Satan has almost completely lost his standing in the world of Christian theology. Consider, for example, the attitude of three writers in recent biblical and theological publications. First, celebrated New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who is fully aware of the pervasive presence of evil in our world today. But in a recent monograph, he identifies evil in both the disruptions of our physical environment and through its control of human minds and spirits. The line between the good and the evil does not separate any one people or individual from another. Rather, it runs “through every individual and every society.”1
Wright sounds more emphatic about the badness of human beings than he does about Satan himself. With regard to supernatural evil, he would warn that it “has a hidden dimension; there is more to it than meets the eye.”2 His biblical “Satan” figure, however, is “a nonhuman and nondivine quasi-personal force”3; a “negative force,” or a “shadowy being or beings” over whom Jesus triumphs.4 As far as Wright is concerned, Satan is “important but not that important.”5 Wright, in fact, commits himself to distinguishing several satans—the Old Testament character, the figure in Jesus’ wilderness temptations, and the dragon of the book of Revelation.6
Further, Wright concludes that evil, Satan’s traditional province, should actually be described as “the moral and spiritual equivalent of a black hole.”7 Thus Satan is “an uncertainty factor, a je ne sais quoi, in all our moral and spiritual equations, so that however well we organize, however much we pray, however sound our theology and however energetically we go to work, there will be negative forces, perhaps we should say a Negative Force, working against us and for which we must allow.”8
Second, according to Bart Ehrman, Satan becomes the devil only at some late stage in Israelite religion—when apocalypticism arises during the Maccabean revolt, some 150–170 years before Jesus’ birth. In his understanding, Jewish apocalypticism sees the world in dualistic terms, with God in charge of good, and His evil opponent, the devil, Satan, in control of evil.9
Third, Robert Alden’s concept of Satan is a much more important figure than that of Wright or Ehrman. But this does not mean that Alden accords him his deserved standing. Alden’s New American Commentary on Job describes Satan as one who inhabits a somewhat stranger country than does Wright’s work. And he is not alone in that intriguing place. Joining an illustrious line of exegetes, including Emil Kraeling and Marvin Pope, Alden posits that the roles and purposes of Satan and God are a scriptural unity.10
Indeed, Alden holds that Satan is part of a divine cabinet in which all the members are not good.11
This position on Satan as God’s partner contrasts with Wright for whom Satan is at first a lowercase figure, and later a sinister whisperer in Jesus’ ear but still not that important. Alden also decidedly contrasts with Ehrman for whom Satan, when he does come to be, is God’s opponent, rather than a member of the divine cabinet. Ehrman’s characterization thus appears to be closest to the traditional view, which does not mean that for Ehrman, Satan retains his traditional standing. Ehrman has, in fact, become known for his public and absolute repudiation of Scripture and its God. Says Ehrman: “I came to a point where I could no longer believe. . . . I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it. . . . After many years . . . I came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition.”12
Ehrman’s statement, added to those of Wright, Alden, and others, shows that among Christian theologians and biblical scholars today, Satan stands, inter alia, as a fabrication of Jewish apocalyptic, a variety of unimportant figures at various points in Scripture.
Other attitudes to Satan
Nor are these the only views available. There also seems to exist a perspective that relegates Satan to a quiet oblivion. For example, Clark Pinnock’s entire chapter expounding on a “Systematic Theology” of Open Theism mentions Satan not once.13 Neither does Richard Rice, whose essay deals with biblical considerations related to Open Theism.14 It is difficult to understand how reflections on divine foreknowledge in context of creaturely choice could satisfactorily ignore the origin of temptation and the tempter’s role in influencing human decisions.
An Overall Biblical View
This variety of perspectives on the biblical Satan character as “important, but not that important,” “quasi-personal,” a mere force, a fabrication of Jewish apocalyptic, or to be totally ignored, unmentioned in the context of theological discourse addressing the issue of God and evil, are very difficult to align with the biblical text. Scripture so focuses on this being that he is identifiable by a multitude of different names. Taken together, 1 Peter 5:8 and Revelation 12:915 alone supply us with four of them: the devil, the adversary, the ancient serpent, and the dragon—names which may be applied to this same being, Satan, the being who, defeated by Michael and his angels, “was thrown down to the earth,” where he now actively attempts to get the whole world in trouble (Rev. 12:10, 9, 12). And though Elaine Pagels has contested this view,16 she is nevertheless capable of admirable insights into the nature of this adversarial being. He is, as she detects, the intimate who becomes the enemy, the one next to God, who becomes his archrival.17 The Old Testament pictures Satan as being present in the opening chapters of the human story, for the Paradise garden snake is one more of his identities.18 Revelation 12 links him by name, “the ancient serpent,” to the Garden of Eden. It also links him to heaven in terms of his origins. And one of several biblical references, inclusive of vivid prophetic oracles by Isaiah and Ezekiel, alludes to his having been cast down to earth (Rev. 12:9; Luke 10:18; Isa. 14:12–14; Ezek. 28:12–19).19
Isaiah’s oracle prefaces the casting out with a story of the birth of a great idea. The subject of the oracle communicates the new idea to himself; or, it occurs to him. The sense is that he, at first, becomes possessed of a private notion, something mental, secret, and personal, and which he comes to consider grand. His grand idea is one of ascent, “ ‘ “above the stars of God . . .?above the heights of the clouds,” ‘ ” one of being equated with the Most High (Isa. 14:12–14).
“I will act,” he repeatedly insists. His intention is exclusive. He himself is the one who will do it, who will do it all, and do it alone. He will raise his throne (v. 13), suggesting that he may already have seen himself as royalty, as occupying a seat of honor, since all but seven of 136 usages of this term for throne refer to royal or divine thrones.20 Either he already possesses such a throne and is not contented, or he so visualizes his future that his words actualize it before history can confirm it; he will do something new, by such ascent; and also by enthroning himself, since, according to Scripture, generally God establishes rulers on thrones (Dan. 2:21; 4:17). By declaring that he will go up to heaven, he will ignore or defy the fact that it is God whose throne is in heaven (Isa. 66:1).
Ascent to heaven, it turns out, is not sufficient. The being must ascend above God’s stars (Isa. 14:13). The being here spoken of evidently sees himself as deserving of greater exaltation than the rest of the divine creation, indeed God Himself, given that ascent to God’s place is only step one in his five-step proposal toward greater elevation than he currently enjoys—something difficult to understand, given the importance of his status as covering cherub (Ezek. 28:14) in the very presence of God (Exod. 25:10–22). “The far north” to which he will ascend, refers to the farthest reaches of the most inaccessible part of the mountain. Assyrian king Sennacherib emphasizes this sense with his blasphemous outburst against Hezekiah, Jerusalem, the kingdom of Judah, and the God of heaven: “ ‘ “Through your messengers you have reproached the Lord, and you have said, ‘With my many chariots I came up to the heights of the mountains, to the remotest parts of Lebanon; and I cut down its tall cedars and its choice cypresses. And I entered its farthest lodging place, its thickest forest’ ” ’ ” (2 Kings 19:23).
Sennacherib and the ascending creature of Isaiah 14, expect to go as far as it is possible to go; where no creature has ever gone before, the highest height, the ultimate destination. Nor will Isaiah’s protagonist merely arrive there on a visit. No! He will sit, dwell, enthrone himself there, “above the heights of the clouds”—perhaps because God rides on clouds (19:1). So that his own getting on top of the clouds might give him, too, opportunity to ride “on the backs of the clouds,” as suggested in the New English Translation textual note.
This multistaged proposal will enable its architect, at its climax, to be equated with the Most High: “ ‘ “I will make myself like the Most High” ’ ” (Isa. 14:14). In light of which, his fate of expulsion (“ ‘thrust down to Sheol,’ ” v. 15) is entirely comprehensible. In fact, the only way to deserve the title “Most High” comes by deity, by membership in the Trinity. There cannot even be another single “Most High.” The Isaiah story is one of ultimate and misconceived rebellion. And the expulsion of Isaiah 14:15 will finally be accomplished when earth itself, to which he is cast in Revelation (Rev. 12:9), is turned into a smoldering cauldron at the end of time as Christ purifies His universe with the fires of hell (Rev. 20:14, 15).
In its characterization of his role as master deceiver, Revelation 12 well unites with and underlines studies on Satan’s behavior in Job, a conduct impenetrable enough to baffle continuing generations of Job scholars, leading Marvin H. Pope, for example, to consider him as working in partnership with the Lord.21 Still, nothing gives him away so effectively as his violence, explicit both in Revelation 12 and Job 1 and 2. This violence is specifically directed against those whom God extols as virtuous, and would preserve and protect, those who represent what God is like and stands for, over against what he, Satan wishes to perpetuate (Job—see Job 1; 2; Joshua the high priest—see Zech. 3:1–7).
That Satan should be a mystery in biblical scholarship and Christian theology reminds us of John Baldwin’s warning about “spiritual hermeneutical influences.”22
Baldwin states, “It is difficult, if not impossible, for the natural mind to interpret the Bible correctly. Fallen spiritual powers, Satan and his angels, can influence the exegete. This is particularly true when the biblical interpreter denies that these fallen supernatural powers exist as real beings, able to influence the mind, and allegorizes them into mere symbols of evil. The attempts of Satan and evil angels to redirect interpretations of the Bible cannot be dismissed.”23
Baldwin’s warning points to the astonishing reality that one element shared in common by classical atheistic evolution, Christ-believing theistic evolution, and radically conservative Christian fundamentalism, is a diminished view of the personal, supernatural being the Bible identifies as Satan. For while the Bible shows him to be engaged at every level possible, and by every means possible, in all out war against the God of Scripture and the people of God, many today, both in science and in Christian theology, find intellectual and spiritual satisfaction in either relative or absolute denial of Satan’s existence and operations.
If There’s no Satan, so What?
But Satan’s diminution, or total disappearance, cannot be dismissed as of no consequence either to Christian theology or day-to-day human experience. For people suffer every day, and long for some explanation of the pain and injustice under which they must labor. The Bible blames Satan directly for the misery of life today and through the thousands of years of death on earth. According to the Bible, death came to earth because of sin (Rom. 5:12), and sin is of the devil (1 John 3:8). The devil, the dragon, the ancient serpent, all these labels refer to one and the very same being (Rev. 12:9). He is the one who introduces chaos and the disruption of God’s perfect order in the Garden of Eden so that all earth’s disorder is his doing. Ignoring or denying his existence equals denying the unimaginable insanity and horror that human history has recorded in our own time.
Satan’s continued havoc among us is not explainable by any single reason except it is his nature. But one major reason for his success must be his ability to do the worst and be continually exonerated because, ironically, many intelligent minds today attribute the worst of his work to the goodness of God.
Francis Collins’s book The Language of God well focuses our dilemma with regard to the Satan character. Collins speaks categorically about evolution: “Evolution, as a mechanism, can be and must be true.”24 He tells of how he comes to faith, convicted of the universality of moral law.25 He explains why he cannot accept the literal historicity of the Genesis story: “I couldn’t take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that, once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then, just by definition, there could not be a conflict.”26
Collins turns to a metaphysical reflection—on the social nature of God, as obligatorily relational, theist, as opposed to Einstein’s deist27; on his moral character, he had to be “the embodiment of goodness; he would have to hate evil.”28 He reasons on the coming into existence of moral evil: “If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of . . . other painful consequences was also assured.”29
Christian theology has no need to struggle on in such a confused state. The unswerving biblical testimony about God, His nature and character of love, could not be more clearly revealed than it already has been in Jesus and at the Cross (1 John 4:8; John 3:16). And Jesus’ revelation of God teaches that He is no more committed to moral flawlessness than to physical, social, emotional, and every other type of wholeness (3 John 2). While here on earth, He worked as earnestly and tirelessly to heal the sick as He did to forgive people’s sins. It is awkward and unnecessary for those who study His Word to be asked to believe that He cares about our salvation while He Himself sustains and advances life through the brutal and endless horror that is the law of the jungle.
In the end, our struggle to reconcile life’s inequities with the biblical testimony of a loving God will scarcely accomplish the good it should while we deny the Bible’s own testimony as to the source of life’s ills. The God of the Bible who speaks first in Eden’s bliss, and later, in Jesus’ gracious, healing, forgiving wholeness, is today opposed not only by Satan’s evil, but by humans who turn a blind eye, or worse, who find it in themselves to attribute his mischief to the goodness of God. Maybe Satan is not lost, after all. Maybe the time has come for us to stop concealing him among us.
1N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 43.
2 Ibid., 107.
3 Ibid., 109.
4 Ibid., 114.
5 Ibid., 71.
6 Ibid., 72, speaking of the OT Satan: “We are still some way from the dragon of Revelation or even from the sinister figure whispering in Jesus’ ear on the Mount of Temptation.”
7 Ibid., 113.
8 Ibid., 114.
9 Ibid., 215.
10 Robert Alden, Job, New American Commentary, vol. 11, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Broadman Publishers, 1993), 53. See also Emil G. Kraeling, “A Theodicy and More,” in The Dimensions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings, ed. Nahum H. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 205–214; 8; Marvin H. Pope, Job, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1973).
11 Ibid.; see also Kraeling, Pope.
12 Ehrman, 3, 4.
13 Clark Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” in Clark Pinnock et al. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 101–25; 112, 113.
14 Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in Openness of God (1994), 11–58. The outstanding exception, in recent years, to this diminution of or disregard for Satan, has been Greg Boyd. See his God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997); Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001); also, Is God to Blame? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003). Unfortunately, Boyd’s conspicuous consciousness of the reality of Satan does not save him from a different error. Boyd’s blunder has been to diminish the Bible’s God through denying Him His own claims to foreknow all things (Ps. 139:16; Matt. 10:30; Luke 12:7).
15 Scripture references are taken from The New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
16 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, Vintage Books ed., (New York: Random House, 1996), xviii.
17 Ibid., 49.
18 Diccionario de la Biblia (Barcelona: Herder, 1981), s.v. “Diablo,” cols. 465–467.
19 On these, see Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament, vol II: Isaiah to Malachi (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), 1551–53.
20 TWOT, s.v. “ask.”
22 John Baldwin, “Faith, Reason, and the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, George W. Reid, ed. (General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists: Biblical Research Institute, 2006), 15–26; 18.
24 Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 107.
25 Ibid., 21–30.
26 In Karl W. Giberson, “Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature: A Conversation With Francis Collins,” posted at Christianity Today International online, Books and Culture magazine, 7/10/09.
27 Collins, 29.
28 Ibid., 30.
29 Ibid., 45.
___________This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Ministry magazine. All rights reserved.
Lael O. Caesar, PhD, is a professor in the department of religion and biblical languages, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.