When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.
Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.
I was raised Roman Catholic, and brought up with this concept of Satan as an immensely powerful, menacing dark force with an incredible ability to influence people to do bad things. I never bought into that notion as fully as some people I know, but it was very much a part of how I viewed morality. In college, however, I minored in world religions, and came to learn that in many religions, this clear—and in my opinion, artificial—dichotomy of good and evil does not exist.
Anthropomorphic supernatural beings tend to exemplify the duality of human nature. In Hinduism, the god Shiva is both the creator and the destroyer, with both benevolent and malicious forms, and he embodies the notion that good can come from evil and vice versa. Many religions have trickster beings, such as the “kitsune” or fox spirit in Japanese folklore, who are chaotic and potentially harmful, but more out of a sense of playfulness than malice. “Evil” spirits are fairly common, whether they are the spirits of deceased people or entirely supernatural creatures, but they are often driven by a relatable motive, most often misplaced vengeance. These “evil” spirits, dangerous though they may, be are generally limited in power or can be defeated or avoided in everyday life.
Even Judaism, which has a concept of Satan, does not interpret him the same way, and certainly does not assign the same importance to him that Christianity does. In Judaism, Satan is an agent of God, stepping in occasionally to test peoples’ moral fiber on God’s behalf, by presenting them with dilemmas and seeing how they will react. The Satan of Judaism places much more emphasis on the choice of the individual and the exercise of free will. While the Satan of Judaism makes tempting offers and proposes possibilities, he does not have the kind of invasive, controlling dark wizard power that Satan has come to be associated with in Christianity.
The characterization of Satan as “the dark lord” is both peculiar and problematic to me, because it allows for the notion that we humans are not fully in control of, and therefore not fully responsible for, our own behavior. No matter how reprehensible a person’s actions are, the notion that Satan is sitting in his dark tower somewhere, wearing high-collared black robes and using subtle, clever mind control, allows those actions to be excused. It allows everyone to go on with the unchallenged belief that they are the hero of their own narrative, that they are fundamentally good, and that evil is an entirely external force that invades their sensibilities. The only way in which the individual can be “evil” in this paradigm is by being too weak to resist Satan’s evil mind control spells.
Whether this reading of Satan is in keeping with how he is presented in the Bible is fairly irrelevant, because the Satan-as-dark-wizard concept is being actively supported and taught within some faith communities. I had a coworker until recently who believed that she had the power to faith-heal people and exorcise demons, but scoffed at the notion that she was deeply racist (which she was). She was the hero, because the real evil in the world was Satan, and she—as she believed—was vanquishing Satan. The concept of demonic possession itself, which does not even exist in the Old Testament, is a strong indicator of the powers that many Christians believe Satan and his minions have: not only can Satan influence your thoughts, he or his representatives can literally enter a human body and control its actions. I also had a conversation with a Baptist youth group leader recently who explained to me that diseases happen because of Satan’s influence on the world, indicating that he, likewise, believed that Satan had the ability to physically harm peoples’ bodies through disease.
Perhaps the Satan-as-dark-wizard concept originally existed for the same reason that Sauron exists: as a metaphorical representation of an abstract concept that humans grapple with. Perhaps Dark Wizard Satan was meant to be a simple idea for children, with the expectation that through experience they would come to understand that evil is a product of free will, but for some the metaphor has evolved into dogma. Maintaining the idea that evil is external prevents people from properly examining their own motives and behaviors, which in turn prevents them from working to rectify those behaviors. It encourages the concept of the “other,” training people to believe that whatever evil is, it’s out there somewhere, something foreign to them that must be either avoided or destroyed, rather than acknowledged, understood, and modified.