The Immortal and Immorality: A Historical Perspective on God and the Devil
The major religions of the world are filled with colorful characters. In the early Egyptian, Greek and Roman religious traditions, many of these characters looked and acted… well, surprisingly human. But, over time, within the major Western religions, a few major characters emerged. Among the most important, of course, were God and the Devil.
So, today, I thought that it would be interesting to sit down with a scholar who has, quite literally, written “God: a New Autobiography” and “The Devil: a New Autobiography.”
Who are God and the Devil, historically and within contemporary religious thought? How has the way that we look at these characters shifted (or stayed the same) over time? What is the relationship between God and the Devil?
These were a few of the thoughts that I had after I sat down with Philip Almond for a video interview regarding the history of the afterlife. Philip is a retired Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland. He is also the author of several fascinating books including “Afterlife: A History of Life after Death,” “The Devil: a New Biography,” and “God: a New Biography.”
In today’s interview, Philip and I talk about God, the Devil and the roles that these two characters play in several of the world’s major religions.
God: As Below, So Above? Maybe in the Beginning…
In many early societies, the gods displayed many of the same personality traits, needs and, indeed, flaws, as us mere mortals. They were the best of us… and the worst of us. And, with their vast powers, they were able to pursue their desires in this world and theirs. But, over time, our perspective on the gods shifted, at least in the West.
As Philip says, “When we think about the polytheistic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, there are gods in all directions. They are not particularly ethically oriented. [The gods] really behave just as well or as badly as we do. Later, within the context of the Biblical tradition, we start to get the trimming down of the number of gods. Once we have a notion of on God, we can start to think about God as the creator.”
Once again, we didn’t have a chance to go into many of the great Eastern religions during this interview. Clearly, many of these religious traditions continue to believe in many gods, which is perfectly fine. But, in the West, the shift in believe, among many people, from many gods to one, had a big impact on our views of God and the Devil.
What About the Devil?
Philip starts by providing some context regarding the role of the devil in Christian thought. He says, “The Devil, within the Christian tradition, is a really major player. In some sense he seems to do God’s work; he is sent to punish people. On the other hand, there is a tradition, within Christianity, that the world is a battle-ground between two forces, a God of good and a God of evil.”
According to Philip, part of the reason that the Devil started to take on a role of his own (acting independently from God’s plan) was due to the influence of Greek thought. Around the year 200, Plutonic thought started to have a stronger influence on Christianity. And, during this time, God started to be viewed as necessarily perfectly good.
And, since God was perfectly good, there was little room for God to be controlling the Devil and a second, more independent, role started to emerge for this character… one in which he battles God for the future of the world.
Around the same time, in the Christian religion, the Devil is reworked into the story of Adam and Eve and becomes the snake. This gives him an even greater role and establishes him as the bringer or evil to the world.
During our conversation, Philip uses a lot of examples from the Christian tradition, but, as he says, in most major religions there are concepts of evil and temptation.
I hope that you find this interview interesting and thought-provoking. If you do, please share it with a friend.
Do you believe in God or the Devil? Why or why not? Let’s have a conversation.