Beyond Theologies of Fear

Evil — no other word has a history of causing such malevolence and death.

Is there an evil, malevolent force in the universe known as the devil or Satan? Does this negative force delight in causing human chaos and wholesale destruction on earth? Are people who commit acts counter to the tenets of their respective philosophies—acts known as sins—transported to a place of unspeakable, eternal torment after death, and are such people in hell right now, prisoners to perpetual damnation? More than a billion people would answer yes to these questions because the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all monotheistic religions claiming Abraham as their common ancestor, have promoted a belief system incorporating evil, the devil, and hell. The evil we perceive, though, is not the outcome of premeditated acts of the devil or any mythical Prince of Darkness; the author of evil is of human origin, due entirely to our gross misunderstanding of ancient mythology.

This mythological worldview had its beginning not by revelation within these religions but in the teachings of Zoroaster, a Persian prophet who lived from ca. 628 to ca. 551 BCE and was the founder of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster was the first to proclaim the existence of a dualistic belief system in his account of a struggle between good and evil. This belief system was then transported to Israel by individuals returning from captivity in Babylonia. Subsequently, Judaic, Christian, and Islamic leaders all adopted this belief in a power of darkness opposed to the beneficent power of God, and very few present-day adherents of these faiths know that the root of this worldview can be traced to Zoroastrianism.

For example, Pope Paul VI stressed the fundamental and enduring nature of this belief in 1965:

For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day as the Lord has attested.1

The dualistic belief of a struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, was originally an ancient attempt to provide answers to why there was arbitrary suffering in the world such as plagues, natural disasters, and human atrocities, and to afford the victims of suffering the promise of ultimate justice in the afterlife: assurance that bad people would go to hell and good people would go to heaven. This Zoroastrian mythology is now so deeply embedded in the minds of adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and in both Eastern and Western cultures overall—that even people who in good times deny that they believe in such an erroneous ideology and immoral ethic often default to this dualistic system in times of great stress, such as during violent social unrest or a major health issue, or to justify their actions in disputes with neighbors. Fear of death often has a way of altering our moral perspective.

Belief in evil, the devil, and hell—the malevolent triad—has led to enormous human folly. It has the potential to lead to great destruction and the potential for human annihilation, because it provides a rationale for hatred and a justification for the wholesale elimination of perceived enemies. It has provided a convenient ideology for religious violence and a defense for terrorist activities from ancient times to the present. The destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan was viewed in light of these Zoroastrian principles, and they were used to justify the United States’ invasion of Iraq, as reflected in George W. Bush’s statement in an address to the nation:

Today our nation saw evil.2

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the belief system of a struggle between good and evil—God and his fallen angel, the devil—depicted as a cosmic battle played out on earth with the fate of humanity hanging precariously in the balance. People are seen as pieces in the chess game between God and Satan, with both in a deadly competition for the favor and loyalty of human souls. In his book Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch aptly describes the mindset of individuals with this perspective:

And so you have created in your mythology the being you call “devil.” You have even imagined a God at war with this being (thinking that God solves problems the way you do). Finally, you have actually imagined that God could lose this war.3

To support God in winning this battle with the devil, the faithful are urged to defeat the contrived enemy so that good may prevail. And since certain people, such as witches, heretics, and pagans, are understood to be progeny of the devil, overcoming them can justifiably involve prejudice, murder, and genocide. Every form of oppression becomes permissible when evil is projected onto others, the ones not like us, the ones considered a threat to God’s ultimate triumph.

Such projections can take many forms. Our highest government leaders have referred to Islamic terrorist nations as the “axis of evil.” Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini once said of the West: “All Western governments are just thieves. Nothing but evil comes from them.”4  Some Islamic leaders have called the United States the “Great Satan,” and outspoken Christian zealots believe Islamic terrorists are “of the devil.” Incredulously, with such language the prime directive of both Christianity and Islam—unconditional love—has been manipulated to encourage its exact opposite: hate, torture, and murder.

Use of the words connoting evil takes away accountability, keeps us in intellectual darkness, and prevents emotional and spiritual maturation. Once we have categorized a person or group as evil, we believe we are at liberty to mistreat them—from exiling them to murdering them and committing acts of genocide—all in the name of a loving God. Consequently the central dogma of a struggle between good and evil in monotheistic religions has become a primary root of malevolence in the world today. Rather than alleviating suffering, this dynamic between God and the devil has led to immeasurable suffering. And rather than bringing spiritual enlightenment to believers, it encourages a worldview that fosters misanthropy, not philanthropy, and human catastrophe, not human social evolution. Yet upon this unempirical foundation of myth and religious practices predicated on unsubstantiated stories we have faithfully built our spiritual Tower of Babel and our hopes for human evolution.

However, history has made it clear that the devil is not responsible for immoral happenings in the world—human beings are. Men like Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor and Catholic confessor to Queen Isabella I of Castile, who personally tortured and burned over two thousand innocent people; Pope Paul IV, who reorganized the Inquisition in Italy, saying, “Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather wood to burn him”;5 and Girolamo Savonarola, who instigated the Bonfire of the Vanities, were all stark examples of well-meaning men who ended up committing the kinds of inhumane genocidal acts they were intent upon eliminating.

Unequivocally the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Florence, which took place from 1438 to 1445, stated the necessity for conversion to the faith and spelled out the fate of others:

Those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock.6

In the sixteenth century, European religious and civil leaders were absolutely convinced that God ordained their genocidal misadventures among the Aztecs and Incas. They believed God sanctioned any means necessary for bringing his love in contact with his children, even if it meant enslavement and violent death. But the kind of indigenous human sacrifice Spanish Catholics uncovered in Central and South America was no more inhumane than what Catholics were doing to Muslims or Protestants did to Anabaptists at the time. Coercion and enslavement of native peoples at the point of a sword could not conceivably bring them a divine spiritual awakening.

Nor did the Protestant reform movement of the sixteenth century break any new ground in relation to the value of human life. Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican leaders, who hoped to distance themselves from the religious orthodoxy of their day, learned much from the Catholic Inquisition. They, too, believed that heretics and witches must have their faith tested by enduring a trial by fire to save their souls and consequently sent many innocent souls into the flames. Such a belief system is not one that a loving God would advocate. Yet upon it hypocritical and genocidal monotheistic religions have been precariously built.

In the nearly two thousand years since Christianity began to dominate theological thinking in the Western world, the loving ethics of Jesus have been grossly perverted. The politics of spreading Christ’s resurrection story to a pagan world preoccupied Church leaders, resulting in the development of rigid enforcement techniques to ensure that Catholicism would maintain its power base and that each successive generation of the faithful would adhere to the Church’s dubious theosophy. Such enforcement techniques ranged from intensive Bible study and prayer to excommunication, the burning of witches, torture, and ethnic cleansing. As Michael Wood commented in The Jerome Conspiracy:

Almost overnight, mainstream Christianity shifted from belief in universal salvation to belief in the Roman doctrine of eternal punishment in hell.7

Christian denominations today have managed to sweep this confusing history of hate and murder, of persecution of nonbelievers, under the rug, while continuing to proselytize love and forgiveness to the unwary.

In addition, history is riddled with archaic religious traditions and superstitions that have held back human progress. Social advancement for women and certain ethnic groups has been hampered by biased religious teachings about the place of women and minorities in a Christian landscape. We see the continuation of such teachings among the Taliban and other Islamic sects that are all too ready to severely punish their own over minor social infractions. Likewise, Christian denominations in the United States have supported slavery and the abrogation of rights of African Americans and Native Americans until only recently. The continued adherence to such dogmas is irrational and, on the part of those religious communities that teach it, unconscionable. How such a social system has managed to survive into the modern world speaks volumes about the ability of collective human memory to conveniently forget unspeakable crimes against humanity.

Over time, many ancient mythologies have been left behind as people progressed intellectually and found these myths no longer fit with their personal experiences. As they began to understand the world in new ways that supported their development and progress, they either reinterpreted the old myths or freed themselves from them—with one obvious exception. Of the numerous mythological figures captivating the human imagination during the rise of civilization, only the Prince of Darkness has increased in stature since the birth of Christianity. This most unlikely of monsters has fascinated us like no other mythic figure and continues to terrorize our minds and compromise our ethics and our progress. Continued belief in this mythological being is hindering the fulfillment of a universal desire for peace, justice, and tolerance on earth. At this very moment, people all over the world are living in palpable fear of the fictional devil and of eternal damnation in a nonexistent hell.

We distanced ourselves long ago from being under the control of Zeus and Apollo, but in 2013, unbelievably, we have yet to distance ourselves from the devil’s psychological grip. This is partly because the devil is a convenient mythological figure who legitimizes and perpetuates the two-thousand-year-old status quo of Christianity, and it is readily apparent that its leaders are not about to initiate an investigation into a polemic that is a pillar of unstable theological foundations. So we need to unshackle ourselves from theologies and belief systems that no longer serve the betterment of humanity.

The recent disaster at the Santa Fe Mine in Copiapo, Chile, put the duality of good and evil into a modern perspective. When Mario Sepulveda Espinace, the second miner to be brought to the surface, emerged after sixty-nine days of being trapped underground, he said to the crowd gathered to witness his rescue: “I met God. I met the devil. God won.”8  Although anyone who was not in the mineshaft with those brave men can know the horrors involved in staring imminent death in the face, Espinace was mistaken. He may have met God down there in the darkness, but he did not meet the devil. Thousands of years of superstitions and false beliefs were in that mine with Espinace and the other miners. Had the equipment reached them too late, people might have said the devil had won, yet when they were miraculously brought to the surface alive it was thought that God had outwitted the devil. This is the primitive, dualistic logic Zoroastrianism has bequeathed to humanity. But the miners’ plight did not reflect a tug-of-war between God and Satan; their fate was actually determined by their fellow miners and an international community of compassionate people on the earth’s surface who believed they could overcome insurmountable odds and rescue the men.

Do the imagined forces of good and evil control our destinies or does human self-determination play an ever-increasing role? Let us not cling to devil belief any longer. Let us instead embrace the perspective of what those Chilean rescuers really accomplished and express in our own lives the most profound traits of which our species is capable: human ingenuity and unconditional love. And may such love soon triumph over false belief systems and religious fear.

  1. Pope Paul VI, Vatican II Documents, December 7, 1965, “Man’s Activity Throughout the World,” Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, paragraph 37. []
  2. President George W. Bush, “9/11/01 Address to the Nation from the Oval Office of the White House,” New York Times, September 11, 2001. []
  3. Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue, Book I (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 1998), 14. []
  4. “Man of the Year,” Time Magazine, January 7,1980. []
  5. James Laynez, Jesuit, Fr. and Joseph Fichter, SJ, Pope Paul IV (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1944), 179. []
  6. St. Fulgentius, in Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum: The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 30th ed., #714. []
  7. Gerald Peppy Jr., in a summary of Michael Wood’s The Jerome Conspiracy, Amazon review, December 17, 2008. []
  8. NBC News, October 9, 2010 []

Thomas Justus Boynton is an independent political activist, freelance editorialist, and author of Defrocking the Devil: Theology of Fear. He also hosts the weekly radio show You Are What You Believe on KSFR 101.1 FM. Read other articles by Thomas Justus.