Understanding and rejecting satan – some ideas to consider

  • This article is based on a talk given by Jon the freelance theologian in June 2010. It is best read in conjunction with the article on evil, posted on freelance theology in February 2010.

    The talk began with a rough “timeline” of what is often taught in churches about satan. An adapted version is shown here:

    In the beginning, God exists alone (but in Trinity). Angels are created. Lucifer is created as one of the angels.

    The world is created. Human beings are created ‘in the image of God’. Lucifer becomes jealous of the relationship God has with human beings and leads an angelic rebellion against God, which fails. Lucifer battles with the arch-angel Michael and is ‘cast down’ from Heaven. (Sometimes this is placed before the creation of the world, with Lucifer jealous of God’s plans to create humanity.)

    In Eden, Lucifer takes the guise of a serpent, and persuades Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, thus sparking off the Fall of Man.

    Later in Genesis, the fallen angels (‘the sons of God’) copulate with the daughters of men and produce a race of ‘giants’, which some creationists think is a reference to dinosaurs. All these creatures presumably die in the Great Flood.

    In the Old Testament, Satan is described as ‘the accuser / adversary’. He accuses Job of only being righteous because God has blessed him. God tests Job as a result. Satan also ‘rises up’ against Israel and incites David into disobeying God (1 Chronicles, chapter 21, verse 1).

    In the gospels, Satan plays a key role. Satan attempts to tempt Jesus with promises of food and power, and tries to trick Jesus into testing God. Jesus tells his disciples that “I saw Satan fall from Heaven like lightning” and refers to satan as “the prince of this world” and “the father of lies”.

    Jesus and his followers cast out many “evil spirits”. Notable exorcisms include ‘Legion’ from the Gadarene Demoniac and the seven spirits from Mary Magdala. Luke’s gospel records that satan “entered” Judas Iscariot, when Judas chose to betray Jesus. Jesus rebukes Peter at one point and calls him satan. (“Get behind me, Satan.”)

    In the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus tells Peter that satan has “requested to sift you like wheat.” Jesus dies on the cross. He descends into hell and liberates the captive souls of righteous people who died under the old covenant – this is called the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ and is referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. Through the resurrection satan is defeated.

    In the Age of the Church, the devil is still active as a tempter and adversary. Typically regarded as ‘lord of hell’, satan is said to rule over various demonic spirits – some of whom dwell in human beings, and others that rule over various territories (‘territorial spirits’). These are also known as ‘principalities and powers’. Christians are called to engage in “spiritual warfare” against these beings.

    In the End Times visions of St John, recorded in Revelation, the devil, ‘all his angels’, a human figure called the antichrist and a monstrosity called the Beast are thrown into the Lake of Fire (“the second death”). Satan is removed utterly from the cosmos.

    This particular ‘history’ of satan is ancient. Tertullian, writing in the second century recounts the story of a prehistoric fall of the angels and Augustine gives an account too.

    But there are a few problems with it, not least of which a lack of Biblical evidence for most of the first bit.

    Being limited by our own understanding of ‘being’
    But before we discuss Biblical references to satan, I’d like to address something that I think is quite crucial regarding how we think about satan or the devil.

    One of the problems we face in trying to understand anything is that we do so informed by our experience as human beings. So when we talk about ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’ we imagine a being a bit like us.

    We imagine a created being with free will, perhaps. We imagine a being with a moral sense of right and wrong. And we use words like ‘rebellion’ to indicate this free will being misused. People may refer to the ‘Fall of Satan’ as if there was some kind of moral choice in the matter.

    Three issues with this are:
    1) We are never told that angels, whether fallen or otherwise, have the same attributes as human beings. ‘Angelou’, the Greek word, literally translates as ‘Messenger’. An angel is a messenger acting on behalf of God. Or, sometimes in the Old Testament, an angel carries out God’s business (e.g. the Angel of Death during Passover). Angels are thus created for a purpose and have no separate existence apart from the purpose they were created for.

    Human beings on the other hand were created in the ‘image of God’, which means they have a separate existence. We can exist separately from God. We can be, in a sense, ‘self-sufficient’. That existence may be lesser, it may be ‘fallen’, it may be less good, but it is still existence.

    2) ‘Personhood’ in the sense that we are persons and individuals is, I think, part of that Godly image that still resides in us. So I don’t think it’s right to regard other beings as ‘persons’. Especially not angels, which, whatever they are, are not human, and are not made in the image of God. We are persons because God is personal.

    3) Regarding ‘Satan’ as a ‘personal being’ implies creation of that being with either a tendency towards evil, or as evil. Regarding ‘Satan’ as a personal being makes God ultimately responsible for the existence of ‘Satan’. But there isn’t much evidence that God created a personal being called ‘Satan’ to cause evil and suffering in the world.

    That has been a viewpoint in Christian theology, as it helps to explain why a personal being called ‘Satan’ exists. But if you don’t accept that ‘Satan’ is a ‘personal’ being in the way that we are personal beings, then you don’t need to invent explanations for why God created such a being.

    Using a lower case ‘s’
    So, having made those points, is it right to talk of the devil or satan as a person? On freelance theology satan is usually written with a lower case s, and the devil with a lower case d, precisely to undermine the ‘personal’ element. And satan is referred to as ‘it’, not ‘he’.

    And the reason for doing that is very simple. As Christians it is right to believe there is a negative spiritual force at work in the world, which opposes God and opposes God’s followers. That viewpoint can be based on the words of Jesus, the tradition of the Church, and sometimes from personal experience.

    But Christian theology insists that God has the mastery over that force; the battle is won and is being won as we speak. The force we call satan has no place in this universe, and ultimately will have no existence to speak of.

    So if we say satan exists, what form does it take? One way to think of it is that satan exists ‘parasitically’. It has no form of its own and seeks to mimic the most powerful things it can. Human beings are immensely powerful. We are made in the image of God and like God we can shape worlds and futures. We have freedom and individuality and conscience and imagination. We exist self-sufficiently.

    When human beings personalise or embody evil in a character or persona called ‘Satan’, we, in a way, give power and validity to the force that opposes God’s plans and purposes and will. Thinking of satan as a being a bit like us is both perfectly natural, and yet wrong, because in doing that we give this opposition form, and voice, and being.

    It’s natural to think of satan as personal, though, because we have a tendency to anthropomorphise. We treat out pets as people. We ascribe human emotions to dogs, cats and hamsters. We even name our cars and talk to our appliances. We caress out phones and iPods. We imbue these things with a sense of us, and they become important to us as a result.

    But even though it’s natural, when it comes to satan it’s wrong, because when we anthropomorphise satan we ascribe it more power, more validity, and more personality than we should. Many Christians believe that ‘Satan’ is a powerful, malevolent, intelligent being bent on their destruction. And for those Christians that may be true. But only because they gave that being form and existence, even if only in their own heads.

    Having said that, let’s return to the traditional view, and some of the problem areas around it:

    Wars and rumours of wars
    There is no real Biblical evidence for a pre-historic ‘war in Heaven’ between rebellious angels and God. Let’s consider the references that are sometimes cited for this, but first two ‘non-references’.

    There is no mention in Genesis, the ‘Book of Origins’, or in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who is probably the biggest source of quotes from Genesis in the New Testament and uses Genesis to support many of his arguments. The ‘Fall’ is a pivotal part of his theology, and he adheres to the Genesis account as literally true. It seems strange that there is no mention of Lucifer’s fall from grace.

    The Old Testament references sometimes used to back this idea up are Ezekiel chapter 28, verses 13-17.

    “You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared.

    “You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones.

    “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.

    “Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones.

    “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendour. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.”

    That does read very much like the traditional view of the Fall of Satan. Thing is, if you look up these verses, they come in a prophetic section labelled “A Prophecy against the King of Tyre”. In fact, verses 11-12 say: “The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’…”

    So, this text may have been applied to satan after it was written to support a tradition of a pre-historic angelic fall. But it probably wasn’t written that way.

    Similarly Isaiah chapter 14, verses 12-15 is about the King of Babylon, which isn’t a metaphorical name for satan. It really was the King of Babylon. This is the section where the name Lucifer comes from. The King of Babylon is called ‘morning star; son of the dawn’ – or in Latin, luciferous.

    In the New Testamant we have three possible references to a pre-historic angelic rebellion.

    Firstly, Jesus tells his disciples that “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning” (Luke chapter 10, verse 18). However, this conversation takes place just after the 72 disciples had gone out and done amazing acts of healing and exorcism.

    Jesus may be referring to what has just happened – the actions of the disciples have pushed back the effects of evil. There is no way of knowing whether it’s a reference to a pre-historic fall, or whether Jesus is just using it as a symbolic way of saying ‘yeah, you have guys have done God’s work, and you have done good.’

    The other NT references are:
    Jude, verse 6 “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgement on the great Day.”

    2 Peter chapter 2, verse 4 “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, [Greek: ‘Tartarus’] putting them into gloomy dungeons [or chains of darkness] to be held for judgement.”

    These two verses present their own difficulties. Jude also refers to the devil ‘disputing’ with the archangel Michael over Moses’ body (verse 9) and a prophecy of Enoch (verses 14-15). Neither is found in the Old Testament. It appears the writer of Jude is using stories from Jewish legend to appeal to those he is writing to. So, how much credence we should give any of the stories he refers to is a matter of personal opinion.

    The 2 Peter reference may well refer to the strange reference in Genesis chapter 6, verses 1-2. “When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.” However, this occurred after the creation events and the ‘Fall of Man’ in Eden, not beforehand. So the chronology is out of sync.

    In fact, the only clear reference to a ‘war in Heaven’ is found in Revelation chapter 12, verses 7-9. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

    Confusingly, though, this is in John’s vision of the future, not the past. So the only clear reference to this idea locates the fall from Heaven at a future point. And, in addition, care needs to be taken in the use and interpretation of apocalyptic writings, because they are highly symbolic and may not have been designed to be read in any way literally in the first place.

    There are good reasons for believing in a pre-historic ‘fall’ of angels. It offers an explanation of sorts for the existence of a negative spiritual force known as satan. It also locates satan firmly within the created sphere – evil is not something breaking into, or impinging upon, creation. God’s mastery over satan is assured because God has created the sphere in which satan has arisen.

    So there are good reasons, even if there are no good Biblical reasons.

    “The old serpent…”
    And so to the Eden story, where satan is often identified as one and the same as one of the main protagonists: the serpent. As I’ve already said, there is nothing in the Eden narratives to suggest a pre-historic fall of angels, and similarly there is no textual evidence that the serpent is satan. Apart from the fact that it talks to Eve, it’s an ordinary serpent.

    There’s no way to know exactly who first identified the serpent as satan. When Paul refers to it in 2 Corinthian’s chapter 11, verse 3, he doesn’t make the link. However, in Revelation, John identifies satan as ‘that old serpent’, twice (Revelation chapter 12, verse 9, and chapter 20, verse 2). So, this idea has some New Testament provenance, but equally there are other things it could be.

    The Genesis creation stories have borrowed a lot of language and style from Babylonian creation myths (see this previous article on freelance theology). In Babylonian mythology, there are dragons (serpents) and they represent chaos. The article about evil mentioned that one way of looking at evil is that God imposes order on chaos, but chaos fights back. Isaiah uses the imagery of Leviathan, “the serpent of the sea” to represent chaos, and God’s mastery over it, in Isaiah chapter 27, verse 1.

    So, is the reference to a serpent a creative way of expressing something else? A serpent represents destruction and chaos. Disobeying God brings destruction and chaos (the ‘Fall’ and the introduction of sin into the world). The serpent of Eden may be a ‘literary device’ to warn the reader about the perils of doubting God’s words.

    Satan the lawyer
    The Job story is very interesting. Satan appears to be allowed into Heaven. Satan comes, like a lawyer, to bring a case against Job. Job, it is claimed, is only so righteous because God has blessed him – God is ‘buying his love’. God accepts it may look that way and removes all of Job’s blessings. Job does not recant his faith in God and his righteousness is proven to all.

    It’s noticeable that Satan appears to fulfil a similar function in Zechariah chapter 3, verses 1. “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.”

    Jesus and satan
    Without a doubt Jesus referred to satan as a personal being or described satan as having personal attributes. Jesus’ ministry is marked by significant temptations, spiritual encounters, exorcisms, and references to satan as ‘the prince of this world’ and ‘the father of lies’.

    As an aside, it is worth pointing out that even as God incarnate, Jesus was born into a culture that believed in the existence of ‘Satan’ as a personal being. In his human-ness it would be only natural for Jesus to think of ‘Satan’ this way. We need to exercise caution about saying that the way Jesus talks about ‘Satan’ is an indicator that ‘Satan’ exists that way.

    But the life of Jesus does reveal some very clear indicators about the nature of satan. There are several different ways of interpreting these key events and I just want to throw out a few of them:

    The Temptation
    This is an important part of Jesus’ life at the start of his ministry. He knows who he is, and has had that confirmed at his baptism. Now he must decide what kind of messiah he is going to be?

    Is he going to use his power to look after his own needs (bread)? Is he going to be a military leader (commanding angels)? Is he going to be a political leader (ruling countries)? All three options are open to him.

    However, the accounts don’t really talk about Satan in any external way. “The tempter” ‘comes to’ Jesus, in the same way that thoughts come or doubts come. These ideas take the form of ‘You could make bread’. Jesus identifies it as a wrong thought.

    How did his followers know about the temptation he faced? He must have told them. He may have identified these thoughts as satanic, because they are not relating to the way of God. So we can look at this ‘spiritual experience’ as an internal experience without losing any of the power or the meaning, or the wonderful truth that Jesus chose to go God’s way.

    I’m not trying to explain away the Temptation of Jesus as ‘he was hearing voices’. What I’m trying to show is that the fact of Jesus being tempted by the devil, is not evidence of the devil’s self-sufficient existence. To put it another way, the devil wasn’t waiting for Jesus in the desert. If Jesus had not gone out there, satan would have ‘come’ to him in another place.

    Exorcism and liberation
    I think its very interesting that exorcisms are carried out by Jesus in much the same context as healings. They have very similar effects. For example, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and she gets up and starts to make them dinner (Luke chapter 4, verses 38-39). She gets back to normal. Jesus drives out Legion from the Gaderene demoniac and then the next vignette is of Jesus sitting chatting with the man who is now in his own mind (Mark chapter 5, verse 15).

    A way of looking at the exorcism of evil spirits is to regard them like sickness. These are people who have been profoundly affected by something that goes against the will of God. Sickness is not in the original plan of God therefore Jesus opposed sickness and cured people. Possession by something other than God is also not in God’s original plan, so Jesus opposes it and drives it out.

    But note how these ‘demons’/’evil spirits’ are defined only within a context of ‘occupying’ things that exist – mainly humans. Legion is interesting. Legion begs not to be destroyed and asks to be driven into the pigs (Mark chapter 5, verse 12). This (slightly bizarre) story seems to imply that the evils spirits can’t exist apart from a ‘host’.

    Peter = satan?
    What does Jesus mean when he calls Peter ‘Satan’ in Matthew chapter 16, verse 23? Is he identifying the ‘opposition’ in Peter – the adversary that was thinking and acting counter to God’s plans?

    This is the same kind of thing that affected Judas. It’s interesting that Luke claims that satan entered Judas when Judas decided to betray him (Luke chapter 22, verses 3-6). It was as if, at the point when Judas fell out with Jesus, Judas fell under the influence of something else.

    ‘Spiritual warfare’ and the power of satan in the age of the Church
    Throughout the New Testament the influence and ‘power’ of satan is regarded as temporary. The Revelation of John predicts an end to satan, and claims that in the new heaven and new earth there will not be any ‘sea’ – again a word that could be read as a reference to the primordial chaos.

    God will put an end to sin and suffering, death and chaos. Order will be restored, the order that always meant to be there. Satan, whatever satan was, will be out of the picture.

    In Ephesians chapter 6, verse 12 Paul talks about battling against spiritual forces, ‘principalities and powers’, and often that is interpreted literally, as if there are areas of the world controlled by particular demons. That’s not particularly helpful as it breeds a ‘devils under the bed’ mentality, where we ascribe everything that goes awry as part of a satanic plan to oppose us. The danger in that is we spend all our time looking for demons at work, and too little time looking for God at work.

    Paul may be speaking metaphorically. Yes, he was talking about those things that oppose the will of God, but he wasn’t laying out a systematic demonology. This is a rhetorical exhortation to suit up as a soldier for God and resist evil wherever you find it.

    In fact, you could say that a phrase like “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” implies that the first three are human, worldly elements. Maybe we have missed the point of Paul’s words by overly spiritualising them and applying them only to ‘spiritual warfare’.

    So, what is satan?
    Satan as a ‘function’
    The problem is that we think of Satan in personal terms – to the point where we write Satan or the Devil with capital letters as proper nouns, as if those words were proper names.

    But what evidence do we have that those are proper names. In Job, the accuser / adversary is a function; a role, not a name. Is satan a function?

    When Jesus is tempted by satan, is this just ‘testing’. Is ‘Satan’ a personalisation of a function within creation? Is satan an in-built element of creation that holds it to account? It tests. It’s a stress-test. And when it gets out of hand there are problems.

    I think there is an element of truth to this. I think it can be helpful if you want to maintain that satan is a semi-personal force that is allowed to exist in opposition to God. It does tie in with the idea of satan tempting humans. It does allow you to think of satan as force with its own existence and more than just parasitically drawing on existence.

    Satan as the ‘nothing option’
    Another way of regarding satan is that idea of chaos, interloping into order. We have two potential alternatives: order and chaos, or lets call them existence and nothing. God creates order, according to Christian theology. God calls existence into being – ‘creatio ex nihilo’, or creation from nothing, is a standard starting point for most systematic theologies – and the alternative is non-existence.

    For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume the literal truth of the Genesis story about the Fall of Man. When Eve doubts God’s words, and acts in accordance to her own wisdom, trouble follows. She makes a choice – a wrong choice – and something is set up apart from God. But what can be apart from God, and yet exist? Nothing can, according to Christian theology, so trusting in anything – ‘leaning on your own understanding’ – is an exercise in trusting in nothing.

    When Eve chose to trust something other than God, she chose the path of non-existence. She is warned that is she disobeys God she will surely die. Death is ceasing to live; to exist. She disobeys God and non-existence enters the existing world, bringing with it discreativity and chaos. Or evil, if you want to call it that.

    Satan then is this ‘option’. If you choose not-God, non-existence, then you choose to be apart from God and to be in opposition to God. Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’ when Peter is expressing terms that are counter to God’s plan. This is how satan ‘enters’ into Judas, because Judas sets himself in opposition with Jesus who is God incarnate. For whatever reason Judas chose to do it, in that choice satan enters him and he becomes the enemy of Christ.

    The frightening thing about this is that all human beings have the capacity to be either divine or satanic, depending on which side of the barricades we choose to stand.

    Satan as anything that opposes God

    A third way of making sense of satan is to define it as anything that is not of God. Doubting God, opposing God, self-worship, idolatry, falsehood, sin, all of it could be classed as satanic because it is in opposition to God.

    In the verse already quoted from Ephesians we are to stand “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. Anything that is arraigned against God is ‘of the devil’. That’s the stuff we label as satan. And sometimes that may include persons and cults of personality, and in that sense the devil may take on personality, but only ‘borrowed’ as it were, from corrupted persons.

    So, should we believe ‘in’ the devil?

    I would say, no. Even if I’m wrong and there is a real, spiritual entity who was thrown out of Heaven before the creation of the world, and has subsequently messed up the whole of human existence, I would still say ‘No’.

    If anything we must believe ‘against’ the devil. We must deny satan or lucifer or the devil or whatever we call it, its validity. One way we do that is be refusing to think of it as a personal being.

    We must say ‘whatever this is, it has no reason to exist’. Whether it’s a fallen angel, or a sinful system, or a parasitic incursion into our universe, we need to say ‘no, we do no recognise the legitimacy of anything or anyone who would seek to oppose our God.’

    I said earlier the battle is won, and it is being won. We know where the devil will end up. There is no place for it in the renewed cosmos. There may still be a struggle in this world. The promise is there will be no such struggle in the next.

    So when we think of the way things should be, there should be no place for the devil.

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  • 1 comment

    1. Matt Jun 6

      Well said 🙂

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