1-2-3 Satan In The Thought Of Clement And Origen

One of the most gaping problems for those who believe in a personal Devil relates to what actually happened when Christ died. Heb. 2:14 clearly states that in His death, Christ "destroyed him that has the power of death, that is the devil". As I'll explain later, I find the only meaningful and Biblically consistent approach here is to understand that the Devil is used here as a personification for sin- for it is sin which brings death (Rom. 6:23). The entire curse on earth as a result of human sin is described in Genesis as being brought by God and not by any personal Satan. Sin and death are very frequently connected together in the Bible (Rom. 5:12,21; 6:16,23; 7:13; 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56; James 1:15). In none of those passages is there the slightest hint that it is a personal Satan who brings about our death; the cause of death is ultimately human sin. Yet Origen insisted that "the Devil controls the ultimate evil, death" (Against Celsus 4.92,93). The early "fathers", having committed themselves to belief in a personal Satan, had to face the music from the Gnostics and other critics over these issues- seeing sin and evil continued and even increase daily in the world, how can it be that Christ destroyed the Devil? A purely Biblical position would've had no problem answering that objection- Christ destroyed the power of sin, in that we can now be forgiven and be counted as "in Christ" by baptism. He as our representative has enabled us to become in a position whereby all that is true of Him now stands true for us; and thereby our resurrection from the dead and receipt of eternal life is assured by His grace.

But this wasn't the position of the "fathers". Both they and all who have come after them have struggled to explain how Christ could "destroy" a personal being called the Devil on the cross, and yet that Devil is still apparently alive and active, and has been for the past 2000 years. The sheer variety of explanations indicate the deep problem which this poses for standard Christendom. Tertullian and Clement were some of the first to try to wriggle out of it. Tertullian wrote of how Jesus broke the bolts of hell and went around smashing the place up. Clement took it further and claimed that after His death, the Lord Jesus descended into "hell" and released the souls of the righteous who had been previously kept captive by the Devil. Hippolytus went on to teach that therefore Christ's descent into hell was as important a part of His redemptive work as His death on the cross (1). All this was based around the acceptance into Christianity of the pagan ideas of hell as a place of punishment and immortal souls- both of which were imports from paganism and Platonism. The word "hell" was actually derived from the Teutonic goddess of the underworld. The Biblical, original Christian position was that hell is simply the grave, which is how the Hebrew sheol is usually translated; and the soul refers to the person or body, which ceases conscious existence at death. I discuss hell in section 2-5. The new position adopted was out of step with the huge insistence of the New Testament that the death and resurrection of Christ were to be understood as the final, crowning apex of God's plan which of itself destroyed the Devil and enabled human salvation (Rom. 5:5-8; 6:3-9; 1 Pet. 3:18). It was because Christ "both died and rose and revived" that He became Lord of all (Rom. 14:9)- never is there any mention of His 'harrowing of hell' during His three days in the grave. And He of course was silent about any such activity during His appearances to the disciples after the resurrection. Paul's summary of the basic Gospel in 1 Cor. 15:3,4 simply stated that Christ "died... was buried...and rose again". Peter likewise drew a contrast with David, who died, was buried and was still dead- whereas Christ died and was buried, but His body didn't remain in the grave but was resurrected (Acts 2:29-32). The only passage which Clement clung on to was the reference in 1 Peter 3 to Christ's preaching to those imprisoned- and we consider this in Digression 4.

Having a turned up a blind alley, the "fathers" didn't have the courage to turn back. Debates went on about what exactly the Lord Jesus did there in 'hell'. But despite that, Hippolytus went so far as to say that belief in the 'harrowing of hell' was a vital part of the Gospel which must be believed for salvation (see his tractate on The Antichrist). There then arose the problem that if good people could be saved out of hell as a place of torment and punishment, then there must be a difference between that place and the final place of unalterable condemnation. And so the idea of purgatory was born (2). Protestants may groan and comment that that's only what Roman Catholics believe in; but their own theology ultimately derives from the very same "fathers" who were driven to invent the idea. But then, wasn't Satan cast down to this same "hell", according to the thinking of the earlier "fathers"? Indeed. And so Origen devised a story of how at the crucifixion and supposed descent of Christ to "hell", Satan was bound and imprisoned in hell... and again there arose much debate as to whether therefore Satan has a chance of ultimate salvation, and which form of "hell" he was imprisoned in. For if he was in the one where good people were and yet were saved out of, then why hadn't he been put in the "lowest hell"? And so the explanations had to continue, and the tradition of Satan was embellished and added to.

Again, these logical, intellectual and ethical problems were picked up by Christianity's critics. Celsus eagerly pushed Origen on these very issues. Celsus pointed out that Origen's teaching was really saying that the Devil was an absurdly powerful being if he could actually kill God's own son; and Celsus wasn't slow to point out that Origen and the Christian movement were now into a position that contradicted the Bible text. This drove Origen to scour Scripture for any support he could muster. Origen was the first to use the Isaiah 14 passage about the King of Babylon in support of Christianity's Devil doctrine. This passage, considered in more detail in section 5-5 later, speaks of the human King of Babylon as the brightest of the stars, the morning star [Latin "Lucifer"] who metaphorically 'fell'. Significantly, "morning star" was a title of Christ, and had been used in the first century as a 'Christian name' by those who converted to Christianity. But now, Origen sought to give "Lucifer" a negative connotation. Likewise Origen pressed into use a similar passage about the fall of the Prince of Tyre in Ezekiel 28, considered later in section 5-6. He even used Job's reference to the huge beast Leviathan (Job 41:1,2). The words 'Satan' or 'Devil' didn't occur in any of these passages- but they were pressed into use by Origen as superficially similar to some of the images of the Devil which he sought to defend. During all the discussion, Origen abandoned the idea that the Genesis 6 passage about sons of God marrying daughters of men referred to fallen Angels- for this logically messed up his idea that the Devil's angels all fell down to hell after their initial sin (3). Thus the "fathers" had to chop and change their position on these matters, just as Christian leaders have had to ever since whenever forced to seriously answer the hard questions which arise from their positions. I've summarized those hard questions in section 3-2. Inevitably, given the heat of the battle and their desperation, they made some faux pas. Celsus pushed Origen as to whether humanity would sin if the Devil didn't exist, and Origen admitted that humanity would indeed still sin. Celsus drove home the obvious point- that the Christian "fathers" therefore had no logical need for a personal Devil, they'd simply picked up the idea from pagan sources. Celsus' question is valid today. The official answer seems to be that we sin more because the Devil exists- which raises a whole plethora of questions about the nature of judgment and the justice of God in judging us for sin. There are several Medieval representations of the last judgment which show the righteous weighed on the scales of judgment, with the Devil trying to push down the scale towards his side. There should be no raised eyebrows nor shrugged shoulders nor laughing it off amongst those who believe in a personal Devil who influences us to sin- for that is the bizarre position which they have signed up to.

Jaroslav Pelikan documents a great length the logical impasses which Origen was driven into (4). Origen was concerned to prove that God's justice was always upheld- as this was a frequent criticism made of the personal Devil doctrine. Origen was pushed on the question of whether all the fallen angels are in hell, bound up now due to Christ's sacrifice- and if they are, why are they supposedly active? His response was to formulate theories about demons being able to move in and out of hell to tempt people on earth, and some fallen angels still being active in the air etc. All this was quite without the slightest Biblical support. Origen developed further the idea that God paid the Devil a ransom for our salvation, and that ransom was the blood of His Son Jesus. But since Christ was God [according to Origen, who had adopted what I would consider to be another false understanding in that area too], Christ rose from the dead- and thus the Devil was made a fool of and cheated out of his power. This attempt to preserve God's justice appears to me to achieve the very opposite. Not only is all this a studied disregard of New Testament teaching about the atonement, but the idea of God having to resort to trickery and deceit of Satan is quite out of harmony with Biblical revelation about God. It seems to me that the power of a personal Devil had grown so large in Origen's mind that he was driven to conclude that even God Almighty had a problem with the Devil and had to resort to desperate measures. The New Testament revelation is that Christ was as it were the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8)- i.e. the purpose of God through Christ was established at the beginning, and not made up ad hoc in the face of the Devil's extreme power.

For me, the most significant admission or Origen was that the Bible simply didn't support his ideas, and the whole Christian doctrine of Satan [as he believed it and advocated it] was held up solely by the tradition of men. That admission should lead us to reject his teachings and demote him in our minds from being any kind of 'founding father' of true Christianity: "The scriptures do not explain the nature of the Devil and his angels, and the adverse powers. The most widespread opinion in the church, however, is that the Devil was an angel..." (De Principiis, Preface).


(1) All this is documented in J.A. McCulloch, The Harrowing Of Hell: A Comparative Study Of An Early Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930).

(2) For more on this, see Jaques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

(3) References to Origen's writings relating to all this are to be found in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper, 1980) pp. 180-1; J. Danielou, The Gospel Message And Hellenistic Culture (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973) pp. 418-9.

(4) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1971) Vol. 1 pp. 148-151.

previous page table of contents next page next chapter