3-2 The Devil And Satan: The Hard Questions
The common understanding of the Devil as a fallen Angel and personal
being throws up a huge number of unanswerable questions- unanswerable,
at least, within Scripture. This led Shelley to point out that popular
Christianity's view of the Devil was its weakest point: "The devil...
is the weak place of the popular religion- the vulnerable belly of the
crocodile... Christians invented or adopted the Devil to extricate them
from this difficulty [of trying to understand the existence of a good
God and the reality of evil]" (1). J.B. Russell thought likewise:
"This has always been the weakest seam in Christian theology"
(2). The sheer volume of contradictory mainstream Christian explanations
of Satan and the mass of unanswered questions they generate is all confirmation
of this observation. Within the context of speaking about practical consequences
of our beliefs in this area, I wish to list these questions. I do so because
any basis for belief, any framework for understanding the Gospel, which
has so many gaping contradictions and difficulties is hardly going to
inspire a solid, dynamic, stable relationship with God. The issues of
sin and evil are ever present in our daily lives; and I sincerely believe
that without a sound way of understanding the issue, a hermeneutic if
you like, these contradictions and apparently 'theoretical' difficulties
will come to term in a disordered and insecure life. So very often, it
is a struggle with these issues ['How could God do this or allow
that?'] which leads to even a total loss of faith; and
conversely, it is being able to make sense of sin and evil which allows
God to confirm our faith through those negative experiences. So here are
some of the questions thrown up by the mistaken ideas imported into Christendom
on the devil issue- I catalogue them as part of my unashamed appeal for
you to turn away from the common but false understanding of Satan which
- If the Devil fell, what was the nature of his fall? What was his sin?
Did he physically depart from Heaven and then go somewhere else? If so,
where? Was it hell, or the earth, or somewhere in mid air? If it was to
the earth, where did the Devil land? The garden of Eden? Was it Christ
or Michael the Archangel who defeated him? Who exactly threw him out of
- Where exactly is the Devil now? If he's indeed a personal being, he
must surely have a location? If Angels literally fell from Heaven, where
- Did the supposed fallen Angels come down to earth to tempt humans to
sin, or because they were cast down by God? If they were cast down by
God in punishment for their sin, why then should humanity suffer
because of that? Isn't that like punishing a psychopath by giving him
a loaded gun and casting him out of the courtroom into a school playground?
If they came down from Heaven to earth of their own volition and fell
into sin on earth, then the whole idea of rebellion in Heaven etc. is
- Could or would we sin if the Devil didn't exist? If not, then surely
we suffer and are punished unfairly for our sins? If we would, then to
what extent is the devil responsible for our sins, seeing we would sin
- If the Devil is a personal being, does he have a body? What does he
look like? If he is claimed to be a "spirit being", then in
what sense is he a person? Where is the Biblical evidence for the existence
of 'spirits', or indeed, any existence apart from in a personal form?
- What is the relationship between the Devil and the fallen angels /
demons? How does their punishment differ from each other? Was the sin
of the fallen angels different to that of the devil?
- Can the Devil and those angels ever repent? Does he now have freewill?
Did he ever have freewill? Was he originally of Christ's nature in Heaven?
If Adam sinned but could repent, why could not Satan and the supposed
fallen angels also repent? As Milton observed in Paradise Lost:
"Man therefore shall find grace / The other [i.e. satan] none"
(3.131). Oddly enough, the early incantations chanted at baptisms implored
Satan to repent. The Ergo maledicte
began: "Therefore, accursed Devil, recall [i.e. reverse] your sentence
and give honour to the living and true God" (3). This problem of how
Adam could sin and repent, but Satan could sin and not repent, led all
kinds of people to struggle towards the realization that the common
perception of Satan is wrong. The Yezidi Kurds came to depart from
standard Moslem thinking about Iblis [Satan] over this issue of the
illogicality of a Satan who cannot repent, and came to the conclusion
that there is no personal Satan, that human beings have total
responsibility for their sinfulness, and will meet the result of their
sins in the afterlife (4). And this hard question remains for those who
insist upon the popular interpretation of Satan.
- When did the Devil fall? Before creation? Before Adam was created?
Afterwards? At the time prophesied in Revelation 12? At the time of Noah,
when the sons of God married the daughters of men (Gen. 6)?
- Where did demons come from? The New Testament refers to the surrounding
beliefs about demons- but in the first century, demons were thought to
be the 'immortal souls' of the dead. Wicked immortal souls became wicked
demons (see Josephus, Wars Of The Jews 6.47). If demons are the
supposedly wicked angels who fell at the creation or in Genesis 6, how
can they also be wicked 'immortal souls' of human beings? From where can
the idea of 'immortal souls' be justified in the pages of a Bible which
so insistently stresses the mortality of the human soul?
- According to misreadings of Ez. 28:15 "Thou wast perfect in thy
ways till iniquity was found in thee" and Jn. 8:44 "the devil
was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because
there was no truth in him", those who believe in a personal Devil
are faced with a contradiction- was the Devil originally a sinner, or,
was he once perfect but fell?
- How can the positive spiritual effect of Satan be explained?
Men were delivered to Satan, so they might learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim.
1:20); deliverance to Satan results in "the destruction of the flesh"
(1 Cor. 5:5)- and "the flesh" usually refers in the New Testament
to the fleshly mind (Rom. 8:5-9; Eph. 2:3; Jn. 8:15). Surely
all this makes sense if 'satan' merely refers to an adversary, and not
to some cosmic being bent on making us sin?
When was the Devil punished, and how? At his fall to earth? At the
crucifixion? During the ministry of Jesus, when He said He beheld satan
falling as lightning? Or at the second coming? Will the Devil be saved?
Origen argued that he would be ultimately, and yet "elsewhere Origen
denied the salvation of Satan and called the idea that he believed it a
mad invention of his enemies" (5). The intellectual desperation of the
'fathers' on this matter is evident.
- What exactly is our defence against the Devil? Why would the Devil
get scared off by our Bible reading, uttering the name of Christ, getting
baptized, wearing or touching a cross, making the sign of the cross, reciting
charms and the other things suggested by the early church "fathers"?
- Seeing Jesus destroyed the Devil on the cross (Heb. 2:14), how come
that sin and evil are ever increasing in our world- if the Devil indeed
is responsible for them? And if the Devil has been "destroyed",
in what sense is this personal being still alive and active? How can the
Devil be judged at the last day if he was destroyed on the cross? Surely
the only way to make sense of all this is to see all the Biblical references
to the Devil as not referring to one personal being, but rather to various
human 'adversaries' and the power of sin. Man Friday asked Robinson Crusoe:
"If the Lord has the power to destroy the Devil and wishes him destroyed,
why does he wait till the end of the world?". And that's a fair question.
The orthodox view of the Devil fails to make any sense of the description
of Christ having destroyed the Devil (Heb. 2:14). Once we understand the
Devil in that context to refer to the power of sin, all becomes clear.
Sin's power was destroyed; in Christ, for Him personally, the Devil was
dead and overcome. We now live out His victory through destroying the
power of sin, through His victory and in His strength, throughout our
lives, assured of ultimate victory in Christ.
- Related to all this: Why did Christ have to die? Because of Satan's
tyranny, as the 'church fathers' so often claimed? Or because of our and
Adam's sin, as Paul explains throughout Romans?
- What are the Devil's powers, what function does he perform in our world?
Is he responsible for the effects of the curse placed on the earth after
Adam fell? Does he operationalize it? Does he cause disasters? Does he
cause moral sin in individuals?
- Gregory the Great and other Christian writers claimed that God permits
Satan to operate. Why, then, do we repeatedly read of evil coming "from
the Lord" and being "sent" by Him (Am. 3:6; 1 Sam. 18:10;
Is. 45:5-7 etc.)? Does God as it were respect Satan's 'rights' over us?
- Was the Devil the serpent, or did he merely use the serpent? The Genesis
record states that the serpent was punished by having to eat dust "all
the days of your life"- hinting at his mortality. Does the Devil
literally eat dust? What is the relationship between the snakes we know
today, crawling on their bellies as they do, and Satan?
- Does each sin have its own demon / fallen angel? Does the Devil enter
our minds or our bodies? How does the Devil tempt us? The Biblical explanation
of the process of internal temptation within the human mind is clear enough
(James 1:13-15; Mk. 7:15-23), and validated within our own experience.
But how exactly does a personal devil tempt us and lead us to sin?
- Does the Devil punish sinners after death, or administer condemnation
to them? How does the Devil work with God, if at all?
- What will the Devil do in the Millennium, seeing he will be "bound"?
Why does a literal being have to be "bound" to restrain him
if he is so spiritually active?
- In the bungled attempt to resolve 'hard questions' about the origin
of suffering and negative experiences in the lives of God's people, the
'personal Satan' solution seems to create even more hard questions- and
runs into deep contradictions. Thus in the Book of Jubilees, Mastema /
Satan empowers the Egyptians to persecute the Israelites, yet on the other
hand he is the one who also kills the firstborn of Egypt. This begs the
question: 'So where was God in all this?'. The Biblical explanation gives
far less difficulty and avoids running into these deep contradictions.
- The curse that came upon the earth and humanity after Adam's sin was
from God, not the Devil- according to Genesis. What, then, did the devil
do the earth after his supposed fall? From whence did the curse come-
from God or the Devil? If [as is so often supposed] the Devil brought
suffering and curse into the earth, how did he have power to curse the
natural creation and the animals, who didn't sin?
- If we accept that Satan exists as a person, with power to lead every
human being into temptation, he must have enormous power and knowledge.
From where did he get such power and authority? God works in the micro
business of millions if not billions of human lives world-wide, adjusting
His plan with the full knowledge of the countless trillions of possible
futures which His creation of human freewill enable to exist. If Satan
is going to seriously oppose this great God of ours, then he is pitting
Himself against the Almighty who has His passionate eye on a billion universes,
who follows the random motions of every subatomic particle in the countless
stars of numberless galaxies... is the supposed Satan really
this seriously powerful? Is not the idea of any cosmic opposition
to the Creator simply absurd, even pitiful? Likewise, the idea that God
had to pay a ransom to Satan in order to deliver His Son and all humanity
surely gives Satan far too much power- and power which the Bible is utterly
silent about him ever having. Ps. 139:12 joins us in mocking this idea
that God is seriously in struggle against such a power of darkness: "Even
the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as light to you".
- If Satan was indeed thrown out of Heaven, against his will- well how
actually was this achieved? For the orthodox view of the matter claims
that Satan still retains a lot of his power, with which he works
mischief in the earth today. Surely he didn't come down without a
fight. Apostate Judaism ran into this problem, and attempted to solve
it by claiming that a "powerful angel was sent to evict Satan"- this
assertion is made in several of the documents discovered at Qumran (6).
But this begs a whole catena of further hard questions. Who
exactly is this Angel, more powerful than Satan? Why no other mentions
of him in Scripture? Wasn't the whole struggle of Satan with God
somewhat ethically unfair, if God is so far more powerful, and has
Angels around who are more powerful than even Satan? Weren't the dice
just loaded against poor Satan from the start? Messing up the answer to
one hard question only leads to provoking many more even harder
questions. Quite simply, one has to re-trace the steps back to the
original problem and seek to answer it in purely Biblical terms.
In a book which raises piercing questions but provides no concrete
answers, Ruth Anshen perceptively challenges believers in a
fallen-Angel Satan with issues like: How did Satan's rebellion and
punishment lead to human beings becoming more sin prone and exposed to
evil? Why did God punish humanity and expel Adam from Eden because of
Satan's sin? If Satan was once a good Angel who sinned and 'fell',
surely there is left in him some vestige of 'good'- for persons who sin
are not wholly sinful and often display streaks of good. How does that
fit in with the classical image of a totally wicked Satan? Seeing we
live in an expanding universe, does this mean that Satan's cosmic power
is likewise expanding? What and where exactly is Satan's dominion? What
was Satan's game plan in Eden? To build an empire for himself? Why did
he so hate mankind? Was his anger against God or man? If Satan was
originally an Angel with Divine nature, he was surely immortal. It's
impossible to lose immortality if you have it- so will Satan eternally
exist? If not, will he be saved? An immortal sinner is surely an
impossible concept, if sin has to be punished ultimately by death (7).
would argue that this huge raft of fundamental and yet unanswered
questions is fatal for the integrity of any personal or theological
position which can't get a grip on them. The church 'fathers'
recognized the difficulty of these questions, but tried to block out
any serious thought about them by the average Christian. "Such
questions... as 'Whence is evil?' were, the Christian writer Tertullian
said, "the questions that make people heretics"" (8). That is surely a
tacit recognition that something's deeply wrong with a theology, even
if it bears the name 'Christian', which can't engage with such
questions which are at the very core of true Christian thought and
living. The way that standard Christianity comes up with so many wildly
differing answers to the questions, and has suggested them over
history, merely indicates to me that they have it wrong on this point.
The key that turns all these locks is to understand that the Biblical
explanation of sin as coming from within, of all evil / disaster as
ultimately coming from God, is the only one that makes sense. All these
hard questions are really a reflection of how unsatisfying is the
standard explanation of Satan and evil. Susan Neiman spends a whole
book exemplifying how the history of European thought, philosophy and
politics is all really the history of unsuccessful attempts to come to
terms with and explain the origin of evil (9). From Kant to Hegel,
Marx, Nietzsche, even Hitler... it can all be understood as a series of
increasingly desperate attempts to come to terms with past patterns of
evil and the present experience of it. It's more than time that we give
God and His book the Bible a serious look. For human efforts to
explain, no matter whether they partially allude to the Bible or not,
are clearly getting nowhere fast. It's been my observation that
people's experience of how human theories fail to explain evil is what
brings them to God- if they're presented with the correct Biblical
explanation of His viewpoint. Take M. Scott Peck, a classically liberal
American agnostic psychotherapist. He explains in his People Of The
Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (10) how he once sought to explain
human 'sinfulness' as merely misguidedness, dysfunction etc., carefully
omitting the concept of 'evil'. But it was through his final recognition
of evil, his facing up to it, and to the way that humanity really are
self-deceived, that 'the devil' really is a 'false accuser' as the Greek
word diabolos literally means, that he came not only to God but
also to Christ and to far more effective ministering to people.
(1) P.B. Shelley, On The Devil in The Complete Works Of
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (New York:
(2) J.B. Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
(3) H.A. Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge: C.U.P., 2006)
p. 212. See too his The Devil At Baptism (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1985) pp. 237,238.
(4) See John S. Guest, Survival Among The Kurds: A History Of The
Yezidis (London: Kegan Paul, 1993) pp. 31,236; Peter Awn, Satan's
Tragedy And Redemption: Iblis In Sufi Psychology (Leiden: Brill,
(5) J.B. Russell, A History Of Heaven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 75.
(6) 11Q11, col. 4, II. 1-10- English translation in F.G. Martinez and E.J.C. Ticghelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1997) Vol. 2 pp. 1202-3.
(7) Ruth Anshen, The Reality Of The Devil: Evil In Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) pp. 14,15,89.
(8) Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, And The Serpent (New York: Random House, 1997) xxiv.
(9) Susan Neiman, Evil In Modern Thought: An Alternative History
of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
(10) M. Scott Peck, People Of The Lie: The Hope For Healing
Human Evil (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).