The literal existence of an evil spiritual being named Satan, arch-enemy of God and man, is increasingly called in question these days, it being considered more rational and up-to-date to view the relevant Biblical references as alluding to the abstract principle of evil. To be tempted by the Devil, it is suggested, is simply the natural human propensity to sin; to overcome the Devil the successful suppression of that propensity and adoption of the right and proper course of conduct in respect to the particular matter concerned. Whilst all this undeniably suits the temper of a society which tends more and more to reject the super-natural in religion and explain all things from the viewpoint of human material reasoning. It does ignore the fact that the greater part of Biblical mention of Satan cannot possibly be read as other than deliberate reference to an intelligent and super-human creature, moreover one whose nature is completely subordinated to evil and who is in a state of continuing rebellion against God. Against the rejection of this understanding by the intellectualism of today has to be placed the fact; a somewhat strange fact in the light of modern irreligion; that the International Social Survey conducted in 1991 showed that less that nineteen percent of the world’s population still believe in a personal Devil. Since less than one in twenty go to church today, it would seem that many can hold the belief without feeling they need do much about it! It might well be that, church going or no church going, a greater number of people than might have been suspected can only account for the evil and misery that is in the world by concluding that some mighty super-human power is behind it all; and in this they are absolutely right.
The Bible writers are quite positive. From the Apostle John, writer of the last Gospel, and last of those who knew Jesus in the flesh, back to the unknown scribe on the banks of Euphrates who first set down the story of Genesis, two and a half millenniums before Christ, there is a fixed and manifest conviction that the introduction of evil and sin amongst mankind is due to such a being. Jesus spoke of Satan as a personal and powerful adversary, and the Apostles counseled their converts to be on their guard against his devices in a fashion which can be true only of such a one. In so doing they were all on sure ground, for quite apart from Scriptural passages referring to Satan’s activities in the world throughout human history, and the menace to the would-be doers of right which he represents. There are definite factors in the operation of the divine plan which only “make sense”, so to speak, if there is indeed this powerful adversary at work.
The first of these factors arises from the position with man at the beginning. Evil was not inherent in man’s nature; it was not even indwelling. The old medieval dogma that the flesh is basically corrupt and unclean is not true. When God introduced the first intelligent creatures upon this earth, He looked upon what He had made and found it “very good.” Man at his creation was perfect and sinless, and capable of everlasting life while he so remained. The story of Eden makes plain that sin was introduced from outside, that an exterior agent in which sin already resided was the means of seducing the first humans from loyalty to God. That agent claimed to have knowledge of God and of the things of God not as yet possessed by the human creation. In consequence of this successful seduction God judged and condemned that agent.
Moral responsibility cannot be attributed to an abstract principle of evil, only to an intelligent creature capable of both moral and immoral conduct, “Because thou hast done this,” God said to the Tempter in the story “thou art cursed … and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed” (Gen. 3.14-15) This is not the language that would be employed were the object merely to reprove the woman for her fault and exhort her to resist the temptation in future; this speaks of a lasting warfare which was to commence and subsist between the serpent with his progeny and the woman with hers; later Scripture shows that the “seed of the woman” is Christ and that in Him and by Him the overthrow of the Devil will be accomplished. The fact that in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, a time is shown to come when the Devil is “bound with a great chain”, restrained, “that he should deceive the nations no more” (Rev. 20.1-3) while for a considerable time thereafter mankind are still in process of cleansing from sin and not yet reconciled to God is evidence again that it is not merely evil as such, but the personal and literal living instigator of evil, who has thus been active since the days of Eden and now at last will have been restrained from further interference with humanity by the power of God.
The Old Testament has little to say about Satan and refers to him by that name only twice. The first occasion is in the book of Job where he appears as one of the characters in the prologue to the book, the preliminary sketch explaining how Job’s troubles came about. The other is in the book of Zechariah, where Satan appears, again in a prophetic vision, to obstruct the work of God in the rehabilitation of the nation of Israel after its restoration from Babylon, and, spiritually, the church in its earthly career. In both cases the word Satan is prefixed by the definite article, indicating, as is verified by Gesenius, that it should be taken as a proper name. In many other instances where the word is found in the Hebrew text, but without the article, it bears its basic meaning of an adversary or opponent.
The connection in which Satan appears most vividly and in the course, not of prophetic vision or poetic drama, but of strict historical narrative, is in the story of Eden. The Book of Genesis as we have it stems from a Sumerian original and the serpent of Eden is derived from the legendary creature known as the “saraph”, a mystic heavenly visitant dazzlingly glorious in appearance but in this case bearing occult and unlawful knowledge to men. This one, says Genesis, was craftier than any terrestrial living creature; every aspect of the story of Eden therefore demands that Eve did hold converse with an intelligent malevolent celestial being who set out to seduce her into disobedience and disloyalty to God.
Jesus knew the reality of His opponent. He called him “a murderer from the beginning” and the father of lies (John 8:44), acknowledged him to be the “prince of this world” (John 14:30) and asserted that in time past He himself had witnessed his expulsion from heaven, which must have been at the time of his defection from righteousness (Luke 10:18). He warned Peter that he was particularly a target for Satan’s devices (Luke 22:31). The Apostles were equally certain. Peter, much later, warned his flock in turn that the Devil as a raging lion walked about seeking whom he might devour (1 Pet. 5:8). Paul said that in certain circumstances “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14) and again, that “Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 1:18); again, in a very trenchant sentence he declares that “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:4). On the reverse side of the picture he assures us that “the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20), an evident allusion to the condemnation of the serpent in Gen. 3:15, and this is confirmed and amplified by the writer of the book of Hebrews in the declaration that Christ, through His death, will “destroy hm that hath the power of death, that is, the Devil” (Heb. 3:14). With all this, and more, in the pages of the New Testament it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the founders of the Church possessed a vivid consciousness of a mighty spiritual and unseen but nevertheless very real enemy against whom they must struggle with all their powers.
Another factor meriting consideration lies in the region of the occult. For a long time scoffed at in modern materialistic thought it is now becoming increasingly accepted by investigators and observers that there is a reality in certain occult phenomena, some kinds of witchcraft and necromancy and so on, which so far has defied what is glibly called rational explanation. Such phenomena have been in evidence all down the ages, and back in the first century the Apostle Paul at least was quite certain about their reality and their source. “Our fight is not against human foes” he says “but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12. NEB). That there has been, in some remote past time, a rebellion against Divine authority on the part of certain ones in the angelic world, and that these “rebellious angels” have been and are in a continuing state of evil doing, which threatens not only Christ’s followers but all of mankind, is plainly shown in Scripture. It follows as a matter of logic that Satan is the leader and inciter of this “host of wickedness”. If indeed it could be shown on other grounds that there is no evidence for the existence of a personal Devil it would necessarily follow that, given the existence of the rebellious angels, whoever is leader among them would himself automatically fill the role. That this is the position is indicated by Jesus in the parable of the Sheep and Goats when he refers to “the Devil and his angels”. (Matt. 25:41). All this does help to establish the solid fact that, behind the veil which shrouds things in the spiritual world from our senses, there is a force of beings animated by evil whose leader is the one we know as Satan.
This, then, is the champion of evil. Created by God, for all life comes from God, he must of necessity have come from his Creator’s hand perfect, innocent, sinless. Thoughts of rebellion and sin must have shaped themselves in his mind as in the exercise of that free will which is the gift of God to all his intelligent creatures he began to sense the possibilities which disloyalty could offer. The Bible says as much. There are two metaphorical passages in the Old Testament in both of which, under the guise of great earthly potentates, the Prince of Darkness is obviously pictured. In the one he is depicted as saying to himself “I will ascend to heaven above the stars of God; I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly, I will make myself like the Most High”. (Isa. 14:13-14 RSV), Here is overwelming ambition, the created, aspiring to be equal to the Creator. So came the word of God to him “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till iniquity was found in you … so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God” (Ezek. 25:5-16). This is the fall of Satan, perhaps at a time far anterior to the creation of man upon earth, perhaps, as some have surmised, at the very time of that creation. Perceiving the potentialities inherent in this new expression of the creative power of God, Satan, think some, might have determined to win this new incipient empire for himself. Whatever may have been the motive and whenever the time, the end was inevitable. In the fine language of the Authorized Version “therefore will I bring, forth a fire from the midst of thee; it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee” (Ezek 28:18). Here is the doom of Satan; the fire of his own sin, proceeding from within himself, destroys the life which once held such great promise but because of it having been given over completely and wholly to sin has become incapable of reformation. Be it noted that this passage does not picture a kind of judicial execution sanctioned by the Most High: the extinction of being which is described in these tremendous words is the logical and the inevitable result of sin, accepted into the heart and allowed to reign unchecked until every impulse and feeling of right and truth has been eliminated and the whole personality is given over irrevocably to the pursuit and practice of evil.
It goes without saying that the medieval conception of Satan as a hideous monster having horns and tail, armed with a trident and breathing fire, is nothing more than artist’s license of the times. As a member of God’s celestial creation Satan must have been what man in his own world was when God looked upon that which He had made and found it “very good.” In his own sphere and among his own companions Satan would have been transcendently glorious. He must have appeared to Eve in Eden as a radiant and assuring presence. Isaiah gives his primal appellation as the Morning Star, the planet Venus. (“Lucifer” in Isa. 14 is derived from an ancient term for Venus meaning “the splendid star” and has only become a proper name by custom). These allusions substantiate the intention to portray a particular and intelligent celestial being who was originally made, like man, “In the image and likeness of God”, and by transgression fell from that high estate. According to Ezekiel he was “a cherub with outspread wings, set upon the holy mountain of God”. Of his rank and position and activities in those first days before thoughts of sin entered his heart we know nothing; of the terrible results of his apostasy and commitment to total evil, so far as this earth is concerned, we have full and sad experience. Of the future, with no indication of remorse, of sorrow, of repentance. We have only the inexorable words of God, as recorded by Ezekiel “you have come to a dreadful end, and shall be no more for ever.”