Low Satanology & Historical Satan
What does the phrase "historical Satan" mean? In biblical scholarship, the word "historical" most often distinguishes contextual evidence from pious fictions assumed by most churchgoers. As far as characters in the Bible go, Satan receives the most filler—to include a whole backstory which has no scriptural basis. If you believe Satan was once a fallen angel named Lucifer, you will be hard-pressed to find such an origin story in the Bible. More importantly, if you think Satan is some kind of equal and opposite force to God, then you are wrong. The scriptures do not present the philosophical concept of necessary evil, or the notion that righteousness must be balanced with wickedness. Satan is not all-powerful, all-knowing, or present everywhere—only God has these attributes. Too many Christians have a high satanology, or a theological view of Satan that nearly gives him a demigod status. The "fallen angel myth" of Satan's origin comes to us not from the Bible, but through cultural infusion via literature. Yes, the common view of Satan comes to us from epic poems such as Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608–1674). In this essay, I urge my fellow Christians toward a low satanology. These myths are based on superstition and fear, so they must be corrected and allowed to die. Way too many churchgoers vehemently defend these old myths out of fear or a desire to shirk responsibility for their sin.
Old Testament: The Prosecutor of Heaven
The writers of the Old Testament present Satan as a prosecutor in heaven. In the proper context of ancient Jewish theology and the Hebrew language, satan (H7854) is a lowercase noun simply meaning "enemy" or "adversary." Herein from this point in the essay, I refer to him as "satan" without our modern personification of him. This is because "satan" is not a personal name, but a description of his role in God's court. This is not unlike how we would say, "They prosecutor didn't paint a very good picture of the accused." The name does not matter in this case. The first time we see the word satan in the Bible is not in Genesis, but in First Chronicles. It occurs when he tempts King David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron. 21:1). However, when we read the same account in Second Samuel, it was God himself who incited David to take the census because of his anger toward Israel! (2 Sam. 24:1-17). Although these reports seem to contradict each other, it is clear that God allowed satan to tempt David. This is plain in both accounts when David repents (1 Chron. 21:16-17; 2 Sam. 24:17). Eleven out of fourteen mentions of "satan" in the Old Testament, however, come from Job (see here). In this text, satan excels as heaven's prosecuting attorney when he accuses Job of only following God because he is living the good life (cf. Job 1:9-11). God allows satan to test Job's faith, except not permitting him to kill the man (vv. 1:12; 2:6). Nevertheless, the author of Job does not ascribe satan any power that God does not first grant to him (e.g., v. 2:6). In fact, when we meet satan in the Job text, he is simply walking around the earth and not doing anything meaningful whatsoever (cf. v. 1:7). He comes across as a slacker if we read it with everyday speech, "I'm just kinda walking around, checking out the scenery, you know." This is hardly the picture of some demigod with his own freedom and power, but clearly subordinate to God as if to a presiding judge or a Supreme Court justice. The last two mentions of satan in the Old Testament come from the prophet Zechariah, in which he continues his role of lead prosecutor in the Kingdom of Heaven v. Joshua son of Jehozadak case (cf. Zech. 3:1-2; 6:11).
New Testament: Ruler of the Power of the Air
There are 33 mentions of "satan" in the New Testament, so I do not have the space here to comment on each one. In his open letter to the Ephesian church, Paul of Tarsus described satan as "the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient" (Eph. 2:2). This is a delineation of his limited abilities and area of operation. What this verse does not mean is that satan occupies the world as if he was some pantheistic force which alone controls our environment. Again, too many churchgoers add this meaning to the text. God did not surrender his power over nature and creation to satan. What Paul is saying is that human free will allows satan to deceive the world through propaganda, "alternative facts," and other false messages. We give satan that power; God does not (cf. Eph. 2:1-3). If we read this verse with common sense, we realize that our prayers would never rise to God if satan single-handedly controlled the air unopposed. It is our sin which fills the airwaves when we speak evil against God and toward each other. Throughout the New Testament, satan exists to tempt us to do wicked things, but Paul makes it clear that human beings are the "inventors of evil" (cf. Rom. 1:30). Let me be quite clear: you are responsible for the evil choices you make; satan did not make you do a damn thing! (pun intended).
When satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, this was to show us that we can also resist him by quoting God's promises in scripture (Matt. 4:9-11; Mark 1:12-14). As part of the common mythology, way too many Christians believe "angel of light" and "roaring lion" are actual titles for satan. They are not! Again, let us be thinking adults with reading comprehension skills. Paul and Simon Peter used similes — you know, the comparisons with "like" and "as." Please stop believing these are literal titles for satan; they are not. In the original Greek, there is no concept of angel as we view it through the lens of Western art tradition as silly little cupids with wings. The word aggelos (G32; pronounced "AHN-yell-ohs") was the generic word for "messenger" with a heavy political connotation. An "angel" was an emissary or representative from a king or an emperor. However, even John the Baptizer had his own "angels" — yes, the Greek word in this verse is aggelos (cf. Luke 7:24). So, Paul's warning about satan being an "angel of light" is simply this: the devil (Greek: diabolos; G1228, "accuser" or "slanderer") may sound like he is giving us a message from God, but it is a lie. The work of satan is to accuse us before all of the heavenly council so we may follow him into the netherworld at world's end. The "roaring lion" simile is meant to be a warning of satan's ability to inspire fear, but keep in mind that the lion is just an animal which may be hunted and killed. Though satan may pretend to be a royal lion, Jesus is alone the Lion of Judah who rules over the entire world (cf. Rev. 5:5).
Western Literature: Fallen Angel & Lucifer
The popular image of satan as a fallen angel who rebelled against God comes not from scripture, but from Inferno, the first section of Divine Comedy by Dante. Whereas the Bible never gives a physical description of satan, Dante wrote, "Were he as fair once, as he now is foul" who "lifted up his brow against his Maker." In the Middle Ages, most theologians read the scriptures allegorically, not literally. Dante was a merely a hearer of this trend, because he assumed the Catholic Church was teaching correct doctrine. In this case, many commentators assumed this passage from the prophet Isaiah to be an origin story about satan: "You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High'" (Isa. 14:13-14). To read any verse as allegory, one must completely ignore the literary context and historical background. This passage is clearly a reference to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (v. 4 and here). To be sure, the same chapter addresses the kings of Assyria (v. 25) and Philistia (v. 29) to heed the restoration of Israel (vv. 1-2). These three nations were neighbors to the Jewish people. There is nothing here about satan, whatsoever. Furthermore, lucifer is simply the Latin word for "day star" in verse 12. What most Christians fail to realize is that Jesus identifies himself as the "morning star" in Revelation: "It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star" (Rev. 22:16). It is also something which Jesus gives to those of us who overcome sin (cf. Rev. 2:28). The word lucifer, or "light-bearer," has nothing to do with satan, but everything to do with Christ. So, please stop ascribing this holy object of light to the realm of darkness!
There is another verse that I must address in regard to the "fallen angel myth," which is when Jesus told his disciples, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (Luke 10:18). This was immediately after the mission of the seventy throughout Galilee when they were surprised by their ability to cast out demons (v. 17). If we read the passage carefully, we can see how odd it would be for Jesus to randomly mention an origin story for satan which never occurs in scripture, but only in the extrabiblical and non-canonical text of First Enoch. In the immediate context, Jesus witnesses the fall of satan during the mission of the seventy, not from some primeval revolt. The original Greek tense implies that Jesus saw the devil flee before the disciples. Here is the rest of Jesus' statement: "See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:19-20). Simply put, Jesus' response goes something like this: "Yes, I saw you guys knock the devil off his feet! Great job! I gave each of you the ability to walk through danger unscathed. But I would rather you celebrate your relationship with God than your spiritual powers."
The Church vs. the Gates of Hades
Sometimes, the biblical text is surprisingly literal and earthy where it appears to be spiritual and abstract. The picture above shows the cave of Pan, a pagan deity common to the Greeks. It was near the district of Caesarea Philippi, which was the official Roman name for a city otherwise called Paneus. This place is now merely an archaeological site in Israel's Golan Heights, but was the center of Pan worship in the first century. The photograph shows the literal "gates of Hades," a grotto inhabited by the idol of local goat herders. Caesarea Philippi was a political name to honor Herod Philip II (20 BC–AD 34), the son of Herod I (73–4 BC). When the Greeks worshiped Pan, they would consort with temple prostitutes in a fertility ritual to commemorate his erotic nature. We get the terms "pan flute" and "panic" from this mythology, as Pan was believed to bring women to orgasm through music and to inspire fear among soldiers by his voice. Pan resembled a goat, to include horns—this is where the goatlike imagery for satan comes from. This is yet another example of popular culture turning the devil into something more fearsome than what the Bible does.
How does the physical geography of Caesarea Philippi fit into the gospel message? This region, which was directly below Mount Hermon, was the place Jesus told Simon son of Jonah, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). It was no mere coincidence that Jesus chose to reveal his identity as Messiah in a district long controlled by satan. As with all pagan idols, satan merely passed himself off as Pan to deceive people toward evil. With Mount Hermon, satan was able to influence all of Israel because it was the source of the Jordan River. Even today, nearly all the natural water of Israel comes from the snow melts of Mount Hermon and nearly all its inhabitants can see its form which rises 9,232 feet (2,814 meters) above sea level. During the Israelites' conquest of the Promised Land, Mount Hermon was always listed as its northernmost boundary (see here). So, when Peter made the good confession of Jesus, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16), it conquered the land of Israel for God's kingdom once more. The church is part of this kingdom, and Jesus promised that it would outlast the gates of Hades. Through his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus closed not only Pan's grotto in Caesarea Philippi, but also all of the portals to the netherworld in which satan tries to take us. Although the Greek prefix pan- means "all" (G3843), only God alone is "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Alighieri, Dante. Divine Comedy, vol. 1, canto XXXIV. Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.
Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1979. https://www.bookofcommonprayer.net/collects/contemporary#holy_days.
Carus, Paul. The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Gramercy, 1996.
Dobson, Kent. NIV, First-Century Study Bible, Hardcover: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian Context. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.
Drummond, John Gregory. "Who is Satan?" BiblicalArchaeology.org. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2020. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/who-is-satan.
Encyclopædia Britannica, eds. "Pan." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.
⸻. "Mount Hermon." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2014.
⸻. "Philip." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Philip-king-of-Judaea.
Labriola, Albert C. "John Milton." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.
Pagels, Elaine. The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Perowne, Stewart Henry. "Herod." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.
Quinones, Ricardo J. "Dante." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.
Rubin, Barry, ed. The Complete Jewish Study Bible: Illuminating the Jewishness of God's Word. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016.
Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
Thoene, Bodie, and Brock Thoene. Third Watch (A. D. Chronicles, Book 3). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2004.
Walton, John H., and Craig S. Keener, eds. NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.
Wray, T. J. and Gregory Mobley. The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots. New York: St. Martin's, 2005.
Delgado, Carlos. "File:Fuente del Ángel Caído - 03.jpg." Wikimedia.org. San Francisco: Wikimedia, 2012. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fuente_del_%C3%81ngel_Ca%C3%ADdo_-_03.jpg.
Gugganij. "Banias Spring Cliff Pan's Cave." Wikipedia.org. San Francisco: Wikimedia, 2008. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Banias_Spring_Cliff_Pan%27s_Cave.JPG.
Perez, Sheila. LumoProject.com. Pompano Beach, FL: Lumo, 2020. https://lumoproject.com.
Sivanesan S. "Propaganda Tower, Before Rain." San Francisco: Flickr, 2010. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ghostparticle/4647862501.
Wilson, Tom, and Paul Carter. FreeBibleImages.org. Farnham, United Kingdom: Goznet, 2020. http://www.freebibleimages.org.