Sunday, October 14, 2007

On Reaping What You Sow

The new CW television show “Reaper,” in addition to being relatively funny, also raises an intriguing theological question. The premise of the show is that a 21-year-old slacker is the Devil’s bounty hunter. Apparently souls escape from Hell from time to time, and our hero’s job is to capture them.

Now, what makes it possible for the audience to root for a guy who works for the forces of darkness? I love anti-hero shows, but they don’t seem to find success on any channel besides FX and HBO. (Seriously, try to think of any successful anti-hero show on a broadcast network.) What makes Reaper's protagonist sympathetic is that what he’s doing isn’t really wrong. Evil people deserve to go to Hell, so putting them there is ultimately a respectable calling.

And thus the theological question: In what sense is the Devil evil? After all, he provides punishments for dead sinners, as well as strong incentives for the living to be good. Despite the alleged enmity between God and Satan, it seems an awful lot like God has simply kept the carrot in-house while outsourcing the stick.

11 comments:

Jb said...

Mephistopheles: 'I am part of that power which eternally/wills evil and eternally works good.'

Goethe, Faust

Ran said...

I believe that in traditional Catholic doctrine, Lucifer was cast into Hell for his pride, and an attempt to overthrow G-d, yes? (I find the Catholic demonology a bit confusing — I believe there were seven aspects of the devil, each corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins, with Lucifer representing pride. I'm not sure if the devil as a whole attempted to take over Heaven, with Lucifer being the relevant aspect, or what.) The Inferno doesn't really present Lucifer as doing much in the suffering-bringing department; his three heads' mouths munch on the three great traitors, and his wings send cold to keep the ice frozen on all the other traitors, but generally it looks like he's suffering just as much as anyone else.

In more modern, pop-culture portrayals, the devil is presented as an evil torturer of lost souls, which you can view as a good thing; but he's also presented as a trickster, a Prince of Lies, eternally seeking to en-evil-ate people, buy their souls, etc. I guess a Libertarian such as yourself would argue that people have the right to sell their immortal souls if they want, but most people would consider the buyer a mite unscrupulous. ;-)

Jadagul said...

Glen: you're confused because Christian theology has three or four different interpretations of the Devil, and they don't really mesh well. A pretty good and relatively thorough rundown is available here. But the short version:

In the Old Testament, Satan was a quasi-generic noun meaning "adversary"; as far as we can tell, a satan was basically the Devil's Advocate (yes, I know that sounds recursive) in God's judgment panel. So in the book of Job, when God said Job was his loyal servant, it was Satan's job to argue that Job actually wasn't faithful or worthy. In this role Satan wasn't evil; he was a necessary part of God's court.

In the New Testament and in Christian theology, the invention of Hell was accompanied by reworking Satan into a force for evil. For a while he was seen as generally incompetent, but as we progressed out of the middle ages through the Renaissance into the modern era he gradually acquired more competence and power.

But in the middle ages Satan was a celestial outlaw who had been banished to Hell for his crimes. He didn't rule Hell; rather, he was being punished there. A number of factors, including Milton's "to rule in Hell" line and the gradual promotion of Satan to the 'worthy adversary' position, led people to decide that Satan was actually in charge of Hell and ran things down there (especially as we trended back towards Manicheanism and seeing Satan as sort of equal-and-opposite to God). But to answer your question, Satan isn't evil because he rules Hell; he's in hell because he's evil and disobeyed God's will.

Blar said...

First, there's the Church Lady argument. He's practically named "evil," and therefore must be so.

Second, the Devil's intentions. Satan wants to harm everyone. It is only through a kind of moral luck that he only gets his hands on the sinners. There's a similar story with Judah, whose actions were also a necessary part of God's plan.

Another aspect of Satan's bad intentions is that he wants people to sin. As Ran pointed out, he acts on these intentions, attempting to get people to do wrong. This is doubly evil. He bears some responsibility both for the wrong that the person does, and also for the corruption of the wrongdoer's soul.

Blar said...

Judas, of course. I plead "just watched Crimes & Misdemeanors."

And as long as I'm commenting again, I'll add a fourth argument, that the Devil takes pleasure in harming people.

Anonymous said...

You don't actually believe the 'devil' is a real sentient being and the hell is a real place, do you?

There is no such thing as 'god' and 'satan'. These are merely anthropomorphic constructs of morality that have been made up for social control of the masses to stupid not to realize otherwise.

When it comes to theology, studying the morality plays in a comic book is just as useful.

ur hot, I'm not said...

I think Christians got it scientifically right when they decided that Hell is a hot place like Death Valley and not cold like Kilimanjaro. It can only get as cold as –273.15 °C (zero Kelvin) but there is no theoretical to how hot it can get. The core of the Sun is estimated to be 15,000,000 °C. Pretty hot. So maybe Hell is located there.

If you want a soul to really suffer you just keep turning up the heat. The energy consumption in Hell must be unbelievable even for diehard true believers. What fuel is being used to produce temperatures in the millions or billions of degrees? Burning fossil fuels can't get anywhere near hot enough, so carbon emissions in Hell are likely well within EPA guidelines.

This concept of only so low, but no upper limit seems to be a favorite one for the holy one. It's often followed by his disciples here on Earth. Minimum wage laws are enacted but no maximum wage laws have ever been as far as I know. I'm sure God is flattered by the imitation. Three billion people here on Earth live on 2 dollars or less per day. So, God must love the poor because he or she made so many of them. God works in mysterious ways, and perhaps the Devil does too.

Can't resist said...

Anonymous wrote:

"...social control of the masses to stupid not to realize otherwise."

And then there are those too stupid to know how to spell "too."

Amaduli said...

Oh you economists and your incentives. You should look into the Mormon conception. People often focus aghast on the Mormon insinuation that Jesus and Satan are brothers. This seems to be reason enough for plenty of people to oppose Romney.
The basic idea hinges on the pre-earth existence of humanity. God prepares humanity for another phase of mortal existence. Jesus as the oldest Son of God is chosen to carry out his plan. The point of life is to learn and test our mettle. God proposes the principle of Agency. This provides law, free choice, knowledge and consequences. Of course, not all God's children would return to his presence in a more similar and glorified form. Some would find themselves unsuitable for his presence and dwell in a separate, much less glorified, sphere. Only those who have a complete understanding of the truth and yet willfully betray God are cast off into complete darkness with Lucifer.
Satan got to his present position for pride. He thought he could accomplish God's job more efficiently. He proposed a plan of coercion that would force obedience. Keeping mankind ignorant of their choices, he would bring all the childlike human family back home. Of course his aim was the glory and worship reserved for God.
Jesus took the path of understanding, and sacrificed himself to appease the claims of justice and provide the possibility of mercy and forgiveness.
My understanding is that the "Morning Star's" current role is to rob mankind of true agency by convincing that there is no law or consequences. He does this out of bitterness. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, God promotes choice, however it is the true principle of choice that includes natural consequence.

Joel B. said...

The devil is ultimately a deceiver. The devil begins his deception of mankind in Genesis "Indeed has God said, "You shall not eat from every tree of the garden." Then "You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Satan's lies we see twist God's word and allow man to decieve himself in to believing that which he was selling, most of Satan's lies ultimately come back to...yes if you do this, you too can be like God. And we are carried away by our lusts.

By Satan's first lie, death entered the world "For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

A perfect example of Satan twising God's word is in Matthew 4:5-7, There is tempting Christ Satan to test God, and obstensibly quotes scripture, but as in Genesis, Satan twists the meaning of God's word to justify tempting God which is not the purpose. And we see in Revelation that Satan is then..the deceiver of the whole world, Rev. 12:9.

Satan deceives by causing man to question God's word. E.G. Did God really say that he created the world in 6 literal days? And tells man, see if you believe this thing over here, that you evolved from primordial goo, that you too can be like God, determining right and wrong in your own eyes.

His deceptions are ever the same, but always in different forms, Satan's great evil is that he tells lies to men that they want to believe and then by those lies men feel free to rebel against God and men are then led to their destruction.

Satan does not "rule" in Hell, nor does he exact punishment, but all who rebel without repentance are cast and hell enough is sufficient punishment.

Jan said...

One man's garbage is another man's jewels. Therefore, who is to say what is evil and what is good in this world? What you see is what you get. What you look for is what you see. If you think you see evil, it is your job to rid the world of it. On one hand, if you accomplish this, I applaud you. On the other hand, if your evil is another's jewels, I don't. :)