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1-6 The Devil And Satan In Recent Thought

Even with my back to the world, I hope I'd stand for Bible truth regardless of what anyone else thought. We must do and believe what is right before God, rather than what is smart and trendy before our surrounding society. But I realize that for many, the rejection of the idea of a superhuman Satan is a major issue, and for some this may be their first encounter with any alternative idea. To provide somewhat of a human cushion for the changeover of thinking, a slightly softer landing, I've referenced throughout this book the views of many who have made this rejection of pagan superstition in favour of Bible truth. And in this section I wish to give some more recent examples. But name dropping of supporting voices is irrelevant in the final analysis- for we must each unflinchingly set our face to understand the problem of sin and evil in accordance with God's truth, as revealed in the Bible.

Stephen Mitchell

Stephen Mitchell, in a much acclaimed and well publicized book published by none other than Harper Collins, observes that throughout Job, “there is no attempt to deflect ultimate responsibility by blaming a devil or an original sin”(1). And Mitchell says this in the context of commenting upon Job 9:24, where having spoken of the problem of calamity, Job concludes: “Who does it, if not he [God]?”. And of course at the end of the book, God confirms Job as having spoken truly about Him. Mitchell observes that Job ends “with a detailed presentation of two creatures, the Beast and the Serpent… both creatures are, in fact, central figures in ancient near-eastern eschatology, the embodiments of evil that the sky-god battles and conquers… this final section of the Voice from the Whirlwind is a criticism of conventional, dualistic theology. What is all this foolish chatter about good and evil, the Voice says, about battles between a hero-god and some cosmic opponent? Don’t you understand that there is no one else in here? These huge symbols of evil, so terrifying to humans… are presented as God’s playthings”. And so Mitchell comes to the very same conclusions as we have outlined here- there is in the end only God, and He is not in struggle with any super-human ‘devil’ in Heaven. And this is in fact the whole lesson of the book of Job. Even if such a mythical being is thought to exist, as it was in Job’s time, the essential point is that God is so much greater than such a puny ‘devil’ that He can play games with him. John Robinson, one time Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, came to some similar conclusions, albeit less clearly expressed, in his classic In The End God (2).The Christian psychotherapist Paul Tournier also came to the same view about the devil which we've outlined elsewhere. He expresses what we've said Biblically in more modern jargon: “[We must] unmask the hidden enemy, which the Bible calls a devil, and which the psychoanalyst calls the superego: the false moral code, the secret and all-powerful veto which spoils and sabotages all that is best in a person’s life, despite the sincerest aspirations of his conscious mind”(3).

Elaine Pagels

Others have come to the same conclusions by different paths. Students of the history of ideas have found that the idea of a personal satan just isn't there in the Old Testament; and yet they've traced the development of the idea through the centuries, noting how various non-Christian ideas have become mixed in, a tradition developed and then picked up more and more accretions as time went on.

Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, is perhaps the highest profile writer and thinker to express agreement with our position about the devil. Her best selling book The Origin Of Satan is well worth a read if you're interested in this theme (4). She begins where we have done- that Christianity and Judaism taught only one God, and this left no place for a devil / satan in the orthodox sense. We have said time and again that one true doctrine leads to another, and Pagels grasps that clearly. One God means no devil. Simple as that. And so she comments: “Conversion from paganism to Judaism or Christianity, I realized, meant, above all, transforming one’s perception of the invisible world”. And this had a radically practical outworking- as does belief in any true Bible doctrine: “Becoming either a Jew or a Christian polarized a pagan’s view of the universe, and moralized it”. The pagan worldview would've felt that anything like a volcano or earthquake was a result of demonic activity. But instead, the Bible clearly describes the volcanoes that destroyed Sodom as coming from the one God, as judgment for their sins (Gen. 19:4). People were not just victims of huge cosmic forces; they had responsibility for their actions and met those consequences. We can easily miss the radical implications of the moral way the Bible describes such things which were otherwise attributed to demons /pagan gods. There was a huge political price attached to rejecting belief in ‘demons’. Rusticus, prefect of Rome, persecuted Christians because they refused “to obey the gods and submit to the rulers”. The Romans considered that their leaders were agents of the gods; and if the gods didn’t exist, then the Roman leadership lost its power and authority. For this reason, the Romans called the Christians ‘atheists’.

The following quotations from Pagels exactly reflect our own conclusions: “In the Hebrew Bible…Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an “evil empire”, an army of hostile spirits who make war on God…in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants- a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (mal’ak) into Greek (angelos)… In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character… the root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary”... But this messenger is not necessarily malevolent… John dismisses the device of the devil as an independent supernatural character… Paul holds a perception that Satan acts as God’s agent not to corrupt people but to test them” (pp. 111, 183)”.

But Elaine Pagels isn't just out there on her own. Neil Forsyth comments likewise: “In… the Old Testament, the word [satan] never appears as the name of the adversary… rather, when the satan appears in the Old Testament, he is a member of the heavenly court, albeit with unusual tasks”(5). Several respected commentators have pointed out the same, especially when commenting upon the ‘satan’ in the book of Job- concluding that the term there simply speaks of an obedient Divine Angel acting the role of an adversary, without being the evil spirit being accepted by many in Christendom (6). Commenting on the 'satan' of Job and Zechariah, the respected Anchor Bible notes: "Neither in Job nor in Zechariah is the Accuser an independent entity with real power, except that which Yahweh consents to give him" (7). A.L. Oppenheim carefully studied how the figure of a personal satan entered into Hebrew thought; he concludes that it was originally absent . He considers that their view of a Divine court, or council, such as is hinted at in the Hebrew Bible, was significant for them; but they noted that in some Mesopotamian bureaucracies there was a similar understanding, but always there was an "accuser" present, a 'satan' figure (8). And the Jews adopted this idea and thus came to believe in a personal satan.

How Did Christianity Adopt Pagan Beliefs?

Pagels and other writers tackle the obvious question: Where, then, did the present idea of a literal evil being called satan come from, seeing it’s not in the Bible? They trace the idea back to pagan sources that entered Judaism before the time of Christ- and then worked their way into Christian thought in the early centuries after Christ, as mainstream Christianity moved away from purely Biblical beliefs(9). But pushing the question back a stage further, why and how did Judaism and later Christianity pick up pagan myths about a personal devil and sinful Angels and mix them in with their belief system?Pagels quotes sources such as the Jewish Book of the Watchers to show how there was a clear belief that each person has a ‘guardian Angel’, and when conflicts arose, people judged as ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’ came to be charged with therefore having a ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’ Angel controlling them. And it was an easy step to assume that these ‘wicked Angels’ were all under the control of a personal, superhuman Devil as widely believed in by surrounding pagans. The book of Jubilees (e.g. 15:31) made the association between pagan gods and demons. Jewish apostates who believed in the pagan gods, or who were accused of believing in them, were then seen as being somehow in league with them. And thereby those ‘demons’ were felt to be real beings, because the people they supposedly controlled were real people.

The Essenes were a Jewish sect who were in conflict with the rest of the Jews, whom they believed were condemned to damnation. They expressed this conflict between them and others in terms of a cosmic conflict between God- who they believed was on their side- and a personal Satan, whose followers they believed their enemies on earth were supporting. The more bitter the political conflict within Israel, the stronger was the appeal made to a supposed cosmic battle between good and evil, God and Satan. The result of this false doctrine was a demonizing of ones’ opposition. And the same can easily happen today. The value of the human person is forgotten about, if we believe they are condemned, evil people who are the devil incarnate. The orthodox ‘devil’ can’t be reconciled with. He can only be destroyed. And if we demonize people, we can never reconcile with them, only seek to destroy them. Here is where doctrine is important in practice. If there is no personal satan up there, and all people, our enemies included, are simply struggling against their own nature… then we can reach out to them, as fellow strugglers, understand them, seek to reconcile with them and seek their salvation. And so it seems to me that the personal satan myth became popular because it lent itself so conveniently to the demonization of others, by making out that they are actually in league with some cosmic force of evil, whereas we [of course!] are on the side of the good. And so Christians demonized their enemies and then even those within their religion who differed from them, just as the Jews and later the Essenes had done. This all suggests that false doctrine nearly always has a moral dimension to it, or an [im]moral justification, a making of the way easier, a pandering to our natural inclination rather than that of God.

Many scholars have pointed out that the Old Testament is silent about a 'satan' figure as widely believed in by Christendom. The Genesis record says nothing at all about sinful angels, a Lucifer, satan being cast out of Heaven etc. There seems significant evidence for believing that the idea of a personal devil first entered Judaism through their contact with the Persian religions whilst in captivity there. Rabbinic writings don't mention a personal satan until the Jews were in Babylon, and the references become more frequent as Persian influence upon Judaism deepened. This is why the monumental passages in Isaiah [e.g. Is. 45:5-7], addressed to the captive Jews, point out the error of the Persian idea that there is a good God in tension with an evil god. Classically, the devil is understood to be a being with horns and a pitchfork. If we research why this should be the case, we soon find that the Bible itself is absolutely without any such images of satan or the devil. But we do find these images in pagan mythology- Pan, Dionysius and other pagan gods were depicted as having horns, long tails etc. In the British isles, let alone ancient Rome and Greece, there were traditions of 'horned gods' being the source of evil- e.g. the Cernunnos amongst the Celts, Caerwiden in Wales, etc. In so many ways, apostate Christianity adopted pagan ideas and brought them into its theology. These horned gods, with forks and long tails, became adopted into a false Christianity as 'the devil'. But the Bible itself is absolutely silent about this- nowhere is there any indication that satan or the devil is a personal being with horns etc.

Other studies in the history and developments of religion have shown that religious systems usually begin without a specific 'satan' figure; but as people struggle with the huge incidence of evil in the world, they end up creating such a figure in their theologies. It seems many people have a deeply psychological need to blame their sin, and the sin of others, on something outside of them; and so the idea of a personal satan has become popular. It's somewhere to simplistically dump all our struggles and disappointments and fears of ourselves and of the world in which we live. The struggle to understand, believe and love a God who portrays Himself in His word as the ultimate and only force, in a world of tsunamis, earthquakes, mass catastrophe- is indeed difficult. It's something all His children have to wrestle with, as children struggle with their parents' decisions and actions towards them which seem to them so unloving, unreasonable and pointless. It's surely a cop out to give up, and simplistically decide that our God isn't actually the only force and power around, but actually there is an evil god out there too. But this is indeed a cop out, as well as reflecting our own lack of faith and acceptance of the one true God simply because we don't ultimately understand Him, and because He doesn't act how we think He should act.

The Devil In John’s Gospel

Students of John have also at times been driven to the understanding that actually, John's writings do not at all support the common idea of the Devil. John’s Gospel seeks to correct the false idea of a huge cosmic conflict. John frequently alludes to the ideas of light versus darkness, righteousness versus evil. But he correctly defines darkness and evil as the unbelief which exists within the human heart. Again, from this distance, we may read John’s words and not perceive the radical, corrective commentary which he was really making against the common ideas of a personal Satan existing in Heaven, involved in some cosmic conflict up there. The real arena of the conflict, the essential struggle, according to John, is within the human heart, and it is between belief and unbelief in Jesus as the Son of God, with all that entails.

In the same way as the concept of ‘demons’ somewhat recedes throughout the Gospels, and the point is made that God’s power is so great that effectively they don’t exist- so it is with the ‘Devil’. Judaism had taken over the surrounding pagan notion of a personal ‘satan’. And the Lord Jesus and the Gospel writers use this term, but in the way they use it, they redefine it. The parable of the Lord Jesus binding the “strong man”- the Devil- was really to show that the “devil” as they understood it was now no more, and his supposed Kingdom now taken over by that of Christ. The last Gospel, John, doesn't use the term in the way the earlier Gospels do. He defines what the earlier writers called “the devil” as actual people, such as the Jews or the brothers of Jesus, in their articulation of an adversarial [‘satanic’] position to Jesus. My point in this context is that various respected and widely published scholars have concluded likewise: “John never pictures satan.. as a disembodied being… John dismisses the device of the devil as an independent supernatural character”(10)… “In John, the idea of the devil [as a personal supernatural being] is completely absent”(11). Raymond Brown- one of the most well known Roman Catholic expositors of the 20th Century- concludes that ‘Satan’ doesn't refer to a character in ‘his’ own right, but rather is a title referring to groups of people who play the role of adversaries or tempters(12).

Other Writers

20th century theologian Jim Garrison gave a lifetime to analyzing the relationship between God, the Devil and evil. He finally concluded that there is no Devil, and that God creates real evil, and uses it somehow for the ultimate good in the 'bigger picture' (13). Petru Dumitriu likewise concluded that Satan is "a needful symbol of radical evil", and that humanity is the ultimate source of much of the evil we experience: "In all creation there is nothing as cruel as human malice... evil is a refusal of the very notion of guilty intent, of culpability, of sin" (14). Flannery O'Connor's novels and writings expressed all this in popular form. Her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away, really plays on this theme deeply (15). "There ain't no such thing as a devil... I can tell you that from my own self-experience. I know that for a fact. It ain't Jesus or the devil. It's Jesus or you" (p. 39).

Fyodor Dostoyevsky And Satan (Reflections by Ted Russell)

The Brothers Karamazov by the great nineteenth-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the gravest and most absorbing novels ever written; yet it in no way promotes a belief in an immortal Devil. In a book of impressionistic realism, Dostoyevsky is concerned with the anguish caused by the dual nature of man, in which a mythical Satan has absolutely no role, function or place, and therefore does not intrude. In fact, the only time Satan is introduced at all, is, late in the series, when Ivan hears that Smerdyakov’s murder of Fyodor was the result of his (Ivan’s) nihilistic words and actions, suggesting that the father’s murder would be a blessing to the whole household. He returns to his rooms, falls ill with fever and delirium, during which he is haunted by a realistic spectre of the devil which suddenly emerges from his soul, revealing his true nature to himself. Up till now, Ivan’s nihilism had no room for conscience, at all. Belatedly, and long overdue, that latent conscience is born in him by the sudden awareness of the evil consequences of his overtly professed philosophy. Significantly, Ivan’s feverish vision of awareness is lost on his audience; it is not believed in by any in the court to whom he confesses it. It is, actually, a message from Dostoyevsky to his readers.

If Dostoyevsky had wanted to bring in a real, external Satan, he would have introduced him earlier, in the most famous section of the book (The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor) where, in an inn, Ivan disclosed to Alyosha that he believed in God, but that he could not accept God’s world. What the two discussed there was the dual nature of man, which has been the continuing theme of the whole novel. There, Ivan’s account of another of his delusional dreams, this time in poetical form, spells out his case against Christ, and his anger at a God who permits innocent children to suffer. But it is not through the mouth of a Satan, but of a worldly wise old Inquisitor during an auto-da-fe - an execution by burning of heretics - in 16th century Seville. A stranger appears in the village, and performs a miracle. The people identify him as Christ. The Grand Inquisitor appears, and arrests the stranger, intending to burn him at the stake next day. He reproaches the stranger: “Is it Thou?”, he asks, ”You had no right to come. We have corrected thy work.” Ivan’s implication is that Christ’s message is far too hard for any to follow, no one can ever reach His impossibly high standards. No one wants freedom; all they need is security. So, the Church has changed the standards, to an achievable norm - and so who needs Christ now? The Inquisitor offers Christ liberty if He will go and “come no more.” According to Ivan, his poetical dream has Christ accepting the Inquisitor’s offer. He silently kisses the old man’s lips as He leaves, disappearing forever. 

 But it doesn’t end there. The dream is all in the mind of Ivan. No place there, at all, for Satan. Christ has come with impossible requirements for man. The Church, realizing the impossibility of Christ’s requirements, has changed it all, and kissed Christ off. That’s all we need, Ivan the nihilistic Intellectual argues. Alyosha, however, knows better. Zossimar has taught him that the true Christian faith, if not that which the Church has tampered with, is not as helpless as Ivan would have it. The standard it demands is certainly attainable, and does work. Active love is far more important than anything that Ivan’s totalitarian system could ever reach. Had not Zossimar said:

 “ ... love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science”.

The theme of the novel is that of a father and his four sons (born of three different mothers) and the effect of sensuality and inherited sensuality on them and on all with whom they come in contact. The father is murdered, and in the course of the consequent investigation the reader is led to consider all the possible paths for mankind.

Dimitre, the sensuous oldest son, depicts the way of the senses; Ivan, the atheistic, intellectual son, represents Western intellectualism, arguing that all things are permissible; Alexey (called Alyosha), the third son, is a gentle boy influenced by Zossimar, an elder in the nearby monastery (whose positive teachings are central to the novel); and Smerdyakov (the actual murderer), the illegitimate son representing the debased way of scepticism and secularism. 

Dostoyevsky prefaces his novel with a quotation from the Gospel of John, that relates to the underlying theme of the book: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”. Throughout the novel, each brother must learn this truth in his own experience: “Fall to the earth, die, and, then be reborn”.

There is no Satan in The Brothers Karamazov. Zossimar’s unassuming but firm Christian teachings continue to be central to the whole of the novel, and constitute a complete rebuttal to Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor mythical legend - a poetic, invented dream that meets its catharsis in the final, self-revelation to Ivan, in his moment of truth. For his later dream’s self-revelation that his other half is a “private devil” - the bad side of his dual nature ( “the real spectre in his soul”) - is consistent with what he had, himself, initially and tentatively postured to his brother Alyosha in the preamble to The Grand Inquisitor: “I think the Devil doesn’t exist and, consequently, man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness”.


(1) Stephen Mitchell, The Book Of Job (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

(2) John Robinson, In The End God (London: James Clarke, 1950).

(3) Paul Tournier, The Person Reborn (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) p. 6.

(4) Elaine Pagels, The Origin Of Satan (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 1996).

(5) Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan And The Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 107.

(6) See P. Day, An Adversary In Heaven: Satan In The Hebrew Bible (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1988) pp 69-106.

(7) C.L. Meyers and E.M. Meyers, The Anchor Bible: Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2004 ed.) p. 184.

(8) A.L. Oppenheim, "The eyes of the Lord", Journal of The American Oriental Society Vol. 88 (1968) pp. 173-180.

(9) In addition to Pagels op cit, see Knut Schaferdick, “Satan in the Post Apostolic Fathers” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) Vol. 7 pp. 163-165 and George F. Moore, Judaism In The First Centuries Of The Christian Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927) Vol. 1.

(10) Elaine Pagels, op cit pp. 100,111.

(11) Gustave Hoennecke, New Testament Studies (Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1912) p. 208.

(12) Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1966) pp. 364-376.

(13) J. Garrison, The Darkness Of God: Theology After Hiroshima (London: S.C.M., 1982), especially pp. 8,173,174.

(14) P. Dumitriu, To An Unknown God (New York: The Seabury Press, 2005) p. 59.

(15) Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).