The Evolution of the Concept of Satan
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The Scriptures indicate that the creature known as Satan did not always have that name. Rather, this descriptive name was given to him because of his taking a course of opposition and resistance to God. The name he had before this is not given. God is the only Creator, and ‘his activity is perfect,’ with no injustice or unrighteousness. (De 32:4) Therefore, the one becoming Satan was, when created, a perfect, righteous creature of God. He is a spirit person, for he appeared in heaven in the presence of God. (Job chaps 1, 2; Re 12:9) Jesus Christ said of him: “That one was a manslayer when he began, and he did not stand fast in the truth, because truth is not in him.” (Joh 8:44; 1Jo 3:8) Jesus here shows that Satan was once in the truth, but forsook it. Beginning with his first overt act in turning Adam and Eve away from God, he was a manslayer, for he thereby brought about the death of Adam and Eve, which, in turn, brought sin and death to their offspring. (Ro 5:12) Throughout the Scriptures the qualities and actions attributed to him could be attributed only to a person, not to an abstract principle of evil. It is clear that the Jews, and Jesus and his disciples, knew that Satan existed as a person.
So, from a righteous, perfect start, this spirit person deviated into sin and degradation. The process bringing this about is described by James when he writes: “Each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire. Then the desire, when it has become fertile, gives birth to sin; in turn, sin, when it has been accomplished, brings forth death.” (Jas 1:14, 15) In the course that Satan took, there seems to be, in some respects, a parallel with that of the king of Tyre as described in Ezekiel 28:11-19.—See PERFECTION (The first sinner and the king of Tyre). The Scriptural account, therefore, makes it plain that it was Satan who spoke through the medium of a serpent, seducing Eve into disobedience to God’s command. In turn, Eve induced Adam to take the same rebellious course. (Ge 3:1-7; 2Co 11:3) As a consequence of Satan’s use of the serpent, the Bible gives Satan the title “Serpent,” which came to signify “deceiver”; he also became “the Tempter” (Mt 4:3) and a liar, “the father of the lie.”—Joh 8:44; Re 12:9.
SATAN AS A TRUE PERSONA
FROM Genesis to Revelation God’s Word asserts the personality of Satan the Devil. Though referred to as the Serpent in the Genesis account, we need not speculate as to who that serpent is, for that is apparent from Revelation 12:7-9. There we are told that he “who is misleading the entire inhabited earth” is “the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan.” Yes, the Tempter in Eden was not a mere “evil impulse” implanted in Adam by God, as certain Jewish scholars, the Tannaim of the second century A.D., would have us believe. He was none other than Satan the Devil himself. Then again, in Job, chapters 1 and 2, Satan is clearly shown to be a spirit person who appeared in God’s presence together with other spirit sons and who engaged God in conversation, challenging Him in regard to Job’s integrity. We also read of his accusing high priest Joshua in the days of Zechariah.
Paul calls Satan “the god of this system of things,” who “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” Peter speaks of Satan as the one who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour someone.” And Jude, disciple and half brother of Jesus, tells us that Satan had an argument with Michael regarding the body of Moses. Surely no impersonal principle of evil, as many hold Satan to be, could be said to do such things!—2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Pet. 5:8; Jude 9. Especially does the Scriptural record regarding Jesus establish Satan’s personality. In the wilderness Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus should “fall down and do an act of worship” to Satan. Could an abstract principle claim all the kingdoms of the world and offer them to Jesus? Could Jesus do an act of worship before it? Could we imagine the faithful, loving and obedient Son of God being tempted by disloyal thoughts originating in his own mind?—Matt. 4:9.
Jesus testified that he had seen “Satan already fallen like lightning from heaven.” Clearly the principle of evil could not have fallen, for from creation it existed as an evil principle, although inactive. Further, Jesus told his enemies that they were of their father the Devil, who “was a manslayer when he began” as Satan, and “a liar and the father of the lie.” When charged with casting out demons by the power of Satan, Jesus did not deny the existence of Satan but said: “If Satan expels Satan, he has become divided against himself.” Yes, all such references likewise leave no doubt as to the existence, the personality, of Satan.—Luke 10:18; John 8:44; Matt. 12:26. Strange as it may seem, in spite of all such unequivocal Scriptural testimony many professed Christians as well as Jews doubt the existence of Satan the Devil. They take the position that no one has ever seen Satan and so he must be a mere figment of the imagination. Or that Satan is merely the principle of evil, or the evil impulses in man personified. Says an Oxford doctor of divinity: “There may be other spiritual influences beyond the human sphere, such influences as were recognised crudely enough in the ancient belief in demons and in Satan. . . . Whatever we may think of this speculative question,” etc.2 And according to a popular Protestant work: “The whole subject is wrapped in mystery. . . . These passages [referring to Satan] leave much unexplained and conjecture here is useless.”
Concerning one of the leading theologians in the United States we are told: “But Niebuhr does not accept the Biblical doctrine concerning the Devil, either as a myth or as a dogma, or as an extrinsic principle ‘of evil antecedent to any human action.’ He merely uses Satan as a paradigm, an illustration as to how the rebellious will of man operates.” And quoting him directly: “The idea of attributing personality to evil may be scientifically absurd but it rests upon a natural error. When the blind and impersonal forces of nature come to life in man they are given the semblance of personality.”
Some persons doubt Satan’s existence because he is invisible to human eyes, but does that make sense? No, it does not. The Bible, reason and the physical facts plainly show that God exists, yet no man has ever seen him, nor, in fact, can see him. (Ex. 33:20; John 1:18) God’s Word also tells us about spirit creatures, various kinds of angels that do God’s bidding, all of whom are invisible to human eyes. Since we grant that righteous spirit personalities or entities exist, should it prove difficult to believe that unrighteous, wicked spirit persons also exist?
Doubtless the superstitions and ridiculous misconceptions that many hold or have held regarding Satan account in part for others doubting his existence. In the Dark Ages he was frequently pictured as a goat. In modern times he is usually portrayed as a human in tight-fitting red clothes, having horns, a tail and a pitchfork in his hands. But the mere fact that the Scriptural teaching regarding Satan has been distorted is no valid reason for doubting his existence. Neither does the fact that many non-Christian religions personalize the principle of evil argue against Satan’s existence. Others are prone to doubt the existence of Satan because of failing to understand Satan’s origin and why God has tolerated Satan for so long.
Thus Reinhold Niebuhr further states: “The idea in Hebrew mythology that Satan is both a rebel against God and yet ultimately under his dominion expresses the paradoxical fact that on the one hand evil is something more than absence of order, and on the other hand that it depends upon order.” What about these various reasons for doubting the existence of Satan? Do they not in fact have their basis in a failure to accept the Bible as God’s Word? If we have faith that the Bible is inspired, then will we not accept its plain statements as truth regardless of whether we understand all the whys and wherefores or not? Surely! Then we will agree with Jesus, who said of it: “Your word is truth”; and with Paul, who wrote: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching”; and also with Peter, who tells that “men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.”—John 17:17
But God’s Word does give us the whys and wherefores regarding Satan’s existence. It satisfactorily answers any question a sincere, open-minded seeker for truth may have regarding Satan. It assures us that all God’s activity is perfect and that his ways are justice. (Deut. 32:4) Therefore he could not have created any wicked spirit person. The Bible also tells us that God created many righteous spirit creatures, angels, among whom was one that God appointed as covering cherub or guardian angel of the first human pair. This one became ambitious to be worshiped like God himself and so induced Adam and Eve to disobey. He instigated rebellion and thereby challenged the universal sovereignty of Jehovah God.—Gen. 3:1-7; Ezek. 28:12-16, AS.
The Scriptures further indicate that Satan boasted that God could not put creatures on earth whom Satan could not corrupt, thereby raising also the issue, Can man keep integrity? Because of this issue Jehovah God has allowed Satan to exist and permitted Adam and Eve to live for a time and have offspring before they paid sin’s penalty, death. Jehovah had full confidence in his ability to have human creatures on earth who would keep integrity in spite of all that Satan could do, thereby proving Satan a liar. That is why God allowed Job, Jesus and others to suffer at the hands of Satan.
When we once appreciate what was at stake, the issues of Jehovah’s supremacy and man’s integrity, we can see good and sufficient reasons why God has permitted Satan to exist down to the present time.—Job, chapters 1 and 2; Prov. 27:11; Heb. 5:8, 9. Implicit in all this is that Satan’s existence at best is but a temporary one, and this is exactly what the Scriptures show: “God who gives peace will crush Satan.” Jesus Christ will “destroy the one having the means to cause death, that is, the Devil.” Yes, eventually Satan will be hurled into the lake of fire, the second death, symbol of annihilation.—Rom. 16:20; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 20:10, 14. Thus the Scriptures, together with reason, make clear the origin of Satan, why God has permitted him to remain until the present time and that his days are numbered. Man is therefore without any grounds for doubting the existence of Satan. So heed the warning: “Keep your senses, be watchful. Your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour someone. But take your stand against him, solid in the faith.”—1 Pet. 5:8, 9.
As Bible history develops, another indication of a rebellion at a higher level of life than that of humans is revealed just before the Flood, some 1,500 years after man’s fall into sin. The Bible account tells us that “the sons of the true God began to notice the daughters of men, that they were good-looking; and they went taking wives for themselves, namely, all whom they chose.” The hybrid offspring of these unnatural unions were known as “Nephilim,” “mighty ones who were of old, the men of fame.” (Genesis 6:1-4; compare Job 1:6 for the identity of “the sons of the true God.”) Some 2,400 years later, Jude briefly commented on this event when he wrote: “And the angels that . . . forsook their own proper dwelling place he has reserved with eternal bonds under dense darkness for the judgment of the great day.”—Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4, 5. At this point before the Flood “the badness of man was abundant in the earth and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the time.” Nevertheless, Satan was not specifically identified in the inspired book of Genesis as the powerful influence behind the angelic rebellion and man’s wickedness. (Genesis 6:5) Indeed, all through the history of the nations of Israel and Judah, with their constant relapses into idolatry and false worship, Satan is never named in the inspired Bible books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings as the invisible influence behind these events—this despite Satan’s own admission that he was “roving about in the earth.”—Job 1:7; 2:2.
Even when we consider the significant account of Job and his trials, we see that Job never attributes his tests to the adversary, Satan. Evidently, he was unaware at the time of the issue that hung on the outcome of his conduct. (Job 1:6-12) He did not realize that Satan had precipitated the crisis by challenging Job’s integrity before Jehovah. Thus, when Job’s wife reprimanded him with the words: “Are you yet holding fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” he simply answered: “Shall we accept merely what is good from the true God and not accept also what is bad?” Without knowing the true source of his trials, he apparently viewed them as coming from God and therefore something to be accepted. Had it been otherwise, it would not have been a true test of Job’s integrity.—Job 1:21; 2:9, 10.
Now a question arises. If, as we believe, Moses wrote the book of Job and therefore knew that Satan was roving about in the earth, why is it that he does not speak of Satan by name in any of the books of the Pentateuch, which he also wrote? Yes, why is Satan mentioned so seldom in the Hebrew Scriptures? Even though denouncing demon-inspired activities, Jehovah in his wisdom evidently had good reasons for ensuring that his Adversary, Satan, should be given only limited exposure in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 18:10-13; 32:16, 17; 2 Chronicles 11:15) Thus, although the Hebrew writers must have had some knowledge of Satan and his rebellious role in the heavens, they were inspired only to define and expose the sins of God’s people and of the nations around them and to exhort against their wickedness. (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 18:9-13) Satan’s name was rarely mentioned.
In view of the events in Eden, the degradation of “the sons of the true God,” and the record in the book of Job, the inspired Hebrew Bible writers were not ignorant of the evil, supernatural influence of Satan. The prophet Zechariah, who wrote in the late sixth century B.C.E., had a vision of the high priest Joshua with “Satan standing at his right hand in order to resist him. Then the angel of Jehovah said to Satan: ‘Jehovah rebuke you, O Satan, yes, Jehovah rebuke you.’” (Zechariah 3:1, 2) Also, the scribe Ezra, writing the history of Israel and Judah in the fifth century B.C.E., stated that “Satan proceeded to stand up against Israel and to incite David to number Israel.”—1 Chronicles 21:1. Thus, by the time of Zechariah, holy spirit was letting Satan’s role become clearer in the Scriptures. But another five centuries would pass before this evil creature would be totally exposed in the Word of God. With Bible basis, what reason can we deduce for this timing in fully exposing Satan?
The Bible is the chief source of evidence. There he is repeatedly referred to by name (Satan 52 times, Devil 33 times). Eyewitness testimony as to Satan’s existence is also recorded there. Who was the eyewitness? Jesus Christ, who lived in heaven before coming to earth, repeatedly spoke of that wicked one by name.—Luke 22:31; 10:18; Matt. 25:41. What the Bible says about Satan the Devil makes sense. The evil that mankind experiences is far out of proportion to the malice of the humans involved. The Bible’s explanation of Satan’s origin and his activities makes clear why, despite the desire of the majority to live in peace, mankind has been plagued with hatred, violence, and war for thousands of years and why this has reached such a level that it now threatens to destroy all mankind. If there really were no Devil, accepting what the Bible says about him would not bring lasting benefits to a person.
In many instances, however, persons who formerly dabbled in the occult or who belonged to groups practicing spiritism report that they were at that time greatly distressed because of hearing “voices” from unseen sources, being “possessed” by superhuman beings, etc. Genuine relief was gained when they learned what the Bible says about Satan and his demons, applied the Bible’s counsel to shun spiritistic practices, and sought Jehovah’s help in prayer.—See pages 384-389, under the heading “Spiritism.” Believing that Satan exists does not mean accepting the idea that he has horns, a pointed tail, and a pitchfork and that he roasts people in a fiery hell. The Bible gives no such description of Satan. That is the product of the minds of medieval artists who were influenced by representations of the mythological Greek god Pan and by the Inferno written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Instead of teaching a fiery hell, the Bible clearly says that “the dead . . . are conscious of nothing at all.”—Eccl. 9:5.
Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, by Geo. F. Moore.
Redemption and Revelation, by H. Wheeler Robinson, D.D.
555 Difficult Bible Questions Answered, by The Christian Herald.
Reinhold Niebuhr—His Religious, Social and Political Thought, by Kegley and Bretall.
The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, by Hans Hofman.