Learning how to cope with suffering and evil is perhaps the greatest challenge of life. How can we survive our darkest moments and make some meaning of the mess without trivializing agony or condoning evil? The symbol of Satan is a powerful representation of the challenges of suffering and the responses available to us, for healing or harm. Learning how to face the Luciferian archetype, I AM Nemesis Not Your Enemy enables us to flourish and succeed in life’s hardest situations. Much of our struggles result from an inability to see suffering as part of the overall scheme of reality. It is the task of nondual theology to integrate suffering and evil into divinity. God must embrace her disavowed shadow side: Satan must be accepted as part of God, the fourth person of the Trinity. In a nondual reality, God is Satan and Satan is God.
Christianity’s notions of suffering and evil; its disavowal of them via the character of the devil, are embedded in our Western thought and consciousness. Therefore, understanding the Christian devil will help us discover our own unconscious disavowals of suffering, whether we are religious, atheists, or spiritual. In this discussion, I will adopt the Christian tradition of Satan as a character constructed from stories spanning the Bible and extrabiblical traditions. We can better understand how society has become largely incapable of dealing with the realities of suffering psychologically by tracing the evolution of the Christian devil.
The Evolution of Satan
The modern-day notion of Satan as the personification of evil did not emerge until late in biblical history. This devil was anachronistically interpolated into older biblical passages that, in their original contexts, referred to distinct, often morally ambiguous characters such as a serpent in the Garden of Eden, the king of Babylon, and a prosecutor-like attorney in God’s heavenly court. Further complicating matters, the Old Testament’s portrayals of God were often more devilish than divine. Like the gods of other ancient religions, the Hebrew deity was both fair and capricious, loving and spiteful, containing the full spectrum of good and bad within his personality. And in many ways, the ancient amoral vision of divinity (or both moral and immoral) is more reflective of our day-to-day experience of life than the theological update of a perfect God.
Historically, Satan developed in religious lore as a theodicy: a means of explaining the existence of suffering and evil in light of the seemingly contradictory belief in an all-loving, all-powerful higher power. Around when the time when the Jewish people were living in exile under the brutal Babylonian Empire, they asked themselves, how can evil seem to triumph over good if God is loving and powerful? They answered this question in their sacred writings with apocalyptic theology. It teaches a cosmology with dark forces behind the scenes, permitted by God for a time to rule the world in order to test the righteous and permit people the choice to choose God or rebellion. The exiled Jews drew sharp lines between the forces of good and evil, construing spiritual life as a battle between them. By thinking this way, people were empowered to maintain their religious faith even while evil was their dominant experience of life. Evil was provisional: the faithful could endure suffering for a time because they would eventually be vindicated by God’s final judgment, in this life or the next.
By the time the New Testament was written, God and Satan were carefully delineated in Jewish thought: God is good, Satan is evil. Although God’s moral judgment in the New Testament is often questionable, to say the least, overall his youthful sadism has receded, and his empathy matured. While a clear distinction between good and evil has certain moral benefits, it also fails to capture the realities of life in fundamental ways and results in a different set of problems. Instead of viewing suffering and evil as fundamental, even necessary aspects of existence, Christianity often came to portray them as an Arch-Nemesis to be eradicated. Salvation became an escapist enterprise, with the goal of ridding the universe of suffering, the devil, and people who commit evil (sinners) through establishing God’s Kingdom reign. This escapist war against suffering results in rejection of life as it is (reality) in the material realm in favor of heavenly realms where God wipes all our tears of suffering away. Whether or not such heavenly realms objectively exist, such a perspective harbors the psychological danger of fleeing our reality in favor of a not-currently-available and therefore illusional state.
Good and Evil Dualism: The Psychological Lobotomy of Splitting
Psychologically, this reaction to suffering is a defense mechanism known as splitting. In splitting, when we are faced with a threat or overwhelming pain, our psyche protects us by splitting off that aspect of reality, along with the people and the parts of ourselves associated with it. Splitting is a kind of psychological lobotomy: it protects us by severing our connection to traumatic experiences and our traumatized selves. We come to simplistically view those things which cause us overwhelm as all-bad, and those which cause us pleasure as all-good. Our thinking and perception become dominated by dichotomized, all-or-nothing thinking, and we view the world in black-and-white terms (opening the doorway to safe-feeling absolutist fundamentalism’s, dogmas, and authorities who have “the answers”). We lose access to split-off aspects of ourselves and become incapable of holding ambiguity and complexity. Splitting can save our lives in moments of extreme threat and distress, but it is an extremely dysfunctional way of approaching life.
Splitting results in rejection of suffering, which entails the rejection of the parts of ourselves involved in the experience of suffering. For instance, if I have suffered from sexual abuse and cope with the pain of my sexual trauma by splitting, I may come to view not only my abuser as bad but also my own sexuality and sex in general. However, I can’t cut off the painful experience without fragmenting myself; I must come to terms with it, emotionally and intellectually, in order to regain wholeness. A rejection of suffering, however awful it may be, is a rejection of life.
In splitting, we come to view the things we reject as “not me.” We lose the ability to empathize with people who do such evil things because we disown the darker aspects of our humanity. This makes it easy for us to sentence criminals to death, wage wars, or justify genocides because people who wrong us are no longer humans to whom I can relate. I am godly, they are satanic. Dehumanization of others is blindness to our own nature. As long as we live, we will not be sinless or entirely enlightened. I am convinced by my own experience and the weight of psychological evidence that religious accounts of perfect Buddhas and Jesus’s are never the full story. We will always live with imperfect knowledge and the potential to do harm. We will never achieve full awareness of ourselves and our unconscious motivations. Perhaps we would do better to replace our aspirations for perfection with the goal of evolution. Nothing in nature is static; there is always the possibility for decline or growth in everything.
God and Satan are One: A Nondual Perspective
A dualistic cosmology that siphons existence into simplistic categories of good and evil cripples us from effectively facing suffering because it reflects splitting-based distortions rather than the reality we experience. We know that there exist shades of good, evil, and moral unclarity in almost everything; life is more gray than it is black or white. In part, good and evil are artificial linguistic constructions that do not reflect things-in-themselves. When we label everything, we lose our ability to take it in as it is because we have added a layer of judgment and conceptualization through languaging. Judgments of good and evil are necessary and inevitable, but it is also helpful to be able to sit with experiences non-judgmentally. We may find our suffering isn’t necessarily bad (it feels bad but also produces benefits, for instance) or that which we initially perceived to be good is less than ideal. Everything has upsides and downsides; every judgment and decision is a trade-off that expands and limits possibilities.
Moreover, a reality in which evil does not exist at all collapses upon itself because good could not exist either. Light cannot be seen without darkness; heat is meaningless apart from cold. Ultimately, good and evil are opposite ends of the morality spectrum, two sides of the same paradoxical coin. Destroy one side and there is no coin. The question isn’t why evil exists in light of good (both must exist if either does), but why duality-bound existence is to begin with!
A nondual metaphysics (conceptualization of reality) is instructive for understanding this dilemma. According to nondual philosophy, there is a deeper, transcendent reality underlying and comprising the material realm of dualities. At an ultimate level, there is no separation: only wholeness. Our minds and egos operate at the level of making distinctions (dualities), so nondual awareness can only be experienced by the part of us which transcends intellect and categorization: what has been commonly called spirit or consciousness.
How to Face the Devil: The Garden of Eden as Prototypical Redemptive Suffering Myth
In order for us to integrate the devil of suffering when it confronts us, it behooves us to taste this higher nondual realm experientially through contemplative practice. By experiencing the mystical coming together of all things that is nondual awareness, we gain a higher perspective on our suffering. We learn to see everything as part of a greater whole. From this vantage, it becomes natural, almost instinctual, to see our experiences more paradoxically, with less judgment and greater openness. For those holding this empowering mindset, even the most traumatizing experiences may find a purpose and a place even while they are yet unable to see it (“faith”).
Nonduality enables us to befriend the devil rather than run, fight in futility, or escape into fantasy. The devil portrayed in Christian traditions was not merely an enemy; he represented the loving hand of God in reverse. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent (later seen as the devil) was the original critical thinker (Genesis 3). He taught the Edenic couple to question God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God was afraid that if they obtained this knowledge and then also eternal life from the fruit of the tree of life, Adam and Eve would become rival gods and challenge his reign (Genesis 3:22). The irony in this story is profound: who is good and who is evil–God, the serpent, or the couple? Each of these characters is morally mixed, and the blame for the cause of suffering in the world (the Fall) does not land squarely on any one of them. Each one is righteous from a certain perspective, and each one is sinister and self-interested from another.
In the same way, when we taste the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–when we are shaken to the core by crisis and forced to question ourselves and the world as we know it–we awaken from our naïve paradisiacal fantasies to a fallen world where everyone and no one is to blame. There is no easy way to make sense of suffering and evil. We are banned from our delusional Gardens of Eden forever by a flaming sword; we cannot return to the comforts we once held dear (Genesis 3:24). The person or situation who caused us to question our comfortable stories that held us back from experiencing our full divinity appears as a menacing serpent, but is not the suffering for the best in the end? Does it not result in the fullness of our evolution? Only through the serpent’s diabolical medicine can we individuate from God, realizing our divine freedom instead of blindly submitting to the tyrannical authority of narratives that hold us back from our destiny. Only by questioning our most treasured notions of divinity can we ever hope to attain it.
Is Satan evil and is God good? Both yes and no. Divinity is paradoxical. Mysteriously, at a nondual level, God and the Devil are One. Without Satan, God cannot exist in the material realm of dualities, for Satan and God are the two sides of the one divinity coin. In their divine work-play, Good and Evil have a secret handshake and sacrilegious blood pact. Apart from the devil testing Job, God would not have become conscious of his narcissistic ego complex masquerading as divinity and need to find himself by becoming human. Without his initiatory wilderness temptation from Satan, Jesus would not have been prepared for his divine mission (Matthew 4:11-11). Without his persecutors, Jesus would not have been crucified and raised from the dead (at least, according to the Bible). In the cross, we see the marriage of good and evil, life and death–Satan and God are wed! The divine and undivine reveal themselves as dual aspects of one God. All opposites come together in this revelation of divine providence, which is that all the seeming fragmentation, inhumanity, and chaos we suffer is inseparable–“crossed” with–our wholeness and purpose, perhaps a higher and more beautiful journey than we could imagine for ourselves.
I have been meditating on the moment when predator meets prey in nature–the salmon finds itself in the mouth of a grisly bear. There’s this strange transaction of pleasure and pain, the mating of life and death. It’s horrible and also beautiful. And I visualize that I am both the salmon and the bear at the same time. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to oneness. That’s the divinity of Satan and God at play. I align with this higher-order of nature (divinity) by observing its symbolic unfolding in my life and opening to its wisdom–whether I need to swim away, surrender to death, devour the fish in spite of its agony–still holding the whole picture regardless of which position I relate to most through the action I choose.
I do not mean that everything works out for the best, or that every suffering and evil is necessary: tragedy is real, people suffer needlessly, evil is horrid. Perhaps all things do work out in some cosmically mysterious way and the thought of this may be a comfort to some, but experientially, much of our suffering never finds resolution and it is often unemphatic to suggest it will. Moreover, it is important to not just passively accept everything that befalls us. I can hardly imagine a nobler ideal than humanism’s intention to reduce suffering and make the world a better place for all. Evil should be fought whenever possible and suffering alleviated. What I do mean to suggest is that suffering is a fact of existence, and the way we approach it determines the course of our lives–especially the things we cannot control or change. When we are faced with God’s shadow side of Lucifer, the crisis of suffering, we prevail by seeing the temporal-egoic in light of the eternal-nondual: what confronts us as suffering contains the seeds of flourishing.
I AM Nemesis Not Your Enemy is the voice of God from the mouth of Satan. Will we split and reject our suffering and ourselves along with it as the enemy? Or, adopting an enlightened point of view, will our devils become gods, our enemies guides, and our setbacks the pathway to success? This suffering IS the path for you, not necessarily because it’s meant to be, but because it is. This poison can also be medicine.
Opening to Suffering, The Posture of Integration
The opposite of rejecting suffering through splitting is integration: the process of making whole by bringing together. Not only can suffering be accepted; it can be used as a means of expansion and healing. When we face fragmenting experiences (which suffering represents), however, the way of integration is often unclear. Integration doesn’t mean rushing to find a quick-fix or grand sense of purpose. On the contrary, it is far better to sit with uncertainty and confusion than to force premature resolution. The beginning of the process of integration is a posture of opening. I open to the medicine of this moment. I open to my confusion, doubt, despair, my wickedness. I accept that this is my reality and my reaction is valid. Instead of trying to change my emotions superficially through spiritual practice (repression), I am honest about my weakness and frailty and seek the help I need. I accept even my rejection of this moment; I am doing the best I can to open. Perhaps the most difficult, powerful ongoing choice to make in life is accepting the realities of suffering and choosing to fully live, instead of withdrawing and rebelling into nihilistic despair. I accept that this is hard, and I’m going to do it anyway. I will sign up for life.
When we open to what is, we embrace new possibilities for life. It becomes possible for new patterns of reacting to old struggles to emerge. Opening is a letting go of ways we close off, which often take the form of beliefs, old stories about ourselves, and avoidance of painful truths. We become willing to see things in a different way: perhaps there is a silver lining, maybe something different can happen, is there a lesson to be found here? This suffering may be my metamorphic cocoon. Perhaps as important as finding a solution, we allow ourselves simply to be as we are. When we stop fighting the present moment and ourselves as we appear within it, energy and space are freed up that can be used productively.
These are only suggestions for dealing with suffering and evil, which I hope not to simplify or minimize. My words do no justice to the immensity of pain and the gravity of the challenge. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; we must all find our own way. Yet one thing is certain: The archetype of Satan will confront us all. Let us take heart; the presence of divine love is always in all things, at times revealed most powerfully hiding within its total opposite.
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Do you feel psychologically traumatized by religion, or isolated and disempowered by trauma and limiting beliefs in your life? I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), M.A., Counseling Psychology in progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I had an unexpected spiritual awakening through mystical and spiritual practices like meditation, psychedelics, and connecting my heart’s desires and intuition through my Divine Mindfulness practice. My passion is to help you in your spiritual or life transition to heal and connect with your authentic spiritual wholeness.