A Brief History of Hell, Satan, and Demons

By R.N. Carmona

In an attempt to avoid the intricate history of hell, Satan, and demons, Christians will often accuse atheists of blindly subscribing to Zeitgeist. I’ve gone on record multiples times stating that Zeitgeist is bad scholarship. In fact, it doesn’t even qualify as sound scholarship. Though Zeitgeist alludes to some truth, that is mired and obscured by its faults. Furthermore, though mythicist theory features in the film series, I myself have watched nothing of relevance related to our present topic. So to respond to these accusations, I turn to reputable authorities on these matters. Given this, any honest Christian shouldn’t be dismissive of such sources; as we’ll see later, one of my sources, namely Rikk Watts, is a Christian. The tendency to be dismissive of a source simply because it disagrees with or challenges one’s views is not a feature of intellectual honesty. Let us turn now to a brief discussion on the historical development of hell, Satan, and demons.

Michael Strausberg, Professor at the University of Bergen, surveys the development of Hell starting in the Rig Veda. He, however, says that passages in the Rig Veda do not lend much support to the notion of Hell though he agrees that “in the later Vedas the notion of hell seems to be well attested.”1 He continues by adding that developments in Buddhism and Hinduism soon developed the concept more fully. This is precisely why I specifically mention the Narakas whenever I encounter people who are unfamiliar with the nuanced history of hell. He states:

Voltaire claims that fundamental ideas such as god, devil, resurrection, paradise, and hell, which constitute something like the doctrinal kernel of Christianity, did in fact originate with Zoroastrianism. The presumed impact of Zoroastrian theological ideas such as monotheism, dualism, angels, demons, eschatology, paradise, apocalypticism, and pollution on the Judaic-Christian traditions have been an important stimulus triggering the academic interest in Zoroastrianism. Nowadays, such claims abound in cyberspace, often based on older scholarly literature. The Oxford Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, Robert Charles Zaehner (1913–1974), for example, writing in 1961, finds that “the similarities are so great and the historical context so neatly apposite that it would be carrying scepticism altogether too far to refuse to draw the obvious conclusion” (1961:57), namely that Christian concepts of rewards and punishment, heaven and hell, are dependent on Zoroastrian ideas.2

That the concept of hell comes directly from Zoroastrianism, as demonstrated above, is an oversimplification of the concept’s development. As it is related to Christianity, there’s also the fact that it’s a later development in the Christian tradition. Rikk Watts, Associate Professor at Regent College, states that Allen Bernstein’s fundamental thesis in The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds “is that the Christian notion of hell as “a divinely sanctioned place of eternal torment for the wicked” is a late development among views of after-death existence (p.3). In a partially thematic, partially chronological treatment, Bernstein briefly examines ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas before concentrating on Greco-Roman, Jewish, and finally Christian perspectives.”3

He goes on to highlight the neutrality of the afterlife, which more closely resembles the Jewish Sheol rather than the Christian Hell and the Islamic Jahannam. This neutrality led to a problem for some. They reasoned that they, being righteous, shouldn’t share the same fate as the wicked. A bifurcation, occurring in ancient Egyptian mythology, then stated that one’s life determines one’s fate. He concludes that Bernstein’s book has its weaknesses, but none are particularly damning. His main criticism is that Bernstein’s presentation is too linear to capture the intricacy of Hell’s development.

Likewise, the beings said to inhabit Hell, namely Satan and his demons, do not escape such a cross-cultural analysis. They too are derived from Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology. Satan, like Hell, is a concept that developed over time. In fact, he’s not original to Judaism. He’s a later Christian invention that resulted from Christian appropriation of Jewish texts. Elaine Pagel states:

In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an “evil empire,” an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike. As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (ma’lak) into Greek (angelos). In Hebrew, the angels were often called “sons of God” (bene ‘elohim), and were envisioned as the hierarchical ranks of a great army, or the staff of a royal court.

In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary.” (The Greek term diabolos, later translated “devil,” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)4

Interestingly enough, this is what may have been at play in 1 Samuel 16:14. The notion of “a harmful spirit from the Lord” is foreign to modern day Christians. That’s why there are apologetic attempts to explain this verse—i.e., to explain it within the context of modern Christian theology. In line with my earlier point, the concept of Satan didn’t develop apart from cultural diffusion. J.B. Russell writes:

The Christian concept of the Devil was influenced by folklore elements, some from the older, Mediterranean cultures and others from the Celtic, Teutonic and Slavic religions of the north. Pagan ideas penetrated Christianity while Christian ideas penetrated paganism.5

The concept of demons also didn’t develop apart from cultural diffusion. Like Satan, this concept is also the byproduct of contact with other cultures. Dale Martin, professor of Religious Studies at Yale, demonstrates that the notion of fallen angels isn’t in the Bible. In fact, it’s an idea that hadn’t even occurred to the earliest Christian authors.6 Shaul Saked shows how the resurrection of the dead, the two judgments, and angels and demons are integrated into the theology of Zoroastrianism in a manner that’s more coherent than the way such concepts are incorporated into Judaism.7 The evidence for the fact that Christian eschatology and demonology was influenced by other religions is incontrovertible. Given this, a Christian arguing that Judaism and Zoroastrianism are false might want to consider whether Christianity is also false on the basis of similar reasons.

When attempting to recall the name of the adversary in Zoroastrianism (Angra Mainyu), I came across the following:

It is generally accepted that in the Abrahamic religions, the concepts of Heaven and Hell, as well as the Devil, were heavily influenced by Zoroastrian belief.8

As stated earlier, that Christianity was directly influenced by Zoroastrianism is an oversimplification, but Zoroastrianism had an influence nonetheless. There’s more from where this came from, but that’s certainly enough to put the accusation to sleep. It’s easy enough to accuse so called internet atheists of using Zeitgeist as a source, especially given their affinity for the December 25th graphic that shows that other demigods, e.g. Krishna, Hercules, Hermes, etc., were born on that day. However, one would be hard pressed to make that accusation stick with regards to the scholarship cited here. Voltaire, for instance, was an 18th century historian and philosopher who was born more than two centuries before the first working television set–let alone some pseudo-scholarly documentary that came more than three centuries after his birth.

Works Cited

1 Stausberg, Michael. Hell in Zoroastrian HistoryNumen 56, 217–253. 2009. Web. 27 Dec 2014.

2 Ibid.

3 Watts, Rick. The History of Heaven and HellBaylor Univeristy. 2002. Web. 27 Dec 2014.

4 Pagels, Elaine H. The Origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995. 39. Print.

5 Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer, the Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1984. 62. Print.

6 Martin, D. (2010). When did angels become demons? Journal of Biblical Literature, 129(4), 657-677. Web.

7 Shaked, Shaul. “Iranian influence on Judaism: first century B.C.E. to second century C.E.”, The Cambridge History of Judaism. Ed. W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. pp. 308-325.

“God, Zoroaster, and immortals”BBC. 2 Oct 2009. Web. 30 Dec 2014.

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