Culture deeply impacts the way that we read Scripture. Some of these impacts are very subtle, requiring someone from outside our culture to point them out. And some of these ways are much more obvious, causing us to shake our head in regret once we see where we went wrong.
Leonard Sweet once explained the ways that different cultures understand the parable of the prodigal son. If you were to ask people from a variety of cultures the simple question, "What is the primary sin of this story?" you would get a multitude of answers. The U.S.'s sexually obsessed culture tends to narrow in on the phrase, "And squandered his wealth in wild living," filling in the details on what that means. Honor-based societies in Asia focus on the phrase, "Father, give me my share," angry that a son could dishonor his father in such a way. Community-based societies in Africa are outraged that when there was a famine the community sent the prodigal out into fields with the pigs.
Sometimes the cultural issue can be merely that of translation. The ancient Hebrews used to use the phrase “cleanness of teeth” as an idiom. Can you guess for what? It sounds like a good thing, but it was generally a thing that God would curse people with.
Cleanness of teeth meant famine. No food. No cavities.
A way that I recently woke up to some cultural conditional in my reading of Scripture was in Matthew 10. Here Jesus is sending His disciples out into the world on mission. Unsurprisingly—considering the religious and political implications of what they were to proclaim—Jesus is warning them about near-certain persecution. But He offers this advice to them:
“Do not fear those who kill the body
but cannot kill the soul;
rather fear him who can destroy
both soul and body in hell.”
So the question I found myself asking in this verse is, “Who is the one who can destroy me in hell?”
This is where my cultural conditioning sprung to action. According to the culture I grew up in, the one in charge of hell, throwing big parties for all the big baddies down there—it’s Satan is of course. He’s the one down there, large and in charge, envisioning new and wonderful ways to torment people just for the fun of it. These cultural memes have found their way into my imagination, changing the way that I read Scripture. Thanks to Dante’s Inferno, medieval art, and probably too many cartoons as a kid, I imagine hell as Satan’s playground, and him as it’s CEO.
But the Bible never says anything like this. Not even close. Our Adversary, the Devil we are never told to fear. In fact we are told to resist him, stand fast against him, to—in the power of God—fight opposed to him (1 Peter 5:8-9; Ephesians 6:12). Hell is not where Satan goes to enjoy his own twisted version of bliss. No, “the lake of fire” in Revelation is the final resting place of Satan; and he’s definitely not in charge of it and he definitely does not enjoy it.
This idea though—to fear Satan—has ingrained itself into the Christian culture I come into contact with. I know those who won’t even say his name because he might perk up, pay attention to us, and come get us.
While, of course, I’m not suggesting that we don’t take the devil or the demonic seriously (we should) or that we ought to pretend they don't exist (we shouldn’t), what I am saying is that Satan is not the one who can destroy our soul and body in hell. He can’t.
So who is? Well, God is. And that fact can make us very uncomfortable, can’t it? How on earth is that comfort for the disciples that Jesus is sending out to the world? We’ll address that in Part 2.
What do you think? How were you taught to think about Satan? Was he the one in charge of hell? Was his name taboo for fear of him coming to get you? Let me know in the comments below.