Today, it’s not fashionable to discuss Satan or even believe in him. To most, Satan represents silly superstition at best and Christian intolerance at worst. To bring up Satan in polite company is to invite incredulity, ridicule, or derision. Satan may not materialize today, but there is ample evidence that he is working on several fronts:
1. The 'Beaudelaire Scheme' by which he convinces people that he does not exist. (humanist subset)
2. The 'Gnostic scheme' by which he convinces people he is worthy of worship.
3. The 'Hell in a Handbasket Scheme' by which he convinces Chrisitans to attack 'the world.'
4. The 'Pharisaical Scheme' by which he convinces Christians that God's Grace is insufficient.
The Beaudelaire Scheme
If recent polls are reliable indicators, the Beaudelaire Scheme is working well. According to a 2001 study by the Barna Group, only 27% of American adults believe that Satan is real. More disturbing, among Catholics the figure is only 17%, among mainline Protestants 20%. Even among more 'conservative' groups, the results were shocking—a mere 36% of church of Christ members and 34% of Baptists believe Satan is real. Only more Charismatic groups were significantly different—47% of Pentecostals and 56% of Assembly of God members. These figures correlate highly to (but are significantly less than) belief in the accuracy of the Bible: 26% of Catholics, 34% of mainline Protestants, 57% of church of Christ members, 66% of Baptists, 81% of Pentecostals, and 77% of Assembly of God members.
Many Christians now consider Satan no more than a symbol of evil, and the discepancies between belief in the accuracy of the Bible and that Satan is real suggest that a sizeable proportion of Christians are largely ignorant of biblical teaching, where Satan is clearly described as a being with intellect (2 Cor 11:3), will (2 Tim 2:26), and feelings (Rev 12:17), none of which a mere symbol possesses. It seems that most Americans, including Christians, will not believe in the existence of Satan unless a horned red guy jabs them with a pitchfork and presents a contract for their souls.
A subset of this diabolical scheme is the Beaudelaire-Humanist Scheme. According to Wikipedia, an online, 'content-free' encyclopedia, '...many secular humanists not only do not believe that Satan exists, they also hold the view that a belief in Satan is a serious obstacle to human progress, peace, and a just world, and that the belief itself should be eradicated through education and scientific thinking.' Historically, this Beaudelaire-Humanist scheme gains momentum from the actions of the church itself. Humanists point to the abuses of such events as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials as evidence that a belief in Satan leads to intolerance, war, and persecution. Of course, the humanists ignore the fact that these events were perpetrated by the very humans they believe are inherently good and that none can be justified by the Bible itself.
The Gnostic Scheme
In the second and third centuries, a number of pernicious doctrines arose that have been historically categorized as 'Gnostic.' There were several varieties of ancient Gnosticism, but all were based on sort some of secret knowledge (from the Greek word, gnosis). Some strains of Gnosticism became so popular that they threatened the future of the church, and early church writers aggressively countered this internal heresy.
By the fourth century or so, Gnosticism as a major challenge to orthodox Christianity was virtually destroyed, but it has been making a slow, steady comeback since the dawn of the Enlightenment. Since knowledge was the sustenance of the Enlightenment, people have sought to use rational thought and scientific method, rather than God's Word, to explain the universe and humanity's place in it. Satanism is a subset of modern Gnosticism, as evidenced by the doctrinal statements of the Church of Satan.
Founded in San Francisco in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey, the Church of Satan claims to be 'the first organized church in modern times promulgating a religious philosophy championing Satan as the symbol of personal freedom and individualism' (Gilmore, Magnus Peter H., 'Anton Szandor LaVey, A Biographical Sketch,' 2003, Church of Satan website). According the The Satanic Bible (written by LeVey), Satan represents 'indulgence, vital existence, undefiled wisdom, kindness to those who deserve it, vengeance, man as just another animal, and all of so-called sins.' Clearly, LeVey conceived the Church of Satan as the antithesis of his perception of Christianity. 'Satan,' LeVey concluded, 'has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in business all these years!'
According to its 'official' website, the Temple of Set (an ancient Egyptian diety) formed in 1975 as a splinter group when LeVey 'redesign(ed) (the Church of Satan) as a nonfunctional vehicle for his personal expression, exploitation, and financial income.' The fundamental tenets of the Temple of Set claim that through the use of 'black arts,' human beings evolve toward divinity.
The typical Christian view of Satanism involves ritual child murders, animal mutilations, backwards writing, and even crop circles, but most Satanist are little more than deluded humanists seeking spiritual truth in all the wrong places. They claim that Satan has been slandered by Christianity for centuries and that they are merely trying to restore his rightful place in Mankind's progress. In most cases, ritualistic acts attributed to Satanists are more likely the acts of human criminals claiming Satanic inspiration.
The modern Beaudelaire and Gnostic Schemes have largely been aimed outside the church (although the Beaudelaire Scheme appears to be active in the church), but while they may be inspired by Satan, they are probably diversionary tactics rather than a frontal action. The frontal actions are necessarily targeted at the greatest threat to Satan's dominion—the Church. These are both more subtle and more profound.
The Hell in a Handbasket Scheme
Throughout its history, the Church has spent an inordinate amount of time and effort attacking the perceived sins of the world, trying to extinguish them by legislation, intimidation, persecution, and extimination. This stands in dramatic contrast to the early (pre-Constantine) church, when Rome tried to extinguish the church through the same tactics. With the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Rome late in the fourth century, the persecuted became persecutors. In an ironic twist that can only be described as diabolical, Satanic influences may well be at the root of paganism, Muhammadism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, but Satan's success was in convincing orthodox Christianity to attempt to counter these developments with methods more heinous than anything conceived in those other religions.
The Great Inquisition is certainly the best and most shameful example of the Church giving in to the Hell in a Handbasket Scheme, but comparable episodes continue today. The Church is not called to directly wage a culture war. Rather, the Church is called to submit to God through the Grace offered by Christ Jesus and to respond by living exemplary lives. The harassment of homosexuals is probably the best modern example of how sadly many in the church have gotten this precisely backwards
The excesses of the persecuting church have done more to advance the cause of Satan than anything non-believers have done!
The Pharisaical Scheme
Finally, and most insidiously, there is Satan's Pharisaical Scheme. Satan has undergone significant transformation over the centuries, but not in the way religious skeptics suggest. They claim that the Satan of the Old Testament was akin to the Attorney-General of heaven, an aggressive prosecutor whose role was merely to adjudicate transgressions against God's laws. It was the New Testament writers and the early church fathers who transformed Satan into the despicable tormenter of Mankind. Effectively, it is the same argument many use about the perceived disparity between the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament.
What the skeptics miss in both arguments has to do with the progressive unveiling of God's revelation to humanity. With Christ Jesus came the opportunity for individuals to be reconciled to the Creator, and this development must have infuriated Satan. After all, up until then he had pretty much had his way with humanity since the Fall. With the exception of God's Chosen Race (Israel), people were largely unfamiliar with God, even though He had "put eternity into man's heart" (Ecclesiastes 3:11) but lacking specific knowledge of God, Satan diverted attention to the creation rather than the Creator, encouraging them to invent and worship a plethora of nature gods. Paganism was so revamp that it frequently spilled over into the practices of the Jews.
Furthermore, there was the Law, established to reveal sin. Satan was certainly able to use the Law against the Jews, convincing men that righteous comes through works of the Law. The residual effects of such legalistic religion are still evident today as some Christian groups simply don't seem to understand Grace.
But Satan understands Grace, and it throws an insolvable problem into his diabolical schemes. Before the Cross, Satan held the advantage because on our own, we human beings simply can't measure up to the standards of a Holy God. Because the Cross, Satan's advantage is gone, and it is this that led to the dramatic change in his activity—not the kind of human mythology the skeptics suggest.
While we point fingers and preach damnation to the world, we neglect to recognize that Satan's most damaging work is accomplished by unwitting Christians mimicking biblical Pharisees by restoring the yoke removed by Christ. Before Christ, Satan didn't have to spend much time tormenting humanity because there was no viable avenue for reconciliation. Christ brought freedom (but not license), but today's satanic assistants seek to move that freedom with judgmental, legalistic religion or ostentacious ritual that clouds God's real message.
The 2001 Barna survey that revealed the shockingly low figures on the real existence of Satan also included the statement 'works don't earn heaven.' The degree to which members of various Christian communities agreed with this statement reveals a lot about their works- vs. grace-orientation. The Barna survey showed that 9% of Catholics agreed that works don't earn heaven, 24% of Methodists, 26% of Episcopals, 27% of Lutherans, 31% of Presbyterians, 42% of Church of Christ members, 43% of Baptists, 62% of Pentecostals, and 64% of Assemby of God members.
The Catholic Church is a case in point and while I do not wish to question the faith or commitment of any individual Catholic, the Barna survey reveals the problems associated with legalistic, works-oriented versions of Christianity: Only 26% believe the Bible is totally accurate (only Episcopals were lower), only 17% believe they are called to share their faith, and only 46% are totally committed to Christianity. It therefore becomes clear that when one strips off the lies of church tradition, people are left rudderless.
Before any of us in evangelical Protestant churches of Christ becomes arrogant, the polls results for us weren’t a lot better. For example, only 34% of Lutherans believe the Bible is totally accurate, only 45% of Presbyterians agreed that Christ was sinless, and only 47% of Methodists are totally committed to Christianity.
In China, the godless government continues its campaign to persecute the church, yet conversions skyrocket. In America, there was a modest, albeit temporary, bump in church attendance immediately following 9-11. If governmental suppression and terrorist attacks are motivated by Satan, they backfired, just as they did in the early church. In legalistic churches, however, attendance is plummeting or, at best, stagnant. Which sounds more like the satanic activity?
Satan continues his assault on humanity on multiple fronts. Among those I have suggested, the Baudelaire and Gnostic schemes are primarily diversionary tactics and pale in comparison to the internal 'Hell in a Handbasket' and Pharisaical Schemes. In the immortal words of Pogo, 'We have seen the enemy and they is us.'
Through the church's declining belief in biblical truth, evidenced by very low recognition of Satan as real; by our overlaying of new law on the Gospel; by our institution of human ritual; by our all-too-frequent focus on the "sins of the world" rather than our own shortcomings, we are treating Satan more like a cute, mythical kitten than a roaring lion. As we scratch the kitten's head, however, we will become painfully aware of the difference.
This article was originally distributed as part of an issue of Ekklesia Then & Now (ET&N), a free bi-weekly essay available through the inJesus.com service.
For more information on ET&N or to subscribe, go to www.ETandN.com
© Richard M. Soule, 2005
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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