Monday, September 24, 2007

Rerun: Sunday School on Satan

NOTE: This is a rerun from a post in 2003. I am replaying it because I am getting hits from an Evangelical Outpost link to my Al Sharpton of Information Theory post. The link, however, is not concerned with what I wrote about the ID movement in the bulk of the post, but what I wrote about Satan in the brief introduction. I hope this helps to clarify.


This is a brief study into the nature of our chief adversary, Satan. We all know that Satan (the name indeed means "adversary") is a fallen angel. So it is useful to start by taking a look at what scripture says the about characteristics and capabilities of angels.

1) What are Angels, what are their characteristics?

As an aside, it is worth noting that in the New Testament the word angel (angelos) appears more frequently than the word for sin or love (agape). Angels should receive more attention than they are generally given. Let's take a look of some of their qualities.

• They are Creatures

The first and most important characteristic is that they are creatures—spirit creatures, to be exact. This means they have none of the qualities that are reserved for God. In particular, they have none of the omnis. They are not:

Omnipotent (all powerful)
Omniscient (all knowing)
Omnipresent (in all places)

• They have been around longer than man

Angels have been here a long time, since at least day two (or day-age two) of creation. When Job questions God and God responds with his own line of inquiry, we read:

4 "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- 7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38 4:7)

• Their number is large

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53)

This verse places a minimum of 144,000 (12×12,000) on the number of angels. Other scripture indicates that the count is probably much higher. Angels are sometimes referred to as heavenly host, a word that can also be translated as army.

13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." (Luke 2:13-14)

• They are heavenly, spiritual; their purpose ministering to the saved

An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. (Luke 22:43)

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14)

• They are mighty, but limited

As we have already mentioned, they cannot be in more than one place at a time. They also have limited power:

12 Then he continued, "Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come." (Dan 10:12-14)

The angel was detained in some sort of struggle with an evil spiritual being, the "king of Persia." This demonstrates both limited power and confinement to one place at one time.

Angels are also have limited knowledge

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matt. 24:36)

10Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1Pet 1:10-12).

Nevertheless, they are mighty by human standards:

Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: "With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. (Rev. 18:21)

• They are not to be worshipped

8I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. 9But he said to me, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!" (Rev 22:8-9)

• They have a hierarchy

But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, "The Lord rebuke you!" (Jude 1:9)

The prefix arch is from the Greek arka meaning chief. We use it in such terms as archbishop, archenemy, and architect (chief builder). Michael appears to be a chief warrior angel, and Gabriel a chief messenger angel.

• They are Metamorphic

They sometimes take on the appearance of man. At other times they have fantastical and dazzling visages. Sometimes they have six wings, sometimes four. Sometimes they cover their feet and eyes with their wings, and sometimes they have many eyes all over their heads. I don't know if they have "natural" appearances or just adapt as necessary. The bible talks about seraphim and cherubim, but doesn't draw any distinctions between the two. In artwork, seraphim are usually depicted as majestic or fearsome while cherubim look like little fat baby angels. There is no basis in scripture for such a rendering.

• They don't marry, they don't die

35But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection. (Luke. 20:35-36)

2) Satan's Fall

A few years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a horrible movie called The End of Days where he battles Satan, played by Gabriel Byrne. I went to see the movie because I had read the book (also not very good). However, the book had one great line. I am working from memory so I don't know if I will get it exactly right.

In one scene, the Ahh-nold character is fighting the devil in an apartment near the top of a high-rise. Somehow he tosses the devil out the window. He falls fifteen or twenty stories and lands on top of a car, demolishing it. The devil crawls out of the wreckage and gets up on the sidewalk and begins brushing debris from his clothes. A man who witnessed the whole event came up to him and said: "Are you Okay? That was some fall!" The devil brushed off some more dust, looked skyward, and replied. "I've had worse."

Great line, simply perfect.

Anyway, I went to the movie just to see that one line acted out. However, they didn't use it. The fall from the high-rise was there, but not the "I've had worse" line. I guess they thought nobody would get it.

Indeed, he did have a fall that was much worse.

12 "Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: " 'You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. 14 You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. 16 Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. 17 Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings. (Ez. 28:12-17)

When Satan fell, he took some angels with him. These fallen angels are now called demons. How many? One passage in Revelation, highly symbolic, seems to suggest that Satan took as many as 1/3 of angels with him.

3Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 4His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. (Rev. 12:3-4)

The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Rev. 12:9)

3) Underestimating Satan

We once lived in a neighborhood where our next door neighbor was the minister at one of the largest churches in the city, a Lutheran church. To get to know him and his wife better, we all went out to a seafood restaurant. Somehow we got to talking religion, and the subject of the devil came up. The minister's wife allowed as to how she did not believe in the devil.

Not knowing the man, I got a little nervous. This could be uncomfortable or even a little embarrassing. How would he correct his wife? Would he smack her on the back of the head? Call her stupid, roll his eyes, or would he correct her in love? He did none of these things. He smiled, nodded in agreement, and went back to work on his plate of shrimp.

One of the reasons we underestimate the devil is that we have been hoisted with our own petard. In medieval times, people were greatly concerned about the devil. They sought a way to attack him and discerned that his greatest weakness is pride. So they made a mockery of him, silly caricatures of a comical red creature with horns and a pitch fork. Soon the devil was incorrectly relegated to the menagerie of mythological creatures, witches and goblins. He wasn't taken seriously anymore. That suits him just fine.

In churches, dismissing Satan usually goes hand-in-hand with de-emphasizing man's depravity. Man is turned into a creature born innocent and good who learns to be bad. The inevitable consequence is a weakened view of God. For if there is no devil, and man is basically good, then how do you answer the question why do bad things happen to good people? You answer by saying God would like to prevent such things, but he is powerless to do so. He is a weak pitiful god, sobbing in the corner at the tragedies befalling such nice humans. Only a proper understanding of evil and sin leads us to realize that the mystery question is not why bad things occasionally happen to good people. The real mystery is why don't bad things happen to all of us all the time?

It is not just "liberal churches" that underestimate Satan. In spite of the fact that our Lord warned him, the apostle Peter, prior to Jesus' arrest, underestimated him:

31"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." 33But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." (Luke 22:31:33)

Notice that Satan had to ask before he could sift Peter as wheat. In some manner he was given permission, which is why Jesus prayed for Peter. Peter was no match for Satan. As we know, he went on to deny Christ three times. Yet we believe that Peter's restoration and subsequent ministry brought more glory to God than was lost in his temporary defeat.

Like angels, Satan and demons are stronger and smarter than we are. The demons were the first to recognize Christ for what He truly was:

28 When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. 29And suddenly they cried out, saying, "What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?" (Matt 8:28-29)

4) Overestimating Satan

Another mistake, more common among conservative evangelical Christians, is to overestimate Satan.

There are two problems that come with overestimating Satan. One is that it elevates him beyond what he deserves. In effect, we are rerouting glory from God to Satan. The second, more serious problem is that it distracts us from focusing on our own sin. Unchecked, we can develop a "devil made me do it" attitude. In truth, the devil cannot make you sin. We will see he has two main prongs of attack, temptation and accusation. What he does not have is coercion.

Christianity is not a religion that teaches dualism. We do not believe in an eternal struggle between good and evil. There is no Yin and Yang. Good, meaning God, is in absolute control, even over evil, and is in no danger of "losing".

True, we must be wary of the dangers of "asymmetric warfare". This is the term that we use for the current world situation. America is often described as the world's only super power. In truth, the U.S. is a super-duper power. The disparity between the military might of the U.S. and its strongest potential enemies, China or Russia, is huge. Yet we tremble with fear at the potential damage from a relative gnat like North Korea or Iran.

However, this is an imperfect analogy of our spiritual warfare. In some sense, we are better off on the spiritual front. Our potential national military enemies are not under our control. They don't have to listen to George Bush. In the bigger picture God, is in absolute sovereign control, even over the actions of Satan. God does not "battle" Satan. Satan operates only within the confines of God's permissive will. Satan cannot snatch us away, and believers cannot be demon possessed. We cannot at the same time be under the sovereign control of Satan (or more likely his minion) while indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

28And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. 30I and My Father are one." (John 10:28-30)

Probably none of us has ever been assaulted by Satan himself. He is a creature. He can only be in one place at a time. I suspect that none of us ever show up on his radar.

We can still say we are under attack by Satan, in the same sense that Iraqis will claim, correctly, to have been attacked by George Bush. We know that George Bush did not take up arms himself. Instead he operated as commander-in-chief. Satan is commander-in-chief of his army of fallen angels.

5) Misunderstanding Satan's Intentions and Methods

The most popular image of Satan's intention is that he is in a struggle with God for our souls. There is little if anything in scripture to support such a notion. There is no battle raging for men's souls. Such an idea is wrong on many fronts. For one thing, if Satan is dueling God, a tug of war for our souls as it were, it makes him an enemy of comparable power. We already know that is far from the truth. Satan is powerful compared to us, but worse than a 98 pound weakling compared to God. The other problem is with God's perfect justice. If we are lost because Satan snatched us, then we are lost for something that is not our fault. God doesn't send people to eternal damnation because of something that isn't their fault. We stand condemned on our own account, as reprobate sinners.

In my opinion, Satan doesn't care about our souls, and has no use for them.

What Satan wants, what he always wants, is to rob God of the one commodity that God wants, the very reason that He made us. Satan wants to diminish God's glory.

The compelling evidence that Satan is interested in robbing God's glory and not in stealing our immortal soul comes from the book of Job, specifically the two conversations between Satan and God. Let's look at the first one:

6 One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD , and Satan also came with them. 7 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD , "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it." 8 Then the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil." 9 "Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. 10 "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face." (Job 1:6-11)

Notice again that Satan needs permission to act. He is not an autonomous evil. Note further that no interest is expressed in Job's soul. Nothing is mentioned that suggests Job's soul hangs in the balance. No challenge is made that Job will worship Satan and be lost forever. Instead, Satan makes the following threat: he (Job) will surely curse you to your face.

Cursing is the opposite of worship. Worship is the chief way we glorify God; the two are virtually synonymous. Satan is saying: remove your protection from Job and I guarantee your glory will be diminished. Glory is the one commodity that God desires for Himself. It is why we were created. It is the only "angle" of attack for Satan.

• Satan the Accuser

Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, "Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. (Rev. 12:10)

Satan is also called the accuser. He accused Job of hypocrisy. In that case, he made a false accusation against Job. Usually, however, Satan does not make false accusations. He doesn't need to. He (or his minion) uses our own sin against us. We can almost hear him: You filthy liar, God could not possibly love you or forgive you. He has taken you back so many times, and every time you failed anew. You are worthless. He seeks to use our guilt to draw us away from God. Maybe stop going to church. No worship, no glory—and Satan achieves a temporary victory.

• Satan the Crafty One

As an angel, Satan is also metamorphic. He can change his appearance. His standard tact seems not to appear fearsome but rather to appear beautiful and good.

14And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (2 Cor. 11:14-15)

Satan is described as crafty (or cunning) when we first encounter him in Genesis 3. Let's examine this a bit. Notice the first question that Satan asks:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen 3:1)

Of course, Satan knew quite well that God did not say 'You must not eat from any tree'. Quite the contrary, as Eve correctly responds:

The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' " (Gen 3:2)

Still, we see Satan's guile. It is similar to 20th century existentialism, a tenet of which is: unless man is totally and absolutely free, autonomous if you were, he is not free at all. Adam and Even had such a minor restriction placed upon them: a single tree. But Satan's question was designed not to coerce Eve into eating from the forbidden tree but to get her wheels spinning: well if I can't eat from that one tree, pretty soon I may find the God declares other trees forbidden. If I am not totally free, I am not free at all.

Satan follows this philosophical nudge with two lies: you will surely not die and if you eat you will be like God. In the first case he uses a lie to call God a liar and in the second case he projects his own sin of pride onto Eve.

An interesting question: in what sense did Adam and Eve die when they ate the fruit?

• Satan the Tempter

Satan's most direct attack is to tempt us. Again, there is no scripture that says Satan can coerce us into doing something, and if he did then we would not be morally responsible. He merely provides the proverbial rope; we do the rest.

The two most famous stories of temptation in the bible could hardly be in sharper contrast. In the middle of a lush and beautiful garden, with all their needs provided, it took Satan about ten seconds to tempt Adam and Eve successfully. Just three sentences—one subtle question and two quick lies, and mankind's fate was sealed.

On the other hand, we have Christ's 40 days in the Judean desert, one of the most desolate and barren places on earth. His human body must have been famished as well as ravaged by the harsh environment. Yet He resisted Satan and his seductive offers. His method of resistance was to use scripture—a lesson we should pay attention to.

It is worth looking at the Lord's prayer. Contrary to how it is often said, the best translation is:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt. 6:13)

We are praying not for deliverance from some impersonal "evil", but to be free of the temptation placed before us by Satan and his host.

• Satan the Mighty

One image we have of Satan is that of a roaring lion.

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Pet. 5:8)

Christ is also depicted as a lion, the lion of Judah:

Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals." (Rev. 5:5)

The lion symbolizes power—Christ the lion, Satan the anti-lion. Again, the relative strength is all one-sided; Satan is no match for Christ. At the same time, on our own we are putty in the hands of Satan.


They main point to remember is even Satan is under God's sovereign control. He has been given some power to rule over the world. The battle is not for our souls, but for God's glory. Satan can diminish it by drawing us (temporarily) away from worship. We also are quite capable of doing this own our own, just from our fallen nature.

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