Is Satan God’s “good and faithful servant”?

Part 4 of my review of The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Gregory Mobley

It remains only for Mobley to consider apocalyptic in the Bible and reveal who—not what—he actually considers chaos to be.  At the start of his book he says that “the chaos monsters return in apocalyptic, only now they are members of a universal, invisible conspiracy dedicated to bedeviling the saints at every turn” (p. 15).  Here at the end of the book we discover that “bedeviling” is meant quite literally:  the chaos monsters are actually “the devil and his demons” (p. 135).  And Mosley adds that “in the apocalyptic hall of mirrors, where nothing is as it appears, it is tempting to read an even deeper conspiracy behind the conspiracy.”  This would actually be a conspiracy between God and the devil.

Mobley asserts that “the devil has taken on so many unpleasant chores of the divine administration,” such as “authoring the repertoire of disasters that thin the herds and forests” (not to mention “thinning” the human population as well?) and “injecting periodic doses of chaos that inspire innovation and new growth.”  Mobley concludes that “Satan is the necessary evil,” and finally describes him in heroic terms, using language that is usually reserved for Christ himself:  “Did the Angel of Light empty himself, bedimming his brilliance, in order to do the dirty work that Michael and Gabriel did not have the dramatic range or courage to handle?”  Mobley’s implied answer is yes, because he suggests that “on the last day,” the “Ancient of Days will call Satan to the dais and say . . . ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’” (pp. 137-138).  (And, presumably, “Enter into the joy of your Lord”?)

At the end of the real story of the Bible, Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, to be “tormented day and night forever and ever.”  So how did Mobley lead us along the supposed “backstory” of the Bible to such a different outcome?

Gustave Doré's depiction of Satan's defeat
Gustave Doré’s depiction of Satan’s defeat

My first response would be, “bad interpretation,” that is, faulty approaches to and uses of biblical passages and books, as I’ve tried to show throughout this series of posts. Certainly Mobley’s deliberate choice not to appreciate the value and conventions of literary genres other than narrative contributes to his missteps through the Bible, which contains many works in these other genres.

But I think there’s an equally important problem:  bad math.  Simply stated, you can subtract from infinity as many finite numbers as you wish—billions of them, in Mobley’s terms—of whatever size, and it still remains infinity.  If God’s “love-energy” is infinite to begin with, then creating finiteness from it will not leave it lacking anything.  Quite the contrary.  Creation is more commonly understood within Christian theology as an expression of God’s creativity that is effectively an expansion of God, not a diminishment.

There’s one more reason why I think Mobley wanders off into “sympathy for the devil” (as the Rolling Stones would say) when he tries to tell the story of the Bible:  he mistakes freedom for chaos.  Freedom is what is actually needed for “change, novelty, drama.”  But this freedom must be exercised within a framework of structure, or nothing will come from it.  No oyster shell, no pearl.

For example, a writer must work within an established genre—even if he or she uses it creatively, meeting some expectations while significantly disappointing others, and even transforming the genre itself in the process—or there can be no meaningful communication with readers, who are working to try to identify what kind of writing they have before them so they can approach it with appropriate expectations.  Creativity (creation) occurs through the dynamic interplay of structure and freedom, not “the dynamic interplay of order and chaos,” as Mobley puts it (p. 9).

Chaos is structurelessness, within which nothing can happen.  It’s the string on your violin snapping just as you’re supposed to start your solo in the concerto.  Chaos is not constructive, it is destructive.  It’s not synonymous with “random” or “free,” terms that only have meaning within the context of structure.  It’s the absence of any kind of meaning-giving structure.

For me this is perhaps the greatest irony in Mobley’s book, since he begins it with a very articulate prologue about storytelling as meaning-making, and what characteristics it must have for that to happen.  “Narratives,” he says, “create chains of events bound by cause and effect along a timeline . . .  This led to that which led to this which led to that.  . . . Once we have a story, we have direction, shape, motive, and episodes.  We no longer have chaos; we have meaning and order” (p. 6).  But what would happen if we tried instead to tell a story through the “dynamic interplay of order and chaos,” that is, if we repeatedly broke the chain of events by introducing things that nothing had led to, and which led to nothing?  I doubt this would be seen as a “necessary evil” within a good story.  Rather, the whole thing would be regarded as a bad story.

So let’s not welcome the chaos monsters back into the Bible.  It’s far too good a story to ruin that way.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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