How could sinful Satan enter God's presence in the Book of Job?
Scripture tells us far less about Satan than we sometimes realize, but one thing we know for sure is that Satan is the Bible’s bad guy. He’s the antagonist. He’s the adversary. He is the anti-thesis of everything we know about God. When we couple these facts with the traditional belief that nothing sinful can enter the presence of God, a story like the one told at the beginning of the Book of Job creates a terrible tension [In Job 1:6 & 2:1, angels came to present themselves before the LORD and Satan tagged along].
It seems to me we have at least a few good reasons to question the traditional belief that nothing sinful can enter the presence of God. First, this story flat-out contradicts that belief (hence the question). Second, the incarnation flat-out contradicts it (Jesus was fully God yet hang out with sinners all the time). Third, the doctrine of God’s omnipresence flat-out contradicts it (Christians believe God is everywhere which, of course, includes many places contaminated by sin).
If this traditional belief is mistaken, where did it come from? I can think of two verses that might give Christians this false impression. One is from the Old Testament and the other is from the New Testament. Let’s take a closer look at both.
In Habakkuk 1:13, the prophet says to God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.” This statement is often used as a proof-text for the traditional belief, but when we look closer we see that it proves no such thing. Habakkuk is expressing his belief, but he admits it is in tension with his experience. In the very next line Habakkuk asks, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?” Obviously Habakkuk is perplexed. In his head is the belief that God cannot reside with wrongdoing, but in his experience he sees that God does exactly that. Obviously his theology is in need of some re-thinking.
When we re-think the original statement, we might notice two things. First, the passage speaks of God’s “eyes.” This is best understood as a metaphor. It is not that God literally has eyes incapable of looking at evil. To say that God simply CANNOT look upon evil would bring into question not only divine omnipresence, but also divine omnipotence. Second, we’d do well to realize that Hebrew writers like Habakkuk often spoke in parallel statements. The “look upon” in the first line, therefore, likely parallels “tolerate” in the second line. The passage is saying, essentially, that God doesn’t approve of evil, which makes sense since God is Holy. It is not saying that evil can’t exist in God’s presence. Thought-through, the tension between Habakkuk's original statement and his experience is released.
A New Testament text sometimes used to support the traditional belief is 2nd Thessalonians 1:9. It says of the wicked that, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” This seems to suggest that hell, at least, will be a place outside of God’s presence. Not so fast! In the Greek, it simply says “they will be punished with eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord.” In other words, it might actually mean that the source of the punishment is the eternal God (not that the punishment IS exclusion from God’s presence, as if that were possible).
In sum, I think the traditional belief that nothing sinful can enter the presence of God is simply mistaken. It is not just that God is CAPABLE of remaining God amidst sin. God actually INSISTS upon entering into sinful fallen humanity in order to serve as a reverse-contagion of sorts. This is the case where tradition has painted a black and white picture of a god who doesn’t seem approachable, whereas Scripture tells the story of a missional God who is light breaking into darkness.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about Satan (I have some interesting theories) and about the Book of Job (one of my personal favorites), but I’ve reached my Q&A Friday word limit!