During my travels in Cambodia and Thailand, I have come across many devout Buddhists and Hindus. I have seen many fervently worshipping at temples, leaving heartfelt sacrifices and tasty food offerings (although I am not sure the gods ever eat them), and engaging in other rote rituals.
I was fascinated by the mythic stories they shared and firmly believed. For example, many around this area think Vishnu is a real Hindu deity, who once rode on a thousand-headed snake, called Shesha, on the primal waters at creation. One of our guides, Mr. Mao, told my wife and me, that his family firmly believe that story, as well as a host of other fantastical and sacred Hindu stories. Mr. Mao told us he gets into repeated conflicts with his family because he no longer believes the stories that have been passed down to his family for generations. When I asked why he no longer believes them, he told me, “because I went to university and received an education.”
While being inundated with astounding tales of Hindu gods turning into animals; furious battles between nefarious demons and angry gods; mighty monkeys being placed in front of sacred temples to scare off demons; gurus turning into gods, who are then prayed to for prosperity; I started thinking about my Christian faith.
Being an inquisitive soul, I asked myself some light questions before bedtime:
- What did I once firmly believe about my Christian faith as literal and true, and after all of my education, now consider myth?”
- If most religions have humanly constructed myths and epic stories, which were not true in the literal and factual sense, then does the Christian tradition have them as well? If myth-writing, was just what humans did, especially thousands of year ago, then did any of the biblical authors, who were not immersed in a hermeneutic bathed in science, literalism, and reductionism, creatively write some of their own?
- Why are many Christians scared to death of the word myth concerning some of our stories? Is it fear of the catastrophic domino effect? If one story of the Bible is not true and factual, then they are all not true, therefore, everything I believed in is a lie, and my identity as a Christian would come crashing down, and if I have no fixed identity there is nothing to make me feel secure, therefore, I am scared to death of living life without absolute truth to ground me, so what is the point of actually living?
The next day, after getting some rest, I prayerfully reflected on some of the extraordinary stories in the Bible and wondered whether if any of them were myth. I wondered if they were made up by creative human beings who were seeking to make sense of God and the world they live in, and used fiction to communicate that wrestling with others.
Is it myth or (f)actual:
1. That a talking snake (aka. Satan), deceived the first created woman called Eve, who came from the literal rib of the first created man called Adam (ouch, he must have been sore afterwards), who God created from dirt, who both chose to eat some kind of alluring forbidden fruit, which cursed them, and subsequently the entire human race, to a fiery, God-created hell, for eternity?
The text says that God told Eve, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will be tormented and spend eternity in a blazing fire called hell.” I am kidding, it says “you must not touch it, or you will die” (Genesis 3:3). What a giant leap subsequent generations made from, “you will die,” to “you will spend eternity being tortured in hell”. Of course, the Jewish people have a much different understanding of the consequence of “The Fall.” It was, after all, initially their text. For some Jews, it is not so much a fall into sin as much as a fall into maturity. In other words, Adam and Eve had to “fall” much like a child who falls as they seek to learn how to walk in the world. Adam and Eve needed to grow up, mature, develop, and gain an understanding of the full gamut of life experiences, while learning how to walk with God at the same time.
One last wondering. If the Christian claim that the serpent was Satan, that means he, as well as thousands (or one-hundred, millions, or billions, who knows) of demons, were there on earth with him. If that is the case, it would seem, that “the”, or at least “a” fall already happened before Adam and Eve came on the scene (Satan and fallen angels fell to the earth). How good and sin-free could earth have been with Satan and his minions were already roaming the entire planet? That would be like saying to a friend about a house in your neighborhood, “yeah, that house with thousands of disgusting cockroaches scurrying about is fresh, clean and great to live in.” Yikes!
2. That evolution is a concept from the pit of hell and keeps people away from the vital truth that God created the earth and everything in it, within seven, 24-hour literal days. Myth or (f)actual?
Even conservative biblical scholars have strayed from this hyper-literal view and some now call themselves “theistic evolutionists,” believing that God created and guided evolutionary processes, which brought us all the diverse creatures that exist today, including humans.
3. Joshua prayed to God that the sun would stand still (or as some suggest, “stop time”), so the Israelites could slaughter their enemies? God fulfilled Joshua’s request: The Bible says, “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a man. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel!” (Hmm, myth or (f)actual? Sounds like exaggerative military propaganda?) (Joshua 10:13-14).
4. The book of Job is a literal and true story? Satan, who at one point, fell from heaven to earth because of his pride, was checking in with God (one assumes in heaven), with some of his other naughty angelic/demonic homies. After some chit-chat, Satan sought to make a wager with God concerning God’s servant Job (One wonders if there were other bets made in the past? And, can someone tell me how the conversation was recorded verbatim? In other words, how did the writer of Job, who lived on earth, obtain this word-for-word conversation after the event, that occurred in heaven- “the presence of the Lord”—Job 1:12)? You know the rest of the story, some of Job’s servants and sheep were burned to a crisp by lightning (“the fire of God,”- Job 1:16), some of Job’s servants and camels were stolen by raiders, a tornado came and demolished the house where all of his sons and daughters were eating, Job got painful blistering sores, etc., and he eventually was made prosperous once again, with God giving him “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).
5. God called the blameless and righteous Noah, a 500-yr old man, to build an arc the size of 1.5 football fields, to protect eight people and thousands-upon-thousands of animals, while billions of unrighteous and wicked men, women, and children eventually fought earnestly for survival, eventually gasping their last breaths, drowning in a chaotic and unforgivable sea (tell me again how this became a lovable children’s story?)?
At this point, all of my non-Christian friends would say, “duh, of course, all of the above are myths and the Bible is full of them,” while shaking their heads, wondering why I still waste my time with these ponderings. Some of my progressive-liberal, Christian friends, would say, “yeah, been there and left the fundamentalist literal reading of the biblical text a long time ago. Mark, though there are many stories in the bible that are myth, even the resurrection, it doesn’t mean the they do not have power to change lives” (i.e. Marcus Borg’s work). Many of my conservative Christian friends might say that I am treading on dangerous, liberal ground, with my incessant questioning of sacred biblical texts (although I would say that I am not questioning the texts as much as I am wrestling with the interpretations of the texts that have been handed down to me). I am thankful for all of the diverse voices, many of which I already have swirling around in my head, and wrestle on (although, I have a pretty good idea what is myth or factual in regards to most of the above stories).
Although I could list many more biblical examples that I wonder about, and continue to wrestle through, my trip has got me thinking (okay, obsessing), about those unseen, mysterious, diabolical entities, which according to the bible were beautiful angels and after the fall became, demons.
After another day of speaking with our wonderful guides, I was sitting in my hotel room in Cambodia and wondered:
- Is the figure of Satan a real spirit being walking (or flying?) around the earth seeking to wreak havoc and devour those who let him? Jesus did use Satan in a symbolic sense. Remember when Jesus called Peter, yes the apostle Peter, Satan, in Matthew 16:23? The word Satan means, “adversary.”
- If Satan is real, then assuredly he is not omnipresent, so why do many Christians blame him for everything bad that happens (he couldn’t have caused the disaster in Paris and monstrous rape in Sweden at the same time)? Perhaps, it is due to him being the head honcho, so all evil roads lead to him?
- Can Satan or other demons be saved? If not, what is the scriptural evidence for why that could not be the case? Perhaps, Satan will not be because prophecy in Revelation seems to suggest his ultimate demise? But what about demons? If humans can be saved and turn from their wayward paths, even after being Christians, why can’t fallen angels?
- Can another demon who wanted to rise in the ranks kill Satan to take his place as the leader of the pack?
- Are the Biblical examples of Jesus and his disciples casting out demons, real? Are they better understood as myths, grand stories conjured up by human imagination, birthed in a superstitious culture, which point to deeper spiritual truths about the human predicament? The biblical writers were steeped in a superstitious worldview, therefore, is it possible that the biblical writers interpreted Jesus’ healing through the grid of their worldview? For example, it would be likened to some cultures today. There are stories of Western doctors who traveled to developing countries and healed people through “odd touching” (physical assessment) and giving them “magical herbs” (medication). If asked, the indigenous people believed the Western miracle worker healed their sick by “ridding them of demons of sickness”. But, we know the well-trained doctor just gave them tried-and-true medicine.
- Why do some Christians believe that if a person has schizophrenia, they are demon possessed? If they do believe that, then why does the mentally-ill person become stabilized after medication? Is anti-psychotic medication a demon’s kryptonite?
- If the Christian aim is to be like Jesus, and Jesus went around driving out, casting out, rebuking and even speaking to demons, then why do I not know any, praying and fasting Christians, who are like Jesus, in this respect? Thus, most Christians say they believe in demons, yet live in such a way that demonstrates they really don’t believe in them at all. Faith without works is dead. If you have not cast out demons in the past month (lack of works), then perhaps you don’t believe in them in the first place (lack of faith)? If you do believe in demons, and believe, like in the gospels, that demons are primarily responsible for causing people to be deaf, dumb, blind, paralyzed, mentally ill, etc., and you are truly Christian, seeking to follow Jesus’ example, then you should be ashamed of yourself for not going to hospitals, casting out demons and healing the sick more often (it seemed Jesus, our example, did that on a daily basis). If 99.9% of Christians are not doing the above, one wonders if the problem is not so much with Christians and their lack of prayer or “rampant intellectualism”, then it is with interpretations of the biblical text (mythical vs. literal/factual).
Taking some quotes from Greg Boyd’s recent post: Is the famous Catholic scholar, Hans Kung right, in suggesting that belief in Satan and demons are a piece of “outdated medieval thought” and when believed by Christians it “throws away all credibility for theology and the church” (On Being Christian, 369). Is the influential German scholar, Rudolf Bultmann right when he says, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits…” (New Testament and Mythology, 5).
When the topic of demons is brought up, a person might point to evil and suffering in the world and say, “See, of course, Satan and demons exist. Rape, murders, mental illness, infanticide, mental/emotional problems such as depression, OCD, people who cut themselves, etc., They are all caused by, or are influenced by, Satan and demons.”
If you are one of the persons who would use the above argument as evidence of the existence of Satan and demons, then how do you explain the same phenomenon in animals? There is plenty of evidence that animals rape, murder, kill their children, commit animal-cide, suffer from anxiety and depression, self-mutilate, etc. Would you say that animals only do the above because they are possessed or influenced by demons? Such thinking would be quite suspect.
Let’s do a thought experiment. If you believe in Satan and demons, what would happen, if, in this very moment, they ceased to exist? What would happen if they were immediately eradicated? What difference would you see in the world? Would human beings all of the sudden become more angelic? Would the murder rate drastically decrease? Would people be more kind and compassionate towards one another? Would mental illness cease to occur? Would do the answers to the above questions say about the reality of the demonic realm?
I have my opinions about some of the above questions, and there is definitely a place for demonology (Peter Wagner fans anyone?). I am not saying demons do not exist. I am curious about the mechanics of it all. I merely asking myself questions that I have not for a long time. As I continue to wrestle with difficult questions, I think I will probably land, primarily, although not exclusively, on a robust anthropology, especially where oppressive and evil acts are concerned.
The onus is on people. I believe even if demons were eradicated from the earth, human beings would still do the horrific and selfish acts that they, I, do. Behind evil acts are not demons but people who take their God-given free-will and make unwise, destructive, and sometimes outright evil, choices. Human beings who lust after prestige, power, pleasure and possessions, no matter what the cost, and whose hearts are not subjected to Divine love, are likened to animals who obey only their primitive instincts.
Jesus wisely said, “For out of the HEART come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15:19-20). Therefore, let’s stop blaming demons for all of the evil we see in the world, and while we are at it, God for that matter (i.e. “God has a purpose for our precious son being brutally murdered”). The systems of injustice, oppression, subjugation and evil we see all around us come out of the intricacies of human hearts (as well as beauty, creativity, compassion, etc.,). We are responsible to stop scapegoating and projecting the dark dynamics we have lurking in our hearts, onto entities we cannot see. We are called to engage in the tough task of self and community reflection, surrendering and submitting our hearts to God, and while being infused with that God’s love, violently and valiantly seek to go out and make the world the type of place we earnestly pray and yearn for.