Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton, is a distinguished scholar of Gnosticism and of the Nag Hammadi texts in particular. She is the author of a number of books, notably the well-known Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988). The Origin of Satan is literate, felicitous, and a pleasure to read, its open and accessible style in contrast to the jargon-choked jungles of modern academic prose.
Pagels' thesis is that from its origins in the Gospels onwards, Christianity has demonized its opponents. Christians demonized "their opponents-first other Jews, then pagans, and later dissident Christians called heretics. This is what this book is about." Explicitly treating only the first three centuries of Christianity, Pagels nonetheless points out the evil effects of demonization down to the present. Her interpretations of the Gospels are debatable, but she is right that by casting opponents of the Prince of Peace as adherents of the Prince of Evil, Christians forged a tool that many would wield clumsily, cruelly, and sinfully. One could go farther than Pagels and say that the tendency to demonize opponents is something that every Christian and every Christian congregation needs to repent and resolve to correct.
But the thesis is not only undebatable; it is also well established in scholarship and even in general knowledge. Pagels attempts to reach beyond a scholarly audience to general readers, and there may be some readers for whom the obvious needs to be stated again. But it is characteristic of this book that the author repeatedly presents hoary ideas as if she herself (or very recent scholarship) had just discovered them.
Pagels' thesis carries with it a number of questionable corollaries (though the smooth flow of prose almost disguises them), including the notion that Christianity's distinction between good and evil makes it a dualist religion; that Christianity practically invented demonization and is practically unique in using it; and that demonization is an essential element in historical Christianity with its contrast between this evil age and the age to come.
The thesis and its development throughout the book are not what the scholar or the general reader would expect from the title, the opening paragraph, or much of the publicity. Given Pagels' own recent loss of her son and husband, readers might expect her to confront the issue of what she calls "misfortune and loss." This problem, however, though obviously related to the problem of evil (and by extension the problem of Satan), is met head on only in a few pages of the Introduction where Pagels says that "what fascinates us about Satan is the way he expresses qualities that go beyond what we ordinarily recognize as human. Satan evokes more than the greed, envy, lust, and anger we identify with our own worst impulses, and more than what we call brutality, which imputes to human beings a resemblance to animals ('brutes'). Thousands of years of tradition have characterized Satan instead as a spirit." Except for that curiously dismissive "instead," she is correct. "Evil, then," she continues, "at its worst, seems to involve the supernatural-what we realize, with a shudder, as the diabolic inverse of Martin Buber's characterization of God as 'wholly other.'" But she leaves it at that. What is evil? Is it an illusion in a world whose harmony is hidden but real? Or an illusion because all is relative? Or is it real? Pagels quells such questions with the word yet: "Yet-historically speaking, at any rate-Satan . . . did not materialize out of the air." But surely no contradiction exists between an historically conditioned idea of Satan and the ahistorical existence of radical evil itself.
For Pagels, Christianity is responsible for the dualism that underlies the demonization that she rightly deplores. "During the past several years, rereading the Gospels," she writes, "I was struck by how their vision of supernatural struggle both expresses conflict and raises it to cosmic dimensions." Her "research" may have first revealed such disturbing aspects of Christianity to her, but every student of the Gospels for twenty centuries already knew about them. Biblical scholars will have difficulty throughout the book. The social context of the Gospels, the chronological succession of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and other assumptions that she uses as bases for argument are much less secure than the reader would assume without encountering an admission in the notes.
Pagels grants that "conflict between groups is, of course, nothing new," but she follows this with the statement that "what may be new in Western Chris-tian tradition . . . is how the use of Satan to represent one's enemies" leads to a division between God's people and God's enemies. There is no reason here to distinguish the "Western" from the Eastern Christian tradition. And the claim that this is new in Christianity is puzzling, for the contrast between the allies and enemies of a deity is common in Mesopotamian religion, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Jewish Apocalyptic, the Essenes, Mazdaism, and Gnosticism-all of which were either earlier than or contemporary with Christianity. Moreover, in the two centuries before and after Christ, virtually all sides (including the Apocalyptic Jews and the Gnostics) linked their opponents with Satan: Gnostics, for example, saw both Jews and Christians as pawns of the evil Old Testament God who created the material universe.
To make Christians seem the originators of demon-ization, Pagels inverts her first two chapters chronologically. Chapter One, "The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War," begins the study of demonization with one of the Gospels; only in Chapter Two, "The Social History of Satan," does she treat works of Jewish Apocalyptic that mostly predate Mark. Though this book is written for a general audience, only towards the end of it does she clearly state that "the vision of cosmic struggle, forces of good contending against forces of evil, derived originally from Jewish apocalyptic sources."
Pagels argues that in order to explain how a Jew could become an enemy of the truth, Apocalyptic and Essene Jews invented tales of cosmic rebellion. These myths, she declares, enabled them to explain, "'How could one of us become one of them?'" It was this sort of question that led to the creation of the myth. For the Jews who turned against the truth were "against them-or (as they put it) against God." Where, before, Jews condemned Gentiles, now they condemned Jews unfaithful to Torah. This explanation is true as far as it goes, but it does not address earlier Jewish thought. Condemnation of Jews unfaithful to the Covenant permeates the Old Testament, especially the Prophets, yet demonization does not occur there. Pagels sees two stages in Judeo-Christian thought: "The people" against outsiders, and the people against the unfaithful within their midst. In fact there are three: conflict between an ethnic community and outsiders, conflict within the ethnic community, and conflict within each person. Although she asserts that Essenes and Christians differ about evil, both have these three, and both de-emphasize the first. Nor is this wholly a chronological development: witness the conflicts within Saul or David.
The Jewish Apocalyptic book of Jubilees "insists that every creature, whether angel or human, Israelite or Gentile, shall be judged according to deeds, that is, ethically." If Pagels is correct that Apocalyptic Judaism moved farther than before from the responsibility of "the people" as a whole toward personal moral responsibility, making it possible to condemn fellow Jews to an unprecedented degree, the movement away from taboo and ethnic salvation toward moral judgment was surely not entirely a bad thing.
The inversion of the first two chapters, along with the relatively short treatment Pagels gives to Judaism, may lead innocent or unwary readers to believe that demonization was a Christian invention. Though it cannot be Pagels' intention, this can lead readers to demonize Christianity itself: for example, Mary Gordon writes in her review of Pagels in the Nation, "In the Olympics of Comparative Atrocities, it is tempting to believe that Christianity gets all the gold." Apparently the silver and bronze (or merely honorable mention) go to Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, Ashurnasirpal II, and other non- Christians. Is the history of India, China, or Japan less depressing than that of the West? Other cultures dehumanize very efficiently without recourse to either Satan or Christianity.
This is key to the understanding of evil: dehumanization is not the invention of Christianity or of any other particular ideology, but a tendency in all societies and in each of us. Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out that people everywhere, by defining "the other" as bad, secure for themselves the definition of "good" without having to work at the good themselves. This, for Sartre, was "bad faith." The illusion that we would somehow be good people if we were not perverted by Christianity (or Marxism, or Islam, or Nazism, or Freudianism, or Capitalism, or whatever you dislike) is the greatest block to understanding evil; indeed, it is the source of the demonization that Pagels decries.
Since Pagels argues that Christianity was a demon-izing force from the very outset, she examines the Gospels in detail in chapters one, three, and four. Her argument is that the dualism between good and evil, which produces demonization, is first present in Mark and then gradually intensifies through Matthew and Luke to John. The development that she assumes from Mark to John takes us, she claims, farther and farther away from "history," by which she seems to mean "what really happened," a subject that she has already excused herself from attempting to determine. Pagels' understanding of the consensus of biblical critics as a whole is accurate and up to date. But along the way are some arresting observations.
Citing Luke 22:3, Pagels states that "Luke then says what Mark and Matthew imply-that the devil returned in person in the form of Judas Iscariot to destroy Jesus." The idea that people, however evil, are not humans but incarnations of Satan (just as Christ is the incarnation of God) is Pagels' own. What Luke really says is, "Then Satan entered into Judas: eiselthen de Satanas eis 'Ioudan," quite different from returning in the form of Judas. From Pagels' reading, one might conclude that Luke believed that evil persons are not human at all, that they have no free will. This would certainly be an obstacle to understanding evil, but there is no evidence that Luke or any other Christian writer intended this. The evangelist John, the author says, "dismisses the device of the devil as an independent supernatural character. . . . Instead, as John tells the story, Satan, like God himself, appears incarnate, first in Judas Iscariot, then in the Jewish authorities as they mount opposition to Jesus, and finally in those John calls 'the Jews'-a group he sometimes characterizes as Satan's allies." But if John did not believe in the Devil as an independent spiritual character, how could he "enter into" Judas, much less be incarnate in him? Although it is obvious and explicit in John that he considers the Jews rejecting Christ as minions of Satan, he in no way views either them or Judas as incarnations of the Devil.
Pagels' peculiar understanding of incarnation appears in other contexts, too. Christians, she says, saw the Passion of Christ not as a "final defeat [of Satan] but only a preliminary skirmish in a vast cosmic conflict." This would render the Incarnation, the central point of Christianity, virtually meaningless, as she seems later to understand when she says that Christians believe that "Christ has already won the decisive victory."
Sometimes Pagels' explanations only make things more difficult. "I am not saying that the Gospel accounts are essentially Manichaean in the ordinary sense of the term, that they envision good and evil evenly matched against each other." To imply that the Gospels are in any way Manichaean is anachronistic (the Manichaeans postdate the Gospels by nearly two hundred years). And not even the Mazdaists or the Gnostics or the Manichaeans, let alone the Gospel writers, believed that good and evil were equally powerful: all assumed that at the end of time good would triumph over evil.
Still, Pagels' excursions eventually lead back to some painful Gospel texts, such as John 8:44. Here Jesus says that his opponents "are from your father, the Devil." Pagels warns that Jesus is obviously not making "a simple ethnic distinction, since, of course, . . . Jesus and all his disciples are Jews." In fact Jesus is not making an ethnic distinction at all. His (or John's) concern is with unbelief, not ethnicity. Nonetheless she is right that John is demonizing Christ's opponents, and the passage has usually been read perniciously and antisemitically by Christians over two millennia.
Paul, recently belabored as politically incorrect by those who read only selected passages, unexpectedly appears in this book as a proponent of moral relativism. Pagels sees him as an opponent of the dualism and demonization that she finds in the Gospels, citing 1 Corinthians 8-9 to show that Paul "considers himself, because of his own gnosis, free" to do "whatever he likes," though "since not everyone has this gnosis," he voluntarily relinquishes this freedom. But Paul means by gnosis simple understanding, not secret illumination. What Paul really argues is that the law of love supersedes the love of law. Like Christ, Paul advises acting in charity for others even when to do so may breach a rule of the law. The law, Paul believed, is made for humans rather than humans for the law. Earlier, Pagels quotes Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good." This does not mean, however, that Paul did not believe in sin or evil, but rather that he trusted divine providence to work it out. Whatever Paul may have been, that he was no moral libertarian is patent in his writings, as, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:23 shows.
Pagels perceives Paul as the relativist precursor of the Valentinian Gospel of Philip, which proposes, she says, "an alternative to the common Christian perception of good and evil as cosmic opposites." This is puzzling, not only because Paul was not a relativist, or because Valentinus himself believed in a cosmic conflict between good and evil, but also because it is scarcely possible to speak of "a common Christian perception" in the second century owing to the rich diversity of beliefs that Pagels discovers in early Christianity (though Walter Bauer had discovered it half a century earlier). The Gospel of Philip, she says, identifies the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the Law, which has been created by the evil Spirit. But here Paul and Philip are quite at odds, for it is only rigid adherence to the Law that Paul attacks, whereas Philip perceives the Law as intrinsically evil.
For Pagels, Philip is properly concerned with ethical questions in the sense of "how to reconcile the freedom gnosis conveys with the Christian's responsibility to love others," rather than the "ordinary dichotomy between good and evil." "The author of Philip wants to throw away all the lists of 'good things' and 'bad things'-lists that constitute the basis of traditional Christian morality." But there was as yet no traditional Christian morality in the early second century, and certainly no "lists." Philip's point, she thinks, is "to show that one cannot distinguish good from evil in such simple and categorical ways." But few if any early Christian theologians had "simple and categorical" ideas of good and evil, with some possible exceptions such as Tertullian (whose own orthodoxy is questionable). The spiritual and psychological sophistication of Origen, or of Evagrius and other desert fathers, is profound and complex.
To understand what is going on, it is necessary to examine both orthodox and Gnostic attitudes in the second century. Pagels' research was in Gnosticism, and it paved the way for her well-known Gnostic Gospels. There she argued that the diversity of early Christianity was ended when during the second century bishops such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Clement of Rome had obtained enough power to drive the Gnostics out of the Christian community. Their primary reason for doing this was that the Gnostics, with their emphasis on internal illumination, rejected episcopal authority. Pagels' interpretation follows the current tendency to reduce all motives to power, though she does grant that the bishops' actions, however politically motivated, were "based on their beliefs about God." The picture of an established orthodox community driving out dissenters misses the dialectic of belief, as though the early church were somehow "Established" from the beginning instead of having to struggle its way toward a viable theology and organization.
To suggest that bishops and theologians rejected the Gnostics simply for reasons of power begs the very question that Pagels claims to address in The Origin of Satan: namely, the question of dualism. The Gnostics have been "in" the past few years, largely owing to Pagels' view of them as spiritual libertarians. Many varieties of Christian Gnosticism existed in the first two centuries, but most had in common an extreme dualism. For most Gnostics, a cosmic struggle is in progress between the good Lord of Spirit and the evil Lord of Matter. All matter is the creation of the Devil. Consequently, the Creator God of the Old Testament is not the good Lord at all, but Satan himself.
Of all matter the human body is the most evil, for Satan's ploy is to seize the souls created by the good Lord and entrap them in gross human flesh. Sexual intercourse is evil, especially intercourse leading to procreation, for the conception of a child is a victory in Satan's plan to imprison souls. Only those who have received the revealed knowledge that matter is evil can be saved, and only one of three groups of human beings, the pneumatikoi, is endowed with the ability to receive this gnosis: for the psychikoi there is little hope and for the hylikoi or sarkikoi there is none. The Jews and the orthodox Christians, who worship the Creator God, are doomed servants of Satan (a point Pagels admits in The Gnostic Gospels). And since the body is evil, the Incarnation of Christ is an illusion: He took on the mere appearance of human form in order to communicate with us, to announce the secret gnosis.
Pagels is consistent in her emphasis upon power. She said in The Gnostic Gospels that "Gnosis offers nothing less than a theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and priests." But is it not probable that both the Gnostics and the bishops really, on the whole, believed what they said they believed in? One is reminded of the quaint early twentieth-century Marxist interpretations of heresy as social rebellion on the part of people too naive to know that their real grievances were economic.
The continuity between Pagels' position in The Gnostic Gospels and that in The Origin of Satan seems to be that the orthodox unfairly drove the Gnostics out and demonized them. Yet there is a contradiction between sympathizing with the Gnostics on the one hand and on the other blaming the orthodox for dualism and demonizing. For if it is wrong to be demonizing dualists, then the Gnostics were more wrong than the orthodox. The Gnostics are forgiven for being strong dualists, but the orthodox are castigated for being milder dualists.
One did not always have to choose between being a dualist or a non- dualist. What existed in the early church was not a dichotomy, but a spectrum from absolute monism at one end (where all that happens is the will of one omnipotent deity) to absolute dualism on the other end (where there are two equal deities, one good and the other evil). The great variety of Gnostic and orthodox theologies can be arranged on this spectrum. To understand this is to avoid blaming any group for dualism and demonization and to recognize that all these thinkers were trying to deal, to the best of their abilities, with the problem of evil itself.
In Chapter Five, "Satan's Earthly Kingdom: Christians against Pagans," and Chapter Six, "The Enemy Within: Demonizing the Heretics," Pagels describes how the demonization of Jews by the earliest Christians was translated into demonization of pagans. For Christians, as for Jews, there was only one God. The gods of the pagans, therefore, must be either illusions or demons. Not only did the Roman pagans worship illusions or demons, but they insisted that Christians join them in doing so. Christians perceived this as an evil, a great obstacle to Christ's work through his community on earth. "A hundred years after the Gospels were written, then, Christians adapted to the circumstances of pagan persecution the political and religious model they found in those Gospels-God's people against Satan's people-and identified themselves as allies of God, acting against Roman magistrates and pagan mobs." Had Christians been more tolerant, they would have offered their pinch to Zeus, their oath to the Emperor. By their intolerant zeal, Christians brought about their own persecution. (This view is remarkably similar to that of some odd recent books blaming the Jews for anti-Semitism.) And in turn the persecutions convinced Christians even more that the Devil was working through the Roman pagan authorities.
Pagels appropriately begins her study of the church fathers with Justin Martyr, but she gives a long resume of the standard account of Justin Martyr's life before coming to the brief point, which is that "Justin suddenly understood, as Paul had, that the forces that play upon a helpless humanity are neither human nor divine, as pagans imagined, but demonic." Justin may have thought the gods and other spirits were really demons, but neither Justin nor any of the other fathers regarded humanity as helpless; quite the contrary, Satan's power had been, and would always be, overcome by that of Christ. For Pagels' fear-haunted Justin, "The worst evil of all is to say that neither good nor evil is anything in itself, but that they are only matters of human opinion."
To the Christian division of the moral world between good and evil Pagels contrasts the Stoicism of Justin's contemporary, Marcus Aurelius, again commencing with a curiously long summary of Marcus' background. Marcus believed that all gods and daimones, "however chaotic or even conflicting they appear, are actually part of a single cosmic order." For Marcus, "we all are subject to these cosmic forces; the only question is whether we can submit ourselves to them with equanimity." There is "'neither good nor evil'; instead, all alike are simply part of 'nature's work.' . . . Marcus' primary article of faith, then, involves the unity of all being." This sort of view is certainly more palatable than Christianity to the dominant pragmatists and relativists of the 1990s.
Pagels contrasts the inclusive views of Marcus to those of Justin's pupil Tatian, who believed firmly in the demonic quality of the pagan gods. Yet Tatian emerges, despite Pagels, as having admirable qualities. "If I do not wish to comply with some of your customs, why am I hated, as if I were despicable?" she quotes him as asking, and at the end of the book she does observe that Christian dualism can occasionally produce heroism as well as bigotry. Though Pagels follows a consensus in blaming the fathers for the soul/body dichotomy, other historians have recently shown that it was neither so definite nor so pervasive as the standard model has had it (notably Caroline Walker Bynum in The Resurrection of the Body, reviewed by Robert L. Wilken in First Things, October 1995).
Pagels' long discussion of the career of Origen, which includes the old canard about Origen's self-castration, has little point till she addresses his efforts to refute the pagan writer Celsus. She cites Celsus approvingly for maintaining that the Christian belief in Satan was dangerous and that Christians believe "as if there were opposing factions within the divine, including one that is hostile to God." But this was not at all the view of either orthodox or Gnostics, especially not of the orthodox, and most especially not of Origen, who may even have argued that all things and all personalities return in the end to the One Source.
Her treatment of Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism, is also puzzling. Anthony, she writes, "taught his spiritual heirs in monastic tradition to picture Satan as the most intimate enemy of all- the enemy we call our own self." In fact, though Anthony believed that the Devil could and did penetrate the mind with temptations, he never suggested that our own "self," soul, or whatever, can ever become the Devil, let alone be the Devil. This misunderstanding is connected with Pagels' belief that Judas was Satan incarnate.
Pagels treats Augustine of Hippo-the most influential, complex, and diverse of all Christian theologians-quite differently from Peter Brown's masterful Augustine of Hippo (1969). Brown clearly understood that Augustine was of all people most aware that the Antichrist or Satan operates through the evil inclinations within ourselves. Brown's subtle Augustine is scarcely recognizable in Pagels' Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which made Augustine responsible for mind/body dualism, hatred of sex, misogyny, and other baneful ideas. Pagels' new book merely makes the statement that Augustine's theory of evil as privation was an argument that "evil and Satan do not exist." This misunderstands both the theory of privation and Augustine's beliefs about the Devil. "On this level," she continues, "orthodox Christianity does not diverge from monotheism." She is not here aiming at the Trinity but at the power of Satan. But since neither Augustine nor any other father argued that evil did not exist, or the contrary that Satan's power was equal to Christ's, no suspicion that Christianity departed from monotheism, at least on these grounds, can exist; even the Gnostics themselves did not go that far.
The author concludes the book by contrasting within the Christian tradition "the profoundly human view that 'otherness' is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine." But the recognition of evil in no way conflicts with the reconciliation of love. Would it be loving to the Jews to pronounce that the Holocaust is not evil? Implicitly and tacitly Pagels appears to be under the influence of the relativist view that holds that Christianity is bad for not being relativist, that it has promoted evils such as demonization and misogyny, and that it ought to be constructed along lines that are pragmatically valuable today.
That Christians used texts such as John 8:44 to demonize opponents has always been clear. But the distinction between good and evil is common to all societies. It may be necessary and desirable; it is certainly universal. The consignment of opponents of dominant systems to the margins, or even thrusting them beyond the margins, is also universal; it is certainly undesirable, but it is not the invention of Christianity. It is why Creon killed Antigone. The belief in a personal leader of all evil, whether desirable or not, was common to Mazdaists, Gnostics, Apocalyptic Jewish writers, and Manichaeans, not only to orthodox Christians. Perhaps a universalist religion such as Christianity or Islam is more intolerant than others, but Japanese, Hindu, Chinese, and many other societies have not been marked by great tolerance. Even in the Roman Empire little peace and harmony, and certainly little unanimity, prevailed among those we lump together as Roman "pagans." In the context of Justin, Pagels asks, "But why does the mere mention of the Christian name arouse such violent, irrational hatred?"
Any ideology that distinguishes good from evil will arouse opposition and indignation. And the distinction does raise moral problems. "Such moral interpretation of conflict has proven extraordinarily effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups; the same history also shows that it can justify hatred, even mass slaughter." This book seems to regard the discovery by the Jews that moral good and evil rather than taboo should govern actions as a setback to civility rather than an advance in ethical understanding. Is it then bad and destructive-hence, well, evil-to say that there is good and evil? Pagels addresses such questions only pragmatically: belief in evil has had bad consequences; therefore it does not work, and we ought not to believe it.
But by what standards do we judge bad consequences and what does not work? The Nazi elimination of almost all German and Polish Jews certainly "worked. " Evading the deep moral questions left untouched by pragmatism can only be done at our peril. Pagels herself cannot, in the end, avoid them. If Saint Francis and Martin Luther King were good for believing "that they stood on God's side," what is the other side?
Bertrand Russell pointed out long ago that it is not the distinction between good and evil, but rather the relativism deriving from pragmatism, that makes moderns see everything through the lens of power. If we are not interested in truth, beauty, and the good, Russell observed, then what is left is power. Pragmatism is closely linked with the appeal to force. Russell argued that if the only way of discovering which disputant is in the right is to wait and see which of them is successful, there is no longer any principle except force (verbal as well as physical) by which the issue can be decided.
In intellectual circles today it is controversial to distinguish clearly between right and wrong, good and evil, because then one runs up against the cherished assumption of late-twentieth-century intellectuals that we humans are morally autonomous beings who have every right to act by our own standards. This belief floats, vaguely, somewhere above the logically preceding assumption that human nature is basically good. This popular, wacky assumption is original to post-Enlightenment Romanticism, and it goes against experience. Any explanation of the Holocaust or the Gulag must fail unless it confronts the problem of evil.
Whether the opponents of Christianity are evil or whether Christians themselves are evil (or both), the existence of radical evil is immediately plain to the direct moral intuition. It is a matter of deep personal and social concern that we learn to recognize it for what it is; if we do not, we shall have no way of controlling it. The first place to look in attempting to accept the reality of evil is within ourselves. We experience evil done by us and to us. The reality of evil can be denied only by denying the validity of universal experience. Pagels, in the end, does not condemn Christianity-indeed, she is a believer. Rather, she wants to remake Christianity, purging it of its distinctions between good and evil in favor of a congenial Stoic view that all apparent good and evil are part of a benign cosmos. The implication is that Christianity is not as it has historically been from the beginning. But how else can we know what Christianity is other than in its history? Pagels joins those who want to save it by remaking it in their own image and likeness.