Old Misconceptions

According to medieval lore, the devil is a funny man in a red suit, who wears horns and carries a pitchfork. The Faust legend calls him Mephistopheles and pictures him as a sinister old man with a pointed black beard. These and other notions of the devil are fundamentally wrong because they see him as a man. The Bible never attributes a human likeness to Satan. In the beginning, God set a deep enmity between Satan and mankind (Gen. 3:15), such that Satan wants to look like a man probably about as much as you want to look like a cockroach.

The devil is not a mythical character, but a real person belonging to the order of angels. Scripture mentions him frequently, but gives little more than the basic facts we need to know.

His Origins

The two Old Testament passages that reveal something about the history of the devil are constructed in a similar fashion (Isa. 14:12-5; Ezek. 28:12-9). If read superficially, they do not seem to concern him at all. The passage in Isaiah is addressed to the king of Babylon, the one in Ezekiel to the king of Tyre. Yet as we read these passages, we come to mysterious remarks that can apply only to Satan. In Ezekiel's lament, for example, the person he is describing was present in Eden (Ezek. 28:13). We conclude that these passages, like certain others in Biblical prophecy, are riddles with double meaning. Under the guise of speaking about the prophet's contemporary situation, they give a hidden synopsis of Satan's history. At his creation, God gave Satan wonderful instruments of music and exalted him among the angels, making him the "anointed cherub who covers" (Ezek. 28:13-4). The cherubim, currently four in number, hold the highest rank in the host of heaven and display their preeminence by standing nearest the throne. Whether Satan was a fifth or has been replaced by another, we do not know. Yet his title, designating him as the cherub who covers—meaning, presumably, that his ceremonial place was above the throne and above the other cherubim—suggests that he was chief of the four. His name was Lucifer (Isa. 14:12), which means "light-bearer." Yet this exalted creature fell into error and sin. The two prophets agree that his sin was pride (Isa. 14:13; Ezek. 28:17). Lifted up by his beauty (Ezek. 28:17) and his influence (Ezek. 28:16), he conceived in his heart the ambition to rise further, even to become the equal of God (Isa. 14:13).

His Names

Originally he was Lucifer. But his rightful names now do not credit him with great splendor (Rev. 20:2).

He is "the dragon" and "the serpent," both titles linking him to his role in the fall of man. He appeared to Eve in the form of a serpent, doubtless in the body of a serpent he had possessed. It is unlikely that a being so pretentious as the devil would choose as his mouthpiece an ordinary snake. Indeed, "serpent" can refer to any reptile. The reptile he deemed a suitable embodiment of himself was "the dragon," an ancient name for the sort of creatures we know as dinosaurs.

"Satan," another of his rightful names, means "accuser." Yet another is "the devil" (the English rendering of diabolos), which means "false accuser." Earlier we spoke about his role as prosecuting attorney in the deliberations of heaven.

His Appearance

The folklore that pictures Satan as a cartoon figure with horns and a pitchfork has been contrived by Satan as disinformation, with the intent that we will not take him seriously. He wants to put us off guard, so that he can better deceive us. His true appearance is anything but comical. Rather, he still has the power to assume dazzling magnificence, becoming an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), and in this form he is an irresistibly plausible deceiver. Some who have seen him have mistaken him for an angel of God. Both Mohammed, founder of Islam, and Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, received instruction from a glorious angel who was probably Satan himself.

The Greatness of His Power

The account of the temptation of Jesus contains the remarkable statement that Satan, "taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time" (Luke 4:5). From the perspective of our feeble humanity, we can scarcely imagine what Satan did, much less how he did it. Here was a threefold wonder: his transport of Jesus to a high mountain, his presentation of the whole world to Jesus' sight, and his doing so in a moment of time.

In his oppression of Job, Satan showed that he could incite men to violence, create a destructive wind (perhaps a tornado), bring down fire from heaven, and afflict a man with disease (Job 1:13-9; 2:7).

But powerful though he is, Satan cannot break the laws that God has ordained to govern the spiritual realm. Satan cannot create anything or perform genuine miracles as Jesus did.

His Limitations

Satan is not God, and he has none of the special attributes of God. The perfections he lacks include omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.

He is not omniscient, for he is neither eternal or infinite, and much of reality lies beyond his personal knowledge. The Bible specifically says that he is ignorant of exactly when Christ will come (Matt. 24:36), and there is much more of God's agenda that he does not know. Yet it is probable that he has a deep knowledge of Scripture. He did not hesitate quoting Scripture to Christ (Luke 4:9-11).

The devil is not omnipotent, for he never succeeded in his ambition to rise to the level of God. He remains a subordinate being. He hated God's servant Job and sought to destroy him, but he could not lift a finger to hurt him without God's permission (Job 1:9-12; 2:4-6). Likewise in dealing with God's children today, he can bring them no suffering or adversity or temptation that God does not allow. Moreover, he cannot damage or destroy their union with Christ. The heartening promise in John 10:28-9 has unfortunately been obscured by the translators of the KJV. "Man" is italicized because it is not in the original. The original says "neither shall any pluck them out" and "none is able to pluck out," statements whose scope reaches beyond human enemies to enemies in the spirit world. God is assuring us that even the devil cannot pluck us out of His hand. Being held in His hand is a symbol of our salvation. Elsewhere in Scripture, God declares that the devil cannot separate us from His love (Rom. 8:38-9).

The devil is not omnipresent, for he is a being with localized identity and presence. He can be in only one place at a time. Therefore, any Christian who says that he has been contending with the devil is probably mistaken. The devil has bigger fish to fry. Since he can enter only one scene of action, he must establish priorities and limit his efforts to whatever will best further his interests.

His Empire

Although a believer may never meet the devil, he will likely encounter other evil spirits, for Satan is not the only evil spirit active in this world. When he fell into sin, he apparently persuaded a host of other angels to join him in rebellion against God. We can deduce what happened only by piecing together the fragmentary information we find scattered throughout Scripture.

First, we must establish a point of doctrine. Jesus is God's "only begotten Son" (John 3:16), a title signifying that He is the only being who bears the actual likeness of the Father, and one aspect of this likeness is that the Son has existed from eternity past. His Sonship is an eternal relationship with the Father. Yet Scripture also uses the name "son of God" for any other person that God has directly created. Thus, Adam is called a son of God (Luke 3:38). In the resurrection of the just, when they receive immortal bodies directly created by God, they will be revealed as the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). The angels also are sons of God (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; see also Psa. 89:6).

Now we are ready to understand the curious story relating how the world before the Flood came to be thoroughly corrupt (Genesis 6:1-4). There are different interpretations of this passage, but the one we will present is the oldest, traceable to the pre-Christian era. We find it in Josephus, for example. William Whiston, translator of Josephus, says that this interpretation was the "constant opinion of antiquity." According to this interpretation, the "sons of God" who cohabited with daughters of men were none other than angels allied with Satan. In the centuries directly following the creation of the world, many of the angelic host "kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation" (Jude 6). Their first estate and their own habitation was heaven. Enchanted with the possibilities of carnal pleasure, they chose to leave heaven and to live in this world as mere men married to women, giving rise to offspring of heroic stature and prowess.

All angels were endowed originally with the power to assume human form. Evidence supporting this assertion runs throughout Scripture. For example, the two angels who rescued Lot looked human, ate food, and seemed human to the touch (Gen. 18-19). The admonition in the New Testament to "be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Heb. 13:1) implies that even today, many angels retain the power to masquerade as men.

God has punished many of the fallen angels by imprisoning them in chambers under the earth (1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-5; Jude 6; Rev. 9:1-11, 14-5). In support of our interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, several of these texts set the fall and punishment of these angels in the time before the Flood. Yet not all of the fallen angels have been removed from this world. Some still roam free, although undoubtedly they have been stripped of many of their original powers.

These wicked angels in a reduced state of existence were known in New Testament times as demons. No longer did they have bodies of their own. The best they could do was to possess the bodies of other creatures. The record of Christ's dealings with them shows certain facts:

  1. They were well informed about God's program in the world, for they all recognized Jesus (Mark 1:23-7, 34; 5:7; Luke 4:41), and the demons Paul encountered knew him (Acts 16:16-8; 19:13-7).
  2. They understood that God at any time might consign them also to the regions of hell, which they called "the deep" (literally, "the abyss"), and they pleaded with Christ not to be sent there (Luke 8:31).
  3. Outside a body, they were restless and discontent. Their desire to possess a body was an overmastering appetite, comparable to thirst (Matt. 12:43-5).
  4. They could possess not only men, but also animals (Luke 8:33).
  5. Some had been brought down to such weakness that they no longer retained the power to see or hear. After the disciples encountered a demon that they could not remove by verbal command, Jesus explained that this demon was of the kind that could be cast out only by prayer and fasting. Why? The demon was deaf (compare Mark 9:25 and 9:28-9; see also Matt. 12:22).

We do not wish to embark upon a lengthy treatment of demonology. Suffice it to say that church history, especially the history of the modern missionary movement, leaves no doubt that demons are still active in the world.

If we rely solely on the Gospel record to develop our picture of Satan's empire, we will not reach correct conclusions. Demons that wander restlessly until they find a body to possess, in which they can participate in the wicked extremes of human behavior, are the lowest order of fallen angels. Satan controls a vast system of evil beings arrayed in a hierarchy from least to greatest. The least are the wandering demons. Although their superiors might be called demons also, the Bible calls them "principalities," "powers," "rulers of the darkness of this world," and "spiritual wickedness in high places" (Eph. 6:12). Satan himself is called "the prince of this world" (John 14:30; Eph. 2:2), and some of his chief subordinates are likewise ascribed princely rank (Dan. 10:13, 20). By using these designations, the Bible is urging us not to underestimate our foes. They include extremely powerful and clever beings who, if we lost God's protection, could easily destroy any one of us. We should not imagine that we are fighting against weak, insubstantial, ghostlike spirits who prey only on the weak-minded.

Whenever we undertake the work of God, we can expect Satan's empire to take notice and oppose us. The level and strength of the forces he will deploy depend on how important he thinks our work is. Generally, we meet the most bitter opposition when we attack territory firmly under his control (as, for example, when a missionary takes the gospel to a nation steeped in superstition or skepticism) or when we take effective steps to preserve our children—the next generation of Christians—from corruption.

A Christian school is always a magnet for demonic activity. That is why a church that decides to start a school suddenly reaps a crop of trouble. The devil tries to push events in either of two directions. He tries to stop the school or to make it worldly and worthless as a training ground for Christians.