These days, to my surprise, people want to talk to me about evil. In a Substack essay from last year, and in my book The Bodies of Others, I raised a question about existential, metaphysical darkness.
I concluded that I had looked at the events of the past two and a half years using all of my classical education, my critical thinking skills, my knowledge of Western and global history and politics; and that, using these tools, I could not explain the years 2020-present.
Indeed I could not explain them in ordinary material, political or historical terms at all.
This is not how human history ordinarily operates.
I could not explain the way the Western world simply switched, from being based at least overtly on values of human rights and decency, to values of death, exclusion and hatred, overnight, en masse — without resorting to reference to some metaphysical evil that goes above and beyond fallible, blundering human agency.
When ordinary would-be-tyrants try to take over societies, there is always some flaw, some human impulse undoing the headlong rush toward a negative goal. There are always factions, or rogue lieutenants, in ordinary human history; there is always a miscalculation, or a blunder, or a security breach; or differences of opinion at the top. Mussolini’s power was impaired in his entry to the Second World War by being forced to share the role of military commander with King Victor Immanuel [https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/fascist-king-victor-emmanuel-iii-italy]; Hitler miscalculated his ability to master the Russian weather — right down to overlooking how badly his soldiers’ stylish but flimsy uniforms would stand up to extreme cold. [https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/hitlers-winter-blunder/]. Before he could mount a counter-revolution against Stalinism, Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City in his bath. [https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/leon-trotsky-assassinated-mexico]
But none of that fracturing or mismanagement of normal history took place in the global rush to “lockdowns”, the rollout of COVID hysteria, of “mandates”, masking, of global child abuse, of legacy media lying internationally at scale and all lying in one direction, of thousands of “trusted messengers” parroting a single script, and of forced or coerced mRNA injections of at least half of the humans on Planet Earth.
I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the madness we saw unveiled since 2020 could not have been brought about by normal history or by ill-intentioned individuals. Human agency alone could not coordinate a highly complicated set of lies about a virus, and propagate the lies in perfect uniformity around an entire globe, in hundreds of languages and dialects. Human beings, using their own resources alone, could not have turned hospitals overnight from having been places in which hundreds of staff members were united in and collectively devoted to the care of the infirm, the prolongation and salvation of human life, the cherishing of newborns, the helping of mothers to care for little ones, the support of the disabled, to killing factories in which the elderly were prescribed “run-death-is-near (Remdesevir)” at scale.
Also look at the speed of change. Institutions turned overnight into negative mirror images of themselves, with demonic policies replacing what had been at least on the surface, angelic ones. Human-history change is not that lightning-fast.
The perception of the rollout, the unanimity of a mass delusion, cannot in my view be explained fully by psychology; not even as a “mass formation.”
There have been other mass hysterias before in history, from “blood libel” - the widespread belief in medieval Europe in the that Jews were sacrificing Christian children to make matzah [https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/blood-libel], to the flareup of hysteria around witches in Salem, MA, in 1692, [https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1098/salem-witch-trials], to the “irrational exuberance” of Tulipmania, also in the 17th century, in the Netherlands [https://www.history.com/news/tulip-mania-financial-crash-holland], detailed by Scottish journalist Charles MacKay in his classic account of group madness, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841).
But all of these examples of mass frenzy had dissidents, critics, and skeptics at the time; none of these lasted for years as a dominant uninterrupted delusional paradigm.
What we have lived through since 2020 is so sophisticated, so massive, so evil, and executed in such inhumane unison, that it cannot be accounted for without venturing into metaphysics. Something else, something metaphysical, must have done that. And I speak as a devoted rationalist.
I concluded that I was starting to believe in God in more literal terms than I had before, because this evil was so impressive; so it must be directed at something at least as powerful that was all good.
At the time I wrote my initial essay, I knew that “Satan” was, at least for me, an insufficient explanation for the evil I saw. One reason that I felt that “Satan” was an insufficient name for what we were facing, is that I am Jewish, and we don’t have the same tradition of “Satan” that Christian Western culture inherits and takes for granted.
In Jewish tradition, this entity’s role is not so much that of the rather majestic adversary of God who appears fully- fledged in the Christian tradition — an elaborated character who was developed subsequent to, as some scholars point out, the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, and then on Christianity, in the years leading up to and after Jesus’ life and death.
In the Old Testament, in contrast, “the Satan” or “ha-Satan” — “the accuser” makes a number of appearances; but “ha-satan” is an adversary or opponent, rather than being the majestic villain of the New Testament, and of course of Dante’s and Milton’s characterizations, that so influenced Western ideas of “the devil.”
The way in which the Hebrew “ha-satan” differs from the Christian Satan is important: “Likewise, in Old Testament Hebrew, the noun satan (which occurs 27x) and the verb satan (which occurs 6x) are often used in a general way. If I “satan” someone, I oppose them, accuse them, or slander them. David uses it this way in the psalms, “Those who render me evil for good accuse [שׂטן (satan)] me because I follow after good” (Ps. 38:21). If I act as a “satan” to someone, therefore, I am their adversary or accuser, as the messenger of the Lord stood in the way of Balaam “as his adversary [שׂטן (satan)]” (Numbers 22:22) or as Solomon told Hiram that he had no “adversary [שׂטן (satan)]” who opposed him (1 Kings 5:4).
Thus, in Hebrew, the noun and verb שׂטן (satan) can have the non-technical meaning of “stand opposed to someone as an adversary.” In the case of Balaam, even the Lord’s messenger was a “satan” to him, that is, a God-sent opponent. That is the first point to keep in mind: unlike in English, where “Satan” always refers to a malevolent being, in Hebrew satan can have a generic, non-technical meaning.” [https://www.1517.org/articles/the-devil-in-the-details-of-the-old-testament-is-satan-in-the-hebrew-bible].
Because our (Jewish) tradition of Satan is more impressionistic than the character who appeared later under Christian narratives, I felt that “Satan” was not sufficient to explain fully the inexplicable, immediate mirror-imaging of what had been our society, from ordered at least on the presumption of morality, to being ordered around death and cruelty. But I did not at that time have a better concept with which to work.
Then I heard of a Pastor named Jonathan Cahn, who had written a book titled “The Return of the Gods.” [https://www.christianbook.com/return-of-the-gods-jonathan-cahn/9781636411422/pd/411429]
The title resonated with me.
Though I don’t agree with everything in his book, Pastor Cahn’s central argument — that we have turned away from the Judeo-Christian God and thus we opened a door into our civilization for the negative spirits of “the Gods” to re-possess us — actually feels right to me.
Jonathan Cahn is a Messianic Jewish minister. He is the son of a Holocaust refugee. Formerly a secular-atheist, Cahn had a near-death experience as a young man that led him to accept Jesus — or, as he refers to this presence by the original Hebrew name, Yeshua — as his Lord and Savior. Pastor Cahn has a ministry based in Wayne, New Jersey, which brings together Jews and Gentiles. [http://bethisraelworshipcenter.org/about%20Us/AboutJC.php]
In The Return of the Gods, his improbable, and yet somehow hauntingly plausible thesis, is that ancient dark and metaphysically organized forces, “the Gods” of antiquity, have “returned’” to our presumably advanced, secular post-Christian civilization.
Pastor Cahn’s theme is that, because we have turned away from our covenant with YHWH — especially we in America, and we in the West, and especially since the 1960s — therefore, the ancient “Gods”, or rather, ancient pagan energies, that had been vanquished by monotheism and exiled to the margins of civilization and human activity — have seen an “open door”, and thus a ready home to re-occupy, in us.
He argues that they have indeed done so.
Pastor Cahn makes use of a parable in the New Testament to make this case. I cite the King James Version:
“43 When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.
44 Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.
45 Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation”. [https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Matthew-12-43/]
Pastor Cahn makes the case that the ancient “gods” were initially, in essence, put on the defensive, as the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) recounts, first by Yahweh, and by the introduction of monotheism and the revelation of the Ten Commandments, and then that they were vanquished altogether and sent into outer darkness, by the arrival to humanity of the being whom he sees as the Messiah, Yeshua.
One might right away resist such a phrasing; what do you mean, “the Gods”? But Cahn is both careful and accurate in his translations and his tracing of four millennia of religious history through a set of phrases.
Cahn accurately points out that the Hebrew Bible refers to what in Hebrew is rendered “shedim” or negative spirits (in modern Hebrew, this word means “ghosts”). Cahn correctly points out that these spirits, powers or principalities were worshipped in the pagan world in many guises — from the fertility god Baal to the goddess of sexuality Ashera or Ashtaroth; to the destructive idol, Moloch. He rightly points out that the ancient world was everywhere consecrated to these dark or lower entities, and that worshippers went to the point of sacrificing their own children to propitiate these forces. He correctly reflects the central narrative of the Tribes of Israel as alternately embracing Yahweh and his Ten Commandments and ethical covenant, and finding it all too taxing, and thus falling away to whore after these pagan gods. He notes that the gods of the Old Testament world descended in updated guise into Greco-Roman life, taking on new names: Zeus, Diana, and so on.
He correctly notes that the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, rendered “shedim” as Daimones. This word is rendered also as “spirit personifications”; we receive this word in English today, as “demons.”[https://www.theoi.com/greek-mythology/personifications.html]
Having correctly traced the lineage of pagan worship and pagan forces, Cahn makes the case that they were never simply overcome by the embrace in the West of Christianity; but rather that they were simply pushed to the margins, the outskirts of Western civilization; weakened by our covenant with God or with Jesus, depending on whom we are.
He argues that these negative but potentially powerful forces have been dormant or suppressed for two millennia, by the Western Judeo-Christian covenant. [https://www.theoi.com/greek-mythology/personifications.html]. And that they have now taken this opportunity, of our turning away from God, and returned.
We, thus, are the house that has been cleaned — by the covenant with the Judeo-Christian commitment. But that we subsequently abandoned the house, he maintains, and left it vulnerable; open, for negative energies to re-enter.
Though it is unfashionable now to talk about our Judeo-Christian founding and heritage in the West, it should not be. It is simply an historical fact. I do not think one needs to be dismissive of or insulting to Buddhism or Islam (which is also part of the Judeo-Christian lineage, but that’s another essay) or Jainism or Shintoism, to acknowledge the fact that the West’s civilization for the past two millennia has been a Judeo-Christian one, and that our Founders in this nation, though rightly establishing religious freedom for all, absolutely believed that they were consecrating and founding a nation in alignment with the will of, and in commitment to the principles of, God as they understood him; the Biblical God.
Cahn cites Puritan Minister Jonathan Winthrop in warning that America’s state of being blessed by God, will last only as long as we hold up our end of the Covenant.
It is worth returning to Pastor Winthrop’s famous speech and to his clear invocation of the covenant that undergirded the foundation of America:
“Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”
Why do I share all of this? Because while it would be easy to dismiss Pastor Cahn’s theory as wacky and fanatical, I have reluctantly come to believe that his central premise may in fact be right.
In the Old Testament, it is not “ha-Satan” who is the most consistently fearsome, treacherous, dangerous figure. It is rather, “the Gods” — that is to say, the ancient, pre-YHWH, pre-Mosaic, pre-Christian gods: our old adversaries in the Hebrew Bible — YHWH’s adversaries. That is to say: Baal, Moloch (or Malek), and Astarte or Ashera.
Those are “the Gods” that traduced, lured, hounded, bedeviled, and seduced my people — again and again. Those are “the Gods” about whom this extraordinary innovation in the human story — the monotheistic God of all - continually, specifically warns us, the Children of Israel.
Those are “the Gods” to whose sacrifice the Children of Israel constantly stray, disappointing and enraging our Creator. Those are “the Gods,” with their child sacrifice and their graven images, against whom our father Abraham rebelled and taught his descendants to rebel. Those are “the Gods” whose acceptance of child sacrifice - a real thing, a barbaric, culture-wide practice that continued for centuries in the tribes and civilizations surrounding the Children of Israel — was supplanted by animal sacrifice, a change and evolution in human civilization that is represented by the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, when the child on the altar is replaced miraculously by a ram provided, at the last moment, by the Lord God.
Those are the “gods” - the sheer amoral power of Baal, the destructive force of Moloch, the unrestrained seductiveness and sexual licentiousness of Astarte or Ashera — that indeed do seem to me to have indeed “returned.”
Or at least the energies that they represent — moral power-over; death-worship; antagonism to the sexual orderliness of the intact family and faithful relationships — seem clearly to have ‘returned,’ without restraint, since 2020.
There may well, I concluded, indeed be negative forces re-appearing that, after two millennia of Judeo-Christianity, we have literally forgotten, in Western civilization, how to identify. It may well be that these negative forces are highly complex, extraordinarily powerful, and stunningly well organized.
It may indeed be the case that they have swept themselves back into our “house” in the West, especially in the past two years.
I do believe that they were able to do so because we dropped our own end of upholding a basic covenant with God.
After having gone back to the Old Testament, it is clear to me that YHWH warned us that this could happen — that we could easily lose his protection and break the Covenant.
He warned us, indeed, of this risk, over and over, in the Hebrew Bible.
GO READ THE WHOLE THING.