The Apocalyptic Metaphor - Part 1

Satan, the Antichrist, Millennialism, and Scapegoating

In western culture the tendency to frame political, social, religious, or cultural conflict as a battle between good and evil is distinctively shaped by the apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible's book of Revelation, which describes a battle between faithful Christians and deceptive Satanic agents that precedes God's penultimate victory and a millennium of peace. Claims of demonic conspiracies have flourished during periods of millennial expectation or apocalyptic fervor, and are doing so again as the calendar creeps toward the year 2000.
The process of demonization is central to all forms of conspiracist thinking. Author and activist Leonard Zeskind considers all conspiracy theories "essentially theologically constructed views of events. Conspiracy theories are renderings of a metaphysical devil which is trans-historical, omnipotent, and destructive of God's will on earth. This is true even for conspiracy theories in which there is not an explicit religious target." As Zeskind has observed, it is impossible to analyze the contemporary right, without understanding the "all-powerful cosmology of diabolical evil." So to fully comprehend the subtext of those US movements that utilize demonization and conspiracist scapegoating, we have to briefly dance with the devil.

There is a deep division with modern Christianity between those who personify evil and identify it with specific groups--gays and lesbians, feminists, liberals, Jews--and those who see evil as the will to dominate and oppress. Within mainstream denominations, independent evangelical churches, progressive Christian communities, and followers of liberation theology, are many Christians who are painfully aware of those historic periods when some Christian leaders sided with oppression and used demonization as a tool to protect and extend power and privilege. This discussion seeks to honestly explore that historic dynamic, but not to stereotype all Christians as complicit with the heritage of apocalyptic demonization.

The binary model of good versus evil is not unique to Christianity, but is found in the spiritual beliefs of "all the peoples of the earth," and is considered by some "a necessary phase in the evolution of human thought." "Nothing is more common in history than the change of the deities of hostile nations into demons of evil," wrote Paul Carus, who noted that Beelzebub, a Phoenician god, "became another name for Satan," for the early Jews. In fact, the word Satan means "enemy." In religious traditions based on early Judaic texts, the devious covert nature of "Satan, the tempter and originator of all evil" is highlighted in the story of Adam and Eve in the Biblical book of Genesis. In his early descriptions Satan is a faithful servant of God sent to test the faithful.

At the time when Jesus of Nazareth broke from Jewish tradition, apocalyptic thinking was common to both Jews expecting the Messiah, and then early Christians who saw Jesus as the Messiah. The word apocalypse comes from a Greek root suggesting unveiling hidden information or revealing secret knowledge about human events.

The idea of Satan as an evil demon opposed to God who recruits human allies appears in early Christian culture. Elaine Pagels traces demonizing references in the New Testament Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The term Antichrist appears in the Epistles of John, in warnings against "deceivers," especially those who reject Christ. Warnings against false prophets are common throughout the Bible. Especially demonized in early Christian culture were Jews who refused to accept the crucified Jesus as the true Messiah, Roman civil authorities who punished Christians for refusing to carry out certain rituals seen as proving loyalty to the emperor, and those Christians who promoted unacceptable alternative theological positions.

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