- Half of this post is based off of a previous one I wrote for Bible History Daily
Most Christians today know that the red-horned, pitchfork-wielding, guy with a goatee that you often see in Halloween shops isn’t anything like the Satan we find in the pages of the Bible. These days we rarely picture the devil with the monstrous attributes found in the art of the Middle Ages. Anymore he tends to look like some sort of black-hooded Sith Lord á la Emperor Palaptine from Star Wars (e.g., The Passion of the Christ and Son of God/The Bible miniseries). Pop culture aside, what does the Bible actually say about Satan? How did the people living in biblical times view the Enemy?
Satan in the Old Testament
In the pages of the Old Testament, God’s greatest adversaries aren’t fallen angels commanding armies of demons, or even the gods of other nations, but human beings. It isn’t the devil that spreads evil across the face of Creation—it’s mankind. Other than human beings God has no nemesis, nor are there malevolent spiritual forces not directly under his authority. Yahweh is ultimately a god of Justice. He is behind the good and the bad, and behind the blessings and the curses. It’s within this divine court of justice and retribution that we find Satan’s origins.
The Hebrew word śāṭān, which means “accuser” or “adversary,” occurs several times throughout the Old Testament and refers to enemies both human and celestial alike. When talking about the celestial adversary, the word is usually accompanied by the definite article. He is ha-satan—the Accuser—and it’s more like a job description than a proper name. From the Accuser’s appearances in the books of Job and Zechariah, it seems that the job entails calling attention to the unworthiness of mankind. In other words, the Accuser is essentially the prosecuting attorney of the divine court of Yahweh, and part of his job includes collecting evidence to prove his cases. With this bit of knowledge in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine the various “outcries against sin,” like those against Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-21), as the voice of the Accuser.
It’s hard to determine exactly when the Accuser began to be seen in a much more nefarious and sinister light, or how Heaven’s great prosecutor became known as the Prince of Darkness. It’s definitely possible that the Exiles living abroad were influenced by popular Persian religious ideas, in which the cosmic forces of a good god fought an ongoing battle against the cosmic forces of an evil god. Regardless, even within the books written well after the return from foreign lands (e.g., 1 & 2 Chronicles and Zechariah), the Accuser is still a self-righteous lawyer. Though if 1 Chronicles 21:1 is any indication, they began to believe the Accuser wasn’t above getting his hands a little dirty. When we compare this account with the one in 2 Samuel 24, which was written before the Exile, we see that Satan was still operating under the authority of Yahweh.
At this point some of you might be wondering why I failed to mention the passages in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 and the answer is very simple—they have nothing to do with the Accuser.
Satan in the First Century
Even though we don’t fully know the details, by Jesus’ day Judaism had developed a belief in the spiritual forces of light battling against the spiritual forces of darkness. This is clearly seen in the pages of the New Testament as well as other extra-Biblical writings like those found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. And just like today, various groups were a bit more obsessed with the armies of darkness than others, even going so far as to write entire books filled with battle strategies for the war at the End of Days.
If there was an army of evil spiritual forces making war on the righteous, it was only natural to believe that they had a commander, and it’s at about this time that the high and mighty Accuser began to acquire the various names and titles we are familiar with. The Greek word diabolos (where the English word “devil” originates) means “slanderer” and comes from a verb that means “to hurl” (i.e., accusations). Diabolos was usually used as the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew satan, like in the Septuagint version of Job, though it wasn’t uncommon to transliterate the Hebrew word into the Greek satanas (1 Kings 11:14). Other names used for the leader of the forces of evil at the time included Mastemah, which means “hatred” (1QM 13:4, 11: Jubilees 10:8), and Belial—a popular name among the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls—which means “worthless” or “corrupt.” “Children of Belial” is a phrase commonly used in the Old Testament to describe evil people (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:3, 1 Samuel 1:16, 2 Chronicles 13:7, etc. Usually it’s translated into something like “worthless fellows.”). If someone were searching for a name that personified evil in the Old Testament, it would be Belial, not Satan. Interesting enough, the name only occurs once in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6:15), as Paul’s stark contrast to Christ.
It’s also in this period that we begin to see the tradition develop of equating the serpent in the Garden of Eden with Satan (Life of Adam & Eve xi-xvii). In regards to Satan’s rebellion and fall, no account of the traditional War in Heaven/Rebellion scenario á la Paradise Lost exists. Instead, the prevailing idea at the time was that Satan refused to bow to Adam, viewing humans as inferior and unworthy of his submission. For his insolence God gave Satan the job of tempting humanity, turning him into the Accuser mentioned above. Basically God told Satan “So you think Humanity is unworthy of my blessings and honor? Prove it.” This tradition of Satan’s rebellion is recounted several times in the Quran as well, and quite frankly, makes much more sense with regard to the Accuser’s actions in the Old Testament, especially those in the Book of Job.
Satan in the New Testament
Even though many Jews in Jesus’ day contemplated the spiritual world through the lens of cosmic warfare, Satan’s role in the New Testament, though expanded upon, has much more in common with the Accuser of the Old Testament than the commander of the armies of darkness portrayed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even though he is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), “father of lies” (John 8:44), “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “ruler of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and Beelzebul, “prince of the demons” (Matthew 10:25, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15), Satan is essentially treated as nothing more than a glorified prison warden who has been corrupted by his own power.
Throughout the gospels, Satan’s “kingdom” is never considered to be a burning underworld filled with the tormented souls of the dead (that’s the Greek god Hades). Instead, it is associated with the bondage of sin and the curses brought upon Humanity for acts of unrighteousness. According to Jesus (Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27, Luke 11:21-22), a “strong man” (Satan) must be bound in order to plunder his house for treasures (humans), and it is clear that Jesus viewed his earthly ministry, and that of his disciples, within this greater context. After the disciples returned from the mission field, Jesus declared that he saw “Satan falling from heaven like lightning” (Luke 10:18), meaning that Satan’s power to accuse in the courts of Heaven and keep Lawbreakers in chains was coming to an end. This same idea is expressed in Revelation 12, but more on that in a bit.
Like the Accuser of the Old Testament, Satan appears in the gospels to make his case that human beings are worthless and sinful creatures. This is clearly seen when he asks to “sift Peter like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Even Jesus, the Son of God, was not exempt from the Accuser’s trials and examinations. The Temptation story reveals so much more when we read it like this. Even though he was “God With Us”, Jesus was fully human and subject to all authority in heaven and on earth—including the Accuser’s trials. In fact, the entire Gospel story can be read as a heavenly court battle in which Jesus proves, time and again, that he is worthy to rule the Kingdom of God. Jesus endured the constant accusations of the Sadducees and Pharisees, had to prove his knowledge of the Law and the legitimacy of his spiritual authority, and he came out victorious every time. The Trial of the Messiah was carried out, in both earthly and heavenly spheres, by the Accuser and his pawns. In the end, the Father of Lies resorted to trickery, deceit, and the ambitions of humans to try and win the case. With the Crucifixion it seem like he’d actually won too. Jesus of Nazareth ended up just like every other wretched human that came before him—dead. After a three day recess, however, the Defendant was declared worthy, broke the chains of Death, and all of the Accuser’s authority in heaven and on earth was stripped from him and given to the newly-crowned King of Kings (Matthew 28:18).
As we read in the Gospel sequel, Acts of the Apostles, Satan didn’t take this new development lying down and did his best to thwart the Apostles and the Early Church whenever he could. Even though the name Satan is only used twice (Acts 5:3, 26:18) his presence is clearly felt within the book, and more often than not, he uses his tried and true method of letting humans do most of the work for him. The Apostle Paul, who lived through such schemes, had many colorful things to say about Satan. According to him, “the god of this Age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, but the followers of Christ have been delivered from the bondage of the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13). Paul, like most early Jewish Christians, clearly understood Christ’s great acts of Redemption through the lens of the Exodus story. In Paul’s mind Satan was the spiritual Pharaoh, holding humanity in the bondage of sin. And like the Pharaoh of the Exodus, Satan would stop at nothing to keep what once belonged to him, going so far as to chase them down with his soldiers and capture them again as they stand before the Sea. For this reason, Paul instructs believers to put on the full Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18), so that they may stand firm against such attempts. Satan will stop at nothing to regain what he has lost, even going so far as to masquerade as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13). In the earthly realm, Paul viewed false apostles and those who spread heresies as “ministers of Satan” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15), even comparing them to the sorcerer priests who contested with Moses in the court of Pharaoh (2 Timothy 3:8).
In the non-Paul letters, Satan and his agents are portrayed in a similar manner. Peter uses Shepherd & Flock imagery to refer to the Kingdom of God and describes the devil as a “roaring lion” seeking out people to devour (1 Peter 5:8), like a predator going after sheep. Like Paul, John describes people who are still living lives of sin and lawlessness as belonging to Satan, calling them “children of the devil” as opposed to “children of God” (1 John 3:4-10). He also makes the claim that the devil has been an agent of sin since the beginning.
The Book of Revelation
In terms of the New Testament, there is probably no livelier or more colorful portrayal of Satan than the one found in the Book of Revelation. Now is not the time for a full analysis of that highly complex work of genius, but I will say one thing. Revelation is more like a prophetic allegory, like much of the writings of the Old Testament prophets, than a book of predictions about the future. It also requires a vast knowledge of the entire Old Testament and early church history to weed out the meanings of the fantastic imagery. A person needs a lot more than just the Scofield Reference Bible and some John Hagee videos to figure it all out. For that reason, it’s one of my favorite books of the Bible to read but the one I most hate to hear people talk about.
With that said, let’s get back to business. Satan’s role in Revelation brings together everything we’ve learned about him so far from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the many Jewish traditions present in the First Century. In the letters at the beginning, which give the reader an earthly perspective before throwing them into the heavenly visions (and the part most people tend to skip), we find that Satan is still hard at work trying to thwart the Church by using his tried and true minions—people. We read about false teachers, a false prophetess styled “Jezebel,” and references to the “Synagogue of Satan,” who are Jews that have refused to accept the Messiah, forfeiting their right to be called the people of God—the true Israel. As we read in Acts, throughout the Roman world the Jewish authorities were the main adversaries of the Church (which was primarily made up of their fellow Jews). They tried to have the Apostles beaten and executed whenever they had the chance. Is it any wonder that we find them being called the Synagogue of Satan?
Satan doesn’t make his debut on the stage of Revelation until Act 2 (chapter 12), which begins a new vision cycle. Again, it needs to be noted that this is all allegorical symbolism a lot like Aslan in Narnia. Here we find a beautiful queen, which represents Israel, about to give birth to a child that represents the Messiah. A red dragon (Satan) appears, wanting to overcome the woman and devour the child as it is born (possibly an allusion to Herod’s actions in the Nativity story). The Dragon fails in his attempt and the child is taken up to Heaven (an allusion to Christ’s ascension). Now we find the real War in Heaven; and it wasn’t at the dawn of time. Ever wonder what was going on in Heaven between the Ascension and Pentecost? If Revelation 12 is any indication, Satan and his legal staff fought a very intense battle when they lost their power and authority. When it is all said and done, the Accuser is cast down and “our brothers have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and their testimony.” (Revelation 12:11). Satan’s power to accuse has been broken, Christ reigns in Heaven, and the Holy Spirit can now be poured out on all who belong to him. Though his power has been shaken, and his place in heaven has been taken away, the Dragon doesn’t just roll over and die. Instead, he stands by the Sea to call forth new agents of chaos. From then on, the Dragon attempts to exact his revenge through his new minions (Empire and False Religion) but he is ultimately defeated, bound in chains, and tossed into the Abyss for a thousand years. Once released, the dragon makes one last attempt to destroy the people of God but it still proves futile. In the end, the dragon is thrown into the lake of fire for eternity.
Let’s unpack some of this symbolism a bit further so we can understand what Revelation is actually saying about Satan. First is the idea of the Dragon—the ancient serpent. While it’s certainly possible that this could be referring to the Garden of Eden story, from the context of the passage (War in Heaven) it’s more likely that we have an allusion to a popular mythic concept that appears throughout the ancient world—Creation Wars. In these stories the king of the gods fights and defeats a cosmic serpent that represents the powers of chaos (usually the Sea) and brings order to the Universe. The Old Testament even alludes to this concept poetically on a few occasions (Psalm 74:14, Psalm 89:10 Isaiah 27:1, Job 26:12). Isaiah in particular uses this imagery when talking about the Exodus events (Isaiah 51:9-11). What we have in Revelation 12 is the story of New Creation, in which the King of Kings defeats the Chaos Dragon (Satan), frees his people from bondage, inaugurates the New Creation, and sits enthroned in Heaven.
The Dragon’s description, and that of the Beast of the Sea (to whom he gives his authority in Chapter 13) gives us a hint about how Satan’s power in the world works. The Dragon is red and has seven heads and ten horns. The Beast has the same amount and we learn a little later that he is also red (17:3). The Beast also has attributes of a lion, a bear, and a leopard. To unpack this symbolism we need to read Daniel 7. There we learn about four great empires that would trample God’s people. The Beast from the Sea incorporates the attributes of all four of Daniel’s beasts, which means it is a fifth beast, more powerful than any that came before it. Essentially, an empire that controls all the known world. To John’s readers this could only mean one empire—Rome. And the Beast was the bloody color of the Roman legions to boot. Even so, the Beast and Rome are just symbols that represent the form in which Satan’s power over in this world manifests itself the most—corrupt governments. From the dawn of time, up to the present day, the greatest acts of evil in the history of mankind have been perpetrated by governments, elected and inherited alike. War, genocide, economic oppression—you name it. The Iron Fist of Empire has always been, and always will be, Satan’s greatest weapon against the people of God.
It’s a good thing Revelation doesn’t end with the Dragon, isn’t it? John’s message to the Church was a beautiful one—stand firm! It is a message to believers living in any era. It is a message of hope, of glory, and of New Creation. No matter how bad things may seem, no matter how many Christians are martyred, and no matter how strong Satan and Empire may seem, Christ will return and defeat Evil for good. Satan will be cast into the Fire, the New Creation that began on Easter morning will finally be complete, and the Kingdom Paradise will be reestablished. And we, the brothers and sisters of the King of Kings, will reign at his side.
Amen to that.