The devil is totally evil and you should hate him! Actual religious beliefs affect how religion is portrayed in pop culture, and of course affects how religious figures are portrayed. Now, Satan may not be Jesus. He’s not a paragon of virtue that is upheld by believers (unless they are Satanists, but we aren’t talking about them), but nevertheless he is an extremely important character in Judeo-Christianity.
Because Satan is an evil character, pop culture often pits him against the noble and righteous characters. When we talk about the devil in pop culture, we are often talking about the typical villain archetype. He is evil without reason or remorse. He does everything he can to destroy our virtuous heroes. Not only does he attempt to destroy them in the typical “I’m going to kill you” way, he also attempts to destroy our heroes by tempting them to evil. By doing this the devil gains more souls for hell and turns people away from God.
A lot of people say that Nazis are the perfect villain, because everybody hates them. You will never have a theater full of people getting pissed at how Nazis are treated. Well, pencil in Satan next to Nazis. Our default setting is to hate Satan. There is nothing endearing about him. Furthermore, he has a plus side over the Nazis—he is more interesting. Remember this is a character that according to most Judeo-Christian mythology is someone who was best friends with God before rebelling against him. Again, our default is to assume God is good and awesome. God created us, gave us life, and free will, so why would someone hate him?
However, this question of why is often not addressed in the pop culture that makes Satan pure evil. The sympathetic Satan comes later.
The evil Satan dominated pop culture for the longest time. Saint Hildegard von Bingen (recently named a doctor of the Catholic Church, btw) wrote Ordo Virtutum, which portrays Satan as a purely demonic figure trying to tempt a soul. He fights against the personified virtues. Faust is a play about Dr. Faust selling his soul for help from Méphistophélès. (I’m really dumbing it down with that quick summary. It is actually really profound and you should totally read it.) Dante’s Inferno is another typical evil Satan. Satan is trapped from the waist down in ice, in the lowest circle of hell, chewing on history’s greatest traitors. This early Satan is usually the classic one depicted with hooves, horns, and a pitchfork, but this depiction eventually evolved.
Technically, Satan was not always the monstrous figure that we see in early pop culture. In most Biblical interpretations Satan was originally an angel. Angels in Biblical texts are often either completely alien looking (comprised entirely of eyes or fire or something) or appear as human (usually when they are on earth). Satan himself was described as one of the most beautiful angels in creation and there is every indication that that didn’t change after he fell. In pop culture today, Satan isn’t always attractive, but is often portrayed as human looking.
Whether it’s Constantine, Oh, God You Devil, or The Devil’s Advocate, Satan is portrayed as a manipulative and crafty being taking the guise of human beings giving you everything you ever wanted. My favorite portrayal of this is from The Devil’s Advocate. Al Pacino plays the devil in this interpretation and uses Kevin Lomax’s (Keanu Reeves) vanity to manipulate him on a path to hell. Each time the devil does nothing. He doesn’t force Kevin to do anything evil and even often suggests to him to do the morally better thing, but each time Kevin chooses the evil path, which leads to the death of his wife. In this movie, the devil professes to be a humanitarian and claims that that was his argument with God.
Why not? I’m here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began. I’ve nurtured every sensation man’s been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I’m a fan of man! I’m a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.
He further explains:
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do? I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, don’t swallow. Ahaha. And while you’re jumpin’ from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He’s laughin’ His sick, fuckin’ ass off! He’s a tight-ass! He’s a SADIST! He’s an absentee landlord! Worship that? NEVER!
Al Pacino’s Satan is the perfect note to end this on, because while he is entirely evil, his final speech stirs our imagination. Why can’t we do whatever we want without consequence? Why would God make rules that seem to go against our very nature? These questions lead us all to—Was the devil right?
These are basic questions about the nature of God and the nature of good and evil as it plays out in our own human experience, which leads us to having a more human Satan in our pop culture. One that we understand and sympathize with.
Tune in next time and get some religion!