After Sunday’s airing of Home Box Office’s series “The Bible,” controversy erupted over the depiction of Satan. Series producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey denied any purposeful resemblance to President Barack Obama noting Moroccan actor Mehdi Ouazaani often plays dark figures. Silver screen satanic characters have taken many forms, from horned monsters to the slick New York lawyer played by Al Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate.” In Genesis, Satan appeared to Eve as a crafty serpent. It wasn’t until after Satan took serpentine form that God took away the creature’s legs, condemning all snakes, from innocent garter snakes to deadly rattlers, to life on their bellies.
Arguably, the satanic character in the HBO series only superficially resembles our president. The depiction also is Biblically and theologically inaccurate because evil usually comes to us disguised as good. Satan sold Eve on the virtues of nibbling the forbidden fruit, insisting God would never punish her. The innocent Eve couldn’t have recognized evil since she had not yet broken the one commandment God gave her and Adam. Had Satan been honest with Eve, it would have taken a “blonde moment” of apocalyptic dimensions to buy into the pains of childbirth, loss of a son to sibling murder, tooth decay, a likely painful death followed by a return to dust. The serpent promised a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries, theretofore known only to God, Satan and other angelic creatures.
Evil exists. Pure, unadulterated evil recently visited a nearby Tuscaloosa neighborhood where an unknown assailant butchered a 73-year old female friend of mine. Heartbroken, I listened at her memorial service while the pastor dwelt on the Psalmist’s poetic assurance that we need not fear evil while in the valley of death because a loving God will be there with us. Some years ago, in the midst of that valley, I asked “God, where were you when my child died?” The response I received, “The same place I was when my son died,” brought serenity and hope without fully satisfying the “why?” Presumably a complete answer awaits me in eternity.
Most of the time, evil isn’t as clearly apparent as my friend’s ax wielding killer must have been during her terrifying last moments. The most recognizable modern personification of evil is Adolf Hitler. Third Reich propaganda films like “Triumph of the Will” clearly show millions of Germans adoring the Fuhrer whose seductive message blamed their sufferings on the Versailles Treaty, evil intent of Bolsheviks, and insidious machinations of Jews at home and abroad. In 1933, had Hitler promised, “Follow me and within 12 years your cities will be rubble, 19,000,000 of you will be dead, our nation divided and occupied by foreign armies, your national honor trashed, and my name along with this regime will become synonymous with evil,” I doubt the people who gave us Beethoven, Bach, Einstein and Goethe would have yelled, “Sieg Heil! Sign me up!”
The essence of Biblical evil is man usurping God’s providence. God didn’t create us evil. He did, however, allow free will and then, when humanity turned away to pursue its own ideas of what is good, just and righteous, God let us be who and what we are with deadly results. Words matter.
On January 20, 1942, 15 German officials, met at the Berlin resort of Wannsee where, over brunch, they decided to exterminate and incinerate Europe’s 12,000,000 Jews. If all went according to plan, the fully developed process would take less than a year. Indeed, from January 1942 to April 1945, the German work camp system killed 12,000,000 people, half of them Jews. Nazis used euphemisms like “evacuation” for “extermination” and “medical re-socialization” for “sterilization.” Their final solution was mass murder.
The Wannsee attendees didn’t resemble monsters. Conference chair, SS Lt. Gen. Reinhardt Heydrich, who would soon earn the title “Butcher of Prague,” also was a concert violinist and Olympic gold medal fencer. Most of the attendees—secondary officials and bureaucrats—were lawyers…family men. Their evil was not in their monstrosity but in their banality. Worse, they were convinced history would vindicate and honor their actions.
Like the Satan in the Garden, evil deceives with words. A current TV ad depicts a brother conceding his gay sibling’s right to be as happy in same-sex marriage as he is with his wife. Many liberal Christians advocate a plethora of “social justice” issues from pro-choice and gay marriage, to open immigration. Ironically, in Biblical Greek—the language of the New Testament—the words “righteousness” and “justice” are identical. God’s justice flows from inexorable righteousness while social justice reflects human values. Therein lies the rub. Evil is not how we play Satan, but how Satan plays us.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.