The origin (or fall) of satan

  • Question from BG, USA

    The two primary accounts of the Devil before the Fall that I have been able to find are in Isaiah 14 and Ezekial 28. In John Gill’s commentary on Ezekiel 28, he equates The King of Tyrus (or the Prince of Tyre) as being a form of Antichrist and compares him with the Catholic Pope. Matthew Henry believes Ezekiel 28 is a kind of ‘allegory’ for the devil. My translation of the Bible actually uses the word ‘Lucifer’ in Isaiah 14, but other translations do not. In neither chapter is any reference to the Devil even made outside of that one word, Lucifer, which only appears in the translation that I use and none other that I’ve seen. One could also legitimately suggest all Isaiah is referring to is the fall of Nebuchadnezzar. So the main question is why are those two chapters even used to explain the pre-fall existence of the Devil when the Devil isn’t otherwise mentioned but an actual human King? I realise that I am questioning a common interpretation of scripture, but it’s hard to understand ‘how’ one could come up with these interpretations. Any help in this area would be appreciated.

    The ‘career of Satan’ is a term used to describe the theological development of a belief in a literal devil, or adversary. In A Theology of the Dark Side [published by Paternoster Press in 2002], British scholar Nigel G. Wright notes that the ‘Satan syndrome’ seeks to explain evil in terms of a personal entity. “The powers of negation and death at loose in the world are never quite overcome by Yahweh… This sense of a powerful adversary to God’s creation become sharpened and honed in the New Testament. It exists in the world as an objective reality, as the devil, or Satan, or the ‘prince of this world’.” [Wright, op. cit. p.2]

    The simplest explanation for the reason these Old Testament references to earthly kings are linked with Satan’s downfall is that the story of Lucifer, an angel of light, overstepping his authority, and being cast out of Heaven as a result, is a very potent myth.

    There is no doubt that in the gospel accounts, Jesus referred to Satan as an objective reality during his earthly ministry. Given this it was natural for early Christian theologians to try and find previous references to Satan in the Old Testament, just as they sought to find references to Jesus Christ. Sometimes these are fairly obvious, other times a certain amount of flexibility and imagination is used in interpreting the older texts as references to Satan.

    The reason the reference in Isaiah chapter 14, verse 12, is often seen as a reference to Satan’s fall, is because it is echoed by Jesus in Luke chapter 10, verse 18. When the disciples Jesus sent out in chapter 11, verse 1, returned to him they told him that “even the demons submit to your name” (verse 17). Jesus replies “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (verse 18). It is fairly easy to see the logical connection between Jesus’ description of Satan’s fall, and the reference in Isaiah.

    Babylon is frequently associated with opposition to God’s divine rule, e.g. in Revelation, and regularly in later Christian thought, so putting the ‘King of Babylon’ and Satan together makes some sense.

    A different interpretation of Jesus’ words is that, instead of referring to a prehistoric angelic fall from grace, Jesus saw Satan overcome by the actions of the disciples on their ministry tours. If Satan was popularly believed to be the “ruler of the Kingdom of the air” (as Paul refers to him in Ephesians chapter 2, verse 2), then it may be that Jesus was referring to the disciples’ victory over Satan causing him to fall from his place of dominion (i.e. the air/‘heaven’), not to an event in the far distant past.

    The idea of a prehistoric fall of individual angels from among the angelic host is widely held even today in many churches. However, it does seem to be based on an interpretation of key Biblical passages that enables the interpreter to read certain things back into the text.

    Matthew Henry’s comment linking the oracle against the King of Tyre in Ezekiel chapter 28 with Satan’s downfall, shows how much this story of an angelic fall has permeated the consciousness of Christian tradition. There is no reason from the text to believe that this is allegorically referring to Satan.

    The definite Old Testament mention of Satan, as a personal being, in the prologue to Job does not reflect the idea of a fallen angel cast out of heaven (see Job chapters 1 and 2). Here Satan is an ‘accuser’, but still a being with access to the Heavenly court. It is worth pointing out, as well, that Satan is listed alongside the angels (chapter 1, verse 6, and chapter 2, verse 1) as a separate and distinct entity.

    In Jewish interpretation the ‘serpent’ of Eden is identified with humanity’s lower nature, with Adam and Eve succumbing to ‘base desires’. It is only in Christian thought that the serpent is routinely identified with Satan (see Wright, op. cit. p.56), mainly because in Revelation chapter 20, verse 2, Satan is described as “that great serpent”.

    The serpent or snake was symbolic of chaos in ancient Middle Eastern theology, so it may be that the serpent’s appearance in the Genesis story alludes to the idea that God brought order out of chaos. Sin and evil are therefore the lingering effects of chaos that somehow impinge on God’s world.

    But it remains easier for human beings, as personal beings, to envision a personal Enemy, and it would seem that many people find that Enemy written about in the Old Testament, mainly because they have gone looking for him.

    Thanks for your question BG.

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