Who is the Devil?

The figure of the Devil or Satan as a personal spiritual being appears at a few distinct points in the scriptures in which his origin and identity are described.  The Biblical picture of this entity, however, is very often distorted by later popular Christian literature and modern popular culture.  There is far more of Milton than of scripture in the average Christian of today’s understanding of who the Devil is, what his goals and purposes are, and how he came to be who he is today.  The various demons and devils of scripture, the subject of the next several posts, are often merged together or arranged into some kind of hierarchy, or more recently bureaucracy, in a way that is not grounded in the scriptures or the early fathers of the church.  The scriptures, on the other hand, associate these creatures in their present state with chaos and destruction, not order of any sort.  The Devil, or Satan, is the first of these rebellious spiritual powers whom we encounter in the scriptures, though he is not initially known by those titles which mean ‘the Slanderer’ and ‘the Adversary’ respectively.

The Devil first appears in scripture in Eden in Genesis 3.  There are parallel accounts, however, regarding the fall of Satan in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 which must be taken into account in order to fully understand what transpires.  In these latter two passages, the discussion of the Devil’s fall is conjoined to oracles against the kings of Babylon and Tyre respectively.  This is because of two important connections.  The first is that ancient Israelites did not distinguish between earthly powers such as kings and emperors and the dark spiritual powers which stood behind them.  The second is that what is here being prophesied is a fall from the pinnacle of the world’s power to the grave, which has no greater exemplar than the story of what became of the Devil.

In most English translations of Genesis, the figure of the Devil is referred to as ‘the serpent’.  This is sometimes confused with the idea that he was a literally talking snake or that the curse which is later placed upon him is something on the order of a fable about why snakes don’t have legs.  The Hebrew word used, however, means not only a snake or serpent, but also refers to a being which is deceptive or clever, which is also born out in the context when he is introduced (Gen 3:1).  He is said to be more shrewd than any of the land creatures which God created on the sixth day, which includes human beings.  This can be better understood when the description of Satan in Eden in Ezekiel 28:12-14.  Here, as an angelic being, he is described as having been coated in precious gems and dwelling in the presence of God.  In the ancient Near East, the dwelling place of the gods was conceived of as a garden or as a mountain of assembly, here those images are merged to describe the dwelling place of the true God of Israel.

He is identified as a ‘guardian cherub’ (28:14).  While Satan is often reckoned as having been an archangel, it should be remembered that ranks of angels are not various species, but rather offices held.  These offices are distinguished in function and with a particular participation in the grace of God commensurate with that office to allow for its accomplishment.  St. Dionysius the Areopagite directly parallels the celestial hierarchy with that of the church.  A ‘cherub’, plural ‘cherubim’ is, literally, a ‘living creature’, and the ‘living creatures’ of Daniel and Revelation are to be understood as cherubim.  These creatures were, in Babylonian understandings, sphynx-like spiritual beings who protected the thrones of the gods.  In Egyptian thought, the parallel creature was a ‘seraph’, plural ‘seraphim’.  ‘Seraph’ is the Egyptian word for serpent and these were understood to be serpentine beings who protected the royal throne.  The Pharaonic headdress which resembles a cobra’s hood and the cobra itself protruding from the brow of that headdress is a representation of a seraph.  Thus, the identification of the Devil as a serpent in Gen 3 and a cherub in Ezek 28 are actually commensurate.  In Greek translation, made after the return from Babylon, the translators chose a word from Babylonian mythology used to describe the primordial gods, ‘dragon’, and used it to replace the Egyptian influenced ‘serpent’ imagery.  Satan as the Dragon is an identification then picked up by St. John in the book of Revelation.

What then was the wickedness that was found in the Devil?  In Isaiah 14:13-14, his sin is described in terms of the divine council of God.  Here the common imagery of the angelic beings as the stars is referenced, with Satan before his fall being compared to the morning star (the planet Venus, 14:12).  It is from the Latin translation of this verse that the name ‘Lucifer’ is derived.  The Devil wanted to ascend above all of the other angelic beings in the council and supplant, or at least parallel himself, with God Most High.  In Genesis 3, we see the Dragon convincing the first humans to pursue knowledge which was at that point forbidden them by God for their own protection.  Second Temple Judaism and the early Fathers saw these as descriptions of the same event and reconciled them together.  Man, though created later and with the land animals, was created for a glorious destiny in Christ (Ps 8:4-8).  Satan’s pride took on the character of envy and he sought to supplant God in the lives of his creations by becoming the one who teaches them and brings them knowledge.  He sought to become their god.  Because he was unable to create, he sought to destroy them.  This will become a pattern that will be seen in the actions of all of the demonic powers.  It is not possible for any created being to literally dethrone the Triune God in his reign over his own creation.  The most that these evil spiritual beings can hope to achieve is taking the role in the lives of God’s creations which rightly belongs only to him.

As already mentioned, the curse placed upon the Devil in Genesis 3:14-15 is not the story of how snakes lost their legs.  The reference to the land animals in v. 14 is a parallel to the introduction of the Dragon in v. 1.  He had been superior in his cleverness to all of God’s creatures on the earth and had sought in that pride to elevate himself even higher, instead he is driven down below them.  Not just to lie on the ground as humans did, but beneath the earth and into the underworld.  Ancient people were well aware that snakes do not eat literally eat dust (v. 15).  Rather, they swallow things whole.  The ‘dust’ here is a reference to the dust from which man was made and the dust to which he would return (v. 19).  The Devil becomes a ruler, but a ruler of the dead.

The gravity of this fall is further described in the parallel passages in the prophets.  Isaiah 14:13-15 say, “You said in your heart, ‘I will go up to the heavens above the stars of God.  I will place my throne on high.  I will sit on the Mountain of the Council in the far reaches of the north.  I will go up above the peaks of the clouds.  I will make myself like the Most High.’  But you are taken down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the abyss.”  Verse 11 says, “Your pomp is brought down to Sheol with the sound of your harps.  Maggots are spread out as a bed under you and worms cover you over.”  Sheol literally means ‘the grave’, but was the word across early Semitic languages for the underworld, the realm of the dead.  Ezekiel 28:16-18 his fall is described as being consumed by fire which came out from God’s holiness leaving him only a heap of ashes.

The Devil receives a kingdom of ashes and dust in Genesis 3, while human persons become mortal, subject to corruption and death.  Through humanity, the entire creation becomes subjected to death and futility under which they still labor (Rom 8:19-21).  The ultimate solution to this, for the creation and for humanity, will be found in the resurrection at Christ’s glorious appearing, as St. Paul sees (Rom 8:22-25).  This has already begun, however, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which Satan has been deprived of his kingdom.  In St. Mark’s Gospel, Christ speaks of the end of Satan’s kingdom, pointing out that for the strong man’s goods to be taken away, he must first be bound (Mark 3:23-27).  Hebrews 2:14 states that Christ partook of human flesh and blood so that, “through death he might destroy the power of death, that being the Devil.”

It is for this reason that the celebration of Pascha has always been focused in the harrowing of Hades or Sheol.  Through death and resurrection Christ has bound Satan and left his kingdom empty and void.  This conception lies behind the many liturgical statements of Pascha that not a single dead remains in Sheol, that Christ has raised up all the dead, and that he has emptied the tombs.  These are not statements of ‘universal salvation’ but of the emptying of the kingdom of death, presided over by the devil.  This understanding of the Devil also lies behind a significant swathe of other Orthodox Christian liturgics, from the Troparia for Sundays to the statement in the Trisagion for the Departed that Christ has “trampled down death and made powerless the Devil.”  Christ will return to judge the dead as well as the living, they are now a part of his kingdom as he has taken back the narrow authority left to the Devil and left him with nothing.  Satan will not, in the age to come, rule over the wicked who are condemned to the lake of fire, but will suffer the same condemnation there as all of the other wicked, both angelic and human.

That Satan has already been defeated and his kingdom laid waste in the past tense has, for the New Testament authors, rendered him a raging beast.  Because he has been starved of even the dead to consume, he “prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).  His defeat has led to his great wrath upon the earth as he seeks to destroy humanity, because he knows that he has only a short time left before his final judgment and condemnation (Rev 12:12).  Despite all of his rage, the Devil has no power or authority, and therefore can only scheme, laying traps and snares for human persons to fall into in the hopes that they may come to share in his eventual condemnation (2 Cor 2:11; Eph 4:27; 6:11; 1 Tim 3:6-7; 5:15; 2 Tim 2:26).  The time is quickly coming when he will be finally, and definitively, crushed beneath the feet of the saints (Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20).

7 comments:

  1. That’s a lot more interesting than the medieval version. Eschatologically, does this mean that we are in (or were in until some recent point) the period where Satan was bound “for 1,000 years?” If his kingdom and authority were taken away by Christ, did demons still stand behind earthly powers, or was that just purely human evil? Or do we look at it as a process, where Christians were tasked to go out into the world and tear down Satan’s strongholds, which would be a fairly easy task given that the power of Satan had been removed?

    Something I’ve been wondering about at the personal level was how Satan and demons interact with us. I’d always kind of thought Satan was foolish in trying to kill Christ, but then it occurred to me that he really had no idea what God’s ultimate plan was. Apparently, even the good angels weren’t privy to that plan. Satan wasn’t some character play-acting a role to make the “story” work. He had no idea because, being a created being, he isn’t omniscient. His information network is great, but demons can only tell him what is happening now, not what will happen. So, about that “information network,” do demons know what we think, or can they only know what we say and do? Through what sense do they communicate with us?

    1. This post is the first in a series, so some of your questions are related to topics that will be discussed going forward. But related to the knowledge of devils and demons, they are certainly not omniscient. St. Paul points to this when he says, “But we teach a secret and hidden wisdom of God which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:7-8). In terms of mind-reading, we have to get over our modern way of thinking about the mind. We tend to think that our brain is like a computer in a box. The ancient understanding of the mind is that it is more like a sensory organ that receives thoughts and images. So, demons can place thoughts and images in our minds, but we can embrace or reject them. This discernment of thoughts is the primary way that spiritual warfare manifests itself in the Christian life. But there will be more on demons later.

  2. Thank you Father Stephen. So glad you are speaking on this topic.
    I am very much looking forward to the rest of the series. Many thanks.

  3. We had a very interesting discussion on Ancestral Sin in my junior high Sunday school class last week that touched on many of these points. I am looking forward to the rest of the series as my students continue to ask questions!

  4. I wanted to plug a book – I’m not a troll – that was really helpful in destroying the notion that the brain is more of an antennae than a computer, Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake. He leans quite New Age for me (his book is published by Deepak Chopra) – although I heard from a friend that he is now Christian. Anyway, his book successfully destroys the notion that the brain is a computer. There is an example of a person with hydrocephalus with 90% of his brain missing whose I.Q. was off the charts – the book is chalk full of this stuff.

    Sorry to double post.

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