, this conspiracy theory entailed a worldwide, secretive network of Satan worshippers who were systematically exploiting both children and adults to engage in wild and demonic rituals. One of the handbooks for therapists, as cited by the historian David Frankfurter, explains that Satanic abuse usually involves:
“group cult ceremonies in which children engage in sexual acts with adults and other children; the sacrifice and mutilation of animals; threats related to magical or supernatural powers; ingestion of drugs, ‘magic potions,’ blood, and human excrement; and distortion of traditional belief systems” (Susan J. Kelley as cited by Frankfurter, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 , p. 356).
Another such handbook for those who believed in the conspiracy states:
“Such abuse may include the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of an animal, the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of a person, forced ingestion of real or simulated human body fluids, excrement or flesh, [and] forced sexual activity” (Noblitt and Perskin as cited by Frankfurter, p. 357).
The fact that this was indeed a conspiracy theory arising out of certain peoples’ worldviews and not reality is now widely recognized. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which stereotypes of the dangerous “other” which have a very long history — including the trio of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sexual perversion — play a key role in this incident as well. Back in Roman times, for instance, the early Christians were accused by outsiders of engaging in precisely these three activities, as were other marginalized or foreign groups in antiquity (on which see my earlier posts here and here). Similar dynamics of marginalization and demonization were also at work in the late medieval and early modern witch hunts.
A second main conspiracy theory, which is somewhat less frightening or disturbing, involves the accusations against certain rock n’ roll bands regarding their allegiances with the Prince of Darkness (Satan not Ozzy), via backmasking, or backward messaging. The idea was that if you play a record backwards (remember records?) you could potentially hear an alternate message that, it was believed, was placed there intentionally by the artists in order to serve their lord and master, Satan. Among the first to fall prey to this accusation was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, which, when played backwards, it was imagined, revealed the following message:
Here’s to my sweet Satan,
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is fake/Satan.
He’ll give those with him 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
(Page / Plant, “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin IV, ©1971 SuperHype Music Inc.. Lyrics online here)
Many other bands were likewise accused of broadcasting the messages of Satan to the impressionable ears of our youth. The fact is that, if you want to find it, a word that sounds like “Satan” would appear in just about any music played backwards. But soon the idea of putting hidden, backward messages on albums was consciously taken on, particularly in the case of heavy metal bands of the 1980s, who seemed to think that Satan, with his number 666, was “cool”.
UPDATE (March 24): Now see the comments section and “Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion” blog, where there was an earlier post on the Satanic abuse scare focussing primarily on the issue of therapists or psychologists who created the scare, to some degree, particularly in connection with popularizing books on the topic (sadly, there is a Canadian connection). He also includes the cover of a book on Satan (and, yes, it is now available in a new edition with flashy cover to boot) from good ol’ Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame (a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, best-selling book showing the end was near in the 1970s):
Is there another Satanic scare on the horizon?
I had planned to wait until we got into the early modern period to refer to Horace Jeffery Hodges’ blog, the Gypsy Scholar, but several of his recent hellish posts have made it impossible to wait. At his site you will find a number of interesting articles regarding John Milton’s Paradise Lost, including one article that focusses on Satan specifically: Economy of Damnation: Satan’s Fall in Paradise Lost. Another more specialized article also considers Satan within the context of other matters: “Free-Will Theodicy, Middle-Knowledge Theology, Ramist Linguistics, and Satanic Psychology in Paradise Lost“.
He has also just now put up an entertaining post, with medieval illustration, on some “hits from hell”: Das Wetter ist hell!. In the hope of decreasing visitors to his site, previously he had posted a poem of his own entitled “Ozark Spring Storm” which features Mephisto (alias Satan). Other of his posts relating to Satan can be accessed here.
Think of the ironic, hellish punishment of sending more visitors, albeit few from here.
Last night we watched the original 1922 version of Nosferatu, a movie by German film-maker F.W. Murnau (very loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula — other online information here). In the film, Nosferatu (the vampire figure) is presented as personified plague and death, as well as the seed of Belial (the seed of Satan). His arrival in Bremen in 1838 signals the onslaught of a terrible plague that leaves behind the mysterious double mark on the neck. One has to remember that, when this first dracula film was made, such things were not widely known (at least in visualized form) and the horror is sometimes lost because we are now so familiar with dracula from his many incarnations. This film’s presentation of evil came to have an important influence on horror-films and on the subsequent portrayal of evil in film generally.
Despite the difficulty in getting oneself away from 21st century special-effects expectations and into the silent-era mode, there were certain points when I experienced a feeling of fascination or terror, which points to the effectiveness of the movie-maker in portraying evil in a frightening, though intriguing, manner that spans across time. Well known is Murnau’s use of shadow. The shadow of the vampire itself possesses the evil powers which can grab hold of you and control your feelings, as when the shadow of Nosferatu’s hand firmly clutches Nina’s heart. (This is the source of the title for the recent “behind-the-scenes” movie remake, The Shadow of the Vampire , with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe).
Two other scenes in the original Nosferatu are especially worth mentioning for how they affected me. I found particularly terrifying the slow and magical rising of Nosferatu from the hull of the ship as he comes to Bremen. Even more evoking of dread is the scene where the star-struck lover Nina, presumably in a dream state, longingly goes to the window to gaze out into the distance, namely to gaze out towards her other lover, Nosferatu the vampire. (This growing love of sorts was reflected earlier in the ambiguity of Nina’s cross-stitch of “Ich liebe dich”, “I love you”, which was seemingly directed to her lover Harker but really, we learn to our dismay, at the horrible Nosferatu who has a strange hold over Nina). Nina’s longing gaze is juxtaposed with Nosferatu’s longing reach for the “beautifully-necked” Nina, as he gazes out of his own window at a distance (not in Nina’s actual eye-sight). Nosferatu’s powers are very much at work from afar, but apparently more so as he comes closer. This horrifying love affair ironically ends in Nosferatu’s destruction. For the destruction of a vampire, we read earlier on in the Book of Vampires (shown on screen), requires that a woman of pure heart, namely Nina, offer herself to the vampire in a night of pleasure. Nosferatu-style pleasure, that is. “The blood!”
Photos (above) from Wikipedia, now in the public domain.
The story of Adam and Eve in the first chapters of Genesis makes no explicit reference to “Satan” or the “Devil” (merely the serpent). Yet around the first century BCE or CE we first get clear signs that some Jews were interpreting this narrative in ways that clearly linked the serpent with the story of Satan as an evil-intentioned angel.
Some background and reminders are necessary before addressing the convergence of Satan and the serpent of Paradise. We have already discussed how the earliest developments in the story of a fallen angel, named Azazel or Semyaz (not Satan per se), centred on a particular interpretation and elaboration of the sons of God mating with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 (reflected by about 200 BCE in book 1 of 1 Enoch). This positioning of the angels’ introduction of evil and sin into humanity helped to explain why God sent the flood in this case. Furthermore, in the second or first century BCE, certain Judeans belonging to the Dead Sea sect — those who composed the Community Rule (or Manual of Discipline) — placed the origins of an evil angelic power, identified variously as Belial (Worthless one) and the Angel of Darkness, earlier in the mythical time-line:
God “created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. In the hand of the Prince of Lights is dominion over all the sons of justice. . . And in the hand of the Angel of Darkness is total dominion over the sons of deceit. . . [God] created the spirits of light and of darknesss and on them established all his deeds” (1 QS III 17-25; Florentino Garcia Martinez, trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated [trans. by W. G. E. Watson; Leiden: Brill, 1994], p. 6).
So there are differences in where Satan makes his entrance on the narrative time-line, so to speak. And, as time progressed, there seems to have been a tendency among certain Jewish (and Christian) authors to find the origins of personified evil at points earlier than the story of the fallen angels of Genesis 6. In some respects, this is the interpretive context in which to make better sense of the association of the serpent in Paradise or Garden of Eden with the fallen angel. This component begins to appear clearly on our radar screen in the centuries around the time that the Jesus movement emerged (first centuries BCE and CE).
The expansions of the story of Adam and Eve that came to be incorporated within the so-called Apocalypse of Moses (in Greek, first century CE) and the Life (Vita) of Adam and Eve (in Latin, 3rd-4th centuries CE) likely reflect an earlier source of the first century BCE, a source which scholars often call the Book of Adam and Eve (online translations here; online resources here). In these particular expansions of the story of Adam and Eve, the blame for sin, illness, and death is placed firmly upon the first woman, Eve (in a way that diverges from the Genesis account itself, which is somewhat more “balanced”, one could say, in apportioning blame and punishment to both Adam and Eve for eating from the tree of knowledge). This association of women and Satanic deception was to continue for centuries to come, as we know; the notion that women were more susceptible to evil temptation or were more likely to be deceivers themselves still has its legacies today within our patriarchal culture (despite attempts to deconstruct just such notions or gender stereotypes).
So, in the Adam and Eve expansions, Eve is presented as not learning from her mistake and is tricked not once, but twice, by the angel Satan. Once Eve gives in to Satan’s temptation (via the wise serpent) by taking from the forbidden tree (Apoc. Moses 15-30). A second time Eve is fooled while doing acts of repentance for the first mistake and follows the advice of an apparently nice, bright angel (really Satan) that God was satisfied with how much penance she had done (Vita 9-11). God was not (according to the authors of this story).
What I want to draw attention to here, however, is a first-person statement by Satan himself as to why he so eagerly sought the downfall of humanity by way of tempting Eve, and why he inspired covetousness in Eve (making her want something she was forbidden, the knowledge of good and evil). This story became an important component in the portrayal of Satan as the jealous, envious, or covetous rebel against God:
Following the second temptation, Eve cried out,
“‘Why do you treacherously and enviously pursue us, O enemy, all the way to death?’ And the devil sighed and said, ‘O Adam, all my enmity and envy and sorrow concern you . . When you were created, I was cast out from the presence of God and was sent out from the fellowship of the angels. When God blew into you the breath of life and your countenance and likeness were made in the image of God, Michael (the archangel) brought you and made us worship you in the sight of God, and the Lord God said, ‘Behold Adam! I have made you in our image and likeness” (Vita 11:3-13:3; trans. by M. D. Johnson, “Life of Adam and Eve,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [Garden City: Doubleday, 1985], vol. 2, p. 262).
When Michael then tried to enforce this command of God:
“I (Satan) said to him, ‘Why do you compel me? I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior to him in creation; before he was made, I was already made. He (Adam) ought to worship me.’
This denial is what then leads Satan to his jealous and covetous plan to overtake the power of God himself, alluding to the passage in Isaiah 14 regarding the king of Babylon as Day Star, Son of Dawn (later Lucifer in the Latin Vulgate):
“And I said, ‘If he (God) be wrathful with me, I will set my throne above the stars of heaven and will be like the Most High.'” (15:3)
“So with deceit I assailed your wife and made you to be expelled through her from the joys of your bliss, as I have been expelled from my glory” (16:3).
Bitter revenge, jealously, envy, and covetousness is why.
That was a long one, but it had to be done.
UPDATE (Feb.7 ): In an ironic twist of sorts, I was listening to Led Zeppelin (for whom I have an appreciation that does NOT stem from their expressed views of women) the same day I wrote this post. I thought I’d provide an example of the comment above about the legacies of the association of the first woman with Satan:
“Been Dazed and Confused for so long it’s not true.
Wanted a woman, never bargained for you.
Lots of people talk and few of them know,
soul of a woman was created below. ”
Jimmy Page, “Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin I (SuperHype Music Inc, 1969). Full lyrics online here.
One can appreciate the raw expression of emotion in Led Zeppelin’s (or others’) performances without agreeing in any way with their opinions on things like this, thankfully.
As a Jewish apocalyptic movement, the early Jesus movement (“Christianity”) inherited a worldview in which Satan played an important role as the ultimate adversary or opponent of God and his agents. Plenty could be said of the centrality of Satan’s (or his demons’) opposition to Jesus in the synoptic gospels, for instance, where the temptation in the desert at the start of Jesus’ mission draws clear attention to an ongoing struggle (further illustrated in the many exorcisms) that seemingly threatens to undo that very mission. Jesus is often presented, as in the gospel of Mark, as the beginning of the end for the evil powers that are active in the world. Most early Christians took Satan and his demons seriously and felt evil powers could be active in the real-life settings of Christians and others. So this was more than just thoughts in peoples’ heads, and Satan played an important role in real-life social and political interactions and in polemical discourses.
Here I want briefly to draw attention to two main rhetorical functions of Satan in polemical discourses or discourses of the “other”. Moreover, the ultimate Opponent (Satan) could make his appearance (discursively) in struggles with (1) opponents outside of one’s group and (2) opponents within (or on the fringes of) Judaism or the Jesus movement that were nonetheless categorized as “other”, as demonic outsiders. The “demonization” of either external enemies or internal adversaries continued in various ways throughout the history of Christianity (and was characteristic of earlier polemical discourses within the context of early Judaism as well).
(1) First of all, Satan and the language of evil play an important role in the “demonization” of outsiders or other peoples, including ruling powers. John’s Apocalypse (Revelation) provides an excellent example of this (written some time in the years following Rome’s destruction of the temple in 70 CE, perhaps in the 90s). The author of these visions thinks in terms of an ongoing struggle between God and his Lamb (Jesus), on the one hand, and the dragon, Satan, and his Beast, on the other. More importantly here, the dragon here is quite clearly in league with the Roman imperial power, which is portrayed as a seven-headed, chaotic beast arising from the sea in chapter 13 (with the emperor Nero in particular — as the mortally wounded head who “was, and is not, and is to ascend” [17:7-14] — on the top of the author’s mind). The “dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” to this beast, and the people worshipped both the dragon (Satan) and the beast (the emperor), according to these visions (13:2). The rhetorical attack on the external Roman imperial power continues in chapters 17-18, where the author speaks of Babylon (= Rome — both had destroyed God’s temple in Jerusalem) as a whore who rides on the seven-headed beast and drinks the blood of the saints. For more on the imperial dimensions of the Apocalypse, see my earlier post on Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor.
The use of the language of evil and Satan in relating to outsiders or external opponents would continue long after John wrote down these visions. One particularly prominent example is the way in which subsequent Christians (e.g. Justin Martyr) spoke of the gods of the Greeks and Romans as “demons” (compare Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth at 10:14-22).
(2) Second, in the internal debates and struggles within Christianity, Satan was frequently called on to combat those within or on the margins of one’s own cultural group who held different views on what following Jesus meant. Thus, for instance, when Paul attempted to convince some Christians at Corinth that they should take him as authoritative rather than some other eloquent “super-apostles”, he employed the language of evil and Satan to describe these (Jewish-Christian) opponents:
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 [RSV]).
These leaders of the Jesus movement with whom Paul strongly disagrees become servants of Satan who will share the evil one’s fate, in this discourse.
One more example will suffice here. The Johannine epistles (1-3 John) reflect a particular group of Jesus-followers (likely living in western Asia Minor) which had recently had difficulties that led to a schism. The author portrays those that had left the group, who held differing views on Jesus, as “antichrists” in the service of the devil:
“Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come . . . They went out from us, but they were not of us . . . Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:18-23 [RSV]; compare 2 John 7-11).
This is the earliest known occurence of the term “antichrist”, by the way, which would soon develop its own history in reference to a primary earthly assistant of Satan that would precede the final battle between evil and good. Among later interpreters, the beasts in John’s Apocalypse, or in the book of Daniel before it, were sometimes identified with this developing antichrist figure.
Satan is very much a part of popular culture in the West. His story has heavily influenced the portrayal of evil in film, as we shall see, but the devil also makes his appearance in our music, including the blues and its offspring, rock-n’-roll. The profound influence of Robert Johnson, a Delta blues (or country blues) performer of the 1930s (who made just two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937), was not fully felt until the re-release of several recordings in 1961 (which the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Zeppelin, and others have expressly identified as a profound influence on their work).
(For Johnson’s lyrics, cited in part below, go here. For sound clips from the songs discussed below, scroll down to see the CD information for King of the Delta Blues (in this case on Amazon). Eric Clapton has recently released a tribute album (is that word still used) with new performances of Johnson’s songs: Me and Mr. Johnson (2004).)
The powers of evil make their appearance in a variety of ways in Johnson’s songs, some with more frightening effect than others (all of Johnson’s music is “haunting” in some way). In a devil-made-me-do-it sort of way, “Me and the Devil Blues” expresses the notion that some evil power outside of Johnson is responsible for his more violent behaviour towards a woman friend:
Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan,”
I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied
. . .
You may bury my body
down by the highway side
spoken: Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
Less disturbing, in some ways, are songs like “Hellhound on my trail”, which nonetheless express Johnson’s angst in raw terms drawn from ideas associated with the powers of hell and the hell-hound successor of Cerberus (the guard-dog of the underworld in some Greek mythology) :
I gotta keep movin’
I gotta keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm mmmm mmm mmmmmm
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
there’s a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail. . .
All I needs is my sweet woman
and to keep my company hey hey hey hey
The notion that the crossroads or intersection outside of town was a magical place where the-powers-that-be were especially potent has a long history. But a specific legend grew up in the context of the emergence of the blues which also attached itself to Johnson himself. In particular, there was the notion that in order to gain exceptional skill at playing the blues, a person might meet the devil at the crossroads and make a deal, with the soul being the precious item in the devil’s sight. The lyrics in Johnson’s own “Cross road blues” apparently have very little, if anything, to do with this notion:
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please”
Still, the overall legend nonetheless attached itself to this performer, who was known for playing the guitar like noone else could. (This is partly because of the shared name with Tommy Johnson, another blues artist who supposedly claimed that he did sell his soul to the devil). It is this legend of selling one’s soul for exceptional guitar skills that is enacted in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).
Selling one’s soul to the devil has a much longer history going back to medieval legends that Goethe incorporated in his eighteenth century poetic story of Faust, as we will see later. The film The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) re-tells a similar tale in a new setting, with Jabez Stone making a contract with Mr. Scratch, the devil (a remake with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin ran into financial difficulties and is yet to be released):
[examining the contract]
Jabez Stone: What does it mean here, about my soul?
Mr. Scratch: Why should that worry you? A soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No. This soul, your soul is nothing against seven years of good luck. You’ll have money and all that money can buy. (Full script online here).
The legend of selling one’s soul, which continues as part of Satan’s story, is also reflected in the Simpsons episode in which poor Homer sells his soul to the devil for a doughnut (Treehouse of Horror IV). In this case, though, Homer actually robs the devil of his due in the long run.
A very important part of Satan’s identity within Christianity is the notion that Satan is the chief angel among a group that rebelled against God and fell from their original position in the heavenly realm. We first have clear signs of this critical component in Satan’s story around 200 BCE in a Jewish writing in the Pseudepigrapha known as 1 Enoch (text and introductions online here). 1 Enoch is an apocalypse in terms of genre and is a composite work, divided into five books, with book one (chapters 1-36) being among the earliest (on which go to my earlier post here for further clarification).
What is most important here is that book one of 1 Enoch presents a midrash (interpretation) and considerable expansion of a few mysterious verses in Genesis (6:1-8): the account of the “sons of God” (angelic figures) mating with human women that immediately precedes the story of God sending the flood. “Enoch’s” visions explain the origins of evil and sin among humanity, and in this case suggest that ultimately evil came from the divine realm by way of fallen angels. Issues regarding the degree to which humans, on the one hand, or divine beings (angels), on the other, were responsible for the introduction and continuation of evil and sin among humanity would continue to occupy those who told and re-told the story of Satan in subsequent centuries. Some would configure things differently than book one of 1 Enoch does.
In the process of explaining the origins of evil, this author seems to blend together two separate traditions that existed before his time concerning a conspiracy among certain angels (perhaps drawing on a lost work called the “Book of Noah”, mentioned in the book of Jubilees ch. 10, for one of these traditions). The reason we can detect these traditions is that, in 1 Enoch, there are inconsistencies in who was the leader of the rebel angels (see further John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination). At times the author speaks of Semyaz (Semihazah) as the chief and at others of Azazel (Asa’el). Not only that, but the author seems to have preserved the different emphases of each tradition. The Semyaz material portrays the conspiracy against God as centred on the sexual act of union with humans and the Azazel tradition focusses on how the fallen angels subsequently reveal secrets of heaven to humanity, including skills that led to war and seduction, to the general chaos that brings the flood. For this author, the offspring of the mixing of divine and human are giants whose spirits after death are demons that continue to mislead humanity (15:8-12).
The result of this whole conspiracy is war and chaos on earth. God consults with his trusted angels, such as Michael and Raphael, to arrange punishment of both the humans and the fallen angels, referring to the end of days in the process:
“then spoke the Most High. . . ‘the earth and everything will be destroyed. And the deluge is about to come upon all the earth; and all that is in it will be destroyed.’ . . . And secondly the Lord said to Raphael, ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot and throw him into the darkness!’ And he (Raphael) made a hole in the desert. . . he threw on top of him (Azazel) rugged and sharp rocks. And he covered his face in order that he may not see light; and in order that he may be sent into the fire on the great day of judgment.” (1 Enoch 10:1-7; trans. by E. Isaac in James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983-85], p. 17)
The imprisonment and end-time fate of this fallen angel here resembles the fate of “the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan” in John’s Apocalypse (20:1-10), as we shall soon see. As in other apocalyptic writings, the flood of long ago becomes a precursor or foreshadow of God’s final intervention in the end times, the “great day of judgment”, when the angels who rebelled, along with the humans who sided with them by doing evil, will meet their end. The righteous ones, on the other hand, will go on to live in a new world cleansed “from all sin and from all iniquity” (see 10:17-22).
The name “Satan” itself does not appear here at all, but the fallen angels story was soon to be linked up with passages involving the angelic adversary (“satan”) in the Hebrew Bible, as we begin to see in the likes of Jubilees (chapters 10-11; c. 150-105 BCE). Still later (in the second and third centuries CE), this notion of fallen angels would also be linked up (by Christian authors) with a passage that originally referred to the Babylonian king as cosmic rebel in Isaiah 14, the “Day Star, Son of Dawn” who falls from heaven (where he imagines himself to belong). Part of the phrase just mentioned was translated into Latin by Jerome (in 410 CE) as “Lucifer”. Looking far ahead to the 1600s, it would be hard to imagine Milton’s Paradise Lost without the story of Satan or Lucifer as the chief rebel angel who fell from heaven’s height.
When reading the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. “Old Testament”) for historical purposes, it is important not to project back into its pages later developments in Judaism and Christianity, and this is particularly true in the case of “Satan”. Although there is no full-blown notion of personified evil in Israelite religion, there are indeed important messenger or angelic figures associated with Yahweh (“LORD”), God of the Israelites. Sometimes these figures could later on be associated with the notion of Satan as a thoroughly evil figure. (“Israelite religion” is the term scholars often use to refer to the religious life of the Hebrews before the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE, while “Judaism” is generally used in reference to developments following the return under Cyrus and foundation of the second temple in Judea, hence “Second Temple Judaism”). Here I want to briefly discuss three closely related, recurring figures associated with Yahweh’s (God’s) heavenly entourage or council: (1) “the adversary” (ha-satan), (2) the injurious, or evil, spirit (rucha ra’a) and (2) the “messenger” (mal’ak).
1) The Hebrew word for an opponent, prosecutor, adversary, or one who obstructs, satan, occurs in a number of places in the Bible, sometimes in reference to human opponents and sometimes in reference to a figure sent by God. In 2 Samuel 19:22 and in 1 Kings 11:14-25, for instance, the term satan is used of human adversaries of the protagonists (David and Solomon). In most other cases, it is a heavenly figure or messenger (mal’ak = Greek angelos) that God sends to act as an obstruction, adversary, or accuser (see, for instance the story of Balaam in Numbers 22, especially verse 22). The most well-known case of “satan” is the adversary among the “sons of God” (bene ha-elohim) in The Book of Job (chapters 1-2; seventh-fourth centuries BCE). This figure acts almost as a legal prosecutor in challenging Job’s piety and in letting loose severe treatment (e.g. killing all of Job’s 10 children) as a test, all with the active consent of God. The adversary is by no means an evil figure opposed to God in this story (online resources for Job here).
The closest we come to the notion of an angelic adversary (satan) going against the will of God and perhaps even needing to be stopped is in Zechariah (c. 520 BCE), where “the satan” is a prosecutorial figure against Joshua, and Yahweh “rebukes” the satan for accusing Joshua in this particular case (see Zechariah 3; also see 1 Chronicles 21:1, where a “satan” apparently opposes Israel, but with little clarification by the author). There is no indication that these angelic figures are inherently evil in an ongoing manner, however.
2) A recurring figure in the Hebrew Bible sent to do God’s work, either in opposition to or in support of humans, is the mal’ak, or messenger (translated in an ancient Greek translation of the Bible [LXX] as angelos and now often as “angel” in English). Thus, for instance, it is an angel of Yahweh that appears to Moses in a flame of fire (the burning bush) and an angel (as well as pillars of cloud or fire) that helps to guide the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery (Exodus 3:2 and 14:19-24). But we have already seen above that an angel can also serve God’s will in an oppositional manner, if necessary (as in Numbers). And there are passages which imply or state that an angel is involved as a “destroyer” on God’s behalf, as in the Passover incident (Exodus 12:23; cf. 2 Samuel 24:16).
3) Quite similar to the latter role of the messenger sent by God to cause injury is the “evil spirit” in the Hebrew Bible (especially in the so-called Deuteronomistic History, sixth century BCE and earlier). This figure, who is directly distinguished from the “spirit of Yahweh”, is sometimes sent by God to facilitate things happening in the way that God wants them to happen, sometimes inciting violence (see Judges 9:22-23; 1 Samuel 16:14-16; 18:10-11; 19:9-11; also see 1 Kings 22:19-22 for a “lying spirit”).
The most important distinction between these “satans” (including the one in Job), “messengers”, or “evil spirits” and the evil Satan figure of later apocalypticism is that the Hebrew Bible’s satans and angels are almost always acting in conjunction with the will of Yahweh, or God. They are almost always sent by God to be an obstruction or to act as an adversary or prosecutor against some person or persons.
However, even these same passages involving the Israelite God taking adversarial action against certain people could be interpreted differently by later Jews or Christians. This is the case with those in later centuries who did indeed hold a view of Satan as an evil figure opposed to God (such as Jubilees, where Mastema, Enmity personified, takes on some of these same roles, as we shall see later). With the full-blown, apocalyptic Satan, just about the only thing that is in accordance with God’s will is the existence of this figure, whose intentions are directly opposed to God but who unwittingly plays a crucial part in the unfolding of God’s plan (according to many ancient apocalyptic Jews and Christians).
I am indebted to Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy, pp. 107-123 (cited in full in the previous entry) for getting me going on analyzing the passages (I disagree somewhat with his take on Zechariah).
A rebellious fallen angel who later develops into a full-blown personification of evil (as Satan) first begins to appear clearly in our sources within the context of Jewish apocalypticism around 200 BCE (in book 1 of 1 Enoch). The story of this personified evil figure continues to develop and play an important role in early Christianity. Yet there are important predecessors in the Ancient Near East which help us to understand subsequent stories surrounding the figure of Satan. Among the predecessors is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman (the opponent of Ahura Mazda) within Zoroastrianism, which I have discussed here in an earlier entry on this blog.
Oldest among these predecessors are the chaos-monsters (also gods) who are slayed by an up-and-coming Mesopotamian (or Hittite or Canaanite or Israelite) deity in traditions dating as far back as the third millenium BCE (our earliest evidence for literate civilizations). In particular, the portrayal of Satan in John’s Apocalypse (written c. 90s CE), which became the most potent early image of Satan as the ancient serpent or dragon, cannot be understood without reference to these older gods who threaten or even personify chaos and are ultimately defeated in combat (see especially Revelation, chapters 12-13).
Although there is considerable diversity among these stories of the Mesopotamian gods and we should not imagine that they’re all the same, there is nonetheless a common pattern that emerges in many of these combat stories:
1) A god among the pantheon engages in activity that threatens the well-being (or even existence) of other gods and the society of the gods.
2) The opposition from the chaos-god seems insurmountable and other gods desperately seek (with great difficulty) someone who can solve the problem.
3) Finally, a less prominent or younger god steps forward and acts as a hero in battling and successfully defeating and killing the monstrous threat, re-establishing order in the universe. Often, there are two rounds in the fight, with the hero losing the first. Sometimes (as in the case of Marduk vs. Tiamat and Yahweh vs. Leviathan) the slaying of the chaos-monster coincides with the creation of the world of humans by the hero-god. In essence, the hero-god has saved the entire cosmos from reverting to chaos and now has a new status as a chief or king among the gods.
It is important to state that the gods who threaten to bring chaos to the entire cosmos are not inherently evil in these traditions, however, and they are indeed gods (which Satan is not within early Judaism and Christianity). Yet the role of the chaos-monster as opponent or adversary of the hero-god and the centrality of the battle between the two (“combat myth”) which ends in triumph for the hero are, in many respects, at the heart of Satan’s story and his function within early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic worldviews.
Perhaps the most well known case of this mythology is the Babylonian story of Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, the chaotic sea-monster and mother of all gods, whose husband, Apsu, had plans to do away with her noisy children, the rest of the gods. (As chaotic sea-monster, Tiamat is comparable to the Israelite Leviathan or the Canaanite Yamm). Marduk then uses the corpse of Tiamat to create the world as we know it. You can read that story in the Enuma elish (When on high) online.
The other story I want to briefly cite here, a poetic myth dating back to the second millenium BCE, is also intriguing with regard to the chaos-god as a jealous rebel against the current head of the gods. This is the story of the frightful, monstrous bird Anzu (also Zu), who brings chaos in the world of the gods by stealing the tablet of destinies — the record of all the plans of the gods and locus of power — away from Ellil (also spelled Enlil), the father of the gods (see photo below). What better time to rebel than when Ellil’s taking a shower. The problem begins like this:
“Ellil appointed him (Anzu) to the entrance of the chamber which he had perfected.
He would bathe in holy water in his presence.
His eyes would gaze at the trappings of Ellil-power:
His lordly crown, his robe of divinity,
The Tablet of Destinies in his hands, Anzu gazed,
And gazed at Duranki’s god (i.e. Ellil), father of the gods,
And fixed his purpose, to usurp the Ellil-power.
Anzu often gazed at Duranki’s god, father of the gods,
And fixed his purpose to usurp the Ellil-power.
‘I shall take the gods’ Tablet of Destinies for myself
And control the orders for all the gods,
And shall possess the throne and be master of the rites!
I shall direct every one of the Igigi (category of gods)!’
He plotted opposition in his heart
And at the chamber’s entrance from which he often gazed,
he waited for the start of the day.
While Ellil was bathing in the holy water,
Stripped and with his crown laid down on the throne,
He gained the Tablet of Destinies for himself,
Took away the Ellil-power. Rites were abandoned,
Anzu flew off and went into hiding.
Radiance faded (?), silence reigned,
Father Ellil, their counsellor, was dumbstruck,
For he (Anzu) had stripped the chamber of its radiance.
The gods of the land searched high and low for a solution.”
Standard Babylonian version, tablet 1, iii, first millenium BCE; Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 206-207.
The abandonment of rites in honour of the gods, the silence, and the dumbstruck state of Ellil (as well as other passages which indicate that Anzu’s action has halted water for agriculture) are symbolic of the utter chaos that ensues in the cosmos as a result of Anzu stealing the tablet of destinies, the power of Ellil. After interviewing several divine candidates to fight Anzu, all of which are not up to the seemingly impossible task, young Ninurta (or Ningirsu in some versions) is put forward for the job, and is instructed by his mother, Belet-ili:
“Seize him by the throat: conquer Anzu,
And let the winds bring his feathers as good news to Ekur, to your father Ellil’s house. Rush and inundate the mountain pastures
And slit the throat of wicked Anzu. . .
Show prowess to the gods and your name shall be Powerful!” (SBV, tablet 2).
In the first battle-sequence, Anzu gains the upper hand by using his Ellil-power to disassemble any of Ninurta’s arrows before they can approach Anzu and Anzu has the power to release and return his own feathers as a smokescreen (using the phrase “Wing to wing” to employ this power). Ninurta then consults with Ea, god of wisdom, who advises that Ninurta disguise his own arrows as though they were Anzu’s feathers, and to time his shooting to coincide with Anzu’s use of his “super-power” (emitting and recalling his feathers). Thus in the second, overwhelming confrontation:
“(As Anzu) shouted ‘Wing to wing’, a shaft came up (?) at him,
A dart passed through his very heart.
He (Ninurta) made an arrow pass through pinion and wing. . .
He slew the mountains (symbolic of Anzu), inundated their proud pastures (ending drought). . . slew wicked Anzu.
And warrior Ninurta regained the gods’ Tablet of Destinies for his own hand.”
Problem solved, and Ninurta’s reward for slaying the jealous and rebellious god who brought chaos was supremacy among the gods:
“You have won complete dominion, every single rite.”
Here, then, is the essence of what scholars call the “combat myth” which, via the Israelite case of Yahweh vs. Leviathan, came to play an important role within the apocalyptic worldview, with its battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the dragon or ancient serpent in John’s Apocalypse.
For an online scholarly article about Ninurta and Anzu (and Azag, another combatant), go here. For Israelite instances of the combat myth, with Yahweh vs. Leviathan or Rahab or Behemoth or Tananim, see the following biblical passages: Psalms, chapters 74, 104; Isaiah chapter 27; Job chapters 40-41. You can view William Blake’s illustration of Leviathan and Behemoth (1825) online at the Tate gallery here. There are also several useful online overviews concerning Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and gods of the Sumerians, the Babylonians and Assyrians, the Canaanites, the Hittites and Hurrians.
Excellent books on the relevance of Mesopotamian combat myths and chaos-monsters for early Judaism and Christianity (including Satan) include: Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (2nd edition; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), and Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
Photo (above): Ninurta pursues Anzu, as depicted on a stone sculpture in the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud, Iraq. Drawing from Austen Henry Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh (London: John Murray, 1853), volume 2, plate 5. This full work, now in the public domain, is available online at ABZU.
Welcome to ongoing discussions regarding the origins, development, and significance of personified evil — Satan and his demons — in early Judaism and in the history of Christianity. We will be tracing the history of Satan (a.k.a. the Devil, Beelzebul, Beliar, Mastema, Lucifer, Mephisto) and his minions from ancient Mesopotamian chaos-monsters to early Jewish and Christian fallen angels to modern portrayals in music, television, and film. To get a sense of what topics and sources may be covered in the next few months, you can look at my outline for the undergraduate course: “A History of Satan”. There are already a number of entries here on this blog that deal with topics relating to Satan and hell. Ideas associated with this personified evil figure are thoroughly embedded within western culture, and these discussions will be an attempt to partially unravel the layers in his story.
Come again, and I’ll look forward to any historically-minded comments or questions you may have.
UPDATE (Jan. 2): Check out the comments section, where significant (as well as not-so-significant) discussions have already begun.
Photo: Dragon-like mythical figure, associated with the god Marduk, on the Babylonian Ishtar Gate (c. 575 BCE; now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum; photo by Phil). Images like this one may have inspired the story of Daniel slaying the dragon in the Apocrypha, which draws on a long tradition of slaying the chaos-monster.
When scholars of early Judaism and Christianity identify a writing as an “apocalypse” (in terms of genre), they usually have in mind a first-person visionary report that claims to narrate a “revelation” (apocalypsis) from God himself. Almost always the content of the visions that are narrated also presuppose or directly pertain to an apocalyptic worldview, namely, an ideology in which this present world is dominated by evil forces (headed by Satan, or Beliar, or what have you) which will ultimately and imminently be destroyed (or perpetually punished) in the final intervention of God and his angelic forces (there is a thoroughgoing dualism in this way of thinking).
One of the two main types of apocalyptic writing that have been identified is the so-called “historical apocalypse”. Here the focus of the visions relates to the unfolding of God’s historical plans (on this, see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, which is browsable online here). The Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible (written about 160s BCE) and John’s Apocalypse or Revelation (written about 70-90 CE) in the New Testament are largely characterized by this historical focus: both relate the unfolding of God’s plan for history in relation to actual political powers (Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors, respectively), and these political powers are cast in the role of the ultimate evil opponents of God (on John’s Apocalypse see my earlier post on Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor or my article here).
The second main type of apocalypse is the “otherworldly journey”. Here the visionary is taken on a tour of the far reaches of the world and beyond, usually a tour of either the heavens or the underworld (hell). The earliest surviving example of this type is the first book (chs. 1-36) of 1 Enoch (online here) written about 200 BCE, in which the Enoch of Genesis is presented as the visionary who expounds the story of the fallen angels (Gen 6) and is guided by an angel in order to witness the workings of the universe.
In its present Christian form, the Ascension of Isaiah (reflecting materials ranging from the second century BCE to as late as the fourth century CE; online here) consists of the story of the prophet Isaiah’s martyrdom (who is sawn in half) and a report of Isaiah’s vision in which Isaiah is taken on a journey through the seven heavens with an angel as guide (chs. 1-5 and 6-11 respectively). The martyrdom and the vision are linked in their present form, since it is because Isaiah had gone on the tour, witnessing God’s plan to send his Beloved (Christ) to destroy the evil powers, that Beliar (Satan) seeks to have Isaiah killed (through the evil angel Sammael and king Mannaseh) (3:13).
Isaiah’s otherworldly journey begins as he ascends with the angel-guide to “the firmament” above the world, but below the heavens. Isaiah then proceeds through each of the seven heavens. In each heaven he witnesses a throne flanked by angels, and the glory of each heaven and its angels increases until he reaches the final, seventh heaven, the dwelling place of the Most High (God) and his “Beloved” (Lord Christ). There, says Isaiah,
“I saw all the righteous from Adam. And I saw there the holy Abel and all the righteous. And there I saw Enoch and all who were with him, stripped of the garment of the flesh, and I saw them in their higher garments, and they were like the angels who stand there in great glory” (Ascension of Isaiah 9:7-9; trans. by Müller in Schneemelcher)
Isaiah then gains a revelation of what will occur in the future, final intervention of God (the end times). Ascending and descending are important not only for Isaiah here, but also for other key figures in the apocalyptic visions. Isaiah hears the voice of the Most High himself calling on his Beloved (Lord Christ) to descend, to trace the steps that Isaiah had just traversed, in other words:
“Go and descend through all the heavens; descend to the firmament and to that world, even to the angel in the realm of the dead (on the descent to hell see my other posts on Satan) . . . that you may judge and destroy the prince and his angels and the gods of this world and the world which is ruled by them, for they have denied me and said ‘We alone are, and there is none beside us’. And afterwards you will ascend from the angels of death to your place, and you will not be transformed in each heaven [i.e. you will not be affected by the inferiority of each heaven in relation to the seventh heaven], but in glory you will ascend and sit on my right hand. And the princes and powers of this world will worship you” (Ascension of Isaiah 10.7-14).
Almost immediately, Isaiah then witnesses the descent and ascent of the Beloved (Christ). But there is more of this ascending and descending. Earlier in this writing we learn that, as part of the “consummation” of the world, an anti-Beloved (so to speak), Beliar himself, will be sent before the Beloved comes:
“And after it has come to its consummation, Beliar, the great prince, the king of this world who has ruled it since it came into being, shall descend; he will come down from his firmament in the form of a man, a lawless king, a slayer of his mother, who . . . will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted; and one of the twelve will be delivered into his hand. . . All that he desires he will do in the world; he will act and speak in the name of the Beloved and say ‘I am God and before me there has been none else’. And all the people in the world will believe in him, and will sacrifice to him and serve him saying, ‘This is God and beside him there is none other’ . . . And after (one thousand) three hundred and thirty-two days the Lord will come with his angels and with the hosts of the saints from the seventh heaven with the glory of the seventh heaven, and will drag Beliar with his hosts into Gehenna” (4:1-14).
In a manner reminiscent of John’s Apocalypse (esp. ch. 13), the author is here presenting an end-time evil figure in the form of an actual king and, more specifically, a king modelled on a returning emperor Nero (Nero redivivus) who is worshipped as a god (alluding to the Roman imperial cult, on which go here for a brief discussion or here for an entire article). It is important to remember that the line between “otherworldly journey” apocalypses and “historical” apocalypses is by no means stark (as with the fluidity of genre as a whole), and there are some apocalypses with the characteristics of each, of course.
The ascending and descending theme is an important component in this apocalyptic author’s worldview, and the apocalyptic seer’s own guided tour gives him a first-hand experience of otherworldly travel himself.
UPDATE (Dec. 15): Now also see Alan S. Bandy’s collection of various scholarly definitions of the apocalyptic genre.
As Jim Davila points out, there are now plans to make a hollywood film out of John Milton’s 17th century poetic Paradise Lost (book online here). Milton (1608-1674) brings together many of the biblical and post-biblical (including medieval) stories that attached to the figure of Satan or the Devil (on which see my brief comments on a conversation between Hades and Satan here). Regardless of whether this ends up being another myths-ploitation film which does very little justice to its sources (e.g. Troy), at least this will give me more to talk about in connection with modern depictions of personified evil in my “History of Satan” course (though not in time for this Winter term–oh well. As if there wasn’t enough Satan in films already). The Telegraph has a brief article on the plans for the movie here.
There are a few websites devoted to Milton, with the more scholarly one here. Also, for an interesting conference paper which looks at the themes of Paradise Lost in relation to Star Trek, go here (bet you never expected that one).
Scholarly debates continue regarding what genre (type) of literature were the apocryphal Acts, with the Greek novel often being considered a close relative of these Acts by most. Certainly both the apocryphal Acts, which relate the miraculous deeds of the followers of Jesus, and the novels share in common the aim of entertaining (alongside teaching and admonishing certain values or behaviours).
In the Acts of John, the disciple John is depicted on his journeys to demonstrate the power of God (dating sometime in the second or early third century; available online here). Among these demonstrations or signs are the repeated resurrections of various characters in the story, from bad guys like the priest of Artemis to good guys like the permanently sexually-abstinent Drusiana. Resurrection of the dead is John’s favourite miracle, so to speak. Just about everyone converts as a result of these miracles, including the aforementioned bad guys, so there is a purpose to it all.
One of the “miracles” of John that stands out, however, involves bed-bugs. While staying in an inn at Ephesus, John is trying to catch some wink-eye while other of his followers talk quietly in the background. The bed-bugs are driving John nuts, and so he commands, “I tell you, you bugs, to behave yourselves, one and all; you must leave your home for tonight and be quiet in one place and keep your distance from the servants of God!” (60).
That we, the readers, are meant to be entertained and to laugh is suggested by the fact that John’s followers do laugh, and think that John is just joking (he’s not really commanding bugs, is he?). To these followers’ surprise, they find a mass of bugs waiting just outside the door in the morning, and John says that since the bugs have behaved themselves, they can go back home to bed. But even in this humorous story there is a lesson. Be thou like the bed-bugs, who quietly listen and obey: “This creature listened to a man’s voice and kept to itself and was quiet and obedient; but we who hear the voice of God disobey his commandments and are irresponsible; how long will this go on?”, queries John (61). (All translations, again, are from Schneemelcher).
UPDATE: Once again Ken Penner is on top of things and, in the comments, points to a passage that involves commanding worms in the Testament of Job (of the OT Pseudepigrapha, translation available online here, Greek text here). Job is once again facing the torments which God allows Satan to send upon him, and he shows a particularly heightened ability to withstand and, in what you could call an ascetic spirit (or perhaps just an attempt to ensure that God’s will is done to its completion), even further the torture:
“In great trouble and distress I left the city, and I sat on a dung heap worm-ridden in body. Discharges from my body wet the ground with moisture. Many worms were in my body, and if a worm ever sprang off, I would take it up and return it to its original place, saying, ‘Stay in the same place where you were put until you are directed otherwise by your commander” (Testament of Job 20:7-9; trans by R.P. Spittler in Charlesworth, OTP).
This story is less funny than John’s;)
The notion that Jesus, after his death, descended into the realm of the dead in order to achieve some aim has a somewhat long and complicated history, of which I will only touch on some points. By the time 1 Peter is written (late first century), the author can refer to the fleshly death and spiritual resurrection of Jesus and to the fact that “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (1Peter 3:18-20). The Gospel of Peter (perhaps 2nd century but maybe later) makes brief reference to a descent at the point of Jesus’ emergence from the tomb in having a voice from heaven ask Jesus, his two angelic escorts, and the walking cross, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” (10:41). The cross answers in the affirmative. The Apostles Creed of later centuries includes the descent into hell, without further clarification, among Jesus’ deeds.
Somewhat different than this preaching to the sinful people of Noah’s generation or to the sinful in hell is the very important story preserved in The Gospel of Nicodemus (aka Acts of Pilate) which reflects more detailed thinking and elaboration about this descent (available online here). In The Gospel of Nicodemus, three (Symeon and his two sons) of those who were raised from the grave (Sheol = Hades) testify to the Jewish council about what they witnessed.
According to this story, it is all of those who went to the grave (all of the dead, both good and bad) that were imprisoned under the rulership of Hades, god of the underworld. Jesus’ action in descending is what allows the righteous, including Adam, Seth, Abraham, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and others to make their way out of these chains and into paradise. In other words, without Jesus’ resurrection, the righteous would have remained in Hades (Sheol). In fact, when Jesus breaks through the gates of Hades, “all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains” (21:3). In essence, the tree of knowledge brought death (through Adam), and the tree of the cross brought life (through Christ; 23-24).
Also fascinating in this gospel is the portrayal of the grave personified, namely Hades, and Satan as separate figures who debate what to do about this Jesus figure. Satan is nearly begging Hades to do something and take action against this Jesus, the “common enemy”. Hades is a bit concerned about about losing his sustenance of dead bodies, and remembers that “a certain dead man named Lazarus. . . [was] snatched . . . up forcibly from my entrails” (20:3). But, despite the stomache ache, in the end Hades turns out to be a little more realistic and rational about the (im)possibilities: “And if [Jesus] is of such power, are you able to withstand him? It seems to me that no one will be able to withstand such as he is” (20.2).
In an interesting convergence of my teaching preparations, John Calvin gave considerable attention to assessing what he thought was valuable or true in notions of Christ’s descent to hell. He clearly steers away from ideas that are also reflected in the Gospel of Nicodemus, but nonetheless sees Christ’s descent as an essential part of the story of salvation in “God’s Word” (it’s in 1 Peter and the Apostles’ Creed, after all). You can read this in section 8 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion online here.
A week or so ago, Jim Davila discussed a recent novel which combines stories of the fallen angels and giants (Nephilim) with UFOlogy and fundamentalist Christian apocalypticism (also discussed on the new blog Café Apocalypsis). The combination of an imminent expectation of the end with the role of alien races as either the saviours or the villains is not new, of course. In the 1990s, the Heaven’s Gate group combined Christian apocalyptic expectation of the final intervention of God (in this case aliens) with the notion of good and bad alien races (the group clearly believed in their views as they ended their lives in expectation of the end and the move to the “level above human”). The malevolent space races, the “Luciferians,” likely included the notion of fallen angels, whose activity was outlined in some detail by the Heaven’s Gate:
The term “TRUE” Kingdom of God is used repeatedly because there are many space alien races that through the centuries of this civilization (and in civilizations prior) have represented themselves to humans as “Gods.” We refer to them collectively as “space alien races in opposition to the Next Level,” what historically have been referred to as “Luciferians,” for their ancestors fell into disfavor with the Kingdom Level Above Human many thousands of years ago. They are not genderless – they still need to reproduce. They have become nothing more than technically advanced humans (clinging to human behavior) who retained some of what they learned while in the early training of Members of the Level Above Human, e.g., having limited: space-time travel, telepathic communication, advanced travel hardware (spacecrafts, etc.), increased longevity, advanced genetic engineering, and such skills as suspending holograms (as used in some so-called “religious miracles”). The Next Level – the true Kingdom of God – has the only truly advanced space-time travel vehicles, or spacecrafts, and is not interested in creating phenomena (signs) or impressive trickery.
These malevolent space races are the humans’ GREATEST ENEMY. They hold humans in unknown slavery only to fulfill their own desires. They cannot “create,” though they develop races and biological containers through genetic manipulation and hybridization. They even try to “make deals” with human governments to permit them (the space aliens) to engage in biological experimentation (through abductions) in exchange for such things as technically advanced modes of travel – though they seldom follow through, for they don’t want the humans of this civilization to become another element of competition. They war among themselves over the spoils of this planet and use religion and increased sexual behavior to keep humans “drugged” and ignorant (in darkness) while thinking they are in “God’s” keeping. They use the discarnate (spirit) world to keep humans preoccupied with their addictions. These negative space races see to it, through the human “social norm” (the largest Luciferian “cult” there is), that man continues to not avail himself of the possibility of advancing beyond human.
Heaven’s Gate, “Crew from the Evolutionary Level Above Human Offers — Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human,” 1996 (Copy at: http://www.wave.net/upg/gate/lastchnc.htm).
One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).
For the script of the movie, go here. For a brief and rough overview of the plot and its religious themes, go here. For further discussion of apocalypticism and apocalyptic groups throughout western history (including Heaven’s Gate), go to the PBS site Apocalypse!.