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. 22:31). 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.