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“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

—1 Peter 5:8

“Only-begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary? whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt, can hold…”

—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III

One of the aspects of Christian theology that has always made the least sense to me is why God, having defeated Satan, now permits him to roam freely across the Earth tempting people to do evil. Why wouldn’t an all-powerful creator have imprisoned the Devil and all his demons permanently so that they could not exert any influence on human beings or earthly affairs? Surely, his doing so would have saved the souls of at least some people who, in the current scheme, fell prey to temptation and ended up eternally damned. Christianity says that eternal damnation is Satan’s sentence anyway, so why would God delay that sentence and permit him to roam free so that he could drag as many people as possible down with him?

The first possible explanation is that Satan escaped because God was not powerful enough to restrain him. John Milton gives this explanation in the verse above, yet even he must have recognized the illogic of it. According to Christianity, God is omnipotent and Satan is not. In Milton’s own story, the only reason Satan was able to escape Hell is because God, quite literally, gave the keys to one of the prisoners.

A second possibility: God lets Satan roam free merely as a way of twisting the knife further on his own punishment. A different chapter of Paradise Lost proposes this explanation:

So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.

This, too, cannot be correct. Satan’s malice did not only produce grace and mercy for humankind, as Milton claims. Instead, according to Christianity’s own theology, it will result in a huge majority of human beings suffering the wrath of God and being cast down into the fiery abyss along with him. This explanation does not accord with even basic Christian beliefs, so it must be thrown out.

A third explanation holds that God permits freedom for the Devil so as to give human beings the ability to choose freely between right and wrong, and to teach them that disaster always results when they turn away from God’s commands:

God allowed Satan, the epitome of evil, to enter the Garden of Eden and discuss his view of life with Adam and Eve. They then had to make a choice. They chose to follow Satan rather than God. Satan’s tragic delusion of mankind has been the result.

This is the first explanation that is even vaguely plausible. If Satan’s role were merely to act as a devil’s advocate, so to speak, it might even work. But the problem with it is that, by Christian teaching, Satan is the “great deceiver”. He does not present his position honestly, but instead tries to trick humanity into sin through lies and treachery. A choice made in ignorance, because the chooser was deceived about the likely result, is not free at all. Thus, God’s permitting Satan to roam free does not further his goal of giving humans a free choice between good and evil – instead, it actually decreases their freedom, by making it possible for them to fall through misstep or mistake rather than as a conscious, willed choice.

Surely, we do not need the temptation of Satan in order to be free. If we have free will, then a person still has the ability to choose evil, regardless of whether there is outside temptation urging them that way. (In the last of the Left Behind books, set in Christ’s millennial kingdom, vast numbers of people still turn to evil even though Satan is locked away from the world at that point.) And, presumably, God does not want us to choose evil, even if he does leave that option open. Why, then, would he not remove as many enticements to evil as possible, to ensure that the greatest number of people make the right choice? God’s decision to let Satan roam free, in the Christian worldview, can only be seen as an act of incompetence or malice. It ensures that more people end up damned than otherwise would have been. If there was any evidence that any of this was true, such a plan of action would cast serious doubt on the goodness of the planner, and raise the question of whether a deity who unleashed a being as evil as Satan on the world would be truly deserving of our devotion or our worship.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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