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The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration  

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3-2 The Devil And Satan: The Hard Questions

The common understanding of the Devil as a fallen Angel and personal being throws up a huge number of unanswerable questions- unanswerable, at least, within Scripture. This led Shelley to point out that popular Christianity's view of the Devil was its weakest point: "The devil... is the weak place of the popular religion- the vulnerable belly of the crocodile... Christians invented or adopted the Devil to extricate them from this difficulty [of trying to understand the existence of a good God and the reality of evil]" (1). J.B. Russell thought likewise: "This has always been the weakest seam in Christian theology" (2). The sheer volume of contradictory mainstream Christian explanations of Satan and the mass of unanswered questions they generate is all confirmation of this observation. Within the context of speaking about practical consequences of our beliefs in this area, I wish to list these questions. I do so because any basis for belief, any framework for understanding the Gospel, which has so many gaping contradictions and difficulties is hardly going to inspire a solid, dynamic, stable relationship with God. The issues of sin and evil are ever present in our daily lives; and I sincerely believe that without a sound way of understanding the issue, a hermeneutic if you like, these contradictions and apparently 'theoretical' difficulties will come to term in a disordered and insecure life. So very often, it is a struggle with these issues ['How could God do this or allow that?'] which leads to even a total loss of faith; and conversely, it is being able to make sense of sin and evil which allows God to confirm our faith through those negative experiences. So here are some of the questions thrown up by the mistaken ideas imported into Christendom on the devil issue- I catalogue them as part of my unashamed appeal for you to turn away from the common but false understanding of Satan which exists:

- If the Devil fell, what was the nature of his fall? What was his sin? Did he physically depart from Heaven and then go somewhere else? If so, where? Was it hell, or the earth, or somewhere in mid air? If it was to the earth, where did the Devil land? The garden of Eden? Was it Christ or Michael the Archangel who defeated him? Who exactly threw him out of Heaven?

- Where exactly is the Devil now? If he's indeed a personal being, he must surely have a location? If Angels literally fell from Heaven, where are they?

- Did the supposed fallen Angels come down to earth to tempt humans to sin, or because they were cast down by God? If they were cast down by God in punishment for their sin, why then should humanity suffer because of that? Isn't that like punishing a psychopath by giving him a loaded gun and casting him out of the courtroom into a school playground? If they came down from Heaven to earth of their own volition and fell into sin on earth, then the whole idea of rebellion in Heaven etc. is contradicted.

- Could or would we sin if the Devil didn't exist? If not, then surely we suffer and are punished unfairly for our sins? If we would, then to what extent is the devil responsible for our sins, seeing we would sin anyway?

- If the Devil is a personal being, does he have a body? What does he look like? If he is claimed to be a "spirit being", then in what sense is he a person? Where is the Biblical evidence for the existence of 'spirits', or indeed, any existence apart from in a personal form?

- What is the relationship between the Devil and the fallen angels / demons? How does their punishment differ from each other? Was the sin of the fallen angels different to that of the devil?

- Can the Devil and those angels ever repent? Does he now have freewill? Did he ever have freewill? Was he originally of Christ's nature in Heaven? If Adam sinned but could repent, why could not Satan and the supposed fallen angels also repent? As Milton observed in Paradise Lost: "Man therefore shall find grace / The other [i.e. satan] none" (3.131). Oddly enough, the early incantations chanted at baptisms implored Satan to repent. The Ergo maledicte began: "Therefore, accursed Devil, recall [i.e. reverse] your sentence and give honour to the living and true God" (3). This problem of how Adam could sin and repent, but Satan could sin and not repent, led all kinds of people to struggle towards the realization that the common perception of Satan is wrong. The Yezidi Kurds came to depart from standard Moslem thinking about Iblis [Satan] over this issue of the illogicality of a Satan who cannot repent, and came to the conclusion that there is no personal Satan, that human beings have total responsibility for their sinfulness, and will meet the result of their sins in the afterlife (4). And this hard question remains for those who insist upon the popular interpretation of Satan. Tony Lagouranis comments on a Yazidi prisoner he met in Iraq in 2004: "There's a lot of mystery surrounding the Yazidi, and a lot of contradictory information. But I was drawn to this aspect of their beliefs: Yazidi don't have a Satan. Malak Ta'us, an archangel, God's favorite, was not thrown out of heaven... If there is evil in the world, it does not come from a fallen angel or from the fires of hell. The evil in this world is man-made" (5). And yet significantly, the Yezidis are accused of satan worship. In her memoir of her service with an intelligence unit of the U.S. Army in Iraq, Kayla Williams records being stationed amongst the Yezidis and how "local Muslims considered the Yezidis to be devil worshippers" (6). This is psychologically interesting; for those of us who likewise deny the existence of a literal Satan being are often accused of actually being possessed by Satan, held in 'his' paws, and saying exactly what 'he' wishes us to say, that 'he' doesn't exist. This total lack of reason, logic and Biblicism in the mouths and words of supposedly religious people is, I submit, a reflection of their own (perhaps unconscious) dis-ease over this whole question. If someone suggests that 'Satan' doesn't exist and that sin is really our fault- then, hit them hard for it, slander them, attack them. Why? Because there is an unconscious suspicion that actually, those people may be correct.

- When did the Devil fall? Before creation? Before Adam was created? Afterwards? At the time prophesied in Revelation 12? At the time of Noah, when the sons of God married the daughters of men (Gen. 6)?

- Where did demons come from? The New Testament refers to the surrounding beliefs about demons- but in the first century, demons were thought to be the 'immortal souls' of the dead. Wicked immortal souls became wicked demons (see Josephus, Wars Of The Jews 6.47). If demons are the supposedly wicked angels who fell at the creation or in Genesis 6, how can they also be wicked 'immortal souls' of human beings? From where can the idea of 'immortal souls' be justified in the pages of a Bible which so insistently stresses the mortality of the human soul?

- According to misreadings of Ez. 28:15 "Thou wast perfect in thy ways till iniquity was found in thee" and Jn. 8:44 "the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there was no truth in him", those who believe in a personal Devil are faced with a contradiction- was the Devil originally a sinner, or, was he once perfect but fell?

- How can the positive spiritual effect of Satan be explained? Men were delivered to Satan, so they might learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20); deliverance to Satan results in "the destruction of the flesh" (1 Cor. 5:5)- and "the flesh" usually refers in the New Testament to the fleshly mind (Rom. 8:5-9; Eph. 2:3; Jn. 8:15). Surely all this makes sense if 'satan' merely refers to an adversary, and not to some cosmic being bent on making us sin?

- When was the Devil punished, and how? At his fall to earth? At the crucifixion? During the ministry of Jesus, when He said He beheld satan falling as lightning? Or at the second coming? Will the Devil be saved? Origen argued that he would be ultimately, and yet "elsewhere Origen denied the salvation of Satan and called the idea that he believed it a mad invention of his enemies" (7). The intellectual desperation of the 'fathers' on this matter is evident.

- What exactly is our defence against the Devil? Why would the Devil get scared off by our Bible reading, uttering the name of Christ, getting baptized, wearing or touching a cross, making the sign of the cross, reciting charms and the other things suggested by the early church "fathers"?

- Related to all this: Why did Christ have to die? Because of Satan's tyranny, as the 'church fathers' so often claimed? Or because of our and Adam's sin, as Paul explains throughout Romans?

- What are the Devil's powers, what function does he perform in our world? Is he responsible for the effects of the curse placed on the earth after Adam fell? Does he operationalize it? Does he cause disasters? Does he cause moral sin in individuals?

- Gregory the Great and other Christian writers claimed that God permits Satan to operate. Why, then, do we repeatedly read of evil coming "from the Lord" and being "sent" by Him (Am. 3:6; 1 Sam. 18:10; Is. 45:5-7 etc.)? Does God as it were respect Satan's 'rights' over us?

- Was the Devil the serpent, or did he merely use the serpent? The Genesis record states that the serpent was punished by having to eat dust "all the days of your life"- hinting at his mortality. Does the Devil literally eat dust? What is the relationship between the snakes we know today, crawling on their bellies as they do, and Satan?

- Does each sin have its own demon / fallen angel? Does the Devil enter our minds or our bodies? How does the Devil tempt us? The Biblical explanation of the process of internal temptation within the human mind is clear enough (James 1:13-15; Mk. 7:15-23), and validated within our own experience. But how exactly does a personal devil tempt us and lead us to sin?

- Does the Devil punish sinners after death, or administer condemnation to them? How does the Devil work with God, if at all?

- What will the Devil do in the Millennium, seeing he will be "bound"? Why does a literal being have to be "bound" to restrain him if he is so spiritually active?

- In the bungled attempt to resolve 'hard questions' about the origin of suffering and negative experiences in the lives of God's people, the 'personal Satan' solution seems to create even more hard questions- and runs into deep contradictions. Thus in the Book of Jubilees, Mastema / Satan empowers the Egyptians to persecute the Israelites, yet on the other hand he is the one who also kills the firstborn of Egypt. This begs the question: 'So where was God in all this?'. The Biblical explanation gives far less difficulty and avoids running into these deep contradictions.

- The curse that came upon the earth and humanity after Adam's sin was from God, not the Devil- according to Genesis. What, then, did the devil do the earth after his supposed fall? From whence did the curse come- from God or the Devil? If [as is so often supposed] the Devil brought suffering and curse into the earth, how did he have power to curse the natural creation and the animals, who didn't sin?

- If we accept that Satan exists as a person, with power to lead every human being into temptation, he must have enormous power and knowledge. From where did he get such power and authority? God works in the micro business of millions if not billions of human lives world-wide, adjusting His plan with the full knowledge of the countless trillions of possible futures which His creation of human freewill enable to exist. If Satan is going to seriously oppose this great God of ours, then he is pitting Himself against the Almighty who has His passionate eye on a billion universes, who follows the random motions of every subatomic particle in the countless stars of numberless galaxies... is the supposed Satan really this seriously powerful? Is not the idea of any cosmic opposition to the Creator simply absurd, even pitiful? Likewise, the idea that God had to pay a ransom to Satan in order to deliver His Son and all humanity surely gives Satan far too much power- and power which the Bible is utterly silent about him ever having. Ps. 139:12 joins us in mocking this idea that God is seriously in struggle against such a power of darkness: "Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as light to you".

- If Satan was indeed thrown out of Heaven, against his will- well how actually was this achieved? For the orthodox view of the matter claims that Satan still retains a lot of his power, with which he works mischief in the earth today. Surely he didn't come down without a fight. Apostate Judaism ran into this problem, and attempted to solve it by claiming that a "powerful angel was sent to evict Satan"- this assertion is made in several of the documents discovered at Qumran (8). But this begs a whole catena of further hard questions. Who exactly is this Angel, more powerful than Satan? Why no other mentions of him in Scripture? Wasn't the whole struggle of Satan with God somewhat ethically unfair, if God is so far more powerful, and has Angels around who are more powerful than even Satan? Weren't the dice just loaded against poor Satan from the start? Messing up the answer to one hard question only leads to provoking many more even harder questions. Quite simply, one has to re-trace the steps back to the original problem and seek to answer it in purely Biblical terms.

- In a book which raises piercing questions but provides no concrete answers, Ruth Anshen perceptively challenges believers in a fallen-Angel Satan with issues like: How did Satan's rebellion and punishment lead to human beings becoming more sin prone and exposed to evil? Why did God punish humanity and expel Adam from Eden because of Satan's sin? If Satan was once a good Angel who sinned and 'fell', surely there is left in him some vestige of 'good'- for persons who sin are not wholly sinful and often display streaks of good. How does that fit in with the classical image of a totally wicked Satan? Seeing we live in an expanding universe, does this mean that Satan's cosmic power is likewise expanding? What and where exactly is Satan's dominion? What was Satan's game plan in Eden? To build an empire for himself? Why did he so hate mankind? Was his anger against God or man? If Satan was originally an Angel with Divine nature, he was surely immortal. It's impossible to lose immortality if you have it- so will Satan eternally exist? If not, will he be saved? An immortal sinner is surely an impossible concept, if sin has to be punished ultimately by death (9).

- The popular theories about Satan require the Lord Jesus to have encountered him on the cross and somehow conquered him in the resurrection. But the Gospel records of the death and resurrection of the Lord are all significantly silent about this. “There is little in the Passion story suggestive of the demonic; whatever may be true of later church views, the resurrection is not seen as the deliverance of Jesus from Satan” (10). Seeing Jesus destroyed the Devil on the cross (Heb. 2:14), how come that sin and evil are ever increasing in our world- if the Devil indeed is responsible for them? And if the Devil has been "destroyed", in what sense is this personal being still alive and active? How can the Devil be judged at the last day if he was destroyed on the cross? Surely the only way to make sense of all this is to see all the Biblical references to the Devil as not referring to one personal being, but rather to various human 'adversaries' and the power of sin. Man Friday asked Robinson Crusoe: "If the Lord has the power to destroy the Devil and wishes him destroyed, why does he wait till the end of the world?". And that's a fair question. The orthodox view of the Devil fails to make any sense of the description of Christ having destroyed the Devil (Heb. 2:14). Once we understand the Devil in that context to refer to the power of sin, all becomes clear. Sin's power was destroyed; in Christ, for Him personally, the Devil was dead and overcome. We now live out His victory through destroying the power of sin, through His victory and in His strength, throughout our lives, assured of ultimate victory in Christ.

I would argue that this huge raft of fundamental and yet unanswered questions is fatal for the integrity of any personal or theological position which can't get a grip on them. The church 'fathers' recognized the difficulty of these questions, but tried to block out any serious thought about them by the average Christian. "Such questions... as 'Whence is evil?' were, the Christian writer Tertullian said, "the questions that make people heretics"" (11). That is surely a tacit recognition that something's deeply wrong with a theology, even if it bears the name 'Christian', which can't engage with such questions which are at the very core of true Christian thought and living. The way that standard Christianity comes up with so many wildly differing answers to the questions, and has suggested them over history, merely indicates to me that they have it wrong on this point. The key that turns all these locks is to understand that the Biblical explanation of sin as coming from within, of all evil / disaster as ultimately coming from God, is the only one that makes sense. All these hard questions are really a reflection of how unsatisfying is the standard explanation of Satan and evil. Susan Neiman spends a whole book exemplifying how the history of European thought, philosophy and politics is all really the history of unsuccessful attempts to come to terms with and explain the origin of evil (12). From Kant to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, even Hitler... it can all be understood as a series of increasingly desperate attempts to come to terms with past patterns of evil and the present experience of it. It's more than time that we give God and His book the Bible a serious look. For human efforts to explain, no matter whether they partially allude to the Bible or not, are clearly getting nowhere fast. It's been my observation that people's experience of how human theories fail to explain evil is what brings them to God- if they're presented with the correct Biblical explanation of His viewpoint. Take M. Scott Peck, a classically liberal American agnostic psychotherapist. He explains in his People Of The Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (13) how he once sought to explain human 'sinfulness' as merely misguidedness, dysfunction etc., carefully omitting the concept of 'evil'. But it was through his final recognition of evil, his facing up to it, and to the way that humanity really are self-deceived, that 'the devil' really is a 'false accuser' as the Greek word diabolos literally means, that he came not only to God but also to Christ and to far more effective ministering to people.


(1) P.B. Shelley, On The Devil in The Complete Works Of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (New York: Scribner's, 1965).

(2) J.B. Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) p.222.

(3) H.A. Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge: C.U.P., 2006) p. 212. See too his The Devil At Baptism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985) pp. 237,238.

(4) See John S. Guest, Survival Among The Kurds: A History Of The Yezidis (London: Kegan Paul, 1993) pp. 31,236; Peter Awn, Satan's Tragedy And Redemption: Iblis In Sufi Psychology (Leiden: Brill, 1983).

(5) Tony Lagouranis, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey through Iraq (New York: New American Library, 2007).

(6) Kayla Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (New York: Norton and Company Inc., 2005).

(7) J.B. Russell, A History Of Heaven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 75.

(8) 11Q11, col. 4, II. 1-10- English translation in F.G. Martinez and E.J.C. Ticghelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1997) Vol. 2 pp. 1202-3.

(9) Ruth Anshen, The Reality Of The Devil: Evil In Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) pp. 14,15,89.

(10) Ernest Best, Mark: The Gospel as Story (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983), p. 58.

(11) Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, And The Serpent (New York: Random House, 1997) xxiv.

(12) Susan Neiman, Evil In Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

(13) M. Scott Peck, People Of The Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).