As if to instantiate the principle of “opposition in all things,” President Russel M. Nelson’s Easter message sat side-by-side with Lil Nas X’s new Satanic music video on YouTube’s “trending” page during Holy Week of Spring 2021. The NSFW music video features Lil Nas X giving a lapdance to a red, barrel-chested Satan.

Also on YouTube’s trending page is an “unboxing” of Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes.” The shoes, which come in a box decorated with Jan Van Eyck’s The Last Judgement, bear a bronze pentagram talisman and an upside down cross on the tongue, and are inscribed with Luke 10:18 near the toes— “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Most controversially, the shoes contain a drop of human blood in the Nike Airmax “air bubble” in the shoe’s heel. 666 pairs of the shoes were sold, each for $1018 dollars. All 666 sold in less than a minute. Pairs of the shoes on Ebay are listed for upwards of $15,000 dollars.

For these stunts, and perhaps also for the critically-acclaimed, six-season Netflix show Lucifer, Satan’s PR guy probably deserves a generous raise. (One wonders what currency Satan uses to pay his PR guy. Doge coin?) But who is Satan’s PR guy? Who’s responsible for making Satan cool? Can we trace the genealogy of Satan’s hip-ness?

It’s the English poet John Milton (1608-1674) and his Romantic-era interpreters who perhaps most deserve the praise (or blame). Milton’s stated purpose in writing Paradise Lost was to “justify the ways of God to men,” but many have argued that this pious goal is undermined by Milton’s too-compelling portrayal of Satan.

The epic poem opens with Satan supine on a bed of tempestuous fire. He pulls himself upright, sending waves of roiling fire in rivulets off his gigantic frame. He unfurls his wings and takes to the muggy air with a mighty flap, lighting on an island in the fire to survey the Hell to which he has been sent: “Is this the region, this the soil, the clime . . . this the seat that we must change for heaven, this mournful gloom for that celestial light?”

He is stoic, even fatalistic, about what he sees: “Be it so.”

Perhaps “farthest from him [God] is best.” After all, Satan reasons, and so greets his new haunt with a stubborn triumph: “Farewell happy fields where joy forever dwells: Hail horrors, hail infernal world, and thou profoundest hell receive thy new possessor.”

After all, the strong-minded can make the best of any circumstance: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” In other words, it’s all a matter of perspective. What does it matter where I find myself, Satan reasons, if I know who I am and what I believe in? And who am I? As good as anyone, except perhaps God himself— and that only because he has the cheap trick of thunder. Equal to God in reason, He excels me only in muscle. I can match Him for brains, if not for brawn.

Furthermore, Satan argues that banishment saves him from the humiliation of subordination or servitude: “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

Looking around, Satan sees the myriads of his fellow fallen angels, all likewise banished because they chose to follow him (Satan) over God. He is visibly moved by their loyalty. His face, scarred by a lightning bolt that sliced his cheek during hand-to-hand battle with the Father, is contorted by emotion:

Care ... sat on his [Satan’s] faded cheek ... his eye … cast signs of remorse and passion to behold ... the fellows of his crime … condemned forever now to have their lot in pain. Millions of spirits for his fault amerced of Heaven, and from eternal splendors flung for his revolt, yet faithful how they stood.

Turning to address them, he is overcome with emotion. Three times he starts to speak, and three times he is choked with tears. Finally, he gathers himself to utter inspiring words of courage and consolation. His speech is full of flattery: Only the Almighty God could have matched your considerable power, he says. What mind could have guessed that a power as great as you all could ever have been repelled? Even now I can’t believe we couldn’t win back heaven if we tried.

Rather than a flat, two-dimensional caricature of evil, Milton’s Satan is ambitious, eloquent, and passionate. Milton’s portrayal of Satan was an artistic innovation that departed radically from previous depictions of the Son of the Morning. As one critic puts it, “Milton’s Lucifer is neither bestial, a reptilian Other, nor the goofy incompetent of a medieval morality play; rather, he’s a conflicted, brooding, alienated, narcissistic self-mythologizer.” Milton’s Satan is, in a word, cool.

Inspired by Paradise Lost, Gustave Dore (1832-2883) portrayed Satan as a chiseled, Apollonian youth in form-fitting, Roman-looking armor. His wings look bat-like and bestial, but his beauty is undeniable: curly hair, lithe limbs, a face no less handsome for the pained expression it wears. There is a kinetic energy in Dore’s paintings: in one, Satan and his minions are tumbling from heaven, tossed by the archangel Michael. In another, Satan has just crash-landed in hell; he is splayed flat from the impact, his sword and shield jolted from his grip lay beside.

During the French and American Revolutions, Romantic-era poets found in Milton’s Satan an analogue for the revolutionary struggle against despotic monarchs. “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil,” wrote Percy Shelley. For Shelley, Satan is a moral and sympathetic underdog who energetically perseveres towards his goals despite great adversity and torture inflicted on him by the heavenly Tyrant.

But it’s not just that Milton’s Satan is compelling; it’s also that Milton’s God pales in comparison and thus is not an attractive alternative. As one Cliffs Notes-like website for lazy but resourceful high school students puts it, in the chatty vernacular of their target audience, “Milton's God is by far the least charming and least interesting character in all of Paradise Lost. Geez, we can't even see God because he's just like a cloud of light or something, always shrouded in mystery, as if he's too stubborn to show himself (it's not really clear, however, that he has anything to show other than a bunch of light).”

Why is Milton’s Satan so hot-blooded and full-bodied while his God is so anemic? Why make Satan the most compelling character of the epic poem? Why give the antagonist the best and most quotable lines? This is what has been called in literary critical circles the “Milton Controversy.”

William Blake’s impish answer was that Milton’s loyalties lay, whether he knew it or not, with the Prince of Darkness: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.”

Stanley Fish’s more persuasive answer to the question is that, by making Satan sympathetic, and by putting into Satan’s mouth fantastic flourishes of rhetoric, the audience is supposed to feel drawn to Satan. This, in turn, is designed to implicate the reader. In the moment the reader feels persuaded by Satan’s silver tongue, the reader recognizes in that very moment his own fallenness and perversity.

Fish’s argument is compelling, but it seems to me that there is another plausible answer to the “Milton Controversy.” Within the limits of conventional classical and credal theism, how could Milton have portrayed God otherwise? Heterodox though he was in many other respects, his wispy God is definitely Nicene. Perhaps even for a literary genius as great as Milton, it is impossible to render an immaterial, impassive, ineffable God except in dull monochrome. The creeds, like a corset, crush the literary lungs.

It’s not that Milton lacked the literary skill to portray the classical or credal God where others might have succeeded in doing so. Dante’s vision of hell and Satan in the Inferno is rendered in vividly horrible technicolor, but his vision of God in Paradiso is, in most critics’ estimation, comparatively washed out. Compelled by classical and credal Christianity to be circumspect about the unknown and ineffable God, the beatific vision of God that is intended as the crescendo of the trilogy is decidedly anti-climactic.

In his polemical defense of a thoroughgoing materialism, Orson Pratt suggested in “Absurdities of Immaterialism” that the logical terminus of the immaterialism of classical or credal theism is atheism: “A being without parts must be entirely powerless, and can perform no miracles. Nothing can be communicated from such a being; for, if nothing gives nothing, nothing will be received. If, at death, his followers are to be made like him, they will enjoy, with some of the modern Pagans, all the beauties of annihilation.” Catholic theologian Stephen Webb glosses Pratt’s essay this way: “An immaterial God is deified nothingness, [Pratt] proclaims. The idea of immaterialism so lessened the reality of God and challenged our ability to experience God that it left the modern world with little to believe in and thus is the primary cause of atheism.”

This goes a long way, I think, towards explaining the appeal of Satan in popular culture, which is to say his coolness. When offered a choice between an immaterial, impassive, incomprehensible, changeless God of credal or classical theism and an (in the popular imagination) embodied, passionate, dynamic, energetic, emotional, and earthy Satan, the appeal of the latter is obvious. We might revise Pratt’s statement by saying that the terminus of immaterialism is not atheism, but Satanism.

Artists, like athletes, are highly attuned to their bodies. For poets, the heartbeat and breath are the model of poetic meter. Painters can credit their paintings to their sensitive eyes and highly developed fine motor skills. And so, perhaps it makes sense that some modern painters and poets find little inspiration in Christian conceptions of an unembodied God, and Christian doctrines that devalue the bodily as corruptible or expendable. Perhaps this is why Lil Nas X (and Percy Shelley and William Blake) choose Satan instead to be their muse.

Christians have vociferously denounced Lil Nas X’s music video and its accompanying shoe, and have been roundly mocked. Many Latter-day Saints, for whom Satan is not just a figurative representation of evil but a real personage, likewise have reason to worry about this elevation of Satan to the position of folk hero. [1] The question is, what might be done about it?

Restored doctrine about the true nature of God is a promising strategy to demythologize or deromanticize Satan—to un-cool him. Restored theology makes God a fitting object of worship and love by proclaiming clearly that God is embodied, dynamic, active, and passionate. He is even now weaving new worlds out of disorderly, chaotic material: raising up mountains and throwing down valleys. He is appropriating material from a collapsing star in one dark corner of the universe to build a world in another. His worlds are innumerable. Our God is not a pale moonbeam but an embodied and passionate God who has arms to embrace us. God is, in some interpretations of LDS thought, even still in the process of becoming: becoming more powerful, more knowledgeable, more glorified. God has body, parts, and passions. And there is also a Divine Woman, our Heavenly Mother! She shares with the Father His dynamism, power, and activity! They love one another, and express Their love in embodied, procreative sexual union. Here I risk sounding like an Evangelical youth pastor, but, alas: God is cool. Satan, by contrast, is unembodied, neutered, static, stuck. Damned.

For William Blake, Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost because he represents passion, desire, and energy. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” William Blake complains that Christianity has demonized the body and the body’s energies. “All Bibles or sacred codes have been the cause of the following errors,” he writes.

  1. That man has two real existing principles, viz., a Body and a Soul.
  2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul.
  3. That God will torment man in Eternity for following his Energies.

Blake instead longed for a theology that recognized that to be human is to be both soul and body. He longed for a theology to celebrate the energies of the body as holy and God-given. Perhaps it is presumptuous, but I like to think that William Blake will be an eager convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the spirit world. I think the Restored Gospel, which dares to imagine an embodied God who (probably) reproduces with an embodied Heavenly Mother to make spirit children, would have a strong appeal to “Brother Blake.” As would Latter-day Saint conceptions of the afterlife as a continuation of Earth life. CoJC heaven is not “a fairy world of spirits, some heaven without substance,” explained Parley Pratt. To the contrary, in heaven men and women of “immortal flesh and bones … will eat, drink, converse, reason, love, walk, sing. [and] play on musical instruments.” I like to think that the author of “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” would find this “marriage of heaven and earth” in CoJC theology amenable to his own love of an embodied, material mortality.

For what it’s worth, I do not think that Latter-day Saint visual artists have risen to the occasion to produce art that captures the radical implications of the Restored Gospel. In CoJC art, Heavenly Father is portrayed as embodied, but his dynamism, energy, and activity are rarely (if ever) captured. Heavenly Father is often portrayed as rigidly stiff—as if uncomfortable in the exalted body He inhabits. Del Parson’s "The First Vision", the artistic rendering of the First Vision most familiar to Latter-day Saints, is emblematic of the general trend: Heavenly Father stands stiffly and vertically erect, and somewhat lamely shrugs towards Christ at His side. I hesitate to criticize such an iconic image, important to so many. But to me the picture reduces the God of glory to an awkward, unphotogenic high school prom date who doesn’t know what to do with His hands. He looks somewhat like Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens; but more to the point, he looks like Platonism personified. The Parson painting may capture the Father’s dignity, but also imputes to him an inertness that is alien to His dynamic character.

There are some notable exceptions. Paul Forster’s 1980 depiction of the First Vision, much less well-known, is much more kinetic. With one dramatic gesture of authority, he commands Satan to depart from the intimidated Joseph; the other hand is placed lovingly on Christ’s shoulder. His whole person is in motion— especially his hair, flung forward and suspended in air with the force of his dismissal of Satan.

Rose Datoc Dall’s “Worlds Without Number” depicts Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother in the very act of creation. There is an intimacy between our Heavenly Parents: they stand close together, almost embracing. There is a naturalness and grace to their posture. They are in motion: Heavenly Mother’s head is tilted upwards, exposing a graceful neck. Like jugglers deftly keeping colored balls aloft, our Heavenly Parents juggle jostling planets. Together, They wield the Priesthood to sustain and move and organize the swirling and chaotic cosmos.

Walter Rane’s “Jehovah Creates the Earth” is a model for a CoJC art that captures the dynamism of deity. Suspended above some molten star or other, Jehovah-Christ’s posture is less awkward prom date and more Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I do not mean to kid. Really, Rane’s portrayal is more kinetic, more dynamic, more exciting—dare I say more cool? But whether cool or not, it seems to me a more fitting depiction of deity, as it more closely accords with latter-day revelation about the true nature of our dynamic, embodied God. This God could command even the attention and affection of Percy Shelley or William Blake— perhaps even Lil Nas X.


[1] Mary Harrington has recently argued in a startling essay that “post-Christian America is an increasingly Satanist regime.” Harrington traces the genealogy of today’s “untrammeled individualism” from the Reformation to the Romantics, and from Friedrich Nietzsche to Ayn Rand to occultist Aleister Crowley and Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. She writes, “If being deliberately anti-Christian pour épater la bourgeoisie feels exhausted, for the new, post-Christian bourgeoisie Satan now reads like the good guy. And in the hands of this class, the Devil’s proverbial pride, self-regard and refusal to yield isn’t just celebrated — it’s on its way to becoming the established religion of the United States of America.” [Back to manuscript].


“$1,018 Nike "Satan Shoes" by Lil Nas X Unboxing.” Youtube, uploaded by A Sneaker Life, 28 March 2021,

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Dickson, EJ. “We Asked Satanists What They Think of the New Lil Nas X Video.” Rolling Stone, 26 March 2021. me-video-church-of-satan-1147634/

Doré, Gustave. “Illustrations of Paradise Lost.”

Fish, Stanley E. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost.". London: Macmillan, 1967. Print.

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“The Peace and Hope of Easter | President Russell M. Nelson Palm Sunday Invitation.” Youtube, uploaded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 28 March 2021,

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Full Citation for this Article: Wozniak, Corey (2021) "Who Made Satan Cool?: Lil Nas X in Context," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 3 (Fall 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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