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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Satan, The rise and fall of

Do I believe in Satan? To be honest, on a good day, I’m not sure I do. I suspect that this arch hypostasis of evil is just a bit too much of a stretch for my largely rationalist view of the world. Should I be concerned about this? A narrative appraisal of Satan’s function in the New Testament suggests perhaps not. We naturally want to ask questions about the ontology and metaphysics of Satan. Does he really exist? How does he fit into a modern-theistic worldview? But in the New Testament Satan is a dramatic figure, a character in a story, who plays a quite specific, and in the end limited, role in the unfolding crisis.

There is quite a lot of exegetical data in this piece. If you can’t be bothered with the detail, just read the final summary section: “The short-lived career of Israel’s adversary.”

The accuser of Israel

Satan is a very minor player in the Old Testament. He appears not as a demonic figure but as a more or less legitimate accuser or prosecutor of Israel in the heavenly court. Satan stands at the right hand of the high priest Joshua to accuse him—presumably of failure in his office—but the Lord rebukes Satan because Joshua is a “brand plucked from the fire”; the Lord has removed his iniquity” (Zech. 3:1-4). As one of the “sons of God” Satan challenges the apparent righteousness of Job, arguing that it is easy for a man to be righteous when he has prosperity and health (Job 1:6-2:10). In 1 Chronicles 21:1 Satan incites David to sin by taking a census of Israel and Judah. This is a more obviously malevolent role, but it can still be seen as a testing of David’s obedience towards YHWH. In the version of the story in 2 Samuel 24:1 it is the “anger of the Lord” that provokes David to number Israel.

By the time we get to Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, Satan has become a much more potent and oppressive force, and we have to wonder why. My assumption would be that it has to do with the intensification of direct political-religious hostility towards Israel from the Maccabean crisis onwards, and I think that an examination of the New Testament data bears this out.

In the New Testament the words satanas and diabolos (“devil”) are used more or less interchangeably. In Hellenistic Greek diabolos means “slanderer”, “seducer”, or “adversary”. The sense “slanderer” may be intended in a couple of passages in the Pastorals, where Paul is concerned with the public reputation of the churches: overseers of the churches must be above reproach, or they will “fall into the condemnation of the diabolos” or “fall into disgrace, into a snare of the diabolos” (1 Tim. 3:4-7; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-26). In any case, the usage suggests a close association between the activity of the devil and human opposition to, and criticism of, the churches.

The beginning of the end

In the wilderness Satan attempts to seduce Jesus from his calling to embody the obedience of a renewed Israel (Matt. 4:1-11; Mk. 1:13; Lk. 4:1-13; cf. Matt. 16:23; Mk. 8:33). The “authority and glory” of the kingdoms of the world have been “delivered” to Satan, and he will give the right to rule over the nations to whomever he chooses (Lk. 4:5-6); he is the “ruler of this world” (Jn. 12:31). The implication is that Caesar received his power over the nations of the empire by worshipping Satan. Jesus’ response is: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” That is, it is only on the basis of an authentic worship that Israel’s king may aspire to displace Caesar as ruler of the nations.

Satan has a measure of rule over Israel, influence over the leaders of Israel (cf. John 8:44). By casting out demons by the power of the Spirit Jesus shows that this “kingdom” is about to fall, to be overthrown by the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:24-28; Mk. 3:22-27). Satan takes away the word of the kingdom that is sown in Israel (Mk. 4:15; Lk. 8:12); the devil contaminates the community of the coming kingdom of God by sowing bad seed in the field (Matt. 13:36-43). The sick are “oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38; cf. Lk. 13:16).

When the seventy-two come back and report that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name, he says that he “saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”, which should be understood in relation to the later assertion that Satan’s kingdom will not stand (Lk. 11:18). He has given his disciples authority “over all the power of the enemy” (Lk. 10:17-19). Satan cannot keep them from proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to Israel; and if the kingdom of God is coming within a generation, we can assume that Satan’s reign has an equally restricted shelf life.

Satan fights back

But Satan is not going to give up without a fight. He incites Judas to betray Jesus (Lk. 22:3; Jn. 13:27). He demands to have the disciples in order to sift them like wheat (Lk. 43222:31). He causes Ananias to “lie to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). He endeavours to outwit the apostles (2 Cor. 2:11); he hinders their movements (1 Thess. 2:18). He disguises himself as an “angel of light” in order to sow confusion and mislead the churches (2 Cor. 11:14). The Ephesians are told not to give any “opportunity to the devil”—for example, by remaining angry towards one another (Eph. 4:26-27). Some younger widows “have already strayed after Satan” (1 Tim. 5:15).

The Ephesians are to put on the “whole armour of God” for protection against the “schemes of the devil”, against an onslaught from the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”, the powers behind “flesh and blood” opposition, which will culminate in an “evil day” of severe persecution (6:10-18). The devil is the “adversary” of the churches, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”. Peter also has in mind the threat of persecution. Believers are to resist the devil, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood though out the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9). James urges his readers to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). The devil will throw some members of the church in Smyrna into prison “that you may be tested”; they are to be “faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10).

The downfall of the god of this world

The nations are in darkness, under the “power of Satan” (Acts 26:17). Satan is the “god of this age”, who has blinded people to the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul instructs the Corinthians to deliver the man who has taken his father’s wife “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”—a difficult passage to interpret, but I take it to mean that the man is to be handed over to the Gentile authorities for punishment (1 Cor. 5:1-5; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20). The lawlessness that will break out before the parousia of the Lord Jesus will be driven by Satan (2 Thess. 2:9).

Satan and his angels will be destroyed in the “fire of the age” (Matt. 25:41). The “ruler of this world” will be “cast out” and “judged” (Jn. 12:31; 16:11). The “God of peace will soon crush Satan” under the feet of the Roman believers (Rom. 16:20). Jesus shared in Israel’s flesh and blood in order that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

Finally, John describes a war in heaven: the dragon, who is “called the devil and Satan” is thrown down to earth with his angels, and a voice in heaven declares:

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short! (Rev. 12:10–12)

On earth the dragon fails to catch the “woman who had given birth to the male child” and goes off in fury to “make war on the rest of her offspring” (Rev. 12:13-17). In the end, following the overthrow of “Babylon the great” and the destruction of the beast and the false prophet, an angel seizes the dragon and imprisons him in the “bottomless pit” for a thousand years “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (20:1-3). At the end of the thousand years Satan is released, deceives the nations, which surround the camp of the saints, but fire comes down from heaven to consume them, and the devil is thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death (20:7-10).

Now to try and put the pieces together into a coherent story….

The short-lived career of Israel’s adversary

Satan is the great eschatological adversary and accuser of the people of God. His rise and fall are closely bound up with the narrative of crisis that runs through the New Testament. He is the heavenly power behind the worldly forces that hold Israel captive and threaten its destruction. He rules over the world that opposes YHWH and refuses to acknowledge his King, impeding the empire-wide proclamation of the coming reign of God, blinding the nations to the glory of Christ, and doing his best to discredit or disqualify the communities of eschatological transformation.

But his fate is bound up with the fate of aggressive pagan Rome—with the beasts to which he gave authority (Rev. 13:4; 19:20; 20:10). In the end, through the faithful witness of the persecuted churches, through the determined proclamation of the word of God across the empire, and through the “coming” of Jesus to judge the nations, Satan is defeated and imprisoned for the rest of human history in the bottomless pit.

So whether we regard Satan as a real supernatural “person” or merely as a figurative representation of supreme evil, what the New Testament leads us to conclude is that his rise and fall cannot be separated from the narrative of eschatological crisis that determines the shape of New Testament theology. Satan is significant because as the ruler of the pagan world he naturally opposed YHWH’s campaign to claim the nations for his own kingdom. He failed, and the people of God are assured that he will not again deceive the nations in this way until the end of time. We no longer have to take him too seriously.

Comments

Nice summary. I think you could carry Job further. The carefully constructed envelope of the prologue and epilogue leaves an obvious omission. There is no accuser in the epilogue.

Job does have a ring structure in the speeches aswell - Creation as subject in ch 3 and teh speeches of Yhwh and also Leviathan and the eyelids of dawn as a word-level circle.

A lot of things could be carried further. You make a good point though.

Hi, Andrew. You conclude:

He failed, and the people of God are assured that he will not again deceive the nations in this way until the end of time. We no longer have to take him too seriously.

I can only see the second sentence following logically from the first so long as the reader already knows that the end of time is very far away. If it is not, then Satan is a very serious threat.

Good read!

It’s been an interesting practice for me to read the new testament and translate Satan for accuser and devil for slanderer. If we do a reading without the personification and the baggage that brings to mind(at least for those of us raised in conservative US churches) we see a different slant. The accuser seems to be Rome/Caesar and the slanderer often seems to be off-target lesser authorities(Jewish or Roman). It strikes me as a useful way to talk about opposing authorities without them knowing exactly what you are talking about.

Daniel,

Kurt Simmons’ commentary on Revelation (The Consummation of the Ages - one of the best Perterist commentaries out there) equates the Devil in Revelation as the seat of Roman power. Not so much as the government itself (as it is the “sea” beast), but the “seat” of power from which the Government gets it power/authority. The emperor of Rome, in and of himself, doesn’t have any power, it’s the position of which he sits in that gives him his power. Not sure if that does a very good job of explaining Simmons’ position, but you might really like his commentary. I personally think it’s excellent even thought I disagree with little points here and there.

http://preteristcentral.com/

“Do I believe in Satan?”

On questions like this, I always start by asking myself, “What did Jesus believe?”

Mike,

Nobody doubts Jesus referred to Satan, but did Jesus consider him a “real supernatural ‘person’ or merely as a figurative representation of supreme evil”? Jesus even called Peter “Satan”, so did he consider Peter Satan.

I’m with Andrew, sometimes I think Satan was just a figurative representation of evil.

I don’t myself see any reason to think that Jesus did not believe in a “real” Satan. My point was that it appears from the narrative that Satan is no longer at liberty to accuse or oppose the people of God, in which case it doesn’t make too much difference whether today we believe in him or not. I believe in the Satan that Jesus believed in, though with some difficulty, I admit.

Andrew,

I guess I misunderstood, and still don’t understand, your statement, “real supernatural ‘person’ or merely as a figurative representation of supreme evil”.

I have to ask then what is the difference between the two options?

You stated, “I believe in the Satan that Jesus believed in, though with some difficulty, I admit.”

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not Satan was a real being, such as an angel, or was “he” an anthropomorphism for evil.

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not Satan was a real being, such as an angel, or was “he” an anthropomorphism for evil.

No, it doesn’t answer the question, but some questions are perhaps unanswerable. What we perhaps have to ask is whether Jesus would have understood the question. Would he have considered the possibility that “Satan” was merely a personification of the extreme opposition to which Israel was subjected?

What we perhaps have to ask is whether Jesus would have understood the question.

Personification-depersonification does not at all seem beyond the conceptual powers of a first-century Jew.

Would he have considered the possibility that “Satan” was merely a personification of the extreme opposition to which Israel was subjected?

He would have had to consider not just “the extreme opposition to which Israel was subjected” but all the other biblical references to Satan as well.

Depersonification of Satan is only a step away from depersonification of God. Modern naturalism has accomplished both quite tidily.

He would have had to consider not just “the extreme opposition to which Israel was subjected” but all the other biblical references to Satan as well.

All which other biblical references to Satan?

“Depersonification of Satan is only a step away from depersonification of God. Modern naturalism has accomplished both quite tidily.”

Sorry, but I don’t see this in the least. The depersonification of Satan has no bearing on the existence of God.

It puts you in the position of having to explain why the logic applied to the one doesn’t apply to the other. If you have a rationale for why it doesn’t, then that’s all to the good. But you’ve put yourself in the position of having to supply that logic.

Mike,

it seems to me for there to be any connection requiring Satan to be a real person, like God, Satat would have to be God’s opposite. There would have to be a connection. For example, take the Ying and the Yang. You can have the Ying without having the Yang, and vise versa. Not so with God and Satan. Following your logic one could say if man didn’t exist as a real person than God couldn’t either. Does that make sense?

“You can have the Ying without having the Yang, and vise versa.”

That should be “You can not have the Ying with having the Yang”.

Rich,

I would not say that doesn’t make sense, but it’s not a way of thinking I share. Rather, as I suggested in my initial comment on this post, my starting point for such questions is always, “What does Jesus think about this issue?”

I am willing to think that Jesus wants those of us who live today to regard Satan as an impersonal force rather than in the personal way that Jesus took him while on earth - but I have to be shown how to make that transition. I can’t just jump from one to the other because it “makes sense” to me, or because someone with theological degrees tells me he thinks it’s a good idea. I try to make Jesus the beginning and ending - and middle - of all I think about God and life.

Therefore, the guy who wrote the commentary on Revelation, I think it was, who defined Satan in an impersonalized way might be on the right track. But for me to follow along, I need to know how he got from Jesus saying such things as “Begone, Satan!” to his depersonalized evil. If Jesus is the one who got him to his depersonalized definition, I’m all for hearing about it. Aside from that, however, “I’m gonna keep dancin’ with the One who brung me.”

Mike,

“I am willing to think that Jesus wants those of us who live today to regard Satan as an impersonal force rather than in the personal way that Jesus took him while on earth

Can you not see the presumption in your statement “than in the personal way that Jesus took him while on earth”. How do you know Jesus thought of Satan as a living being, such as a fallen angle? If the Jews always thought of Satan as merely an anthropomorphism for evil, then Jesus would merely continue on with that belief and continue to the use the person pronouns as any Jew would. Would he not?

““Begone, Satan!” to his depersonalized evil

How about “get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) while talking to Peter?

Jesus clearly seems to be calling Satan something that causes one to go in a different direction from where God wants one to go, or think, or act or etc. etc.. Peter was thinking “according to the flesh”, which is not surprising since Peter was a “man”, thus what ever inherent thinking that caused Peter say to Jesus that such actions (the suffering that Jesus said he was to under go) would not happen to Him was Satan. Satan was nothing more than that which was in opposition to what God has in mind.

Rich,

If you’re saying that you can demonstrate to me that Jesus inherited from Second Temple Judaism a view of Satan that personified him in speech while depersonifying him in thought, I’m all ears.

Obviously, I don’t know all that Jesus thought but He certainly spoke to and about Satan in a personal way. Things are not always what they seem, but we need a reason to think they’re not what they seem.

As to the Matt 16:23 reference, John 13:2 describes a similar insertion of evil thought into a human heart. I take Jesus saying “Get behind Me, Satan” to be a simultaneous rebuke of the devil (as in Matt 4:10) and warning to Peter that the receipt of great revelation (“Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona…”) is no guarantee of freedom from temptation. In fact, it is almost the guarantee of temptation (2 Cor 12:7). Therefore, we should never cease praying, “and lead us not into temptation” no matter how many great things God shows us (Jer 33:3).

Mike,

But for me to follow along, I need to know how he got from Jesus saying such things as “Begone, Satan!” to his depersonalized evil. If Jesus is the one who got him to his depersonalized definition, I’m all for hearing about it.”

Buy his commentary. He has it all completely developed. If you agree than, there you go, if not, than there you go. But, you have to read his exegesis first to see, right? I think you will be impressed. Not saying I’m there, but it is quite impressive.

http://www.amazon.com/Consummation-Ages-Second-Coming-Revelation/dp/097280630X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344016293&sr=1-2&keywords=Consumation+of+the+ages

No offense, Rich, but if I bought every commentary recommended to me I’d be broke.

Moreover, I’ve found that the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture.

“No, it doesn’t answer the question, but some questions are perhaps unanswerable.”

I can definitely agree with that. I also don’t think, in the end, it really makes a difference, outside one argument which is outside the scope of this discussion.

Andrew,

“and fall cannot be separated from the narrative of eschatological crisis that determines the shape of New Testament theology. Satan is significant because as the ruler of the pagan world he naturally opposed YHWH’s campaign to claim the nations for his own kingdom. He failed, and the people of God are assured that he will not again deceive the nations in this way until the end of time. We no longer have to take him too seriously.”

This either requires one of two options:

1) Rev. 20 was fullfilled in the 1st century (just as the Full Preterist maintains - me).

or

2) this time you speak of, “he will not again deceive the nations until the end of time”, is the binding of Satan for a 1,000 years per Rev. 20:2.

I assume you are going with #2? Although, the problem with that is it then does become “separated from the narrative of eschatological crisis that determines the shape of New Testament theology”, does it not?

What am I missing here?

I grew up in a religion where Satan and Devil were depersonalized and made as synonyms for sin-nature. I was under the impression they were the only denomination who went to such extreme interpretation.

What convinced me that the Devil and Satan is a personal being is that Jesus was tempted by the Devil (Satan). There was no one around to be able to do the things or supply the things that the Devil promised. That religion failed to form any concensus about who the Devil in this case was only that it wasn’t the Devil. Believe me they spend a lot of time discussing it but never get anywhere.

Also there two parables which describe the Devil (Satan) as the Interpretation of the Parable, not the parable itself. Jesus would not explain the meaning of parables with metaphors (more parables).

The parable of the sowing of the seed. Birds of the air, source heaven.

The parable of the wheat and tares. The sower of the tares (the sinful humans on earth) is the Devil.

The fact is the Devil (Satan) existed BEFORE sin nature, so could not be sin nature or a group of evil people. The Devil lied about God, defamed the righteousness of God, and that is a sin. From the beginning.

Darryl, is the religion you’re referring to Christadelphia by any chance? If so, I’ve had the same experience and am completely on the same page with you.

In Matthew’s Gospel for instance, the devil/Satan is a character in the narrative who is just as real as other characters such as Jesus, Peter, the Pharisees, etc. The formula with which the temptation pericope is introduced, “And the tempter came and said to him,” is used numerous other times in Matthew to introduce a straightforward, literal dialogue. A scribe came and said to him (Matt. 8:19), the disciples came and said to him (Matt. 13:10; 14:15; 15:12; 17:19), Peter came and said to him (Matt. 18:21), the chief priests and elders came and said to him (Matt. 21:23). I don’t think a first century auditor of Matthew’s Gospel would have taken ‘And the tempter came and said to him’ any less literally.

Then there is the fact that the devil tempted Jesus to engage in a physical act of worship: “fall down and worship me”. This is not meaningful unless Jesus was in the physical presence of the tempter.

I’ve written a number of exegetical studies about the devil in the NT, if anyone is interested in reading them you can find them at http://www.dianoigo.com/publications.html#satan

Andrew,

Thank you for this post. I was raised in the Christadelphian religion which applies a depersonalizing hermeneutic to the biblical devil/Satan. I can readily identify with your desire to bring the biblical testimony into line with rationalism. Nevertheless, we mustn’t sacrifice sound exegesis in the process.

What stands out to me about your post is that you scarcely mention the development of the figure of Satan in intertestamental Judaism. There is little question that in some apocalyptic circles, there was belief in a personal prince of evil, known as Satan, Beliar or some other epithet. There is further little question that Satan was understood as a personal being in rabbinic Judaism. The question is how the New Testament relates to these ideas. I would argue that it basically assumes them to be correct, although the NT writers are sober-minded and avoid speculation about the origin of this being.

Concerning the account of Jesus calling Peter ‘Satan,’ a number of commentators (e.g. R.H. Stein) have argued that Jesus was not calling Peter ‘a satan’, i.e. an adversary, but rather was idiomatically saying that he was acting as Satan’s mouthpiece or was under satanic influence. Jan Dochhorn has written an excellent essay on the devil in the Gospel of Mark (in the recent book Evil and the Devil, published by T&T Clark) which makes this point. He argues for an idiom whereby you “are” the being who possesses you. For instance, in Matt. 10:25, Jesus says that his enemies have called him Beelzebul. Yet it is unlikely that they thought Jesus literally was Beelzebul. Rather, they thought he “had” Beelzebul, that is, was possessed by him (Mark 3:22).

Finally, as to whether Satan remains relevant: I think here we must apply the eschatological paradox of already/not yet. Satan has provisionally been defeated but continues to menace the church “knowing that his time is short”.

Tom, thanks for your comment. My concern, though, was not particularly to “bring the biblical testimony into line with rationalism”. The main point of the analysis had to do less with whether the New Testament regards Satan as a personal being than with what story he is part of. My argument is that he is implicated—perhaps exclusively implicated—in the story of Israel. The force of this observation seems to me to be underlined especially by the fact that in Revelation he is confined to the pit following the defeat of Rome, the arch enemy of YHWH and his people.

This could be taken to mean that the New Testament Satan is not an active presence in the world today—at least, that he no longer threatens the existence of the church in the way that he did in the ancient world. That may have a bearing on whether we should now “believe” in him as a personal being.