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“Nightline” debate to take on Satan in Ballard church

The debate over whether Satan exists is hardly going to be settled in a 30-minute television show.

But that’s not stopping a rather curious lineup from debating that question for ABC’s “Nightline.”

The debaters: megachurch Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle; alternative-medicine author Deepak Chopra; a former Las Vegas escort who founded Hookers for Jesus; and a former Pentecostal preacher who was branded a heretic for saying everyone — not just Christians — could go to heaven.

The four are gathering Friday at Mars Hill Church in Ballard, where Driscoll is preaching pastor, to tape the segment, which will air March 26.

The topic has gotten a few responses of “Say what?” Why, now, is “Nightline” discussing Satan’s existence, and why were these particular people chosen to do so?

For one, the topic can be particularly relevant in troubled times such as these, when people are looking for explanations for economic chaos.

For another: “There’s always an interest in these topics,” said James Goldston, the show’s executive producer.

Not to mention potentially great ratings.

“Every time we’ve done one, the response has been pretty dramatic,” he said.

It’s the latest in a series of “Face Off” debates “Nightline” launched two years ago, bringing together prominent people to debate hot topics. The first one — on the existence of God — is still abcnews.com’s single most commented-upon story, Goldston said.

The idea of doing a debate on Satan came about, in part, through conversations the show’s staff had with Driscoll when doing a profile on him.

ABC also had done stories on Chopra; Annie Lobert, the founder of Hookers for Jesus, which preaches a Christian message to women in the sex trade; and the Rev. Carlton Pearson, an Oklahoma pastor who went from preaching before 6,000 to leading a couple hundred after he rejected traditional Christian beliefs about heaven and hell.

“We went for the most interesting voices we could find,” Goldston said.

All of which makes T.J. Wray, co-author of “The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots,” sigh in exasperation.

“Why don’t they call professionals — the people who write this stuff?” asked Wray, an associate professor of religious studies at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.

It’s unlikely a debate of this type can get into the complex theology and history behind Satan, she said.

Still, the topic is timely.

“Historically, when times are difficult, Satan increases in popularity. People begin talking about him,” Wray said.

“When things are going well, Satan is kind of on the periphery. But when things go wrong, people ask: ‘Why are things the way they are? There must be some evil force in the world.’

“Satan provides a language for us to speak about evil,” she said. “That’s been his historic role.”

For his part, Driscoll believes a literal spirit being named Satan exists and is at work in the world for evil and injustice.

The Bible speaks clearly and repeatedly of Satan, he said.

And “in my own pastoral experience, I have witnessed such great evil and injustice so often that no answer but the existence of a real enemy to good and life makes any sense to me.”

The lineup of debaters, Driscoll said, helps ensure “this is not just an academic debate but also a practical discourse.”

Driscoll and Lobert will be taking on Chopra and Pearson.

Pearson does not believe in Satan as an actual being and discourages people from doing so because “it makes us helpless, paranoid and frightened.”

Human beings themselves create evil and “stupid stuff,” he said. To blame Satan takes away personal responsibility.

“I’ve heard: ‘The devil made me do it.’ Don’t put that on the devil,” Pearson said. “You made that stupid decision yourself. Let’s talk about why you made it.”

In any case, said Wray, the university professor, “to debate this issue is futile. No one’s going to emerge the victor. … It’s the topic that never goes away.”