Dear Reverend Reese,
I love your columns. Here’s my question today: except in the rite of baptism, I have seldom heard the word “Satan” spoken in an Episcopal church (and I like it that way). Do Episcopalians have some official party line on believing in hell/the devil? Or are those two different questions?
Your question(s) have led me not down a rabbit hole this time, but rather into a rabbit warren. Biblical references, theological speculations, all manner of artistic expression lead us down many paths of exploration about Satan, or the devil, or as some say, Lucifer.
You are right to observe that the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer speaks very little about Satan. My best guess is that it has to do with our Judeo-Christian discomfort with putting human form and qualities upon powerful and mysterious experiences. As a child, I found it easy to anthropomorphize the presence of God as an old white man with a white beard. It was also easy to anthropomorphize evil as the horned red figure with a pitchfork and a tail with an arrowhead on the end.
We humans are quick to externalize and anthropomorphize our experience of the power that we call evil. Evil, however, comes not from a source without, but from within our human hearts.
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956
Biblically, ha satan (“opposer” or “prosecutor”) appears as a member of the divine court. Satan’s job was that of a process server, to deliver charges to God’s people when they had chosen to violate covenant, to sin, etc. It’s pretty easy to see that prosecutor Satan might not remain popular for very long. Satan and his entourage opposed God’s plan to include human freedom and choice in the design of creation. It seems Satan wanted a more orderly and militaristic organization for the way creation and its creatures would interact. For opposing God’s plan, Satan was thrown out of heaven, and down to earth to stir up trouble. This story has many twists and turns and complications.
God’s wisdom has given us choice to follow or rebel. We are, additionally, given the choice to assume responsibility for our choices or to blame other forces or other persons for our choices. Even in the story of Adam and Eve, in the book of Genesis, Adam is quick to blame an external force for his rebelling and eating the forbidden fruit: “The Serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”
Or as comedian Flip Wilson popularized it, “The devil made me do it!”
And still, by God’s grace, the choice is ours.
Hope this helps,
Dear Old Dad (DOD)
P.S. I’ll take on hell at another time.
Do you have a burning question about church, Episcopal/Anglican traditions, theology, and so on? In our weekly feature "Ask Dear Old Dad," after the classic "Dear Abby" format, the Rev. Reese Riley, COS Senior Adjunct Clergy, will tackle your questions with his signature wisdom and charm. And by the way, there are no dumb questions! You may request to be anonymous, or you may have your name published. Your questions will inspire the conversation! Submit your question to Hannah at HannahR@COSepiscopal.org