March 26, 2009 -- The concept of Satan provokes strong emotions, and sparks a series of fundamental questions about good and evil, about human nature, and about the nature of God.
The question of whether Satan exists is one of the most contentious theological debates possible, and last week four fascinating, polarizing people from around the country convened in Seattle to tackle that topic in the third "Nightline" Face-Off.
According to one poll, 70 percent of Americans believe Satan is real. Some believe he -- and almost all believers say Satan is a "he" -- is a fallen angel. Others believe Satan is a shapeless, malevolent force; the enemy of God. But there are also many people who believe that Satan is a myth, and a dangerous one, because his name is often invoked to justify unspeakable acts of violence.
The Face-Off was hosted at Mars Hill Church, and the church's pastor, Mark Driscoll, argued that Satan does exist. Driscoll is a hip yet hard-line preacher with a young, often tattooed following to whom he preaches a strict doctrine, in which the devil figures prominently.
"It could get intense," Driscoll said of the debate. "It could get passionate. But as long as it doesn't become personal then I think it's OK."
Driscoll's teammate for the evening was Annie Lobert, who arrived in Seattle from her home in Las Vegas -- otherwise known as Sin City.
"I don't have a theologian background, but I have 16 years of experience of walking with the Devil so I know he's real for sure," she said.
Lobert is a former prostitute who says she used to see the Devil in the eyes of her johns. Her organization, Hookers for Jesus, ministers to sex workers.
"When people don't believe the devil is real, I feel, my opinion is, they are deceived," she said.
Lobert felt she could "definitely" change minds by "talking from the heart, from experience."
On the other side of the debate was Bishop Carlton Pearson, a former fundamentalist preacher who says he used to cast demons out of his followers.
"What's interesting about this thing tonight is that I've been on both sides," he said. "I was a staunch 'believe it my way or go to hell' kind of preacher for the first half of my life. And I never liked it."
After watching a video of the Rwandan genocide, Pearson said he realized all those people would not be going to hell just because they weren't saved. He declared he no longer believed in the devil or hell, and was called a heretic and lost his church.
He said his views are seen in the evangelical community as "treasonous is some ways. It breaks people's hearts."
Arguing alongside bishop was Dr. Deepak Chopra, a physician and best-selling author of dozens of books and videos on health and spirituality.
"My position is that we have a huge problem with what people call evil in the world and they need a good rational explanation and not an irrational mythical explanation," he said.
"I am not going to do anything to offend [the other side]," he said. But I still have to speak my own truth."
'Healthy People Do Not Need Satan'
At the church, volunteers and security guards prepared for a crowd of more than a thousand people.
"Nobody in the Bible talks about hell or Satan more than Jesus," said audience member Mike Garcia. "If Jesus talks about Satan and the reality of hell, then it has to be true."
"I guess if Satan himself shows up, then I will say well, I guess you are right," countered Danielle Wilken. "But otherwise I don't think you can convince me that you can go to hell and there would be Satan."
The debate quickly turned contentious as all four participants presented uncompromising positions.
Driscoll opened by saying that the dichotomy between Satan and God "is the essential belief of Christianity, that Satan is real but so is Jesus, and he works out all things for good and ultimately he will redeem all that has been lost through Satan, sin and death."
Chopra, on the other hand, said that "Healthy people do not have any need for Satan. Healthy people need to confront their own issues, understand themselves and move towards the direction of compassion, creativity, understanding, context, insight, inspiration, revelation and understanding that we are part of an ineffable mystery. …So I would say be done with Satan and confront your own issues."
Lobert began with her personal story: "I am a former escort, prostitute, stripper, what have you...and I lived this lifestyle for 16 years. I saw 10 of my friends die. A night came in my life where I faced death. I OD'd on cocaine because I hated myself and I kept hearing voices to tell me to kill myself," she explained.
And then Lobert said she realized," that [it] wasn't coming from inside of me. There was a diabolical force speaking to me and I truly believe it was the Devil and his demons, and the Devil almost got my life. You know, that night I made myself real to God and I asked him to come into my heart and save me. Save me from him, myself and the bad decisions I had made, and he did."
"I'm from four generations of Demon caster-outers," Pearson countered. "I had tremendous faith in the Devil and his power and his omnipresence … I have reassessed all of that and I think that the best way to get people free is to get them to stop believing so much in this hairy, horny, freaky, scary, omnipresent entity and it will not manifest the way we have believed it to. And that will bring an element of peace."
Belief vs. Experience
"I don't think of him as the man with the horns or the weird gargoyle face or anything like that," Lobert said. "My experience personally I never saw his face. I saw demons and I don't even want to tell you what they look like. I was held down by demons at night, raped by them. I know this might sound crazy to some of you but it really happened and it happens to a lot of the women in the sex industry."
When asked why a loving God would create Satan, Driscoll said it comes back to the concept of free will.
"For there to be virtue, there must be the possibility of vice and that's what distinguishes those of us, people and angels, from other forms of creation, trees, animals and the like," he said. "I think if you don't allow choice, the theologians will say you don't have love."
Chopra found that philiosophy to be "in contradiction to what we know about the physical universe that began about 13.8 billion years ago in something called the Big Bang. I've been hearing all this terminology. How come you're all so convinced that God is a He and Satan is a He?" Chopra asked the panel.
"The point is how come we have these ideas that are so mythical, that are so primitive?" Chopra continued. "Why don't we understand that so-called evil is a part of ourselves? Annie said it so elegantly when she said, 'I was full of guilt... of shame.' That's what she's confronted. Now you want to put that guilt and shame to some mythical identity out there, and yet you did that, but then you took responsibility for your own self. Why don't you give the credit to you, rather than, you know, to some mythical figures out there that came from the outside as forces?"
"I truly believe that the Devil was in my life because God wanted to show me how much He really loved me. And I can't explain it any other way," she replied.
Well, what convinces you that God is a He?" Chopra asked again. "My God is not a sexist God. Thank God."
There are numerous references to Satan and demons in the Bible, but Pearson said that you can believe parts of the Bible while turning away from others.
"The Bible is a several-thousand-year-old document and we have none of the original letters, none of the original manuscripts," he said. "And I do not believe it is the inspired word of God as much as I believe the inspired word of man about God as best as man can perceive."
"All I have to say is belief is a cover-up for insecurity," Chopra said. "If something is real, you don't have to believe in it. You should be able to experience it. And the most fervent believers in the world are the cause of all the problems in the world right now, OK?"
"Unfortunately there are religious institutions that have actually idealized guilt and shame and made it into a virtue," Chopra went on. "They have created institutions around guilt and sin and shame and disgust with our own self. And when we obsess over these things and we collectively create this obsession then we project it out there as this mythical figure that we call Satan."
Audience Questions the Panel
As the debate progressed, Chopra tangled not only with his fellow panelists but also with the crowd. One audience member suggested that one cannot believe in God without believing in Satan.
The "problem, my friend, is as soon as you define God you limit God," Chopra replied. "Any image of God is a limitation because if God is infinite then God is beyond your imagination because you cannot imagine the infinite. For you to define God and give him these simple qualities is to actually limit God. God is beyond good and evil. God is transcendent."
Another audience member pressed Chopra his own experience and interpretation of God.
"God is our highest instinct to understand ourselves," Chopra said. "It's my interpretation. I can only express my experience. I'm not denying you your experience. …mine is more consistent with our understanding of biology and our understanding of evolution and our understanding of the laws of Nature, in my opinion."
When it came time for closing statements, Lobert became emotional.
"God's love, it's not about arguing and the Devil -- and they're both real and you can't have one without the other. In my personal experience I believe this to be true. I can't say this for everyone in this audience or for the entire world, but I know that God's in my heart and I love people and the only way I could see God was to know that the Devil was real and that's my truth that God showed me."
For Driscoll, the experience was fun.
"That was great fun," he said. I loved it."
"My hope would be just that people would reexamine their beliefs. Particularly if they are not Christian. To go back to considering some of the issues of Christianity and Jesus. You are not going to change someone's mind with one debate or one television show. But you can set them on a course of action whereby they study and maybe come to some new conclusions."