Emerging from some discussions with evangelical Christians and Catholics on another forum regarding the subject of Hell and the Devil has prompted some thoughts a bit too complex for that forum, but worth pursuing. So I will pursue them here.
The Devil/Hell complex of ideas in traditional Christianity is similar to -- yet different from in a fundamental way -- the older Zoroastrian concept of a division of the universe into good and evil principles. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were thought of as equal principles, equal in power, knowledge, and wisdom, engaged in a conflict throughout the ages. In this way, Zoroaster resolved the philosophical conundrum of how God can be both all good and all powerful, given the existence of evil. His perfectly logical conclusion was to surrender half the goal: God (Ahura Mazda) is all good, but he is not all powerful. He has an opponent who is just as strong and completely independent of his will, and from this opponent come all wickedness and misfortune.
Christians resolve the same conundrum somewhat more problematically by the device of free will, stating that God, although all powerful, cannot do what is logically self-contradictory; he cannot at the same time make human beings free and remove their capacity for sin. This works as an explanation for human evil, but not for misfortune or suffering that comes from a source outside humanity. Most especially, it does not work for the Christian idea of Hell.
The Devil, in Christian theology, acts by divine permission. He can do nothing that God does not allow. Hence, everything done by the Devil is, at one remove, an act of God, insofar as people (including God) are responsible for their sins of omission as well as of commission. Hell is the work of God; God sends people to suffer in perpetuity. Sin may be an inevitable outcome of free will. Sin's punishment, certainly that particular outrageous punishment, is not. And so through the theological device of Hell, Christians re-introduce the philosophical conundrum that Zoroaster resolved. The God of Christians, if he indeed created Hell and sentences sinners (or, even worse, mere unbelievers) to that immeasurably draconian fate, is not all good. Or, if he did not, if Hell is the work of the Devil, acting independently of God and in ways God cannot prevent, then God is not all powerful. He has become more like Ahura Mazda, only a co-creator of the world along with a principle of evil that is just as strong.
Some Christian theological ideas do paint God as not being all powerful. One idea is that God cannot touch or be in contact with sin. Thus, it is said, God cannot embrace or accept sinners into his presence in Heaven, unless their sins are covered by the blood of Christ. Leaving aside the savagely sanguine quality of that image for the moment, here we are faced with a limitation on the power of God. There is something that he cannot do, which is not logically self-contradictory. God is not all powerful. And yet, faced with this question in words, Christians would deny it. Yet if it is not so -- if God is all powerful -- then either God is not all good (indeed, is a monstrous tyrant worse than any mere human tyrant who has ever lived), or there is no Hell.
The question must be asked why Christians devised the idea of Hell in the first place. It is a strictly Christian idea, rather than one derived from the three sources of ancient Roman Christianity (Judaism, the teachings of Jesus, and Greco-Roman paganism). Judaism has nothing like it, indeed no concept of an afterlife at all. The teachings of Jesus as reported in the Gospels contain some images and metaphors that could slant that direction, but no clear statement that the soul of the sinner or unbeliever is punished perpetually after death (and there are much better and more likely interpretations of his metaphors). Greco-Roman paganism contained some limited ideas of divine punishment after death, but only in extraordinary cases of people who had severely offended the Gods, and even they (Sisyphus, Tantalus) received punishments that came nowhere near the perpetual torture inflicted on the mildest of offenders in Christian theology. In fact, nowhere even in the New Testament is this idea clearly set forth. So why did Christians develop and implement it?
The most likely answer is that, like the belief in Christian exclusive possession of the truth itself, Hell was a device for enforcing the power and authority of the Imperial Church, or of the proto-authorities that pre-existed it and emerged to dominance by means of it. As the power of the Imperial Church and of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches into which it split fades, as separation of church and state becomes the norm worldwide, more and more Christians today seem to be abandoning the idea of Hell, or at least modifying it so that it is less offensive to civilized concepts of morality.
Continuing along these lines of thought, what of the very idea of dividing the world into principles set by moral judgment? Granted that for humans, judging the value, the goodness or badness, of events, behavior, and each other is part of who we are and something fundamental to our societies, is it really right to say that it is fundamental to the cosmos itself? Is there any evidence that the universe is either good or evil, in terms that are meaningful to human moral judgments? And if it is not, does it make any sense to apply terms like that to personifications of the universe such as God or the Gods? What of that other pole of the philosophical conundrum? Could it be that God is indeed all powerful, but is not all good? This is the solution that Ahura Mazda rejected and that most religious people of any religion do, too. But perhaps it is the most sensible conclusion.
The idea of God as not good but beyond good, the idea that human judgments simply have no meaning when applied to God, has a beautifully poetic expression in the Book of Job. "Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?" (Job 2:10). In the discussion between Job and his friends, much time is given to examining the mysterious work of God in visiting suffering on the good as well as the evil, or good fortune on the wicked as well as the just. By his works, God cannot be judged either good or evil. In the end, after much interesting discussion among the friends, God emerges from a whirlwind and declares himself a mystery not to be judged by the standards of men. "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted?"
A child, in the custody and protection of its parents, has a simplistic idea of morality as coming from its parents, from outside itself, but in maturity takes responsibility for its own judgments. Similarly the idea of morality as laid down by the Gods is one for an immature civilization; but it is not nature, not the Gods, and not God who sets out standards of good and evil. We do that ourselves, and rightly so, by our own authority, according to what seems good to us. As our civilization gropes its stumbling way towards maturity, perhaps we have reached a point now when we may assume that responsibility, and see good and evil as a product of human judgment rather than of the Gods.
The Gods, like nature, are neither good nor evil. The Gods, like nature, are wild.