BibleArcheology 07/18/11

A Visit to the Seat of Satan

What is the strangest thing your boss has ever asked you to do?


In my job, with my boss, there would normally be several assignments fighting for that title, but this one came along and topped them all.


One day, about two years ago, my boss, Gordon Robertson, sat down in my cubicle and announced that he had a great new story idea.


Let’s investigate the Seat of Satan.


Yes, well… I’m going to need to hear that one again.


It took about five minutes of explanation to sell me on the idea. Gordon had been reading the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor in Revelation and had wondered what had won the city of Pergamum the titles of “Seat of Satan” and “the place where Satan dwells.”


If I had been studying Revelation instead of Gordon, that would have been the moment when I would have turned the channel on that horror movie and moved on to something lighter. (Random thing you should know about me: when I was eight years old, I went behind my mother’s back and watched a late night broadcast of The Exorcist, and since then, I’ve been plagued by mildly hysterical reactions to anything scary or Satan-y.)


Then Gordon surprised me and went on to make a connection between this “Seat of Satan” and Nazi Germany. That was intriguing to me, so I tested this information on my go-to focus group: my editors and cameramen. Most people groan in premature boredom when they hear a historical documentary is headed their way, but if my editors think a story is cool, then I know it will interest our viewers.


They did.


Over the next two years we talked about it off and on, but countless other projects got in the way. Then last fall, Gordon told me to make the arrangements for a shoot in Turkey. Soon, we were on our way to Satan’s Seat, complete with security and a camera crew. Two days before we got there, I got laryngitis and lost my voice for an entire week. I was trying hard not to attach any unnecessary significance to that.


I’m not sure what I expected to find when we arrived at the ruins of Pergamum. For about a thousand years, people worshiped everything from Greek gods to Roman emperors. When you watch the 700 Club story, you’ll see the horrifically cruel human sacrifices that were performed on this mountaintop. So what would the Seat of Satan look like? Dark, shadowy ruins with clouds, cobwebs and an eerie solo horn playing somewhere in the distance?


Not at all. To my shock, the Seat of Satan was quite beautiful.


In fact, Pergamum is a breathtaking place. More than a thousand years ago, the city was abandoned because of massive earthquakes, but even its ruins show traces of former beauty. Majestic marble pillars, mysteriously placed stones, wide, spreading trees, and a heart-stopping mountaintop view over a misty valley that was still emerald-green, even in November. I love ruins, and this place was irresistible to me. I never felt a shiver down my spine, never looked nervously over my shoulder, never once said to my cameraman, “Get the shot, and let’s get out of here.” (Side note: I have said that on other shoots.)


The other thing that struck me about Pergamum was its steepness. The city’s acropolis was built on the side of a mountain; in fact, the theater sits at a near-90-degree angle, which immediately triggered my vertigo. Once we got our shots at the bottom of the theater, the whole crew started walking straight up the rows of seats to the top. I took one look and said… no, thank you. I’ll take the road. The sun was setting, and as I walked alone up the darkening mountaintop, I got to watch a full moon rise over the Seat of Satan.


And still it wasn’t creepy.


How many of our views of Satan, the antichrist, or the end of the world have been shaped by medieval church tradition, Gothic novels or Hollywood? Or even – and no doubt, I’ll take some heat for this – the Left Behind books? When it comes to Satan, we’ve been programmed to expect horns and a pitchfork. Can we even hear the word “antichrist” without picturing the dreaded Triple-6 inked into someone’s forehead?


Who in his right mind wouldn’t run away from something like that? Satan is far more complex than that; otherwise, he wouldn’t be a threat. He’s no snarling Hollywood fiend; he’s the Great Deceiver, the Master Tempter, the Subtle Questioner. In 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, Paul says that “Satan tries to make himself look like an angel of light. So why does it seem strange for Satan's servants to pretend to do what is right?” (CEV)


Satan won’t always appear as chanting priests throwing Christian martyrs in the midst of a blazing altar, like the Pergamum of 2,000 years ago. Sometimes, he will appear with the subtlety of today’s Pergamum: a cool evening breeze over a mountaintop, a warm ray of afternoon sunlight on a piece of marble, the morning mist over a green valley.


But even that shouldn’t send a chill down your spine, because Jesus’ own brother James provides a simple solution: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) The idea behind the Greek word for “resist” there is just to stand. Don’t struggle, don’t throw a punch, don’t shout a curse, don’t even fall down and play dead: just stand.


Satan is certainly no joke, and his work is nothing to take lightly. But on the other hand, how do you fear someone who gave up his seat to an earthquake… and who runs away at the sight of you just standing there?