Teaching the Controversy: Does Satan Exist?

‘There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors.” — C.S. Lewis

I taught the lesson in my priesthood quorum today covering Elder Ballard’s conference address from last October dealing with the reality of Satan and his role in encouraging addictive behaviors. As this was my first time for this particular ward, I spent some time describing my internet activities (predominantly dealing with controversial issues arising in Mormonism). I related my desire to follow 1 Peter 3:15′s instruction to always be prepared to provide a reasonable defense of my beliefs to Elder Ballard’s call for more Latter-day Saints to join the conversation about us as a reaction to media coverage of the Romney Campaign in 2008. Yes, it was somewhat of a tangent (some would say irrelevant) to the main themes of the talk.Elder Ballard’s address contains one of the longest doctrinal expositions about Satan in recent memory. Some of the language in his talk suggests that he is cognizant of some of controversies surrounding Satan and I speculated that the content was in part a reaction to these.  Of course, one could just as easily hold that the topic of addiction is sufficient enough by itself to warrant such an exposition.  However, in another address earlier in 2010, we see that Elder Ballard still had 2008 on his mind. Here’s a report:

“You remember Mr. Huckabee, who among other things said that Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil were brothers?” Ballard asked students. “Remember that? It went all over the media.
“Well they are!” Ballard exclaimed to a laughing student body.
“But they [the media and many of other faiths] don’t understand that, because they don’t have the [LDS gospel] restoration. They don’t understand the spiritual relationship that … we are all sons and daughters of God, and that Lucifer was one of those and (that) he chose to use his agency in an unrighteous way.”
I hope Elder Ballard does not mind the liberties I took with his conference address to explore another controversy regarding Satan that is even more basic than the one he addressed.  I asked the quorum members how they would respond to a non-member or even a member who doesn’t believe in Satan’s existence. In particular, in light of 1 Peter 3:15, what reasons can you come up with on why you believe that Satan exists and why is that important. I hope to duplicate that exercise here to see what our M* readers come up with. In teaching the controversy, I provided some poll numbers that may or may not demonstrate how divisive the issue is alongside two opposing views from a Nightline debate.

Four out of ten Christians (40%) strongly agreed that Satan “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.” An additional two out of ten Christians (19%) said they “agree somewhat” with that perspective. A minority of Christians indicated that they believe Satan is real by disagreeing with the statement: one-quarter (26%) disagreed strongly and about one-tenth (9%) disagreed somewhat. The remaining 8% were not sure what they believe about the existence of Satan.  —- BARNA survey 2009

“The Bible is a several-thousand-year-old document and we have none of the original letters, none of the original manuscripts,” he said. “And I do not believe it is the inspired word of God as much as I believe the inspired word of man about God as best as man can perceive.“ —Carlton Pearson (arguing Biblical accounts of Satan can’t be taken literally.)

“Healthy people do not have any need for Satan. Healthy people need to confront their own issues, understand themselves and move towards the direction of compassion, creativity, understanding, context, insight, inspiration, revelation and understanding that we are part of an ineffable mystery. …So I would say be done with Satan and confront your own issues.“   — Deepak Chopra
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About Keller

I was a BYU baby while my parents finished up their advanced degrees in psychology. I have lived in some interesting places growing up: near the Lagoon at Layton; in an old polygamist house in Manti with an upper-story door that opened to the middle of a roof; in Rigby,Idaho, the self-proclaimed birthplace of television; then over to Sweet, a small town north of Boise near some fun river rapids; then for my high school years in Lund (named after a counselor in the First Presidency), Nevada; and full circle back to Utah County for college. Currently I work as an electrical engineering in the defense and space industry in Salt Lake City. I have served in a single's ward elder's quorum presidency and as a hymn book coordinator. I also served a mission in the Bible Belt (Oklahoma City) and to prepare I became an avid reader of FARMS publications. This has lead me to become a volunteer for FAIR as way of furthering my apologetic interests and helping those struggling with tough issues to find useful information. I have also started an interfaith blog to dialog with Catholics and practice "holy envy." I like blogging on historical topics and doing genealogical research.

18 thoughts on “Teaching the Controversy: Does Satan Exist?

  1. In my experience, it is important to understand that Satan exists so you can know that there really are evil forces working at you to help convince you to make bad choices. The realization that these forces are there has made it easier for me to overcome them upon occasion.

  2. It ought to be abundantly clear from the scriptures that the devil and any number of other evil spirits exist and have a real influence.

    The only thing I object to is the Manichean view where they are actually responsible for all evil in the world, and the unfortunately widespread view that they are involved in every temptation in particular.

    There are no end of problems with that view, in particular it promotes the devil to an essential feature of the universe, a metaphysical substrate that we could not live without. James 1:14 teaches a more realistic view:

    But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed (emphasis added)

  3. When I taught the Gospel Principles lesson on the Savior’s premortal mission last year, I had one of those little in-class moments of inspiration that resulted in this unplanned question to the elder’s quorum: If Lucifer hadn’t rebelled, would we still have needed a savior to atone for us? Considering that Satan became who he is because he wasn’t chosen to take on that role–that is, the question of who the savior should be was asked before Lucifer presented his alternative to God’s plan–I say the answer is yes.

    Some have suggested that the devil is a natural opposite to God, a necessary agent in the universe to counteract the otherwise overwhelming goodness of God. I rather believe that this idea applies better the the abstract concepts of evil and good (which are analogous to darkness and light; the former can only exist relative to the latter’s presence) than to autonomous personalities. If there was no devil, there would still be evil in the world, just without a malevolent being trying to actively promote it.

  4. Gospel Principles manual, Chapter 3.
    http://lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-3-jesus-christ-our-chosen-leader-and-savior?lang=eng

    * Father presented His plan to all His children (agency given to man, able to choose between good and evil. Because we were free to choose, we could and would choose sin. A Savior was needed, “Whom shall I send?”).
    * Jesus Christ who was called Jehovah, said “Here am I, send me, thy will be done and the glory be thine forever.”
    * Satan (Lucifer) presented his plan (everyone will be saved no matter what, no agency, “send me, surely I will do it, wherefore give me thine honor”).
    * Father chose the first (Jesus).
    * War in Heaven, Satan cast down with 1/3 of the hosts of heaven. The Savior’s followers “overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).
    * War continues on in our daily lives: “Who’s on the Lord’s side, who?”

    Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand the wiles of the devil (Ephesians 6).

  5. Yeah, the devil exists, and our spirits are subject to subconscious whisperings from him and his ilk. That’s why I’m an active Mormon: I caught the devil at this game.

    But there would be evil without him; he’s simply its strongest, perhaps earliest proponent among this family of God’s children. But any individual whose eyes are open can choose evil over good at any time, even without the devil’s temptations.

    If Satan hadn’t stepped forward to become the devil, or if he somehow stopped fulfilling his role, someone else would step forward to fill the evil leadership vacuum. The plan of salvation is like a bell curve, and someone must always occupy the dark, lowest end of the spectrum.

  6. “Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil;…”

    Moroni 7:12

    Doesn’t this imply that if there were no devil there would be no evil? Is there any scriptural reference that evil would exist without the devil?

  7. I think you have to make the distinction between evil and sin. Sin is doing that which is contrary to God’s will. That can happen by mistake through ignorance or through intentional misdeeds that may or may not harm another person (but definitely harms the individual committing the sin).

    On the other hand, I think of evil as intentionally causing harm to another person. Or, even more broadly, intentionally causing another person to experience pain (through commission of sin or some other act).

    Given this, I believe Satan is the author of evil but not necessarily all sin.

  8. Stan, that verse is certainly suggestive. My opinion is that the devil is the devil because he is willing to sponsor evil of any kind, i.e. he is the enemy to all righteousness.

    I don’t think the idea that the devil is the root of all evil is tenable for among other reasons the inability to answer the question of who tempted the devil.

  9. The Mormon belief that (1) the devil exists and (2) he’s one of us, is actually quite profound. Mormonism teaches that humans can be much more, for good or bad, than is taught by anyone else.

  10. Mark D.
    I’d never thought of a first cause argument for evil. Brilliant! I’ve gained a new an significant insight from you today.

    So my leading question results in, if there were no devil, would our souls be sufficiently tried in mortal existence? Is the devil part of God’s plan? I go around in circles with this one.

  11. Stan, there was one early Mormon leader who infamously speculated that Satan was actually a good guy performing some kind of calling. I think that is perverse.

    The issue is real, though. The way I see it, if Lucifer had not fallen, many others still likely would have. And if we were so lucky as to have no one fall from their first estate, we would all be just fine, facing perhaps somewhat different challenges in degree and kind than we do now.

    Satan is not responsible for the natural man. Like the scripture quoted above shows, we are tempted when drawn away of our own natural desires. Those would still exist regardless.

  12. Personal take (could be totally wrong, of course): Satan fell because the Father knows that some people will reject his plan. It is still a tragedy. The Father still suffers and weeps. But He also knows is is inevitable with free will. The Father gives us free will knowing that some will make bad choices.

    Personally, I see the Cain and Abel story as kind of a parallel to help us understanding Lucifer (Cain). It was inevitable that some man would plan the role of Cain and reject the plan, just as it was inevitable Lucifer or somebody like him would fall.

  13. I believe that Satan is real. However, I think we give him too much credit and power by blaming him for everything wrong in the world and ourselves, i. e. “the devil made me do it,” or “those people are of the devil.” Deepak Chopra has a good point: “be done with Satan and confront your own issues.”

    A lot of the so-called evils in the world stem from weaknesses God sowed in our flesh, not the devil: “I give unto men weaknesses that they may be humble.” It’s not our fault if we were born into an abusive family that taught us to hate instead of to love, or gave us propensities towards addictions. It was God who allowed us to be born into sinful environments with weaknesses, and we have to deal with it by humbling ourselves and coming to Him.

    Everyone wants to blame Satan for “addictions.” What about putting blame where the blame should be: on our flesh and our weaknesses, given to us by God Himself. God sent us here to stumble and fall, and God is there to help us get back up, and learn to be stronger because of it. Is pornography Satanic? I don’t think so. It’s the natural product of biological demand met by capitalist democracy. We were born with a strong inborn natural instinct to want to look at porn, an instinct given to us by God, not Satan. But God commands us not to do it. So we have a problem. So what do we do to solve it? We go to God, because God was the one who created the problem in the first place, and He can solve it by helping change our hearts and giving us spiritual strength.

    Without understanding God’s role, we end up fighting continual battles with Satan, and failing time after time. Anytime we enter a battle with Satan, we will loose.

    Instead, we should stop fighting with Satan, acknowledge our weaknesses before God, God who gave us our weaknesses, and turn them over to Him, and love God with all our might mind and strength, and rely on His grace to help us.

    Power comes by clinging to God, not trying to resist Satan. The spiritual psychology of resisting is a negative one, not a positive one. Power comes from positive approaches. Failure comes from negative approaches. Faith comes from hope and optimism. Doubt and fear comes from waging war with Satan.

    So I say, forget about Satan, and start loving God, and worshiping Him, REALLY worshiping Him, with total, complete adoration and obsessive passion. Satan wants us to concentrate our efforts on fighting against temptations. He wants us to struggle with him, to think about him, to obsess over him, to hate him, to fear him. Get thee hence Satan!

  14. Nate, I think that’s a good point. I have found since my conversion that it is easier to resist temptation if I just turn myself over to God.

  15. Stan, there was one early Mormon leader who infamously speculated that Satan was actually a good guy performing some kind of calling. I think that is perverse.

    That’s arguably the Old Testament view. Its pretty clearly *not* the New Testament and Book of Mormon view. In fact, one major theory of the Atonement, one that has lots of scriptural support, is that there is literally a devil, when we sin we literally give him a claim on us, and Christ’s atonement was a ransom he paid to the devil to get us out.

    Christ and Satan are so often paired as opposites in the New Testament and elsewhere that I fear if you start by making the Devil a metaphor you’ll end by making Christ a metaphor also, as indeed many of our liberal Christian brethren have done. “A metaphor for human evil took a symbol of human good up on a high mountain and showed the symbol the kingdoms of the world . . .”

  16. Satan, Santa, Stan. Remarkably similar in spelling. ;-)

    And just how does CS Lewis know so much about Satan and his minions?

    Besides Lewis’ _Screwtape Letters_, John Milton explored Satan’s possible motives and operations in _Paradise Lost_. Links to online editons at Wikipedia.

  17. I am enjoying the discussion here. I wish I had time to thank commenters individually for some of the great ideas posted.

    My quorum members were good sports with the question and it helped to have a plant in the audience in case things got too crazy or too quiet. They were quick to point out that Deepak had some good ideas, but went too far, that restoration scriptures helped them believe, and tie it into the larger question of God’s existence.

    I am somewhat surprised that no one related a personal experience or told an account from church history about a demonic manifestation. Maybe that is a good thing that such responses aren’t a larger part of everyone’s “ready” defence.

    In my lesson prep I thought about sharing the account of Joseph Smith’s first miracle of casting a devil out of Newell Knight. Prosecuters called Newell to the stand to prove the incident hadn’t happened, but it backfired on them. The Susquehanna folklore was still determined to portray the events in the most belittling and mocking way possible, though. The presence of conflicting accounts reduce the evidential value somewhat, though.

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