1-2-1 Satan In The Thought Of Justin Martyr

The response of the "Church fathers" was to claim that whilst indeed the world is in the hands of Satan, baptism frees a person from the power of the Devil. Hence baptism formulae started to speak of how demons were being expelled from a person (1). This contrasted sharply with the repeated New Testament evidence that baptism is for the forgiveness of personal sins, a becoming "in Christ", covered against sin by His sacrifice (Acts 2:37,38; Col. 2:12-14). None of the New Testament baptism passages, notably the exposition of baptism in Romans 6 and the institution of baptism in the great commission, ever mentioned it as being in order to exorcise demons or free us from the power of a personal being called the Devil. Produced around 180 AD, the Apocryphal "Acts of Peter" consciously attempted to blend Gnosticism and Christianity by claiming that the negative aspects of this world are the fault of a personal Satan who snared Adam and "bound him... by the chain of the [human, sinful] body". The Genesis record remains silent- and it's a deafening silence- about any 'Satan' tempting Adam. The New Testament likewise states simply that sin entered the world by Adam- not by anyone or anything else (Rom. 5:12).

Justin Martyr was one of the leading lights in trying to defend Christianity against Gnostic criticisms. Writing in the mid 2nd century, he spoke much of how the whole universe is indeed infested with demons and the power of the Devil. He came to this conclusion through the need to answer the question 'Where did Satan and his angels fall to?'. He devised a scheme of various levels of atmosphere, populated, he claimed, by various types of fallen angels. Those who fell furthest went down into the centre of the earth, to hell, whilst others remained on earth and others were in the atmosphere. He likewise took on board the false idea of an 'immortal soul' that goes to Heaven after death, and therefore he supposed that the demons in the atmosphere would seek to stop the soul's progress to Heaven. This is quite without Biblical support. The Bible speaks clearly of the resurrection of the body and literal reward of the righteous in God's Kingdom upon earth at the time of Christ's second coming. Further, it is how a person lives and believes which decides their ultimate destiny- this can't be impeded by beings suspended in mid air. Justin's understanding is summarized in the following diagram (2).

Justin Martyr quite clearly was desperate for Biblical evidence for his views (3). His whole cosmology as described above was totally lacking in Biblical support. The best he could do was to reference the idea of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men in Genesis 6. This passage, however it is understood, certainly doesn't provide a basis for the detailed cosmology he outlined in such detail. In Section 5-3 I look at the meaning of the Genesis 6 passage; suffice it to say for the moment that it simply doesn't support what Justin built upon it. Justin's Biblical and intellectual desperation is highlighted by the faux pas he makes in his Dialogue With Trypho 103, where he claims that the word "Satan" derives from the Hebrew sata ["apostate"] and nas [which he claimed meant "serpent"]. Even though this etymology is patently false (4), seeing that the Hebrew for serpent is nachash, and Satan clearly means simply "adversary", it was followed by Irenaeus. This kind of intellectual desperation, academic dishonesty and cavalier twisting of Hebrew root meanings is and was only necessitated by having to defend the indefensible- that the serpent in Eden wasn't the literal animal which Gen. 3:1 says it was, but rather an apostate personal being called Satan. It's significant that Gregory likewise has been observed as claiming knowingly false derivations for Hebrew and Greek words in order to support his case- e.g. claiming that diabolus comes from a Hebrew root meaning 'to slip down from Heaven' (5). It means nothing of the sort! But perhaps most significant of all was Justin's falling back for support on the writings of other "fathers" rather than the Bible itself. Thus: "For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the Devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings" (The First Apology of Justin, Chap. 28). How Satan was defined "among us" became important, and that definition was appealed to on the basis of "looking into our writings". A Bible based faith, a concern to root all Christian understanding in God's terms and in God's word, was now not of paramount importance.

A review of this period reveals how the "fathers" struggled with the logical implications of the theories they devised about Satan. A parade example is the way in which they change their ideas about what exactly Satan's sin was. Theophilus took the Jewish idea [from Wisdom 2:24] that envy was Satan's sin; Irenaeus and Cyprian differed as to whether it was envy of God or of [a supposedly pre-existent] Jesus, or of Adam; but then Origen decided that Satan's sin wasn't envy but actually pride. Again and again they refused to face up to the simple facts of the Genesis record, summarized by Paul when he said that "by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world" (Rom. 5:12). Irenaeus struggled with the chronology of Satan's fall. Having decided that Satan fell because he was envious of Adam, he had to place Satan's sin after Adam's creation. Faced with the problem of when Satan's angels fell, he fitted that in with the sons of God marrying the daughters of men in Genesis 6, just prior to the flood. Of course, that begs, in turn, a host of other questions. Why was Satan thrown out but not the other Angels? How did they get to stay in Heaven for many centuries longer? How to reconcile this with the misinterpretation of Revelation 12 that states that the Devil and his angels got thrown out of Heaven together? Did Satan and his angels commit the same sin?


(1) See J.B. Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987) p. 61.

(2) Taken from J.B. Russell, ibid p. 65.

(3) Justin Martyr's views are well summarized in L. Barnard, Justin Martyr: His Life And Thought (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1967).

(4) See Barnard ibid p. 108.

(5) This is discussed and exemplified at length in J.F. O'Donnell, The Vocabulary Of The Letters Of Saint Gregory The Great (Washington: Catholic University Of America Press, 1934) p. 142.

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