|The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration|
Contact the author, Duncan Heaster
2-3 Satan And The Devil
Sometimes the original words of the Bible text are left untranslated (“Mammon”, in Mt. 6:24, is an Aramaic example of this). ‘Satan’ is an untranslated Hebrew word which means ‘adversary’, while ‘Devil’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘diabolos’, meaning a liar, an enemy or false accuser. ‘Satan’ has been transferred from the Hebrew untranslated, just like ‘Sabaoth’ (James 5:4), ‘Armageddon’ (Rev. 16:16) and ‘Hallelujah’ (Rev. 19:1-6). If we are to believe that Satan and the Devil are some being outside of us which is responsible for sin, then whenever we come across these words in the Bible, we have to make them refer to this evil person. The Biblical usage of these words shows that they can be used as ordinary nouns, describing ordinary people. This fact makes it impossible to reason that the words Devil and Satan as used in the Bible do in themselves refer to a great wicked person or being outside of us.
J.H. Walton comments upon the word "Satan": "We would have to conclude... that there was little of a sinister nature" in the word originally. The negative associations of the word were what he calls "a secondary development" as a "technical usage". They arose in the interpretations of men rather than from the Bible text itself. He continues: "Based on the use of "Satan" in the OT, we would have to conclude that Israel had little knowledge of a being named Satan or of a chief of demons, the Devil, during the OT period" (1). This of course highlights the fact that the popular idea of the Devil grew over time, and requires to be 'read back' into Old Testament texts. The Old Testament of itself simply doesn't state any doctrine of Satan as a personal being. How come they would be left in ignorance about this matter, if such a being exists and God presumably wishes to inform us about him and save us from him? How much effort did God make to save His people from a personal Satan, if throughout the entire Old Testament He never tells them of him? It should be noted that nearly all the Old Testament instances of the word "satan" refer to an adversary to people rather than to God. The picture of "Satan" opposing God hardly has a Biblical foundation.
George Lamsa grew up in a remote part of Kurdistan which spoke a language similar to the Aramaic of Jesus' times, and which had survived virtually unchanged. He moved to America and became an academic, writing over 20 books of Biblical and linguistic research. Significantly, he came to the conclusion that the idea of a personal Satan was unknown to the Biblical writers, and that Western Christians have built their concept of it on a serious misreading of Biblical passages, failing to understand the original meaning of the word "Satan" and the associated idioms which went with it. Consider a few of his conclusions in this area: "Satan" is very common in Aramaic and Arabic speech. At times a father may call his own son "Satan" without any malicious intent. Moreover, an ingenious man is also called "Satan" (Arabic shitan)" (2). "Easterners in their conversations often say, "He has been a Satan to me", which means that he has caused me to err or mislead me" (3).
The Word ‘Satan’ In The Bible
1 Kings 11:14 records that “The Lord raised up an adversary (same Hebrew word elsewhere translated “Satan”) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite”. “And God raised up another adversary (another Satan)... Rezon... he was an adversary (a Satan) of Israel” (1 Kings 11:23,25). This does not mean that God stirred up a supernatural person or an angel to be a Satan/adversary to Solomon; He stirred up ordinary men. A related word occurs in Gen. 25:21- a well was named 'Sitnah', שטנה , because the well had been a place of contention / opposition. Mt. 16:22,23 provides another example. Peter had been trying to dissuade Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die on the cross. Jesus turned and said unto Peter: “Get behind me, Satan...you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men”. Thus Peter was called a Satan. The record is crystal clear that Christ was not talking to an angel or a monster when he spoke those words; he was talking to Peter.
Because the word ‘Satan’ just means an adversary, a good person, even God Himself, can be termed a ‘Satan’. The word ‘Satan’ does not therefore necessarily refer to sin. The sinful connotations which the word ‘Satan’ has are partly due to the fact that our own sinful nature is our biggest ‘Satan’ or adversary, and also due to the use of the word in the language of the world to refer to something associated with sin. God Himself can be a Satan to us by means of bringing trials into our lives, or by standing in the way of a wrong course of action we may be embarking on. But the fact that God can be called a ‘Satan’ does not mean that He Himself is sinful. The wicked Balaam was opposed by an Angel of God, who stood in the walled path as an adversary, or Satan to him, so that his donkey couldn't pass by (Num. 22:22). This shows that a good being can act as a Satan to a person. Interestingly, the Septuagint translates this with the word endiaballein, 'to set something across one's path'; a diabolos is a person who performs this act. The same idea repeats in the New Testament, where Peter is described by Jesus as a stumbling block across His path to the cross, and thus Peter is a 'Satan' (Mt. 16:23).
The books of Samuel and Chronicles are parallel accounts of the same incidents, as the four gospels are records of the same events but using different language. 2 Sam. 24:1 records: “The Lord...moved David against Israel” in order to make him take a census of Israel. The parallel account in 1 Chron. 21:1 says that “Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David” to take the census. In one passage God does the ‘moving’, in the other Satan does it. The only conclusion is that God acted as a ‘Satan’ or adversary to David. He did the same to Job by bringing trials into his life, so that Job said about God: “With the strength of Your hand You oppose me” (Job 30:21); ‘You are acting as a Satan against me’, was what Job was basically saying. Or again, speaking of God: “I must appeal for mercy to my accuser (Satan)” (Job 9:15 NRSV). The Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament uses the Greek word diabolos to translate the Hebrew 'Satan'. Hence Devil and Satan are effectively parallel in meaning. Thus we read in the Septuagint of David being an adversary [Heb. Satan, Gk. diabolos] in 1 Sam. 29:4; the sons of Zeruiah (2 Sam. 19:22), Hadad, Rezon and other opponents to Solomon (1 Kings 5:4; 11:14,23,25). We face a simple choice- if we believe that every reference to 'Satan' or 'Devil' refers to an evil cosmic being, then we have to assume that these people weren't people at all, and that even good men like David were evil. The far more natural reading of these passages is surely that 'Satan' is simply a word meaning 'adversary', and can be applied to people [good and bad], and even God Himself- it carries no pejorative, sinister meaning as a word. The idea is sometimes used to describe our greatest adversary, i.e. our own sin, and at times for whole systems or empires which stand opposed to the people of God and personify sinfulness and evil. But it seems obvious that it is a bizarre approach to Bible reading to insist that whenever we meet these words 'Satan' and 'Devil', we are to understand them as references to a personal, supernatural being.
When reviewing the references to ha-Satan ("the adversary") in the Old Testament, it's significant that a number of them occur in the context of the life of David. There was an incident where David behaved deceitfully with the Philistines with whom he once lived, and he is described as being "a Satan" to them (1 Sam. 29:4). That's another example of where the word 'Satan' doesn't necessarily have an evil connotation- a good man can be an adversary, just as Peter was (Mt. 16:21-23) and God Himself can be (2 Sam. 22:4). But we find that David and his dynasty were afflicted with Satans, adversaries, from then on. The word is used about human beings who were adversarial to them in 2 Sam. 19:22; 1 Kings 5:4,18; 11:14-22,25; Ps. 109:6,20 (Heb. "They say, "Appoint a wicked man against him, let an accuser [Satan] stand on his right hand"". David's enemies are called ישטנוני [a related word to 'satan'] in Ps. 38:20; likewise שטן in Ps. 71:13; and שטנוני in Ps. 109:4. These are all related words to 'satan'. Note that it is stated that God stirred up men to be 'Satans' to David and Solomon- whatever view we take of 'Satan', clearly it or he is under the direct control of God and not in free opposition to Him.
The Word ‘Devil’ In The Bible
The word ‘Devil’ too is an ordinary word rather than a proper name. However, unlike ‘Satan’, it is always used in a bad sense. Jesus said, “Did I not choose you, the twelve (disciples), and one of you is a Devil? He spoke of Judas Iscariot...” (Jn. 6:70) who was an ordinary, mortal man. He was not speaking of a personal being with horns, or a so-called ‘spirit being’. The word ‘Devil’ here simply refers to a wicked man. 1 Tim. 3:11 provides another example. The wives of church elders were not to be ‘slanderers’; the original Greek word here is ‘diabolos’, which is the same word translated ‘Devil’ elsewhere. Thus Paul warns Titus that the aged women in the ecclesia should not be ‘slanderers’ or ‘devils’ (Tit. 2:3). And likewise he told Timothy (2 Tim. 3:1,3) that “In the last days... men will be... slanderers (devils)”. This does not mean that human beings will turn into superhuman beings, but that they will be increasingly wicked. It ought to be quite clear from all this that the words ‘Devil’ and ‘Satan’ do not refer to a fallen angel or a sinful being outside of us.
Sin, Satan And The Devil
In the New Testament, the words ‘Satan’ and ‘Devil’ are sometimes used figuratively to describe the natural sinful tendencies within us which we spoke of in the previous section. I emphasize 'sometimes'. For there are many occurences of the words where they simply refer to a person playing an adverserial role. But it is human sin and dysfunction which is our great Satan / adversary, and so it's appropriate that these things at times are going to be described as the great ‘Satan’ or adversary. Our lusts are deceitful (Eph. 4:22), and so the Devil or ‘deceiver’ is an appropriate way of describing them. They are personified, and as such they can be spoken of as ‘the Devil’ - our enemy, a slanderer of the truth. This is what our natural ‘man’ is like - the ‘very Devil’. The connection between the Devil and our evil desires - sin within us - is made explicit in several passages: “Since the children (ourselves) have flesh and blood, he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the Devil” (Heb. 2:14 NIV). The Devil is here described as being responsible for death. But “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Therefore sin and the Devil must be parallel. Similarly James 1:14 says that our evil desires tempt us, leading us to sin and therefore to death; but Heb. 2:14 says that the Devil brings death. The same verse says that Jesus had our nature in order to destroy the Devil. Contrast this with Rom. 8:3: “God ... by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man (that is, in our human nature) ... condemned sin in sinful man ”. This shows that the Devil and the sinful tendencies that are naturally within human nature are effectively the same. It is vitally important to understand that Jesus was tempted just like us. Misunderstanding the doctrine of the Devil means that we cannot correctly appreciate the nature and work of Jesus. It was only because Jesus had our human nature - the ‘Devil’ within him - that we can have the hope of salvation (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15). By overcoming the desires of his own nature Jesus was able to destroy the Devil on the cross (Heb. 2:14). If the Devil is a personal being, then he should no longer exist. Heb. 9:26 says that Christ appeared “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself”. Heb. 2:14 matches this with the statement that through his death Christ destroyed the Devil in himself. By His death Jesus in prospect destroyed “the body of sin” (Rom. 6:6), i.e. human nature with its potential to sin in our very bodies.
“He who sins is of the Devil” (1 Jn. 3:8), because sin is the result of giving way to our own natural, evil desires (James 1:14,15), which the Bible calls ‘the Devil’. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the Devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). If we are correct in saying that the Devil is our evil desires, then the works of our evil desires, i.e. what they result in, are our sins. This is confirmed by 1 Jn. 3:5: “He (Jesus) was manifested to take away our sins”. This confirms that “our sins” and “the works of the Devil” are the same. Acts 5:3 provides another example of this connection between the Devil and our sins. Peter says to Ananias: “Why has Satan filled your heart?” Then in verse 4 Peter says “Why have you conceived this thing in your heart?” Conceiving something bad within our heart is the same as Satan filling our heart. If we ourselves conceive something, e.g. a sinful plan, then it begins inside us. Note that when Peter speaks of how Ananias has "conceived this thing in your heart" he's alluding to the LXX of Esther 7:5, where the wicked Haman is described as one "whose heart hath filled him" to abuse God's people (see RV). Note in passing that the LXX of Esther 7:4 speaks of Haman as ho diabolos [with the definite article]- a mere man is called "the satan". It's been suggested that 'Satan filling the heart' was a common phrase used in the first century to excuse human sin; and Peter is deconstructing it by using the phrase and then defining more precisely what it refers to- conceiving sin in our heart, our own heart filling itself with sin.
Is. 59:13 defines lying as “conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood”. If a woman conceives a child, it doesn’t exist outside of her; it begins inside her. James 1:14,15 use the same figure in describing how our desires conceive and bring forth sin, which brings forth death. Ps. 109:6 parallels a sinful person with a ‘Satan’: “Set a wicked man over him: and let an accuser (Satan) stand at his right hand”, i.e. in power over him (cp. Ps. 110:1). It makes an interesting exercise to read through the letter of James and note how frequently we are warned about our internal thought processes; to control them and have them influenced by the Lord is the essence of following Him. James 2:4 would be an obvious example- when we see a well dressed believer, we are not to judge him "within yourself" as a judge who has evil thoughts, an unjust judge (see R.V.). We shouldn't deceive ourselves within ourselves (James 1:22), our mind is not to immediately forget the truths we encounter in God's word (James 1:25)... There is no mention of an external source of sin such as the commonly held view of Satan. Paul speaks of both Jew and Gentile as being "under the power of sin" (Rom. 3:9 RSV)- which in itself suggests that he saw "sin" personified as a power. If sin is indeed personified by the Bible writers- what real objection can there be to the idea of this personification being at times referred to as 'satan', the adversary? It has been argued that Paul was well aware of the concept of dualism which the Jews had picked up in Babylonian captivity, i.e. the idea that there is a 'Satan' god opposed to the true God; but he reapplies those terms to the conflict he so often describes between flesh and spirit, which goes on within the human mind (4).
All through the Old Testament there is the same basic message - that the human heart is the source of disobedience to God. The Proverbs especially stress the need to give serious attention to the state of the heart. The human mind is the arena of spiritual conflict. David speaks of how “transgression” speaks deep in the heart of the wicked, inciting them to sin (Ps. 36:1 NRSV). The New Testament develops this idea further by calling the unspiritual element in the “heart of man” our enemy / adversary / opponent. The English pop star Cliff Richard expressed this connection between the Devil and the human mind in one of his well known songs: "She's a Devil woman, with evil on her mind". I’d describe the ‘Devil’ as the ‘echo’ which I observe going on in my mind, and I’m sure you’ve had the same experience. “I believe in God”, we think, and there comes back an echo ‘Yes, but… is He really out there? Maybe this is just living out the expectations of my upbringing…?’. Or, “OK, I should be generous to that cause. OK, I’ll give them some money”. And the echo comes back: ‘Yes but what if they aren’t sincere? Can you really afford it? You need to be careful with your money…’. It’s this ‘echo’ that is the Biblical ‘Devil’.
Karl Barth, the Einstein of 20th century theology, returned to Germany in 1946 and lectured about core Christian doctrine in the ruins of the University of Bonn. The memory of the Nazi trauma, the holocaust, the awareness of sin and evil, was clearly uppermost in his mind as he spoke. His lectures were transcribed, in a somewhat raw verbatim form, and then translated into English, purposefully unpolished and unedited- and Dogmatics In Outline became one of the most reprinted standard theological texts for the next 60 years. Barth spoke in the shattered lecture hall of how whenever we desire to perform good and resist sin, "there will always be a movement of defiance, not least deep within ourselves. If we summarise all that opposes, that 'satans', as the power of contradiction, one has an inkling of what Scripture means by the devil. We ask "Has God really said...?"; "Is God's Word true?", etc." (5). This internal defiance, the principle of contradiction deep within, is indeed the Biblical 'devil'.
The response to what I've said could easily be: ‘But it does talk as if the Devil is a person!’. And that's quite correct; Heb. 2:14 speaks of “him who holds the power of death - that is, the Devil”. Even a small amount of Bible reading shows that it often uses personification - speaking of an abstract idea as if it is a person. Thus Prov. 9:1 speaks of a woman called ‘Wisdom’ building a house, Prov. 20:1 compares wine to “a mocker”, and Rom. 6:23 likens sin to a paymaster giving wages of death. Our Devil, the ‘diabolos’, often represents our evil desires. Very early in Scripture we meet the idea of the need for internal struggle against sin. "Sin" is described as "couching at the door, its desire is for you (Moffatt: "eager to be at you"), but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). This in turn is surely alluding to the earlier description of a struggle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent- sin (Gen. 3:16).
Yet you cannot have abstract diabolism; the evil desires that are in a man’s heart cannot exist separately from a man; therefore ‘the Devil’ is personified. Sin is often personified as a ruler (e.g. Rom. 5:21; 6:6,17; 7:13-14). It is understandable, therefore, that the ‘Devil’ is also personified, seeing that ‘the Devil’ also refers to sin. In the same way, Paul speaks of us having two beings, as it were, within our flesh (Rom. 7:15-21): the man of the flesh, ‘the Devil’, fights with the man of the spirit. Yet it is evident that there are not two literal, personal beings fighting within us. This sinful tendency of our nature is personified as “the evil one” (Mt. 6:13 R.V.) - the Biblical Devil. The same Greek phrase translated “evil one” here is translated as “wicked person” in 1 Cor. 5:13, showing that when a person gives way to sin, his “evil one” - he himself - becomes an “evil one”, or a ‘Devil’. Even in the Old Testament, sin was personified as ‘Belial’ (1 Sam. 2:12 mg.). It really has to be accepted that ‘Devil’ and ‘Satan’ are used to personify sin, because if we read these words as always meaning a literal being, then we have serious contradictions. Thus “the Devil” is a lion (1 Pet. 5:8), a hunter (2 Tim. 2:26) and a snake (Rev. 12:9); it can’t be all these things. Whatever the Devil is (and we believe it to essentially refer to human sin), it is personified in various ways. As J.B. Russell concludes: "The Devil is the personification of the principle of evil" (6). Evil and sin are never abstract. They must be understood in terms of the actions and suffering of persons- and so it's quite appropriate and natural that sin should be personified. As Ivan says to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, "I think that if the Devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness" (7).
The Old Testament, along with the New Testament for that matter, personifies evil and sin. However, Edersheim outlines reasons for believing that as Rabbinic Judaism developed during the exile in Babylon, this personification of evil became extended in the Jewish writings to such a point that sin and evil began to be spoken of as independent beings. And of course, we can understand why this happened- in order to narrow the gap between Judaism and the surrounding Babylonian belief in such beings. Edersheim shows how the Biblical understanding of the yetzer ha'ra, the sinful inclination within humanity, became understood as an evil personal being called "the tempter" (8). We've already shown in Section 1-1-1 how the Jews came to be influenced by pagan ideas about Satan whilst in captivity.
Another reason why sin and evil are personified is because the total sum of evil on earth is somehow greater than all its component parts. One reason for this may be, as M. Scott Peck pointed out in several of his popular books, that human group morality is strikingly less than individual morality. Collective evil, e.g. of a lynch mob, reaches a higher peak than that of the individuals in the mob. Whatever, the 'corporate' nature of evil is not unrealted to the evil or sin within each individual person, even though it is ultimately greater than that. And therefore it can be appropriately characterized by personification. Just as a company, an institution, a Government may have some kind of 'personality' greater than all the individuals within it, so it is with human sin and evil. We look at the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and wonder how individual human sin could be responsible for it... because the total achievement of evil in it seems far greater than that of all the evil in people alive in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s put together. The resolution of this observation is not that an external Devil exists who orchestrated it. Rather, the sum total of any group of people, spirit of living and being, is often greater than the sum of the individual parts. N.T. Wright observed just the same: "Evil is real and powerful. It is not only 'out there' in other people, but it is present and active within each of us. What is more, 'evil' is more than the sum total of all evil impulses and actions. When human beings worship that which is not God, they give authority to forces of destruction and malevolence; and those forces gain a power, collectively, that has, down the centuries of Christian experience, caused wise people to personify it, to give it the name of Satan", the adversary (9).
Christian psychologists of recent times have analyzed why sin is personified. They conclude that giving a mass of right / wrong, yes / no commands would hardly be the way to bring a person to holistic spiritual development. This was why there was a ritual of cleansing sin and guilt by blood sacrifice. It wasn't that the blood of animals could take away sin; nor was it that God needed it. But it was a helpful teaching mechanism for people; that they might more powerfully see the nature, seriousness and cost of sin. A visual approach is always helpful, especially bearing in mind that the majority of God's people over the centuries have been illiterate. And so this is why sin and evil have been given some level of symbolism in the Bible, especially personification- for sin supremely is relevant to persons (10). I think that's why in the ritual of the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat ran off into the wilderness bearing Israel's sins. As the bobbing animal was watched by thousands of eyes, thousands of minds would've reflected that their sins were being cast out. And the same principle was in the curing of the schizophrenic Legion- the pigs were made to run into the lake by the Lord Jesus, not because they were actually possessed by demons in reality, but as an aide memoire to the cured Legion that his illness, all his perceived personalities, were now no more.
Personification is far more popular in Greek and Hebrew (the main languages in which the Bible was written) than in English. "In a language [e.g. ancient Greek] which makes no formal distinction between animate and inanimate and which has no such convention as the initial capital for a proper name, where can the line be drawn between an abstract noun and its personification?" (11). Those who believe in an orthodox Satan figure need to consider whether the Bible uses personification; and whether sin is personified; and whether sin is the great human satan / adversary / enemy. The answer really has to be 'Yes, sir' to those questions. For as an academic in the field of linguistics has rightly pointed out, "the personification of sin [is] a prominent feature of human speech in any language and particularly of Biblical language" (12). In this case, why should there be any reasonable objection to what we're suggesting- that 'Satan' in the Bible at times refers to a personification of sin? G.P. Gilmour, one time chancellor of Canada's McMaster University, shared this perspective. His reflections bear quoting: "The devil provides for our minds the idea of a focus or personification of evil... we are dealing here with the difficult language not only of metaphor but of personification. Personification is a necessity of thought and speech, for sophisticated and unsophisticated thinkers alike; but only the sophisticated stops to ask himself what he is doing" (13). Dostoevsky very profoundly understood all this when he created a fictional dialogue between the Devil and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky makes the Devil say to Ivan: "You are not someone apart, you are myself. You are I and nothing more". To which Ivan replies: "You are the incarnation of myself, but only of one side of me... of my thoughts and feelings, but only the nastiest and stupidest of them... You are myself- with a different face. You just say what I am thinking, you are incapable of saying anything new!" (Part 4, ch. 9). Dostoevsky was trying in his own way to deconstruct the existence of the Devil as a supernatural entity. Satan is often a metaphor, and "a good metaphor is supposed to challenge conventional ways of looking at things and suggest an alternative perspective. Metaphors disclose a way of viewing life and relationships, but they may also conceal things from us" (14). This is true- and that's exactly why we must take metaphors as they are, metaphors, and not read them literally nor think that there is no other aspect to the situation they are addressing.
The personification of sin is therefore a means of enabling us to grapple with the sin that is within us; a tool for self-examination and self-mastery. William Barclay came to this conclusion: "In Paul, sin becomes personalized until sin could be spelled with a capital letter, and could be thought of as a malignant, personal power which has man in its grasp" (15). The practical purpose of personifying sin has been brought out well by Barry Hodson, who observed that "In every respect, Paul describes the working of sin in terms which link up with the original serpent... it is appropriate that [sin] should be personified... we [are to] regard every temptation as a re-enactment of the temptation of our first parents. It will greatly help us in our warfare against sin if we can" (16). As and when temptation enters our minds, we are to see it for what it is, speak to it, deal with it, resist it, overcome it... Indeed, human beings often externalize things in order to get to grips with them, define them, and engage with them. Winston Churchill spoke frequently of his depression as a black dog which followed him home; and in movies and novels we are accustomed to abstract things being externalized into a person, or character in the story. Thus in the Disney version of Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy appoints Jiminy Cricket [intended to be interpretted as 'Jesus Christ'] as the official conscience of Pinocchio, a voice in his ear which accompanies him on his journeys. It's totally normal and to be expected, therefore, that on the level of literature, the Bible narrative should at times externalize and personify sin as a 'Satan' figure. Indeed it would be most surprising if the Bible didn't personify sin.
'Devil’ And ‘Satan’ In A Political Context
These words ‘Devil’ and ‘Satan’ are also used to describe the wicked, sinful world order in which we live. The social, political and pseudo-religious hierarchies of mankind can be spoken of in terms of ‘the Devil’, not least because they are structured around human, sinful desires- the great adversary to God's Spirit. Hence 1 Pet. 4:2,3 parallels living "in the flesh, to the lusts of men" with "working the will of the Gentiles". The will of the world is the will of the flesh, and is thus adversarial, 'satanic', to the will of God. The Devil and Satan in the New Testament often refer to the political and social power of the Jewish or Roman systems. Thus we read of the Devil throwing believers into prison (Rev. 2:10), referring to the Roman authorities imprisoning believers. In this same context we read of the church in Pergamos being situated where Satan’s throne, was - i.e. the place of governorship for a Roman colony in Pergamos, where there was also a group of believers. We cannot say that Satan himself, if he exists, personally had a throne in Pergamos. The Bible repeatedly stresses that human political authority, civil authorities etc. are God given, deriving their power from Him (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17); never are they said to derive their authority from 'Satan'. Yet they can be called 'Satan' in that they are adversarial at times to His people.
Individual sin is defined as a transgression against God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). But sin expressed collectively as a political and social force opposed to God is a force more powerful than individuals; it is this collective power which is sometimes personified as a powerful being called the Devil. In this sense Iran and other Islamic powers have called the United States, “the great Satan” - i.e. the great adversary to their cause, in political and religious terms. This is how the words ‘Devil’ and ‘Satan’ are often used in the Bible. And again I repeat the path of logic used a few paragraphs above: 1) Is sin personified? Clearly it is. 2) Is it true that ‘Satan’ can be used just as an noun? Yes, it is. What real problem, therefore, can there be in accepting that sin is personified as our enemy/Satan? The world is often personified in John’s letters and Gospel (see R.V.); what better title for this personification than ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’?
It has been observed, however, by many a thoughtful mind- that the total evil in the world does so often appear greater than the sum of all the individual personal sin / evil which there is committed by and latent within each person. In this context, let's hear Tom Wright again: "All corporate institutions have a kind of corporate soul, an identity which is greater than the sum of its parts... industrial companies, governments or even (God help us) churches, can become so corrupted with evil that the language of "possession" at a corporate level becomes the only way to explain the phenomena before us" (17). In the same way as collective bodies of persons somehow achieve an identity greater than the sum of the individual contribution of each person, so, I submit, there appears a corporate evil / sin in our world which is greater than the sum of what each individual person contributes towards it. But in the same way as there is no literal 'ghost in the machine', so this phenomena doesn't mean that there is actually a personal superhuman being called 'Satan'. But it would be fair enough to use the term "the Satan", the adversary, to describe this globally encompassing corporation of 'sin' which we observe. For it's not solely our own personal sinfulness which is our great enemy, but also the kind of corporate sin which exists in our world. Arthur Koestler's work The Ghost In The Machine analyzes the progressive self-destructiveness of humanity over history, and seeks to address the question of how the total evil in the world is simply so huge (18). He takes the perspective that there is no personal Satan responsible, but rather the human mind has progressively developed in evil so that impulses of hate, anger etc. overpower- and progressively are overpowering- what he calls "cognitive logic"; i.e. we do what we know is unwise, illogical and wrong.
In conclusion, it is probably true to say that in this subject more than any other, it is vital to base our understanding upon a balanced view of the whole Bible, rather than building doctrines on a few verses containing catch-phrases which appear to refer to the common beliefs concerning the Devil. It is submitted that the doctrinal position outlined here is the only way of being able to have a reasonable understanding of all the passages which refer to the Devil and Satan. I submit it's the key which turns every lock. Some of the most widely misunderstood passages which are quoted in support of the popular ideas are considered in Chapter 5.
(1) J.H. Walton, 'Serpent', in T.D. Alexander and D.W. Baker, eds, Dictionary Of The Old Testament And Pentateuch (Leicester: I.V.P., 2003) p. 738.
(2) George Lamsa, New Testament Light (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1968) p. 24.
(3) George Lamsa, New Testament Commentary (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman, 1945) p. 604.
(4) E.P. Sanders, Paul (Oxford: O.U.P., 1996) p. 93.
(5) Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by G.T. Thomson (London: S.C.M., 1972 ed.) p. 20.
(6) J.B. Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987) p. 23.
(7) Feodyor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov , translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1990) p. 283.
(8) Alfred Edersheim, The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah (London: Longmans, 1899) Vol. 2, Appendices 13 and 16.
(9) N.T. Wright, The Lord And His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) p. 71.
(10) See Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism Of Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1969) for more on this.
(11) E. Stafford, Worshipping Virtues: Personification And The Divine In Ancient Greece (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 2000), p. 9
(12) Graham Jackman, The Language Of The Cross (Lulu, 2008) p. 40.
(13) G.P. Gilmour, The Memoirs Called Gospels (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1959) pp. 113,114.
(14) John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove: I.V.P., 1998) p. 11.
(15) William Barclay, New Testament Words (London: S.C.M., 1992) p. 124.
(16) Barry Hodson, The Cross Of Christ (Wanganui, New Zealand: Christian Restoration Centre, 2009) p. 24.
(17) N.T. Wright, Evil And The Justice Of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 38.
(18) Arthur Koestler, The Ghost In The Machine (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 ed.).