Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know?
Can it be death?”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost. Thank you, Goodreads.
Like many people, I find the Bible problematic. As a lover of a good story and myth in all its forms, I can appreciate the detail and meaning within the cosmology. I love when the burning bush tells Moses to call it “I am,” as though God were everything that existed, burning through out the universe and speaking out of the bones within us. I love the premise of Job, where God engages in a sadistic torturefest to try to test an innocent man’s loyalty. God is flawed–insanely jealous, passionate, lonely and at times childish. As the story continues, he grows further and further from mankind, perhaps trying to protect himself as well as trying to teach his children to stand on their own. Even God needs perspective in order to act compassionately, and he gets it in the New Testament–a human perspective, if you buy into that Holy Trinity bit.
The main message of much of the Bible and of Paradise Lost, however–that obedience is the final and ultimate good–strikes me as at best convenient. I don’t understand it. The devil and I are on the same page on that one. Maybe God was trying to create someone who wouldn’t betray him, the way the devil did, who would value love and trust beyond ambition? Maybe he was insecure, to create beings designed to love him and then quality test them? Maybe it was an allegory of some kind of human loss of innocence, but painted puberty as the ultimate sin? Maybe it is a story, one of many made sacred over the millenia, but kept around because a religion that taught people to be obedient and turn their cheeks at violence was the most helpful to subdue the masses.
I found an odd coincidence while reading Paradise Lost. It said that a third of the angels joined the devil’s party. To me, that suggests bad ruling on God’s part, or perhaps the need of a better system of incentives.
But back to the issue of thirds. In case you haven’t heard of the Milgram experiment–I keep accidentally calling it the “Milton Experiment”–it was a study conducted about obedience to authority figures in an attempt to explain how something like the Holocaust could have happened. Volunteers were told to administer an electric shock to a subject, actually an actor, whenever they answered a memory test incorrectly, and believed that they were testing the connection between learning and pain. They were told to continue to up the voltage until it reached a fatal amount. Part of the way through, the subject would start begging to be released, and the volunteer would have to choose whether to continue or not, all the while being urged to by someone in a position of social authority. A man in a lab coat, that sort of a thing. Those involved initially believed that very few people, maybe only sociopaths would continue to the fatal voltage. The results were quite different.
Two thirds of people were willing to administer the fatal shock. Two thirds of people will go through with a genocide. None of those who did not administer the shocks asked about shutting down the experiment–a question asked of Milgram by Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment and wrote this. Perhaps a different title would be more appropriate?
I enjoyed the coincidence of thirds. A third willing to question, if not to rebel on their own.
But then comes the issue of evil, and what it is if not disobedience from the Big Guy in the Sky. I agree that within the context of the story, the devil did do evil. Eve had a great thing going in that garden, and the devil whispering in her ear did nothing to help her. He acted disingenuously and maliciously, for no other reason than to get even with God, something he knew was impossible. God asked him to bow to “The Son,” our buddy Jesus, and he didn’t want to, which seems fair to me. Satan had been God’s favorite up until that point, and I understand where he was coming from on that one. Amassing an army and then trying to overthrow God, though? That’s overkill. I think the right thing to do would have been to leave and ask God for a realm of his own, but maybe that wasn’t really an option. The cosmology isn’t incredibly well explained, but where disobedience equals sin and a betrayal of God’s love, it doesn’t seem like the devil would have a hell of a lot of options. I really hate that obedience is required for God’s love and how self-satisfied God seems in his omniscience. Why would someone “good” set up such terrible things to happen? Why would someone good shackle the demons so weakly that they immediately broke free, and put Sin and Death as their guards? Is this a cosmos-scale two-man con, and if so, what is the endgame? Is the second man Jesus, or the devil? Why did Jesus show up so late in the game in Paradise Lost, if “The Word”/Logos was apparently in it with God from the beginning? And why this rule of three? One in three will rebel, Paradise Lost and actual science seem to say. If I were religious, would I relate that somehow to the Holy Trinity? My money’s on Jesus, choosing from the three. He may have told the Romans to give unto Caesar what was due Caesar, but he probably thought Caesar needed a good asskicking on top of all those taxes. Metaphorically speaking. Jesus was very peaceful, table-flipping incidents aside, and that’s one of the reasons I like the man.
I was speaking with my sister the other day, and she gave something to think about on the evil front. I said that I was disappointed in the devil. He was as strong and beautiful and smart as any of the other angels. He was strategic, persuasive, and he had an incredible imagination. Why decide to spend his life being a thorn in God’s side? He had almost unlimited potential. He could have created anything, but he decided to spend his every waking moment destroying and undermining what someone else had created, and all because he was too proud to ask forgiveness and too proud to forgive and move on. I asked my sister why on earth he would choose to be that way and waste so much potential, and she said, “Well, isn’t wasted potential the definition of evil?”
Food for thought. Maybe that’s where the devil really sinned. Not in disobeying God, but in failing to transcend him. Especially considering that God knew he would disobey him in advance and probably intentionally set that into motion. Again, why? Did God need a smear campaign? Did the devil actually know too much? He guessed that God was lying to them about creating them, considering the fact that they were all made of the same substance, so perhaps he was getting too close to something? God can see the future in Paradise Lost, but there’s no sense or reason to his plan and his introduction of evil into the world but to make him look better by comparison, as far as I can tell. I can see why people need to understand evil in this world in order to understand good, but if I could remake the world I would take it out of the equation and just make people more naturally grateful, and that would solve the whole problem.
So many plot holes, so little time. A Catholic boy told me to read Saint Augustine the other day, and that it would make these things clear. He seemed creepily certain, but if I’ve considered reading Tolkien’s companion works to understand his cosmology, I can certainly investigate the companion books to the Bible. Apocryphies, anyone?
And why knowledge? I started this post with that, and I think that might be where I’ll leave it. What is God hiding? Is he just lonely, and he didn’t want to feel guilty for bringing someone aware of sin into the world so he made us choose it? Is he acting out a struggle in the material world which embodies his own inner struggle, hoping that good really will win out? Did he just create evil for the sake of a good story, or did it show in his work because it was inside of him? Did he make us out of boredom? Curiosity?
What does God want?