Satan

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (Detail). By Hans Memling (c.1485).
Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (Detail). By Hans Memling (c.1485).
In popular belief, Satan is an evil fallen angel who rules in Hell. Souls which are damned will go to Hell to be punished forever for their sins by Satan.

That’s not actually in the Bible. If you were to go by what the Bible says, you wouldn’t have much of an idea about Satan or his role.

The Bible doesn’t say who Satan is or where he came from. It doesn’t say he rules in Hell,1 rather that he rules on Earth. And there is no eternal damnation.2 Hell isn’t even warm.

There’s confusion about Satan. Wikipedia puts it well:

“Much of the popular history of the Devil is not biblical; instead, it is a post-medieval Christian reading of the scriptures influenced by medieval and pre-medieval Christian popular mythology.” From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_teaching_about_the_Devil))

Since Christians believe God is a god of love, evil remains to be explained. Over hundreds of years from the death of Jesus, people figured out that Satan is responsible, but only as God allows, which punts it back into God’s lap. It’s part of His plan.

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7 King James Version (KJV)

History

For the ancestral Israelites, God didn’t have an evil opponent. God was responsible for both good and evil. Yet Christians today believe that Satan is.

Before about 600 BC, a companion of God, who doubted the sincerity of Job, suggested God test Job’s love, saying that maybe Job just loved him when times were good. In Hebrew, he was described as “the satan” meaning “the adversary,” which was the role he was playing.

For the Israelites things began to change about 600 years before Jesus. Defeated in war, an influential portion were exiled to Babylon. Generations later, when they returned to the remnants, they were different.

The land remained a crossroads of trade and conquest—Persia, Egypt, India, Rome and Greece—new ideas, many imposed and enforced by conquering nations, made it hard to maintain a Jewish identity already fragmented and threatened. Perhaps that’s where Satan first slipped in, amid fears of deviance and betrayal.3

The Greeks brought philosophy about the nature of good and evil and their own ideas about the underworld. The Persians brought gods of good and evil.

By about a hundred years before Jesus, the Jews knew of an angel, Mastema, a persecuting angel who punished evil acts. He was like the small ‘s’ satan of Job.4

Similarly, the non-Biblical Book of Enoch has Satan as a disgraced and fallen angel thrown down from heaven, and now, both God’s creation and his adversary.

What Christians know of as the Old Testament was complete by then, and while neither Jubilees nor Enoch are part of Protestant or Roman Catholic Bibles, they have remained influential.

Evil really was present for Israel and by the time of Jesus there was a conviction among Jewish groups that the end of the world was coming. Christianity was (and remains) one of those sects, cut loose from a disintegrating nation.

For Christians, success came in embracing change. Although Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity descends from Judaism, the sect opened itself up to outsiders. One didn’t have to be a Jew and obey Jewish laws to become a Christian. As Christianity spread, people who were Christians came from other cultures, and they brought their own ideas and influences.

Saint Augustine (or Theophilus of Adana?) and the devil (1471-1475). Michael Pacher.
Saint Augustine (or Theophilus of Adana?) and the devil (1471-1475). Michael Pacher.
The New Testament of Jesus of the Bible references a dominant opposing force where the Old Testament hadn’t.

In the Gospels he is a tempter and possessor of bodies, a liar and deceiver. He offers Jesus worldly power which (unlike Faust and Adam and Eve) Jesus declines, remaining uncorrupted. Satan whispers in Judas’ ear, and Jesus is arrested. Yet Jesus commands him.

“The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” — The Revelation to John. 12:12.5

In what was to become the final book of the Bible, the Revelation of John (written ~98 AD), Satan is the dragon doomed to fall again and be destroyed in the final battle which precedes a new and perfect world in the narrative of Christianity.

It makes for a hell of an ending and a significant promotion for the Devil. Of course at that time, there was no official Bible, just disparate inspired writings, put together6 within a century to become part of the New Testament, leaving a remainder (such as Enoch and Jubilees) “secreted away” and still influential among those who care to look. From them we acquired many of our ideas of the fall of Satan and demonology.

In the following early centuries, theologians like Origen, Augustine and Lacantius thought long and hard about the implications of what was written in the Bible concerning damnation, salvation, and punishment and found indications of Satan in Biblical passages which further defined Satan and his role (such as identifying him with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and with ”Lucifer” of Isaiah 14:12). He was threatening, but even then, he was powerless against faith and was mocked by Christians.7

“the period between 1550 and 1700 … was the Golden age of the demonic.” Philip C. Almond (p. 168. Chapter 8 ‘The Devil Defeated’ in The Devil, A New Biography).

The Material World

While God was still ultimately responsible for evil, the Greek idea that the world is evil and the Zoroastrian (and later Manichean, Cathar, Bogomil, etc.) belief that an evil god rules the Earth suggested a being or force in the world that brought destruction, and since the Bible said Satan offered the riches of the Earth to Jesus, presumably they were his to offer (outside of Eden), so it was reasonable to think that Satan was that worldly evil force.

For many Christians the material world is corrupt, imperfect and evil. As centuries passed, some argued that the age of miracles had ended with the Apostles (an implicit criticism of the continuing Roman Catholic Church and its claim of stewardship). Nothing Bible-worthy had happened since, suggesting God’s temporary absence and a devil who roams freely on Earth. That is how Faust’s demon Mephistopheles happens to be wandering by when he hears Faust’s summons.

“Woe to the earth and to the sea, because the devil has gone down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has but a short time.” — The Revelation to John. 12:12.8

Superstitious fear of witchcraft, possession, and Satan-worship (etc.) turned to witch hunts over the centuries, aided by the demonization of folk beliefs which at the same time validated their power. As well, the Church tolerated or adapted other magical folk practices such as fertility rites becoming the blessing of crops.

With God absent and the Devil roaming unrestrained and they defenceless, imaginations took flight with demons and witchcraft and pacts and spiritual possessions, and all under Satan, too. As the witch hunts raged Satan was a celebrity.

We wonder if there’s a character about the northern regions of Faust that’s formed through centuries of very real suffering (weather, famine, war, disease, poverty, etc.) when God wasn’t much help and neither was the Roman Church. Out of that sort of experience grew Protestantism, a return to the strict word of the Bible, dispensing with many of the self-serving and dubiously-ordained changes of the Roman Church, but also with its protective magic: saints, talismans, rituals and the priestly powers of blessings, invocations, and exorcisms. They weren’t Biblical and they weren’t reasonable.

The sixteenth century was the age of the Devil and it appeared things were going to get worse as the end of the world approached and the Devil grew more agitated. The likely real Faust probably died about 1540, or earlier, just in time to avoid a wave of witch hunts in his area. The first known Faust tales date from about 1587, in their midst.

At the time of the Faust tale, Satan was very real and very dangerous. Other people’s fear of him (and you) could get you and your family arrested, tortured and executed. Real or not, fear of Satan drove the homicidal panic of witch hunts which continue to this day.

18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20John+5&version=NIV)

The Battle of Good and Evil

It is clear among Christians that there is an ongoing battle between good and evil, and all good Christians fight for the victory of good against evil. In one’s personal relationship with the Devil, the Devil’s purpose is to move you off of the path of salvation.

This is why the demon Mephistopheles came to see Dr Faustus.

From the fourteenth century chapbook:“Faustus, my Lord Lucifer, (so called now, for that he was banished out of the cleare light of Heauen) was at the first an Angell of God, he sate on the Cherubins, and sawe all the wonderfull works of God, yea he was so of God ordained, for shape, pompe, authority, worthines, & dwelling, that he far exceeded all other the creatures of God, yea our gold and precious stones: and so illuminated, that he farre surpassed the brightnes of the Sunne and all other Starres: wherefore God placed him on the Cherubins, where he had a kinglie office, and was alwaies before Gods seate, to the end hee might hee the more perfect in all his beings: but when hee began to be high minded, proude, and so presumptuous that hee would vsurpe the seate of his Maiestie, then was he banished out from amongst the heauenly powers, separated from their abiding into the manner of a fierie stone, that no water is able to quench, but continually burneth vntill the ende of the world.” (Faust Book, Ch. 13)

Fables and fools

But Dr Faustus was a well educated man, certainly aware of what the Bible did and didn’t say about salvation and Satan. He had studied Divinity. He knew about the mysteries of the hidden books of the Bible (Apocrypha) and the later philosophical reasoning of Augustine (a reformed Manichean) and Lacantius and others, fleshing out the Devil’s particular place in pain. The Devil in Hell, and damnation eternal (which was popular in Faust’s time9), fallen angels—none of it true—well, none of it Biblical.

Perhaps Faust saw the tales of the devil as a way to humble and control a superstitious folk. Like others, he saw that the Church grew wealthy and powerful as the power of the Devil grew. He saw the game being played: salvation sold to the sinner. Indulgences, they were called. Only the Church and your unwavering devotion could save you from the Devil.

And as Nietzsche (1844-1900) observed, Christianity is a slave religion, giving comfort, purpose and justification to the poor and oppressed. Faust is not a slave. Though that is a more recent attitude, probably not sixteenth century Faust’s. Faust was no atheist and we are much further along in justifying Faust as an heroic symbol of individualism, free-thought and initiative.

If you took away Satan, Christianity would be a very different religion. The dynamic tension of the battle of good over evil is essential to the personal battle for salvation, and it pervades Protestant Western civilization in its ability to rationalize sacrifice, the work ethic and morality—all of which contribute to a strong work force, an acceptance of place and situation, and a fear of isolation.10

Your sins, your punishment for sinning, your route to salvation and perhaps Paradise had been through priests since early in the development of the church and cynics noted that there were no Christian priests in the Bible, and that their entrepreneurship was serving them very well. Satan was a money-maker.

European Skepticism and the Death of Satan

It wasn’t clear among scholars of the subject if spirits could be material or have any influence on matter. The age of miracles was over long ago. Nothing was expected to happen until Jesus’ return. It remained to consider spirits as natural beings and to study them as such–as part of natural history. How did angels and demons figure in the material world? Could Faust’s demons touch?

No. It wasn’t reasonable. Growing doubt through the 17th century helped end Satan’s reign. Without substance there could be no pacts, no possessions, no Satan. While briefly liberating, it led to a quick realization that that was a pragmatic argument for no spirits at all–Godless atheism–so it quickly became something no church cared to get into.

Stubborn spirit seekers instead took to the occult and spiritualism, which took off in popularity as the religious interest faltered.

Eliminating the possibility of external spiritual influences then guaranteed that matter can be relied on to behave consistently–which is the solid material foundation of science and technology (and which is often associated with the Devil, paradoxically, considering it depends on his absence).

“The history of God in the West is also the history of the Devil.” Philip C. Almond. P. XIV. “The Devil. A New Biography”

Christianity and Satan

So what is the true place of Satan? Christianity has changed a lot since Jesus. It’s hardly an aside to question if the Christianity practised by Christians is the right one. This was very much the question in the Germanic homeland of Faust and in the England of Marlowe through the 16th century. The Protestant opinion was that it was not, and that while many Catholic Church Fathers were profound and inspired, the Bible needed to be the authority.

Christians are adamant that theirs is a one-God religion, to the point of squeezing God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit into one God, known as the Trinity, yet Satan has risen in stature to compete. As the near-god of evil, Satan has risen to be almost equal to the good god.

So as well as being a devil to those within the Christian faith, he might be a danger to Christianity itself. He is a foreign beast who has insinuated himself into the religion, dividing it, perverting it, contaminating it with his evil.

Are Christians committing the sin of believing in false gods by elevating Satan in their personal beliefs?11 Perhaps they’ve gotten it all wrong and this is nothing like Jesus intended. Has Satan deceived all Christians like he did Faust?

“For the better part of the last two thousand years in the West it has been as impossible not to believe in the devil as it was impossible not to believe in God.” Philip C. Almond. P. XIV. “The Devil. A New Biography

Satan and Today

Our own ideas of Satan are further influenced by the Faust stories themselves and others, such as Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Lost Paradise.

If the Christian vision of the end of the world doesn’t scare you, and neither does the Faustian one, then maybe the thought that we’ve never needed a devil to do the horrible things we do does, or maybe that there is no plan, and that good will not always triumph over evil in the end. Believing in the Devil offers more hope than that.

And if that doesn’t dismay you, consider our complete bondage to nature’s movement, and that we do what we do because there never was any other path and never was any hope. Again, the Devil offers comfort.

Bibliography

  • Almond, Philip C., 2014. The Devil: A New Biography, 306pp. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801453373
  • Graves, Kersey, 1995. Biography of Satan: Exposing the Origins of the Devil, 168pp. Book Tree. ISBN 1885395116
  • Pagels, Elaine, 1995. The Origin of Satan, 214pp. Vintage; Reprint edition. ISBN 0679722327
  • Russell, Jeffrey Burton, 1977. The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Cornell University Press; Reprint edition. ISBN 0801494133

See the Wikipedia article “Satan“.

Footnotes
  1. “Nowhere in the Bible is Satan described as ruling over or being in Hell. Throughout the Bible Satan is described as constantly on Earth, and the Book of Revelation says that after Judgment Satan will be cast into Hell.” From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_misconceptions#Christianity (now gone-2019). []
  2. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23). []
  3. See The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. []
  4. ‘Mastema is an angel who persecutes evil in Jewish mythology. He carries out punishments for God. He tempts humans and tests their faith. In the Zadokite Fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls, he is the angel of disaster, the father of all evil, and a flatterer of God. He first appears in the literature of the Second Temple Period as a personification of the Hebrew word mastemah (משטמה), meaning “hatred”, “hostility”, “enmity”, or “persecution”.’ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastema []
  5. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+12&version=NIV;KJV []
  6. See “Biblical inspiration in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inspiration” []
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satan []
  8. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+12&version=NIV;KJV []
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_reconciliation []
  10. See Protestant work ethic at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_work_ethic. []
  11. It’s fair to note that Christians have also long been looking for signs of their God in other cultures. They thought they saw Christian elements in ancient Egyptian hermetica (discovered to actually be early Christian era only in 1614) and in Greek philosophy, so it’s reasonable that they may have recognized something they were “inspired” to look for that became the body and soul of Satan when they were done. So they haven’t so much invented him as they have articulated him. Of course they also reduced the divinities of other cultures to Christian demons. []