I grew up in a strictly religious household where we were taught that Satan was a literal force for evil in the world, that he was a former angel who rebelled against God and was thrust out of heaven, and that there were other spirits who followed after him and became demons. We prayed frequently for protection from Satan, heard stories about literal possession, and even talked about how to tell the difference between an angel and a demon if an incorporeal being appeared before us. This was all meant to protect us from evil and to help us always "choose the right."
But when I was in my twenties and no longer part of my parents' household, I began to question the idea that Satan was the reason that people chose badly. Was it really Satan's fault that a friend of mine had been tempted to leave her marriage? Was it really Satan who told young women to wear scanty clothing or told young men to watch pornography? Wasn't it sufficient to say that these people had simply chosen these things on their own? What was the purpose of talking about "Satan" except to stir up fear about an invisible force that could take power of us--or to explain away mental disorders that we surely now have better names for than possession? Maybe Satan wasn't real, but I continued to think that "evil" was.
A friend of mine studied serial killers with a kind of obsession and insisted to me that certain people were born utterly without a conscience and that whether or not Satan was real, there was truly evil in the world. When I studied the horrors of the Holocaust in my graduate German career, it seemed impossible to deny that evil was real. Hitler and Himmler and Goering planned out such evil acts and then the men around them seemed eager enough to obey these terrible commands. This had to be evil. And what about the terror attacks that we as a country endured on 9/11? Surely those were acts of evil by people who wanted nothing more than to cause harm because their hearts had been turned to evil.
But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered even about the usefulness of the label "evil." Even without the physical embodiment of evil in the person of Satan, the idea that evil can overtake people seems to eliminate at least a portion of the responsibility that we humans should be taking for our own actions and for their consequences. When we talk about Hitler or the Nazis being evil, it separates them from us, making it so that we do not think of our own choices as having the capacity to be as wrong. It also makes us see certain people as no longer quite human. I am not sure that this is a good thing for modern Christianity.
As a religious person who would like to see more good in the world, I cannot accept the idea that people ever completely lose the capacity to make decisions for themselves. Do they lose clear-sightedness? Yes. Do they choose selfishness? Yes. Do I think that people are sometimes so caught up in nationalistic rhetoric that they stop thinking for themselves and ignore the faint protestations of a better, moral self? Yes. But it happens on both sides. Even during World War II against the Nazis, the allies were as capable of making terrible moral decisions as the Germans were. It is not only the other side that works in propaganda, after all.
The more I reconsider the idea of "good" and "evil" in the framework of modern Christianity, the more I wonder if we are simply dividing the world into "good" and "evil" based on people who agree with our morals and those who don't. This seems not only wrong, but destined to lead to continuing conflicts with cultures, religions, moralities, and governments that are not like ours. Doing so makes us feel good on a simplistic, knee jerk level. Doing so also makes us feel more secure in our sense of self and in our own moral compass and sometimes moral complexity can be very threatening to that sense of security.
But this is my question: does continuing to talk about "Satan" and "evil" make the world a better place? Does it actually contribute to the kind of better world that Christ tasks us with making in our own communities, through loving our enemies? When we say that those who oppose our views politically are "evil," does that help us to choose unselfishness and self-sacrifice? When we talk about our own sins as times when we gave into the "temptations of Satan," are we excusing ourselves in any way from doing the same thing again?
Maybe it's time to stop talking about morality in such simplistic terms. What would happen if we gave up not only the idea of a personal embodiment of evil in the form of Satan, but also the idea of "good" and "evil" as forces beyond human control? What do we lose religiously if we simply accept that some people act selfishly and that others don't, that some people are courageous even if we disagree with the morality they believe in? I think what we lose is the idea that our religion, our country, and our morality is the one approved by the only true God. But there is much to be gained on the other side in terms of expanding our own understanding and perhaps even seeing our own mistakes.
Just because I am ready to give up the idea of "evil," I don't think it means giving up on the idea of "good." Surely pointing fingers at others instead of at ourselves is exactly what Christ meant when he talked about seeing the mote in another's eye and not the beam in our own. Maybe if evil exists, it is only the refusal to examine our own assumptions about what is right when faced with the reality of the consequences of our actions. It isn't somewhere outside of humanity. It's in every single choice we make. And only when we accept that can we also allow that we can change, and choose good instead--no matter what we have done before.