John Loftus ends his essay “Christianity is Wildly Improbable” in The End of Christianity with an additional fifteen beliefs he finds wildly implausible. Since I already provided a critique that undercut his whole improbability method I didn’t bother to deal with these points directly in my review of the chapter. But I’d like to engage one of them here. John writes:
“That the highest created being known as Satan or the devil, led an angelic rebellion against an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent God … and expected to win. This makes Satan out to be suicidal, inexplicably evil, and dumber than a box of rocks.” (100)
This is why it is fun to have John around. He’s like that devil-may-care uncle who starts saying socially inappropriate things at the family reunion after two beers. Even as he makes the adults wince he leaves the kids gleefully tittering. (“Hee hee hee. Did you hear Uncle John say Satan is dumber than a bunch of rocks?!”) But that is not all. That uncle also has a habit of pointing out when the emperor has no clothes, and that’s worth much more than a titter. And so it is here. John is certainly correct that the popular origins narrative of the devil is, in certain key respects, quite implausible. So how shall we deal with this implausibility?
In response let me make three points. First, let’s put this problem in context. Whatever problems with the origin narrative of the devil may exist, they don’t hit at the heart of the faith, or indeed anywhere near it. If I may pull up another one of my endless analogies, this problem is not like an architect calling into question the structural integrity of the cathedral’s flying buttresses, a problem which would require the immediate closure of the building. Rather, it is more like the architect pointing out that the gargoyles on the southside of the church will need to be reinforced, a problem which only interrupts ecclesiastical proceedings to the extent of some scaffolding that blocks a sidewalk and forces a brief detour onto the lawn for passerby.
Second, the problem is significantly heightened with a healthy (actually unhealthy) dose of anthropomorphizing. It is very difficult to think of Satan rebelling when we think of God as a huge wrestler sitting on the throne and Satan coming into the court as a hundred pound underling. But ironically enough when you have a sufficiently exalted conception of the divine being things change significantly. Satan is understood to be a spiritual being with determinate spatial location and a finite intellect. God is a spiritual being with no determinate spatial location: he utterly transcends the finitude of space, and he is infinite in knowledge. So let’s ask ourselves, are there other cases of beings with determinate spatial location and finite intellects who rebel against God?
This brings me to my third point, and here let’s talk about Christians only. You see, Christians purport to believe in God and yet they sin on a regular basis, and by sinning I mean they inexplicably rebel against the lordship of the very God they profess. This seems to me an even more implausible psychological state then the one we are claiming of the devil (that is, rebellion with no fidelity retained). So if we accept the undeniable fact that Christians regularly sin, I can’t see why we would find the story of the devil’s rebellion all that implausible after all.
There, the gargoyles are reinforced. Now just give me a minute to remove the scaffolding…