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The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration  

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6-1 The Real Devil: Some Conclusions

A Network Of Bible Truth

'Satan' in the Bible is a role, not a personal individual. It's simply impossible to force every Bible reference to Satan to apply to a personal being of supernatural evil. There must be another approach or hermeneutic - and I suggest that this is in accepting that 'satan' simply means an adversary, and can refer to both good and bad adversaries of specific things at specific times.

One true understanding tends to lead to another, just as one erroneous understanding leads to another false interpretation. Newton scholar Steven Snobelen concludes that Isaac Newton's rejection of the Trinity and his firm belief in only one God led him, in turn, to reject the idea of a personal Devil. I've written elsewhere of the error of the Trinity, particularly in The Real Christ. Both heresies, of the supposed three "persons" in the Trinity and of a personal Satan, hinge around a refusal to accept the plain Bible teaching that all existence is bodily existence. No other form of existence is known to the Bible. If God is indeed the only God, the only source of power, then quite simply there's no room for the Devil, at least not in the way 'he' is commonly understood. But beyond this- our view of the Devil affects our view of God in more practical ways. The assumption that God will not permit the innocent to suffer has led to the need to create the idea of a personal devil in order to explain away the awful vistas of suffering and injustice we see all around us. But however we understand it, or try to understand it, the fact is that the God of the Bible does permit the innocent to suffer- the extraordinary mental and physical sufferings of His beloved Son being perhaps the clearest example. As ants are to a man, so are we to God. We can never hope to understand exactly why He permits sin and evil to be as they are. But ultimately we believe that somehow, some when, in the return of Jesus Christ to earth, His Kingdom will triumph. Then we will finally understand, only then will we join the dots and see the full picture, in every dimension of its beauty- and that for me is one of the Kingdom's joys I look forward to the most. For me, the good news of God, of His Son and His Kingdom, runs as a thread throughout the Bible; each truth dovetails with others.

This network of Bible truth sadly has its opposite- a network of false understanding. The further one goes into that, the more seriously unanswered questions and contradictions arise, which in turn lead to the desperation and frustration so many feel when they think deeply about the problem of sin and evil. Here are a few of them:

- Our trials and problems are designed by God to result in our spiritual development. Yet if the devil supposedly brings them, how can he also be seeking to stop our spiritual growth and hinder us from salvation?

- Likewise it is supposed that the Devil brought about the death of Jesus, and some of the early church 'fathers' claimed that the blood of Christ had to be paid to the Devil as a kind of ransom for souls (although the Bible is utterly silent about that). Yet clearly enough, the death of Jesus is the source of our salvation and forgiveness; indeed it was through the death of the cross that the Devil was destroyed (Heb. 2:14). So how could the Devil bring about the death of Jesus if this was exactly what was required for human salvation? Moreover, the death of Jesus was part of God's plan from the beginning, foreshadowed back in Eden by the slaying of animals to provide a covering for Adam and Eve (cp. Rev. 13:8). The death of Jesus was by "the determinate will of God" (Acts 2:23; Heb. 10:9; Gal. 1:4). So, does the Devil do God's will, or not? The classical answer is that no, the Devil works against the will of God. And yet why then claim that the Devil brought about the death of Jesus and demanded His blood? For the death of Christ was in fact the very apex of the will and purpose of God.

- The concept of the Devil requiring a ransom, namely the blood of Jesus, arose from the idea that the ransom could not be the life of a mere man, but it had to somehow be God's life. Hence was encouraged the tragically wrong idea that Jesus is God. This idea was pushed by Basil and Gregory of Nysa. Augustine faced the 'hard question' as to why exactly Satan hates Christ by saying that this was "inevitable" because Jesus was God. I see no logical reason why this was "inevitable"- for me it reflects how one wrong concept [e.g. that Jesus is God Himself] leads to another [i.e. that Satan therefore hates Jesus].

- The idea [pushed by Clement and Origen, developed by Milton in Paradise Lost] that Jesus and Lucifer were somehow brothers, part of a dualist cosmos in the beginning, split between good and evil, required Jesus to have personally pre-existed - an idea without support in the Bible. It should be noted that the Persian dualist myth that there was a god of good balanced by an evil god also stated that the two gods were originally twin brothers- and this clearly influenced the thinking of the "fathers" on this point.

- It has to be noted that many of the pagan myths about gods in conflict featured a hero, who was a god, fighting an adversary who was also a god, and winning. The fact standard Christianity became influenced by this thinking set up a tendency to think that the hero, Jesus, was also God and therefore personally pre-existed at the beginning of time, when the conflict supposedly occurred. Several times in this study we have had to comment that the development of the non-Biblical idea of the Trinity was both influenced by, and in turn influenced, the development of the extra-Biblical idea of a superhuman Satan figure. A classic example of the connection between these two false doctrines would be the way that Dante's Inferno features a Satan with three faces, as a parody of the Trinity.

- Plutarch, a first century writer, defines the view of demons prevailing in the first century Mediterranean world as being that demons are intermediaries between gods and humanity, who speak through the oracles and prophecies of their priestly representatives on earth. He says that demons are a form of human 'immortal souls' (1). The schizophrenic at Gadara "dwelt among the tombs"- presumably because of his conviction that he was actually incarnating a dead person. When cured by Jesus, he ceased hanging around those tombs. The doctrine of demons and that of the immortal soul hangs together; and 'immortal souls' are definitely not part of Biblical revelation. If we read the New Testament references to the surrounding idea of 'demons' and conclude that therefore those surrounding religious views are correct and demons exist, we are signing up to belief in immortal souls. Josephus brings out the same connection between the 1st century demon belief and immortal souls in Wars Of The Jews 1.47,82,84; 6.47. P.G. Bolt likewise traces the connection between Jewish beliefs in ghosts, and demons (2). Significantly, on the two occasions the disciples lapsed back into their old beliefs and thought that Jesus was a ghost, their own transcripts of the incidents prove how wrong they were- existence is in bodily, actual terms, and not as disembodied spirits (Mk. 6:49; Lk. 24:39).

- False understandings of Satan are connected with erroneous views of hell. If the wicked are to be tormented in hell, then who torments them? Thus the idea of the Devil and demons with pitchforks, tridents etc. had to be created. Yet the Biblical understanding of hell is simply of the grave; and the punishment of the wicked is the "second death" (Rev. 2:11)- and Biblical death is without any question a state of unconsciousness. Origen especially stumbled from error to error regarding hell. Because he believed in the false doctrine of an immortal soul, he reasoned that if Satan succeeded in obtaining literally eternal punishment for sinners, then Satan would ultimately have won. On this very basis he therefore argued that ultimately, Satan would be redeemed, and thus there would have to be universal salvation for all. The Bible nowhere teaches this- there is a very real sense of the eternal future we may miss because of sin.

- Justin misused the Genesis 6 reference to sons of God marrying the daughters of men to mean that Angels sinned and left Heaven, and the offspring of these unions were demons, and that these were the gods and rulers of the Roman empire (3). As someone once said, "truth is political". Bible verses were misused by the 'fathers' to demonize their enemies. Just as a few centuries earlier, the Jewish Book Of The Watchers had claimed that the offspring of the "sons of God" in Gen. 6 were the "evil priests". The 'evil priests' in the earthly sanctuary were thought to reflect the supposedly 'evil Angels' in the Heavenly sanctuary. But this error went further than a convenient demonization of enemies- it was then concluded by Augustine that seeing there was now a "gap" in the Heavenly ranks, this must be filled by the righteous going to Heaven to take the places left by the supposed 'fallen Angels' (4). Yet the Bible says nothing of immortal souls going to reward in Heaven on death, instead clearly teaching death to be a state of unconsciousness, with the reward of the righteous being a place in the Kingdom of God when it is established fully on earth at the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the error of 'fallen Angels' leaving Heaven led to the idea of Christians 'going to Heaven' to take their place.

- Perhaps worst of all, the idea that there is a dualistic universe [a good God and an evil one] has become so entrenched in the minds of some that to take away the existence of the devil, is to say God doesn't exist. John Wesley famously wrote: "No Devil, no God". This, surely, is why so many mainstream Christians today are so insistent that acceptance of a personal Satan's existence is utterly vital to the Gospel, and is almost a salvation issue with them. To say the evil god doesn't exist is, for them, implying that the true One doesn't either. It's like the Middle Ages all over again- anyone who denied the existence of Satan was cast out as an atheist. This is how strong the network is within and between false interpretations of the Bible. In 1691 Balthasar Bekker published a book, The World Bewitched, in which he denied the existence of a personal Satan and criticized the idea of people being "possessed" by the Devil- and he was promptly tried for blasphemy and "spreading atheistic ideas about Scripture" (5). God is, an ultimately good God, who seeks to do us good in our latter end; and His Almightiness and supremacy disallows the serious existence of any cosmic 'god' in opposition to Him. That's not atheism- that's, if you like, theism as it should be.

Psychological Factors

We all have, I suggest, a very deeply rooted perception within us of how flawed is our world. Subconsciously perhaps, we long for a better world, a life more free, unshackled by all that now holds us back. Our vision and hope for the future is related to our perception of the nature of the flaw in this present world. If we're convinced that the real problem is the existence of a cosmic Satan, then our hope will be for the day when Satan is dead. If we're convinced that the real problem is human sin [our own included] and the death that comes from this, then our hope will be for a world in which there is no more sin and death, where we are sinless, where the effects of sin are no more... and this hope is no mere pipedream, for it is exactly congruent with the Biblical gospel of the coming literal Kingdom of God upon this earth. The apostate Jewish Book Of Jubilees 19:28 is an example of this difference in perspective. Jubilees in this passage seeks to re-tell the Biblical record of the promises given to Isaac and Jacob- which involved a literal, physical inheritance of a sinless, cleansed earth. But that Biblical record of the promise of the Kingdom of God on earth is twisted by Jubilees into a promise of freedom from Satan: "The spirits of Mastema shall not rule over thee or over thy seed to turn thee from the Lord".

Psychologists suggest that there is something within the human psyche that needs to fear, that wants to fear. Just look at the huge success of terror stories, movies, images, Stephen King novels; and the way that the media realizes that their global audience laps up fear and sensationalism about terror. One common thread throughout all the pagan forerunners of the 'personal satan' idea is that the pagan concepts all involved the generation of fear and terror. True Christianity aims to "cast out" such fear through its revelation of the ultimate love of God (1 Jn. 4:18). So many control systems have played upon fear of the devil- to bring children into subdued obedience, flocks into submission to pastors, etc. It's now high time to realize that this is not how the true God works. "For fear has torment" (1 Jn. 4:18), and this is exactly what true understanding of the cross of Christ saves us from. God isn't a psychological manipulator, and He doesn't coax us into submission through fear. And yet it could be said that humanity is increasingly addicted to fear. People may mock fearing a Loch Ness monster, werewolves, funny sounds at night... but they still buy in big time to fearing a personal Devil. There's something in us that wants to fear something; that just loves the popular idea of a personal Satan. This is why it's hard to budge this mentality. But hopefully these studies have helped you in that direction. As the tragedy of 21st century humanity unfolds yet further, it's more than time for a radically new way of thinking about Satan, and ourselves.

There's a tremendous psychological desire to believe in a personal Satan figure. We always want to externalize evil, to project our own internal sin and dysfunctions onto someone or something else. Psychologists have observed that so many life stories feature some kind of "adversary" figure, a nemesis, an archenemy. At least, such a figure looms large in the self-perceptions of people when they are asked to recount the story of their lives. Maybe a tormentor at school, a boss at work, a neighbour, a partner, a regime under which we lived, an ethnic group... usually, someone, somewhere, is perceived as their great enemy. This nemesis is involved in what the person under study would describe as battles with them. And those battles are felt to have frequently been lost; the archenemy won. Often those archenemies are nothing of the sort, and the battles no more than the passing trivia of life; but the person has unloaded their weaknesses, fears, their 'undesired self', onto this other person or system, thus demonizing them, giving them a larger than life profile within their own minds and self-perceptions. So it is not surprising that people have so often decided that there is actually a personal Satan 'out there', somewhere, somehow. People almost 'need' this figure; until they face up to the fact that they are transferring their own 'satans', their internal fears, doubts, inadequacies, onto something or someone external. Rather than facing up to those internal issues, and perceiving them as the real Satan.

The Changing Scene

The Barna Group, a research firm, found the following in a survey of American Christians in 2006 [published on]:

* 55 percent view Satan as symbolic of evil rather than a real entity.

* 45 percent of born-again Christians don't believe Satan is real.

* 68 percent of Catholics think of Satan only as a symbol and deny the word refers to a personal being. It should be noted that the latest edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia shifts away from viewing the Devil as an "external reality" and refers rather to it as a "symbol of psychological forces".

In 1997, the 114th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States directed the Council on Theology and Culture to study "the problem of a personal devil and demons," and to report the results of such a study. Their conclusions were that the Bible itself cannot support the idea of a personal Satan, although some Christians may find that idea helpful given their world-view. In our context, the following comment from their online report is interesting: "Christian theologians have always been puzzled by the contradiction between the assertion on the one hand that everything that is (all being) is given existence and reality by God, and the assertion on the other hand that evil "is" or "exists." How can we acknowledge both a good God who is the source of all being and then speak of the being of evil or of evil beings?". This is exactly the kind of difficulty in the common view of Satan which we have highlighted in this study. It seems that some are beginning to face up to the difficulties.

This general picture is independently confirmed by other research (6). And yet church leaders are full of talk about a personal satan, using it as a threat to get people to pay tithes, come to church, etc. But they're out of step with what people are really thinking. Seeing that flesh-pleasing, giving in to the Biblical 'devil', is more and more evident in Christian society, I don't take these figures as necessarily being good news. What I see is that people have seen through the absurdities of believing in a personal Satan. But they've not necessarily replaced it with anything better; let alone grasp the huge challenge which there is to realize that our own mind is indeed our major adversary, our satan, and we are to battle against it every moment in the power of God's Spirit.

Whilst belief in the Devil and demons as literal beings is in decline, I can't stress strongly enough that this doesn't mean that people understand the truth about these matters. The basic mythology lives on in new guises. Our modern culture, with its predilection for science, has replaced sinful Angels and demons with aliens coming to earth on flying saucers and violating women. Such 'science fiction' has gotten a deep grip within society and culture. And never before have we seen so much demonizing of others as 'the enemy', rather than an acceptance that it's our own human sin which is the essential enemy. Moslems are demonized by Christians just as they were at the time of the Crusades; just as Russians, Communists, black people, non-trinitarians, divorcees, those who chew gum in church etc. were at different times by the Christians of the 20th century. It seems we're ever seeking for a fresh way to externally define 'the enemy', 'Satan', and yet always missing the crucial, quintessential issue- human sin and self-deception.

We have spoken of the huge influence of dualism- the idea that there is a god of good and a god of evil. If there's a God, there has to be a Devil; if there are Angels, there must be demons; if there's heaven, there must be hell. And we've sought to show that dualism isn't at all what the Bible teaches, in fact it's the very opposite. One pleasing trend of the last few decades has been the now widespread recognition amongst many Christians that 'hell' refers simply to the grave; and that the reward and hope of the righteous is God's eternal Kingdom on earth, and not going to Heaven on death. It seems to me that the rejection of the Heaven / hell dualism must be taken further, to include the rejection of the idea of a personal Satan, and allowing God to be "all in all" in our understanding. Dualism is very attractive to our judgmental human minds; it lends itself to categorizing life and society in a simplistic binary manner, into Us and Them, Cowboys and Indians, Hero and Villain, Friend and Foe... whilst all the time missing the essential Christian point that the ultimate struggle is within the human mind, and that God is all powerfully in control. As Ben Witherington says, "The emperor and his minions rule by permission and empowerment from God. The emperor himself is not God. Even the devil is God's devil..." (7). In fact, just about every serious student I've read who has specifically engaged with the issue of Satan has come to similar conclusions to what we've outlined here. We may at times need to stand with our backs to the world on a matter, letting God be true and every man a liar; and that is only right. But it's surely a comfort to know that many other careful and studious minds have arrived at the same conclusion we have.

A Final Appeal

I've so often spoken in this book about the need to struggle against sin within us, to learn self-control, to realize that our greatest personal Satan / adversary is our own humanity and sinful tendency. And so indeed do I conclude this book. But I need to sound a caveat here. I believe I would have failed my readership if I left you with an invitation to merely repress your sinful desires in a kind of clinical, legalistic way. I'm no great fan of C.G.Jung, but he and other psychologists have validly pointed out that by repressing our destructive feelings, we can end up creating a "shadow" self, a kind of negative force within us which bursts out at times. An example would be the highly self-controlled Christian who at times gives vent to their aggression in screaming fits against their partner or co-worker, over a totally minor issue. Those repressed feelings don't just disappear because they're repressed- they can lead to anything from stomach ulcers to self-hatred (8). This repression of evil within the individual is related to denial or repression of our awareness of the huge amount of evil which there is in the world; and this can easily be done by those who shrug it all off onto the blame of some superhuman Satan. Solzhenitsyn reflected on this at length, concluding: "In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future" (9). There has to be another way, what Neumann called a "new ethic" demanded by this realization. I submit that this 'other way' involves a complete submission to the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Master, and being baptized by immersion into Him, believing and acting as if we are "in Christ", with His righteousness and personality counted to us in what the New Testament calls 'imputed righteousness'. Our self-perception changes, so that although we sin, we perceive ourselves as being "in Christ", acting as He acted, thinking as He thought. Paul speaks in Romans 7 of his miserable failure at self-control and repression of sin, explaining how he simply couldn't repress what was wrong because it was too strong... and he goes on in Romans 8 to thank God that the way of escape was through being "in Christ" and having the mind / spirit / indwelling personality of the Lord Jesus. And all this is in the context of his appeal in Romans 6 for us to understand baptism as a yielding of ourselves to Christ personally, "crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified [freed from] sin... even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ... for sin shall not have dominion over you... being then made free from sin, you become the servants of righteousness... but now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto holiness, and the end- eternal life".

I have spoken repeatedly of the question of the ultimate origin of sin and evil, and the internal human struggle required against them. Be all that as it may, be it relevant, important, true, necessary. But the ultimate fact is that in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, "the devil", sin, evil, in all its forms and wherever it comes from and came from, was overcome, was triumphed over (Heb. 2:14-18). The atonement which was achieved through His death was no mere abstract transaction; it was not a theory but a real life gloriously lived, and a victorious death that was vindicated in an equally real resurrection. It means that you personally and I myself are ultimately free from the power of evil, sin and death itself. The way was opened to real, meaningful, felt forgiveness, and to the hope of eternity in an eternal Kingdom when evil is finally abolished. Faced with these realities, language starts to lose its power and meaning for us; all further commentary is bathos. The only response is not so much the mere adoption of another theory, a slightly changed intellectual understanding; but ultimately in a life lived in grateful response.


(1) See Plutarch, Oracles In Decline in D. Russell, ed., Plutarch: Selected Essays And Dialogues (Oxford: O.U.P., 1993).

(2) P.G. Bolt, "Jesus, The Daimons And The Dead", in The Unseen World, ed. A.N. Lane (Exeter: Paternoster, 1996).

(3) Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, And The Serpent (New York: Random House, 1989) xxiii.

(4) Augustine, City Of God, translated by Marcus Dods (New York: 1950) p. 867. Other examples of this idea being taught by the 'fathers' are to be found in J.B. Russell, A History Of Heaven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 85.

(5) Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic (Oxford: O.U.P., 1998) p. 930.

(6) Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, 1995).

(7) Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest (Leicester: I.V.P., 1998) p. 202.

(8) This phenomena has been portrayed and analyzed by many writers, not least concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, Man's Search For Meaning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963); Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology And The New Ethic (New York: HarperCollins, 1973); Antonio Moreno, Jung, Gods And Modern Man (Notre Dame: University Of Notre Dame Press, 1970) especially p. 41.

(9) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Monad Press, 1974) p. 178.