The Bible shows a progression of thought concerning the divine. Coming out of the pagan cultures of the Earth, Israel’s faith evolved from polytheism, or henotheism, to monotheism. Just as with many concepts within the Bible – through its different authors and writings spanning thousands of years – we see a plurality of views wrestling with each other and evolving into new ways of thinking concerning the nature of the divine.
Many Christians today seem to think that there is a unanimous voice in scripture concerning the nature of the metaphysical concepts that it describes. However, in dealing with metaphysical concepts, we must admit that it is a “through a glass darkly.” Metaphor, analogy, anthropomorphism, parable, poetry, and myth are constantly employed by the writers of the Bible. There is not always consistency with language when trying to grasp existential and metaphysical realities.
When we actually read and study the Bible and its history and culture, we find that the concepts within the Bible are very much evolving and progressing with new voices being added to the discussion. The Bible, after all, was written not by one person, but by dozens of people over the course of thousands of years. The story of human existence and culture and awareness is one of learning and growing and evolving into new understandings, and religion is not exempt from this process.
The multivocal and progressive nature of the Bible, instead of being seen as a threat (shaking the self-certain evangelical insistence of inerrancy), should be viewed as a beautiful testament to this faithful universal Presence that is drawing us up and forward into truth, relating to us where we are at, and summoning history towards himself. God is with us in the process.
With the generations that unfold from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we see a progressive nature to the way people see God, and this was all leading up to Jesus, as discussed in a previous article. But there are other metaphysical ideas that are evolving in the scriptures too, such as what we normally see as the antithesis to God, the character that we call “Satan.”
We are told many times in the New Testament that all before Christ was a shadow – that no one saw God or knew God before Christ – but that Christ fully displays what God is like. All revelation of God before Jesus was a shadow, but Jesus is the reality and the fullness. The living, breathing, walking and talking man Jesus is God-incarnate.
Christ said of himself, “Whoever sees the Son has seen the Father” (John 14:9). So, whereas in the Old Testament you see a shadowy revelation of God, it was progressing and leading up to the fullness of divine revelation in the person of Christ. Not just a vision, not just an epiphany, not just an inspired writing, but the unveiled Word of the Father in the flesh, of whom it is true, “everything the Father does, the Son does likewise” (John 5:19).
A shadow is very… shadowy. It can be misconstrued and misinterpreted. For example, in the Old Testament, the saints believed God was sic’ing evil spirits on people to deceive and torment them (1 Kings 22:22, 1 Samuel 16:14-16). They believe that God was holding the power of death and destruction over them, wielding it upon humanity according to his pleasure, exactly as the surrounding nations perceived their own gods. This application of destructive power was viewed as “the wrath of God.”
But in the New Testament, we never see Jesus partnering with evil spirits, only casting them out. He portrays the Father, not as the author of death and destruction, but rather the author of life. The writer of Hebrews says that it is the devil who wields the power of death, not God, and that Christ came to destroy him who holds the power of death (Heb 2:14).
In Acts 10:38, we are told that Christ went about healing all those under the power of the devil, because God was with him. Furthermore, John says that the reason Jesus was revealed was to undo all the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). This means that sickness, torment, and death, the things Jesus undid and healed people from, were of the devil rather than from God, and the reason Christ was able to heal them was because God was with him.
So what’s the deal here? Is satan the author of death and destruction or is God? Is God revealed in Jesus, who opposes satan and all of his works of death and destruction and disease and demons…. or not?
All of theology comes down to this question: What is God like? But more specifically, we could ask questions like:
- Is God like the devil sometimes?
- Does God steal, kill, and destroy human lives sometimes?
- Is all of the Bible equally true, or does the God we see in Jesus trump conflicting views in the Old Testament?
- Does God partner with evil to bring destruction and torment on people for their wrongs as shown sometimes in the Old Testament?
- If God is like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, does there ever come a point where if the son doesn’t return, the father sets out on the road to hunt the son down in order to angrily kill him?
- Is sin a crime that God needs to destroy us for, or a deadly disease that God desires to heal us from?
- Is God out to both destroy us and save us?
- Is God both our enemy and our Savior?
- Is God trying to save us from his own plan to destroy us?
- Is God schizophrenic?
To answer these questions, we need to understand the multivocal and progressive nature of scripture. One important aspect is to understand the development of the concept of the character called “satan” in the scriptures.
In the days of the Old Testament, “satan” was a general term for that which was opposed or adverse. It means “enemy/adversary”. The angel of the Lord that stood in the way of Balaam and his donkey is called a “satan” against Balaam (Number 22:32), God raises up Hadad of Edom as a “satan” against Solomon (1 Kings 11:14), God raises up individuals, nations, and spiritual entities as “satans” numerous times for various adversarial purposes (1 Samuel 29:4). In this way “satan” is just a generic term for an adversarial role. To this day, much of Jewish tradition believes “satan” to be the evil inclination of humans and having no power except through our evil actions.
The book of Job is the first place the word “satan” is used in an actual personified way, because this is a parable using an adversarial archetype as a main character. However, every time this character is mentioned in Job, it appears with the article “the” in front of it, as in “the satan”, or literally “the adversary” as a generic descriptive term. Although English Bibles capitalize the word “satan” in Job as well as leave the article “the” off, it is clear that “the satan” is not meant as a personal name, because Hebrew never puts “the” in front of a personal name, ever. And in the Hebrew text, “the” appears in front of the word “satan” in Job every time without exception.
In Hebrew tradition, all things, both evil and good, came from the hand of God. “The satan” then represented God’s destructive agency, a kind of “prosecuting attorney” appointed by God, who watched for those who did not obey the law so he could accuse and punish them on God’s behalf. In this way, the adversary was not “evil” per se, he just fulfilled God’s destructive will. “The satan” therefore came to be known as “the accuser”.
In those days, “the satan” was not the wicked, demonic idea of a being that he is now. Those conceptual demonic entities were more along the lines of false gods such as Baal and Moloch and other malevolent pagan deities to whom people participated in bizarre rituals and human sacrifice. During all this time, the serpent of Genesis was not yet equated to “satan”.
In the New Testament the personification of “the satan” as a character is followed, as apocalyptic writings became more popular in the intertestamental period such as the book of Enoch, and this genre of literature predominantly imagined an archetypal enemy and personification of evil. Thus the generic adversarial title “the satan” evolved into the personal name “Satan”, and came to be seen in a more diabolical sense.
So from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we see “the satan” conceptually evolve from an adversarial agency of God through which God exercises his destructive will, to a demonic enemy of God whom God has come to defeat. Jesus solidified the progressive breaking off of this satanic/adversarial element from our concept of God. Jesus refined our understanding of God and exposed the adversarial destructive agency as opposed to God instead of part of God. For God is not the accuser and destroyer of mankind, he is a Father and a giver of life..
Not until later centuries did Satan begin being equated with “Lucifer” which just means “morning star” and comes from a prophecy about the earthly king of Babylon in Isaiah 14. Like the unbiblical doctrine of the rapture which was developed in the 1800’s and was novel enough to become indoctrinated into multitudes within 200 years, the power of tradition turned “morning star”, the earthly king of Babylon, into “Lucifer”, a pre-existent spiritual being who wanted to become like God and fell.
At some point, it just became a “fact” that satan was always the fallen angel who rebelled against God in pre-existent times. People will often point to Revelation 12:7-9 to defend the idea that satan was a pre-existent angel who fell, but that scripture has no ties to the Isaiah 14 prophecy about the king of Babylon, nor does it mention any type of fall of a good angel. Rather it is about the deceiver and accuser being cast down and losing his place of authority.
This is what Jesus alludes to when he says “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”. He is not talking about some pre-creation rebellion of an archangel that is nowhere in the scriptures. He is talking about the eschatological defeat of the adversary. This is clear from the context.
Preceding this statement of Jesus in Luke 10:18, the disciples return from going forth demonstrating the power and faith of the Son:
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!'”
Jesus, happy to hear that his disciples are walking in his faith and authority, prophesies the adversary’s defeat and all the powers of darkness:
He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Jesus becomes even more excited and joyful, such that he begins praising the Father for how he is accomplishing his triumph, through the faith of children:
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.'”
Jesus continues in the same vein describing how this triumph over darkness is happening through the revelation of the Father and the Son:
All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Jesus tops off his rejoicing that satan and the powers of darkness are being cast down through the children of God by saying how blessed his disciples are to see this day in history:
Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.'”
Jesus’ declaration “I saw Satan fall like lightning” is his prophetic declaration of the existential downfall of the powers through his revelation of the Father and the Son, which is also the revelation of humanities sonship.
The Evolution of the Satan
As we can see, the biblical witness concerning the ontology of “the satan” and his “demons” is not exactly consistent. Much of it is most likely myth, which serves a purpose to get at a reality we don’t understand… but is not literal. Just to be clear, the word “myth” is not to say something is not true. It is to say that a certain story or parable is created to relate to us on our conceptual level concerning a higher reality that we cannot yet comprehend.
“Satan” (“adversary”) is not a myth – we all experience a dark adversarial dynamic in this universe. Rather, it is possible that some of the stories regarding this evil cosmic presence are myth, using personification and the power of narrative to denote a reality of the cosmic presence of evil, its accusatory and adversarial element, and its destiny of being defeated.
To me, the issue of the ontology of “the satan” is not really that important. Whatever the cosmic powers of evil are, we believe they exist, and the best way to fight them is to simply follow the way of Jesus.
However, the near absence of satan in the entire Old Testament is an important dynamic to understand concerning progressive revelation. Even though the Old Testament is significantly larger than the New Testament, a character called “the satan” is only mentioned nineteen times, and not as a personal name but with the article “the”, as in “the satan”, indicating a generic adversarial role. Fourteen of these mentioning’s of “the satan” are in the book of Job, because the satan plays a key role in this story. This means, besides the book of Job, the Old Testament only mentions “the satan” five times, which is just a generic adversarial title. When this character does appear, he serves as God’s agent of destruction, as part of the “divine council” (also called “the council of the gods”), revealing a facet of the divine nature while serving as God’s adversarial tool.
To give an example of this, there are two biblical accounts of David’s sin in numbering Israel. One blames God for it, and the other blames the satan, because to Israel, there was no difference. All destructive behavior was attributed to God, and sometimes it would specifically make “the adversary” (the satan) as the angel or servant that was fulfilling God’s destructive decree.
This demonstrates that the Israelites sometimes saw God’s destructive anger as synonymous with the satan. Here I will quote two different passages of the account of Davids numbering of Israel, but notice the two different causes in each account:
The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.'” (2 Samuel 24:1)
“Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” (1 Chronicles 21:1)
Same exact event, but two different causes. In one, it is the Lord that caused Davids destructive behavior, and in the other, it is the satan that caused Davids destructive behavior. Is this an error in the text? Or is this an example of the general perspective of Israel that the satan was synonymous with Gods destructive wrath?
This is not just a minor little obscure thing here in these passages, but rather, a blatant example of a more general Old Testament perspective of God. There are many other places where Israel attributes things to “the Lord” because believed the Lord was behind everything. If an angel of destruction or the satan did something, it was ultimately “the Lord” doing it.
Take another look at the book of Job for example. In the book of Job, a character called the satan (the adversary) enters God’s presence and has a casual conversation with God about a man named Job, one of God’s best men. The satan convinces the Creator to team up with him in a kind of cosmic bet to see if Job is truly faithful to God or not.
Where in this story is the prince of darkness, the demonic archenemy of God, who is only full of deception and lies, whom Jesus declares he has come to overthrow? Nowhere. God casually goes along with the satans antagonistic endeavors and that’s that. That’s because in this story, and in this time, the satan is not conceptualized as an enemy of God. He is conceptualized as merely an adversarial mechanism that serves God’s adversarial purposes.
Contrast this with the New Testament, where Satan is an actual name no longer having the article “the” in front of the word, has developed a history in Jewish tradition as a demonic enemy of God, and plays a main role in every book (mentioned 100’s of times in a portion of the Bible that is significantly smaller). Satan is now always shown as a cosmic rebel who is the antithesis of the Father and whom Jesus has come to destroy. Jesus goes about his whole life completely opposed to a character named Satan and all of his works, heaven-bent on driving him out of the world.
This is quite an interesting distinction to think about when reading the Old Testament. The evolution of the concept of “the satan” reflects on the evolution of the concept of the nature of God. Since both good and evil could no longer be attributed to God, since God could not be both the enemy and Savior of mankind, all of the sudden, there is a supernatural entity that personifies evil who is mentioned hundreds of times throughout the New Testament.
Think about that for a second. The Old Testament takes up 2/3 of the Bible and covers thousands of years of Israel’s history, and the New Testament is about 1/3 of the Bible and was all written in the span of several decades.
I would point out however that even though the satan is only mentioned nineteen times in the Old Testament, (fourteen of which are in Job), other characters like “the angel of the Lord”, “the angel of death”, “the angel of destruction”, and “the destroyer” are also employed to describe this adversarial element of God. The scriptures sometimes said, “The Lord did this destructive thing” or “The Lord sent an evil spirit” or “the Lord sent this deception” but then would attribute the actual action to an angel or “the destroyer.”
Later on, Jewish literature began to identify “the angel of death/the destroyer” who fulfilled God’s destructive will as synonymous with the satan as well. The Old Testament simply did not differentiate the Lord and the satan, and all stealing, killing, and destroying was attributed to God.
Jesus reveals his Abba as never coming to steal, kill, or destroy, but only to bring life. “For this reason the Son of God was manifest, to destroy the works the devil.” (1 John 3:8)
Old Testament saints wrongly included Satan in their functional definition of God. Whenever there was temptation, destruction, wrath, and death, all activities which the New Testament would later assign to Satan, the Old Testament would instead attribute these destructions to God Himself. They would not pray against the wiles of the devil, the way the New Testament instructs, but would rather beg God to stay His own wrathful hand. Satan was nowhere in their causative equation. God was the ONLY cause of both good and evil.
The New Testament, by contrast, DIFFERENTIATES the identities of God and Satan totally. What is joined at the conceptual hip in the Old Testament is separated and forever severed in the New. Jesus, it could be argued, IS the DYNAMIC DIFFERENTIATION of God’s image from Satan’s image. He is the refining fire which burns all the unworthy attributes the Old Testament God out and away from the pure and perfect divine nature. Simply stated, the Old Testament view of Satan is lacking New Testament illumination. And, as a result, the Old Testament often blends the identities of God and Satan TOGETHER, which ends up confusing the true source of Old Testament ‘wrath.’ Only as we NOW reinsert Satan back into the destructive Old Testament passages can we rightly understand what Jesus was doing in the Old Testament versus what Satan was doing. Learning to do this instinctively will forever free up our thinking and our understanding of the Old Testament.”
Author Stephen Harris notes that the Old Testament Satan is not the same entity as the New Testament Satan:
[In the Old Testament] the Satan figure acts as Yahweh’s spy and prosecuting attorney whose job is to bring human misconduct to the deity’s attention and, if possible, persuade Yahweh to punish it. Throughout the Old Testament the Satan remains among the divine ‘sons,’ serves as God’s administrative agent, and thus reveals a facet of the divine personality.
At the outset, some Bible writers saw all things, good and evil alike, as emanating from a single source– Yahweh. Israel’s strict monotheistic credo decreed that Yahweh alone caused both joys and sorrows, prosperity and punishment (Deut. 28). The canonical Hebrew Bible grants the Satan scant space and little power. Whereas the Old Testament Satan can nothing without Yahweh’s express permission, in the New Testament he behaves as an independent force who competes with the Creator for human souls.
According to Mark’s Gospel, one of Jesus’ major goals is to break up Satan’s kingdom and the hold that he and lesser evil spirits exercise on the people. Hence, Mark stresses Jesus’ works of exorcising devils and dispossessing the victims of demonic control. The New Testament, then– in sharp contrast to the Old– shows Satan and the devil as one, a focus of cosmic evil totally opposed to the Creator God. This ‘evil one’ is the origin of lies, sin, suffering, sickness and death.”
– Understanding the Bible, A Readers Introduction, pages 26-28.
The renowned International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is in full agreement with this in its entry on Satan:
The Old Testament does not contain the fully developed doctrine of Satan found in the New Testament. It does not portray him as at the head of a kingdom, ruling over kindred natures and an apostate from the family of God.
It is a significant fact that the statements concerning Satan become numerous and definite only in the New Testament. The daylight of the Christian revelation was necessary in order to uncover the lurking foe, dimly disclosed but by no means fully known in the earlier revelation.
In the early states of religious thinking it would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, to hold the sovereignty of God without attributing to His agency those evils in the world which are more or less directly connected with judgment and punishment.
The progressive revelation of God’s character and purpose, which more and more imperatively demands that the origin of moral evil, and consequently natural evil, must be traced to the created will in opposition to the Divine, leads to the ultimate declaration that Satan is a morally fallen being to whose conquest the Divine Power in history is pledged.”
Scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell, who has written multiple volumes on the historical development of our understanding of Satan, notes that the reason early Jewish thought saw Satan as God’s servant is as follows:
Since the God of Israel was the only God, the supreme power in the cosmos, and since, unlike the abstract God of the Greeks, He had personality and will, no deed could be done unless He willed it. Consequently, when anyone transgressed morality, God was responsible for the transgression as well as for its punishment.”
– The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of God in History, Cornell University Press, 29-30.
‘The satan’ in Job is an officer of the divine council (sort of like a prosecutor). His job is to ‘run to and fro throughout the earth’ to see who is and who is not obeying Yahweh. When he finds someone who isn’t and is therefore under Yahweh’s wrath, he ‘accuses’ that person. This is what we see in Job — and it actually has a distinct New Testament flavor. (We also see it in Zechariah 3). But the point here is that this satan is not evil; he’s doing his job. Over time (specifically the idea of ‘being an adversary in the heavenly council’ was applied intellectually to the enemy of God — the nachash (typically rendered ‘serpent’) in Eden, the one who asserted his own will against Yahweh’s designs. That entity eventually becomes labeled ‘Satan’ and so the adversarial role gets personified and stuck to God’s great enemy (also called the Devil). This is a good example of how an idea in Israelite religion plays out and is applied in different ways during the progress of revelation.”
“I Come to Give Them Life” (John 10:10)
Surrounding pagan beliefs of the time influenced Hebrew thought, because after all, the Semitic people came out of these cultures. As Judaism moves from hanotheism (plural gods) to monotheism (one God), the evil things that happen in the world are explained as this “adversarial element” to God which is part of his wrath, and part of the attempt at explaining bad things happening in the world. This idea evolves into the idea of “the adversary” or “the satan” who is part of the “council of the gods”, who is Gods “prosecuting attorney”, who is Gods tool to both tempt people to transgress the law and then report them to God to be condemned and destroyed for doing so. This divine adversarial character became known as “the accuser.” As the evolution of the satan in Hebrew thought progresses, there emerges a breaking off of this adversarial characterization from the concept of God and the satan begins being conceived as an independent will that is opposed to God.
The satan therefore evolves in Hebrew conception from being a adversarial facet of God, administering Gods death and destruction, to a cosmic rebel who is in direct opposition to God.
This character who personifies opposition to God is now mentioned hundreds of times in a portion of writings that take up less than 1/3 of the Bible and were written over the span of a few decades. Since the good nature of God became much clearer, and no longer could everything be attributed to God, it followed that the source of all the evil, destruction, and death in the world had to be something else.
This should give us pause. What do we find revealed in the life of Jesus? We find a clear and consistent ethic of non-violence, enemy-love, peacemaking, and reconciliation, teaching that he comes to bring life and he is the image of his Abba. Yes, we find warnings of the self-destructive consequences of sin, but these destructive consequences do not come from the hand of his Abba. Jesus declares himself to be the exact representation of the Father, and nowhere is violence and destruction found in the actions of God when he walked into history in his flesh and blood Son.
Consider the following passage:
Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, ‘See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.’” (1 Samuel 16:14-15)
As we know, the story goes on to say that David plays the harp for Saul and, by the Lords anointing, drives away the evil spirit the Lord sicced on Saul. So here we have God tormenting Saul with an evil spirit, and David under Gods anointing interfering with Gods tormenting plans and driving away the God-sent evil spirit. David, under God’s anointing, going against what God himself is doing.
This comes back to what the Hebrews commonly believed about God vs. what is revealed in Jesus. The Hebrews simply saw in part and didn’t have the whole revelation of God’s character. There are other places as well where it says that God sent evil spirits to deceive people (1 Kings 22:22). The God of truth, who wants people to live in truth, sends evil spirits to deceive people? Jesus reveals otherwise. Jesus reveals that God is not in line with everything the Old Testament attributed to God simply because they thought he was the author of everything. Jesus reveals God as opposed to evil, chaos, destruction, deception, retribution, evil spirits, etc. whereas the Old Testament commonly attributed all these things to God.
This is not “throwing out the Old Testament.” This is reading it discerningly, with Jesus as our guide. The Old Testament is full of powerful pointers to Christ. But the revelation of God in Jesus is actually significant, folks. God actually came into history in a man, and in flesh and blood revealed the fullness of what God is like.
Whereas in the Old Testament the Hebrews saw God as inflicting people with evil spirits, in the New Testament we have Jesus casting out evil spirits. Whereas in the Old Testament we have the satan as Gods obedient servant angel of destruction, who carries out Yahwehs disasters, in the New Testament the satan is shown as completely opposed to the will of the Father and whom Jesus has come to drive out and destroy.
Jesus shows the satan to not be an expression of Gods anger who does Gods dirty work, but to be the antithesis of the Father and who Jesus has come to cast down. Jesus says that God is the God of giving life, and not stealing, killing, and destroying. Jesus spends his whole ministry destroying the works of the devil and then it culminates in Jesus declaring, “’Now I will cast the ruler of this world out…’ Signifying what death he should die.” (John 12:31) Everything Jesus did contradicted the work of a wrathful destroyer, and this perfectly reveals God.
In Jesus, we see the full disclosure of the character of God as he completely divorces the idea of God from the idea of the satan so that the two are directly opposed. God is not the accuser, the destroyer, or the enemy of humanity. God is the Savior of humanity.
Stay tuned for the second part to this series, which will explore what this biblical progression of the satan means for understanding “the wrath of God.”
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