If you watch the Publishers Weekly religious bestsellers’ list, you’ll notice that high up on the list is Princeton Professor Elaine Pagels’ new book The Origins of Satan.
It’s not surprising that Christians would be eager to read a book about Satan. Unfortunately in this case, it appears that those reading the book have been taken in by a not-so-subtle attack on biblical teaching.
Professor Pagels promises to tell the reader who Satan is, where he came from, and what he’s like. But she comes to a startling conclusion. Satan, she says, was invented by Christians to justify their intolerance of those with different beliefs.
According to The Origin of Satan, the writers of the Gospels took the Hebrew word Satan—which means “adversary”—and gave it to a character they invented. Pagels alleges that this supernatural opponent of God never existed before the Gospel writers wrote down the story of Jesus.
Why would the Gospel writers do such a thing? Well, says Pagels, they wanted to prove that they were superior to other Jews. They were so determined to demonize their opponents that they went to the extreme of actually associating their enemies with a supremely evil figure called Satan.
Elaine Pagels criticizes modern Christians for talking about a grand cosmic struggle between good and evil. She calls this the “demonization of opponents.” In other words, according to Pagels, Christians believe that “their enemies are evil and beyond redemption.”
Pagels insists that to divide humanity into categories of “the saved” and “the lost” is contrary to Jesus’ message of reconciliation. Jesus didn’t condemn anyone, according to Pagels. Let’s get rid of this imaginary Satan, she says, so that there can be peace among all religions.
Now there are obvious problems with the reasoning in The Origin of Satan. For example, Elaine Pagels dismisses most Old Testament references to Satan—and then turns around and accepts the authority of mythological books like the Gospel of Thomas. And, as reviewer Brent Shaw points out, her thesis depends on a late dating of the Gospels, which many scholars would deny.
But there’s a more serious problem—and it’s a problem with presuppositions. You see, Pagels assumes that Scripture is an outdated document that needs to be brought into line with modern thinking. She sees intolerance as one of the greatest evils facing America today. Pagels traces that intolerance back to the alleged creation of the biblical figure of Satan. In so doing Pagels ignores a fundamental rule of biblical interpretation: Scripture should be viewed in its own historical and cultural setting. We must not impose twentieth-century ideology upon the text.
Does Satan actually exist? Yes. Scripture is clear that he does. And indeed, it suits his purposes just fine if people don’t believe in him.
There’s a lesson here: Be discerning. Christians may pick up books like this on the bestseller lists without realizing what they are all about.
This is another case of an anti-Christian diatribe masquerading as a religious book—and sadly, people are falling for it. Satan must be pleased.