What''s the Truth about Satan?

In my early days as a college religion professor, a student wanted to write an essay on the concept of Satan in order to fulfill a course requirement. When she submitted the paper, I laughed heartily—throughout the paper she had misspelled Satan as "Satin."

Actually, maybe she was not far off! Satin is a smooth, glossy cloth, often associated with royalty or the wealthy, worn by folks wanting to "dress up." Satan never appears with horns, wearing a red suit, wielding a pitchfork. It would be easier to recognize and avoid him if he did. Instead, he comes to us more subtly, dressed as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).

Christians do not believe in Satan. They believe "against" him. This is not to deny Satan's existence. The Bible and historic Christianity assert that an enemy exists who opposes God and all things good. The power of the Christian's faith is directed "against" this enemy. However, we do not believe "in" Satan, in the way we believe "in" God the Father Almighty, and "in" Jesus Christ, and "in" the Holy Spirit. Faith in that sense means trust. We dare not trust the devil!

Satan is not mentioned in the Apostles' Creed, nor the Nicene Creed, nor in any of the historic affirmations of the faith that we confess we believe "in." The very confession of our faith is a renunciation of the devil. Yet the power against which we believe is very real.

In the Bible, Satan appears in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:19), and as the Scripture-quoting tempter who encounters Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1). He appears before God to test Job, and before God's messenger to accuse him (Zechariah 3:1). He is a liar, and when he lies, "he speaks according to his own nature" (John 8:44, NRSV). He "has been sinning from the beginning" (1 John 3:8) and prowls among Christians "like a roaring lion" (1 Peter 5:8). He is mentioned in the Lord's Prayer as the evil one (Matthew 6:13).

The common element in these references is that the evil one is a power against which our faith does battle. The enemy cannot stand against the power of the Christian's faith.

We hear about cults of Satanists, or Satan worshippers. But even Christians—and the Church—can fall victim to Satan without recognizing it. Study the three ways Jesus was tempted in Matthew 4:1-11, and note that according to Hebrews 4:15, His temptations were like our own. We may succumb to Satan by 1) putting physical desires ahead of spiritual concerns, 2) trying to win people for God by sensational means, and 3) compromising with worldly powers in doing God's work.

Some cautions we need to remember in our understanding of Satan are as follows:

  1. Satan, as an evil being, is not a creation of God. This would put a contradiction in God and would make God the author of sin and evil. Such an idea cannot be squared with the biblical witness nor tolerated by Christian Faith. "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).
  2. But equally unacceptable is the dualistic idea that the devil has always existed. God is not God if He has a polar opposite on a comparable level. The Church has always rejected dualism, appealing to the Jewish tradition reflected in Scriptures such as 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, that Satan is a fallen angel. This, of course, raises other difficult questions, such as how the sin of rebellion could happen in a sinless heaven. But the "fallen angel" tradition has the value of making clear that Satan once did not exist. Furthermore, according to the Book of Revelation, he will finally be destroyed.
  3. Perhaps concept of Satan teaches us more about sin than it teaches about Satan. If Satan is a fallen angel, it does not affect the understanding of sin revealed elsewhere throughout the Bible. Also, if an angel sinned in heaven, he did so by misusing his freedom, just as we all do when we sin. Sin originates in the misuse of God-given freedom.
  4. Taking the fallen angel idea a step further, if an angel—a purely spiritual being without the temptations that come with a physical body—could sin, then we see that sin is not basically rooted in the body. Instead, sin is a matter of spirit.
  5. Satan is not the cause of our sinning. He tempts and entices us to sin. We may even think of him as the first sinner. But no sinner can ever say "The devil made me do it." To say that is to excuse ourselves and to avoid taking personal responsibility for our sinning, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden.

If something or someone made me sin, then I am not the sinner, but something or someone else is. The Bible never lets us "off the hook" that easily. Satan's power may be great, but it is never irresistible. We are told to "resist the devil, and he will flee from you"—satin robes and all (James 4:7).

Rob L. Staples is professor of theology emeritus at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.

Holiness Today, May/June 2007

Please note: This article was originally published in 2007. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.