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29 November 2018

Our ancient foe, the devil.

What’s its deal? Why’s it so dead-set against humanity?

Yes, Satan exists.

However, in both popular and Christian culture, Satan has been profoundly misrepresented. Kinda by design. Like Sunzi said, all warfare is based on deception, so the devil gets a leg up on us humans by making us believe all sorts of disinformation.

Like how it used to be the mightiest angel in heaven, and is still kind of a big deal. Like how pretty it is, 2Co 11.14 or how it rules the world. Lk 4.5-6 Like how it’s everywhere, same as God; or how it might not be almighty but it’s pretty darned mighty. And other things which might intimidate Christians against resisting or fighting it—or make us so wary of it, we never refer to it by name. Various Christians will only call it “the enemy,” lest calling it by name might conjure it up, like Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels.

Or on the opposite extreme, we’ll consider Satan laughable: It’s a red creature with horns, goat legs, a tail, and a trident. It sits on your shoulder, opposite an angel on your other shoulder, and goads you into doing what’s fun while the shoulder angel convinces you to do what’s right. It tortures people in the underworld, and sometimes ventures to the surface to tempt rock musicians. It’s an imaginary being, like fairies and gnomes and Smurfs and mermaids. It’s a representation of evil, but it’s not a literal being. It’s silly.

We Christians believe there’s a devil, because Jesus taught us it exists. Lk 8.12 But contrary to the paranoid fantasies of dark Christians, it’s not a mighty being, but a defeated foe. Jesus conquered it, 1Jn 3.8 and someday will destroy it. Rv 20.10 Meanwhile he gave us, his followers, power over it. Lk 10.19 If we submit to God and resist it, it’ll flee. Jm 4.7

Yeah, that’s correct: Flee. It can’t withstand us. The only reason we think it can, is because we don’t submit to God; we submit to it. We capitulate. We fold like a table lamp.

Our situation is like a trained elephant on a leash. Why don’t elephants snap the leash, or take off and drag their handlers wherever they want? Because they’ve been trained to obey humans. Frighten an elephant badly enough and then you’ll see ’em snap leashes, drag people behind them, even maul people. The devil has humans on a very similar leash, hoping we never notice how very easy it is to fight back. Especially with the weapons the Holy Spirit offers us.

Various new Christians wanna know why God doesn’t just put a stop to the devil. He doesn’t have to! We can. When Christians get off our apathetic backsides, or quit being scared for no good reason, we can easily resist. Satan is so quickly defeated, people get surprised: “You mean the fight’s over?” Yep. Satan flees like a cockroach when the lights turn on. Humans (and our fears) are way harder to fight off.

Where’d Satan come from?

Both the Hebrew word šatán and the Greek word diávolos mean “accuser, slanderer, blasphemer.” They’re interchangeable terms for what the devil does: It accuses and slanders. We tend to treat šatán as a proper name, but it’s not really. It’s just as proper to refer to this being as “the satan” as “the devil.” But I’m gonna go with custom and treat “Satan” as its name, and “devil” as its species. (And I’m not gonna do that silly practice of lowercasing its name, as Christians do in petty revenge for all the pagans who refer to God in lowercase. We need to be better than that.)

Where’d Satan come from? Bible doesn’t say.

Seriously, it doesn’t. Satan just shows up and acts as an antagonist. First time we read of it is in Zechariah.

Zechariah 3.1-2 KWL
1 God showed me the head priest Joshua, standing before the LORD’s angel,
and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him.
2 The LORD told Satan, “The LORD rebukes you, Satan.
The LORD rebukes you and chooses Jerusalem.
Isn’t this man burning wood rescued from the fire?”

I know; you’re thinking, “Didn’t Satan tempt King David centuries before that?” Yes it did. But I’m going by the order in which the bible’s books were written. Zechariah was written before Chronicles. The author of Chronicles figured it was wrong to say the LORD got David to sin by taking a tax-free census, Ex 30.12-14 so she updated the story to say Satan did.

2 Samuel 21.1-2 KWL
1 The LORD’s nostrils flared at Israel again,
so he provoked David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah.”
2 The king told army chief Joab, who was with him, “Please travel through all Israel’s tribes, from Dan to Be’erševa.
Visit the people. I must know the people’s number.”
1 Chronicles 21.1-2 KWL
1 Satan stood against Israel: It provoked David to count Israel.
2 David told Joab and the people’s chiefs, “Go count Israel from Be’erševa to Dan.”

Neither book gives Satan an introduction. It’s a being which is just there, acting as an antagonist. Zechariah doesn’t say whether this accuser is a spirit, an angel, another human, some other biological being. We’ve just always assumed it’s a spirit.

Satan shows up again in Job, this time accusing Job of not being truly worthy of God’s approval.

Job 1.7-12 KWL
6 The day came when God’s children came to stand before the LORD,
and Satan also came among them.
7 The LORD told Satan, “Where’d you come from?”
Satan told the LORD in reply, “Here and there. Walking the earth.”
8 The LORD told Satan, “Have you taken any thought to my slave Job?
For there’s no one like him on earth: Moral, righteous, fears God, shuns evil.”
9 Satan told the LORD in reply, “Job fears God for no reason.
10 Don’t you wall around him, his house, all he has, round about?
You bless his handiwork, and his possessions fill the land. 11 Now please:
Stretch out your hand and touch all he has. He won’t publicly bless you then.”
12 The LORD told Satan, “Look, everything he has is in your hand.
But don’t stretch out your hand upon him.”
Satan went forth from the LORD’s face.

In Hebrew mythology, Satan’s the prosecutor when you stand before God in judgment. Arguably this is what Satan was doing at the time: It was there to object to “God’s children,” lest God be too gracious, as usual.

Maybe you’ve heard the term “devil’s advocate”: In order to test how valid an argument truly is, a person takes the opposing side and fights for it. Not because they believe it, but because you wanna really make sure your own side is solid. Devil’s advocates can be really useful. Problem is, some devil’s advocates fight dirty. In some cases they really do believe their contrary side.

And this might’ve been Satan’s original purpose—and problem. God had Satan around because he wanted a contrarian. He wanted someone to see just how sound and merciful his judgments are. Problem is, Satan was too competitive. It didn’t just challenge God’s statements. It tried to make its case not just by fair means, but foul.

It tricks us humans into sinning, thereby proving its point: We “ain’t all that.”

Hence Satan accused Joshua. And Job. And David. 1Ch 21.1 And that’s all we see of it in the Old Testament.

Wait, what about the serpent in Eden? Yeah, turns out that was Satan too. It just wasn’t identified as such till John did in Revelation. Rv 12.9, 20.2 Just ’cause Satan isn’t called out by name doesn’t mean it wasn’t busily accusing people, or tripping them up.

Genesis 3.1-6 KWL
1 Of all the land animals the LORD God made, the serpent was the most cunning.
It told the woman, “God truly said you’re not to eat from any tree in Paradise?”
2 The woman told the serpent, “We eat fruit from Paradise’s trees.
3 God said only of the fruit from the tree in the middle of Paradise,
‘Don’t eat from it. Don’t touch it. Lest you die.’ ”
4 The serpent told the woman, “You won’t die-die.
5 For God knows on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be uncovered.
You’ll be like God—beings who know good and bad.”
6 The woman, seeing the tree is good for food, pleasing to the eyes,
coveting that the tree might make her intelligent,
she took its fruit and ate.
More: She gave to her man with her, and he ate.

If Satan wanted to prove humans are easily deceived, easily tempted, easily manipulated into destroying ourselves… well, that proves its point, huh?

Hence Satan is identified as “the accuser of our sisters and brothers,” Rv 12.10 who day and night tries to prove we’re not worthy of God’s grace. By hook or by crook, ’cause Satan doesn’t play fair. It’ll lie, cheat, steal, and kill in order to win. Y’notice the serpent accused the LORD, of all people, of not being honest with the first humans about good and evil.

That really is all of the devil passages in the Old Testament. I know; many Christians will point to a passage in Isaiah which is supposedly about the devil’s origin and fall. It’s actually not, as I wrote elsewhere. That interpretation is yet more disinformation. Satan was never a mighty prince in heaven; it was a lower functionary who went rogue. Claiming anything more for it, is simply swallowing its lies about itself. Ignore the myths. Stick to bible.

Escalating the battle.

In the Old Testament, Satan was a minor antagonist, barely mentioned. But by the New Testament, it had become a full-on enemy of Jesus and humanity. So much so, Michael had to throw it out of heaven.

Revelation 12 is an apocalyptic vision of how Satan reacted to Jesus’s birth. Bad enough that God frequently overruled Satan’s objections; now through Jesus, every human can be saved. So Satan revolted. Christians tend to imagine Satan’s fall took place at the beginning of human history, so it could fall to earth and tempt Eve; not in the middle, when Jesus said, present-tense, “I see Satan fall from heaven like lightning.” Lk 10.18 The devil didn’t go to war till Jesus’s appearance showed it how totally biased God is in our favor.

Satan still firmly believes we’re not worthy of God’s attention and love. It tries to corrupt us in order to make its case. It tries to destroy us in order to get us what it thinks we truly deserve. It’s stuck in the past, and functioning by its own twisted sense of “fairness”: Humans deserve hell just as much as Satan does.

And yeah, we kinda do. Grace is completely unfair. But hey, you don’t see me complaining.

So what Satan does is tempt. Same as it did with Eve, it does with us: It gets us to doubt God, give in to our own desires instead of following God’s will, and be as self-centered and corrupt and evil as it’s convinced we are. Then turn round and tell God, “See? They’re awful. Put ’em in hell.”

It’s not almighty like God. It’s mighty clever, but it doesn’t know all. We humans are fairly predictable (especially when we regularly, easily give in to temptation) so it knows how to manipulate us, and it’s had millennia of practice. So don’t underestimate its intelligence. But don’t let that stop you from resisting it. And don’t presume it can successfully entrap you in a moral dilemma; it might’ve tried to entrap Jesus in one, but never succeeded. Plus God always provides a way out of such “dilemmas.“ 1Co 10.13 We can’t use the excuse, “All my options were sinful ones; I had no choice.” Yeah you did. God doesn’t abandon us in those circumstances. Follow him out of them.

It’s not everywhere like God. The devil’s limited to one place at a time, and of course it doesn’t fill time like God does. So it’s not everywhere, tempting every Christian simultaneously. So why does it look like it’s tempting so many? Because there’s not only one devil. There are many. Christians tend to call ’em demons, but basically lots of evil spirits try to tempt humans or otherwise mess with us. Sometimes for the same reason as Satan; sometimes just for the evil fun of pure mayhem. Generally they do Satan’s job for it. And of course we humans are plenty capable of tempting ourselves and others—and blaming Satan for it when it’s really our own lack of self-control. If you wanna generically refer to these various accusers as “Satan,” go right ahead; Jesus did. Mk 8.33 But the actual Satan is likely off tempting someone else; not necessarily you.

It’s not mighty like God. Satan’s power comes from getting humans to do its bidding, not by any power it itself has. It can’t do miracles; only tricks. It can’t cure the sick; why would it even want to? So whenever you see an anti-supernaturalist insist a miracle has been done with devilish power, you’re not merely dealing with someone who ignorantly doesn’t realize the devil can’t (and wouldn’t) do such a thing. You’re dealing with someone who’s so enamored of their own “wisdom,” as they imagine it, they can’t realize how ridiculous it sounds for Satan to undermine itself with good deeds. Mk 3.26 Worse, they’re blaspheming the Holy Spirit who is empowering the miracles.

It’s been conquered. Jesus defeated its works, and empowers us to do likewise. The devil is someone to watch out for, but isn’t anyone to fear. Ignore how much it might try to convince you it can’t be beaten: It is beaten. It can’t own you; God does. It can’t pwn you when you follow God. Do that. Resist it.