I’m continuing my way through Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan. Over a decade ago, I read Pagels’ Adam, Eve, and the Serpent for a class, which talked a lot about Augustine. As I read Pagels in The Origin of Satan talk about the lives of Justin Martyr and Origen, I was reminded of how compelling of a storyteller Pagels is in her writing. I felt as if I were watching a riveting documentary that went into historical figures in depth, described their historical significance, and highlighted the tensions they faced (within themselves and with others). (Think American Experience.)
I’ll talk some about Pagels’ summary of the life of Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century C.E. Justin came to Rome from Asia Minor specifically to study philosophy, and he was impressed at the peace that he saw in the Christians who were torn by wild beasts in the amphitheater. Justin was becoming discouraged as he studied philosophy (i.e., Stoicism, the Peripatetics, etc.) with teachers. He encountered a Christian old man who told him that his mind was degenerate due to its infestation by demonic powers, and that Justin needed spiritual illumination to reach true understanding. Justin came to agree with the old man on this, and he was baptized. As Justin looked back at the Platonic cliches that he spouted to the old man, he “realized that his objections to the old man’s arguments derived simply from his blind acceptance of Plato’s authority—-not from any conviction of experience of his own” (page 117).
Justin, who was raised as a pagan by pagan parents, began to see the world in dramatically different ways after he became a Christian. He believed that the gods whose statues he saw on a regular basis were actually demons, and he could appeal to the moral degeneracy around him to support his view that there was a strong demonic influence on society—-moral degeneracy such as abandoning children and sodomizing the young. Justin found the so-called gods to be sinister demons who terrorized people to receive worship. Justin felt as if he were seeing the world as it truly was—-as a spiritual battleground where people needed Christ to be free from bondage.
Justin wrote to the emperor and other rulers to protest the mistreatment of Christians, including a Christian aristocratic woman who wanted to divorce her morally-degenerate non-Christian husband, and her husband told the authorities she was a Christian as a result. As Pagels notes, the rulers most likely archived Justin’s letters and did not read them, but, had Marcus Aurelius read them, he would have considered Justin’s thoughts to be “obscenely grandiose” (page 126). Marcus, after all, believed that self-control and peace of mind could be attained through philosophy, which Justin thought was inadequate by itself. Marcus also did not have a dualistic view of the world, in which there are evil demons, for Marcus thought that all spirit beings, even the chaotic ones, “are actually a part of a single cosmic order” (Pagels’ words on page 126). On a related note, the pagan Celsus, who attacked Christianity, viewed the Christian belief in the devil to be quite absurd.
I really like it when teachers and writers get into the personal stories of historical figures. Pagels does that quite well, in my opinion. My discussion doesn’t do her storytelling justice!