Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Do we expect too much of Beelzebub?
Satan is quite frequently in the news these days, but the following headline recently caught my eye. A millionaire televangelist with the apt name of Creflo Dollar accused the devil of blocking his dreams of buying a $65m personal jet. It says something when Satan draws the line on behaviour that is just too outrageous, even for hell.
The evil one has enjoyed some quite exciting episodes in the extended soap opera which is church history. In medieval days, he was the red-suited monster painted on the wall of your local church. During the Inquisition, he was the dastardly mastermind behind every heretic afflicting the faith. For the puritans, he lurked in every bubbling cauldron and directed every witch’s broom like a fiendish air traffic controller. But these days, Satan has frankly become a bit of a worry.
I first noticed this when my granddaughter was born a couple of years ago. My daughter wanted to ask a close family friend who isn’t all that fond of church if she would be one of the godmothers. When my daughter asked what I thought, I said: “I hope she won’t mind renouncing Satan.”
Doing precisely that is in the small print of what godparents have had to do when making their vows in a traditional Anglican baptism. They are asked: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” One possible answer to that question would be: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”
Baptisms these days are rather jolly affairs, with cakes and presents, aunts and uncles in Sunday best and a minister heroically struggling to hold a baby the right way up while also balancing a cup of water. What could possibly go wrong? The insistence on getting godparents to renounce Satan and all his pomps in the middle of this happy and amusing scene is like the flapping arrival of a pantomime Dracula, complete with a puff of smoke. Ta-dah!
Trying to talk to not-Christian friends about God is hard enough these days, but mention that you also believe in his most famous ex-employee, Satan, and you might as well have grown a second head with a matching set of horns. But, Satan is also a bit of a worry among my fellow Christians, too. Talking with them about him, I often encounter something surprisingly like superstition. The popular Christian belief implies that Satan, like God, is omnipresent, always on hand to plant iniquitous thoughts, dangle a new temptation or wreck your chances at actually following the 5:2 diet. But Satan is no god, poor creature, and can’t be everywhere at once, so it’s hard to see how he can fit the job description believers have set for him.
Satan’s dilemma is just the same as that of his anagram, Santa. Not only are they both stuck with wearing red suits, but, just as Santa has to hand-deliver presents to all the world’s children on one single night, so Satan has to visit everyone on earth, night and day, to personally tempt them. So many sinners, so little time! How does he do it?
And what goes for Satan also goes for Satan’s little helpers, the demons. It’s not their metaphysical existence which is most concerning but more a question of staffing. How the heck is hell managing to field enough demons to tempt 7.3 billion people these days? The human population is now 20 or 30 times greater than it was in the days of the Bible but the size of hell’s infernal bureaucracy has stayed the same, since, according to Jesus, angels (even fallen ones) don’t get married and have babies. So, the logistical problems of providing a personalised service of 24/7 temptation for everyone alive must be diabolical.
Could it be that Christians are simply expecting too much of Beelzebub? Or, is it that Christians have always too readily believed in Satan’s own inflated PR? After all, it’s much easier to say that the devil blocked my $65m jet purchase than that God stopped me from being a beyond-greedy charlatan. Blaming Old Nick is a very convenient way of getting the spotlight off your own sins.
Maybe the truth of it all is that Satan is like a teenager posting on the net from his poxy bedroom in Clapham, pretending he’s a huge corporate player. Or, maybe he’s even less than that. Last year, Paddy Ashdown, hearing of the sad death of Charles Kennedy, commented on Kennedy’s alcoholism by saying: “We all have our demons.” It was a familiar and handy metaphor about human weakness and failure. Just like Satan.
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Reform.