Satan, the evil impulse, the fallen condition: what needs to be transformed?

The starter topic for last Friday’s Tea and Conversation was the reality (or otherwise) of evil powers.  S had been to a meeting about Muslims and mental health at which ‘secular’ professionals had been somewhat at sea in dealing with Muslim concerns about jinn possession.  Z had been told by a Jewish person that Judaism had little space for Satan, and wanted to know how far that might be rooted in the Hebrew Bible.  The conversation moved on to the roots of evil done by human beings, and ended with the question of whether God created the tendency towards evil in human beings and why Christians are so concerned at the idea that God should be seen as the originator of evil. I’m blogging this because it is so important to CMCS’ central vision to ‘see Muslim-Christian relationships transformed’.  What needs to be transformed, and why?  Part of the problem is Christians and Muslims have fundamental differences in what they see as wrong with the world, and therefore in what they think needs transforming and how to transform it.

The conversation group comprised 3 Christians, 3 Muslims and 1 more ‘secular’ person.  It went something like this:

  • The Hebrew Bible has remarkably little about spiritual powers other than God, but it does describe the activity of ‘the Satan’ (the Hebrew means ‘the accuser’) in the book of Job, chapters 1 and 2.  Some commentators think that he is more like a prosecutor in the heavenly court than an evil power: other negative powers are described as natural phenomena (e.g. the monsters of Job 4-410 and Genesis 1, and the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve in Genesis 3).
  • Jewish belief about Satan (as about everything else) is very varied. By medieval times, there were lists of names of evil powers.  The intertestamental literature also has details of spiritual powers (both good and evil), with the idea of Satan as ‘the god of this world’.  This is also reflected in the New Testament – but with remarkable restraint in comparison to, for example, the books of Enoch.
  • The Qur’an is explicit about Iblis/Satan and the satans and the jinn.Why is the Old Testament largely silent about them, and the New Testament restrained for its time?  Has this to do with developing belief?  With the Old Testament deliberately treating what others saw as spiritual powers as God’s creatures? Is it to emphasise human responsibility?  Is it because too much focus on the evil powers is unhealthy?
  • It was this at this stage that the mental health meeting was mentioned and the question of exorcism was raised.  ‘Do we think Satan and the evil powers are real?’ someone asked.  Two of the Christians said ‘Yes’ very definitely:  so real that we should be careful how much we talk about them.
  • The conversation lightened as someone asked how old Adam was when he was created.  One day (as a new creation)? 35 (as in some Islamic tradition)? 33 (the perfect age to which Jesus lived)?  But might he not have been much older?  The question was serious, being asked by someone who had to cast a play that included Adam.
  • Was there anything in this discussion that related to the work that one conversant was doing on the Moses stories?  How do the Moses stories deal with evil?  We reflected briefly on the golden calf incident in Bible and Qur’an, and on the Jewish understanding of the narrative as demonstrating God’s mercy and commitment to Israel.  That led to the Christian idea of Jesus as the second Adam.

And so we came to the fundamental question about what has gone wrong in human beings:  the essential diagnosis of what needs transforming.  We explored 3 options:

  •  A Christian diagnosis that humans were created good but ‘fell’.  A major piece of evidence put forward was that Jesus, the second Adam, was entirely good:  in His humanity, He was entirely like us, but without anything evil.  This implies that the first Adam was created good, and that those who are ‘in Christ’ will be eventually be entirely good. A Jewish diagnosis that human begins were created good, but that, since Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we have both an evil tendency and a good tendency within us.
  • A Islamic diagnosis that God created us with both evil and good tendencies within and put us in the world with Satan to tempt us.

Issues raised included the nature of free will, the necessity/possibility of redemption, human responsibility and struggle for good.  The nub of the matter was, in my understanding, how God created us, and whether He created evil.  S cited Surah 113:2 as stating that God created evil, but T offered a different interpretation.  E emphasized Genesis 1’s repetition that God’s creation was good, and suggested that the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in Genesis 2 indicated that there was no evil until the human beings chose to disobey God.  We ended, as I said, with the question of why Christians are so disturbed by the idea that God should create evil, which points to some deep differences on how we understand the nature of God.

What interested me was that the basic division is commonly described as being between Christians (who believe that human nature is ‘fallen’)  on the one hand and Muslims and Jews (who believe that we have both good and evil tendencies) on the other.  This conversation indicated that there is a more fundamental division:  between Muslims (who believe that our current state is what God created) on the one hand and Jews and Christians (who believe that something changed at Adam) on the other.

My question now:  What are the implications of all this for how we fight evil?  In ourselves? In our world?  In relationships between Muslims and Christians?

Get involved. What are you thinking?