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1-2-5 Satan In The Thought Of Augustine

The great adversary / Satan to the early Christians was the Roman and Jewish systems. The Jewish system passed away in AD70, and Roman opposition ceased once the empire converted to Christianity under Constantine. Visible persecution of Christians ceased, for the most part. The lack of visible adversaries perhaps encouraged mainstream Christianity to conclude that the adversary / Satan was therefore invisible and cosmic. It was against this background that Augustine came onto the scene.

The logical and analytical mind of Augustine probably had the greatest influence in codifying Christian thought on the Devil, and setting the tradition in stone for future generations. He realized the weakness of the common Christian position on the Devil, and more than any others, scoured Scripture for support of the idea. He focused upon the symbolic prophecy of Revelation 12, that immediately prior to Christ's return there would be a battle between Michael and his angels / followers, and the system symbolized by "the dragon". I discuss the actual meaning of this passage later, in section 5-32. What Augustine surely willfully ignored was the basic context of Revelation 12- that this is a prophecy of the future, rather than a description of events in the past, at the beginning of Biblical history. The obvious objection, of course, is that God's people were informed nothing in the Genesis record of any battle in Heaven, a Satan figure, fallen angels etc. Why would they have to wait until the very end of Biblical revelation in order to be told what happened? And in this case, how could knowledge of these supposed events be made so fundamental to Christianity, when for so long God's people had lived in ignorance of them? Undeterred, Augustine pushed his point insistently, consciously or unconsciously. He pushed it to the point that the impression was given that it was the Angel Michael, rather than Christ personally, who overcame the Devil- thus devaluing the huge Biblical emphasis upon the fact that it was the human Christ and not an Angel who overcame the Devil, sin, death etc.- the whole of Hebrews 1 and 2 emphasizes this. Augustine's idea got to such a point that later a whole cult of Michael worship developed, in studied ignorance of Paul's warning not to worship Angels (Col. 2:18). Indeed in that passage, Paul speaks of Angel worship as the result of being "vainly puffed up by [the] fleshly mind" and not holding on to an understanding of Christ as the supreme "head" of all things. Perhaps it was exactly because Augustine and others missed the Biblical definition of the Devil as "the fleshly mind" that they came to their wrong conclusions. Paul even seems to hint that he saw this matter as a salvation issue- for he speaks of Angel worship as 'robbing you of your prize' (Col. 2:18 ASV). And yet, fed by Augustine's City Of God and other writings, the cult of worshiping Michael and his "angels" spread throughout the Christian church, as witnessed by the building of Mont St. Michel in France and countless expressions of the cult in Christian art, building and culture.

Augustine's version of dualism was that humanity belongs to the Devil, and we are manipulated by the Devil and demons: "The human race is the Devil's fruit tree, his own property, from which he may pick his fruit. It is a plaything of demons" (1). The Biblical position was radically different. "All souls are mine", God says (Ez. 18:4). Repeatedly, the implication of God as humanity's creator is stressed- we are therefore His- not the Devil's: "Know that Jehovah, he is God: It is he that hath made us, and we are his; We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (Ps. 100:3 ASV); "He is our God, And we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand" (Ps. 95:7 ASV- quoted in Hebrews 3:7 as applicable to the Christian church). Humanity is God's, as is the whole of His creation- this was the message taught to Job in the final chapters of the book, and the theme of so many of the Psalms. R.A. Markus pointed out that Augustine's view of humanity, the cosmos, the world... was all influenced by the fall of Rome in 410 AD (2). For Augustine, his world had become dark and sinister, the forces of evil were victorious- and thus his theology came to reflect his own feelings and experience, rather than accepting truth from the Bible however hard it might be to square with our present life experience.

Augustine was aware of the 'hard question' about the ultimate origin of evil and the concept of sin. But as with other attempts to tackle this, he only pushed the question a stage further back. He blamed sin on the fact that humanity has freewill; and covered himself by saying that "The first evil will must be incomprehensible", the whole issue is an inexplicable mystery, and all created beings must inevitably sin (City Of God 12.15). Whilst there is some truth of course to the fact that the ultimate origins of sin as a concept are indeed hard to articulate, Augustine's idea of 'inevitable sin' debased humanity and led on through Calvinism to the idea that we are merely miserable sinners who should feel awful about ourselves- thus setting up the flock of the mainstream church for the spiritual and psychological abuse practiced upon them ever since. And the idea that any created being must sin is of course a logical problem for those who believe that all Angels were created by God, but only some of them sinned. Why didn't they all sin, if all created beings must sin? And of course there is absolutely no a priori evidence, in Scripture or elsewhere, for the idea that all created things have to sin. What about the animals- do they too inevitably sin?

Commentators upon Augustine haven't been slow to pick up the fact that his reasoning about the Devil is deeply contradictory- as is so much mainline Christian thought on the subject. Even within the 11th chapter of City Of God we read that the Devil was originally a sinner, and yet also that the Devil was originally good- "he was once in the truth but did not persevere" (City Of God 11.13 cp. 11.15). Despite claiming that the Angels and all created beings must inevitably sin, Augustine assures us that "no new Devil will ever arise from among the good angels" (11.13). J.B. Russell appropriately comments: "Some of his [Augustine's] arguments were weak, even incoherent. This weakness raises an enormously important question about the validity of the process of formation of the [Devil] concept. If Augustine, being incoherent on a given point, fixed the tradition on that point, how valid can the tradition be? No concept resting upon shifting ground can endure" (3)- and indeed it can not.

Augustine got himself in these [and other] intellectual messes by being wedded to the idea that "God shall do only good". He went so far as to reason that since all things are of God but God can create no evil, therefore, evil doesn't really exist- it's simply a state of "nonbeing", a lack of good: "Evil is nothing, since God makes everything that is, and God did not make evil" (4). Augustine simply couldn't hack the simple Biblical statements that God is ultimately the author of disaster / "evil" in this world. Moreover, who is man to tell God what He may or may not do? Further, our understanding of "good" is so very limited. We're no more than very small children, who struggle with the problem that their view of good and their father's simply aren't the same. I suggest that our problem in accepting that God can and does bring about evil in the sense of disaster is because we seek to judge Him as we would judge a man. There is no question that there is evil in this world, allowed by an all powerful God, within whose power it is to not allow it. And the Bible also teaches that when there is calamity in a city, then the Lord has surely done it (Am. 3:7). All the cancer, persecution, murder, destruction... could be ended by Him in a moment. But, He doesn't do that. And we are intentionally left to struggle with the fact that this God is the God of love and all grace. If we were to judge a man who willingly allowed rape, murder, destruction, ethnic cleansing to go on in his country, when it was well within his power to stop it, we would feel quite justified in condemning him. Time and again, war crimes trials have easily and unanimously come to this conclusion. And so we tend to judge God as we would a man, with the assumption that our understanding of evil and the purpose of it is somehow on a par with God's. But God is God, and in that sense, He is not a man. The challenge of faith is to struggle with how He articulates Himself to us, to have the humility to accept the smallness of our understanding, to believe in Him, and through the process of those struggles to come to know, love and trust Him yet the more as we await the final coming of His Kingdom upon this earth.

All too often, the popular concept of the Devil has been created and developed in order to protect God from the blame for the origin of evil and disaster in our lives. Why is there the need for this? Because this is perhaps the greatest practical challenge of faith in God. If we accept this, we have to sink our own desire for a God in our image, who acts how we think He should act; and to accept Him and His word over and above our own understandings. God's declaration in Isaiah 55, that His ways are above our ways, His thoughts are infinitely above ours, needs to be given its full weight- His concept of good and evil is simply different and far above ours, or even our ability to comprehend it. Job struggled with the whole issue, and God's response in Job 38 was simply: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?... where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have understanding". For me, the ramblings of the "fathers" considered so far in this chapter are indeed a darkening of God's counsel by "words without knowledge". The lesson I take from Augustine's failures, and those of all the early "fathers", is that we simply have to face the problem of sin and evil right in the face; for every attempt to dodge it, deflect it, avoid it, results in yet further complications which are ultimately destructive of a true faith. For me, no religion, set of doctrines, theology, call it what we will, is worth much unless the ultimate issues of sin and evil are faced up to. The commonly held mainstream Christian view, as set in stone by Augustine, simply doesn't do it.


(1) Peter Brown, Augustine Of Hippo (London: Faber, 2000) p. 245.

(2) R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History And Society In The Theology Of Augustine (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1970).

(3) J.B. Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994 ed.) p. 218.

(4) Quoted in G.R. Evans, Augustine On Evil (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1982) p. 91.