Just who or what is the devil? Opinions range from those who believe he’s a literal being to those who believe he’s a fictional character created to keep people in line or to excuse our own selfish choices. And there are some who claim to worship him.
Who is right?
According to church tradition, Satan was originally an archangel named Lucifer (meaning “bearer of light”). While there’s much debate about what purpose he served in heaven, the church has usually agreed that he was a very powerful angel, and very attractive in some way.
Tradition goes on to say that Lucifer became prideful, and wasn’t content to serve God as an archangel. Wanting to rule over even God, he rebelled and was kicked out of heaven – taking a third of the angels with him.
Since then, he has been confined to this world, where he continues to tempt men and women and lead them away from God. But his final defeat has been assured, achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
While not all of this is taught in Scripture, the Bible does have a lot to say about this character we call Satan.
The Hebrew word satan literally means “accuser” or “adversary,” as does the Greek diabolos (devil). And this is his main role in Scripture; he accuses people before God (Zech 3:1-2), and sets himself in opposition to all that God is doing in the world.
According to Scripture, Satan is extremely prideful (1 Tim 3:6-7). He is a liar, and the source of all lies (John 8:44). He has fallen from heaven (Luke 10:18, Rev 12:7-9), and now roams the earth inspiring evil (Matt 13:39, 1 John 3:8-10) and looking for people to “devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Satan mostly works in people’s subconscious minds, causing doubt and confusion (Luke 8:12, 2 Cor 2:10-11. 2 Thess 2:9-10), and tempting us to be unfaithful to God and one another (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13, 22:3-6; Acts 5:3, 1 Cor 7:3-5). He is also said to test people’s faith by afflicting them with various trials and tribulations (Job 1:6-2:10, Rev 2:10).
There are limits to Satan’s power, thankfully. While he can cause much suffering, doubt and confusion, he is not omnipresent like God – nor does he have anywhere near the power that God or the archangels do.
While the devil can disguise himself (2 Cor 11:13-15) and may even work some “miracles,” he is unable to heal people spiritually or cast out demons (Matt 12:22-29). If we resist him, he will leave our presence (James 4:7). Jesus has come to destroy his works (1 John 3:8), and his defeat is indeed assured (Rom 16:20, Rev 12:12, 20:1-10).
Christians are divided on how literally we should take these verses. Some see the devil as a literal being with great power; others see him as a personification of our own human capacity for evil and selfishness. And there are many shades of belief between these two.
My own experience (and that of many people I know) suggests that the devil is more than just a symbol.
I often experience negative thoughts, temptations, and doubts that seem to be coming from somewhere other than my own mind – just as I also experience positive thoughts that transcend my own views or inclinations.
If I identify the latter with the Holy Spirit (or angels or saints speaking to me), then it would only make sense to say that the former are demonic.
But the work of the devil goes beyond my own negative thoughts and temptations. Many of the things that I hear the devil “saying” to me (your experiences can’t be trusted, just do whatever feels good, you should just give up, etc.) seem to be nearly universal. Almost everyone hears these things at some point in their lives, and many can’t seem to shake this voice – even if they recognize it as a lie.
Furthermore, there seems to be a negative spiritual force in the world that delights in wrongdoing, division, confusion, and suffering.
This isn’t just a matter of individual thoughts or inclinations. Greater powers seem to be at work here, as many theologians and sociologists have come to recognize (see, for example, the work of M. Scott Peck and Walter Wink).
Contrary to what many new-age spiritualists have claimed, not all spiritual “energy” is the same.
While all things come from God, and we may hope that all will one day be reconciled, that’s not how things are at the moment! We live in a divided world, where some spiritual forces operate independently of God.
If God is all-powerful and loving, we may wonder why such powers are allowed to exist. Why didn’t God destroy the devil and his angels long ago?
I received some clarity on this a few months ago. I was thinking of all the times the devil had sown seeds of doubt in my mind in recently – and especially of all the times I had heard an inner voice telling me to question my experiences with God.
Suddenly a thought came to me: this questioning isn’t always bad! Questioning my experiences from time to time, and examining them carefully, has helped me grow stronger in my faith.
I came to see that even the devil has a part to play in God’s eternal plan. By making us doubt and question, he forces us to examine our beliefs and see if they stand up to scrutiny. The devil plays the “devil’s advocate.” This can have the end result of making our faith stronger.
Whether or not we see the devil as a literal being, the truth I experienced remains the same: doubt plays an important part in our spiritual journey.
We can be grateful that God allows us to experience times of doubt and confusion. We would never really grow if we didn’t.
Of course, the devil sometimes goes too far, pushing people so deeply into doubt or confusion that they lose hope. Sometimes his incessant negativity makes people mentally ill or turns them into criminals. Sometimes it pushes them to the point of despair, leading them to take their own lives.
For this reason, the devil can’t be allowed to operate unhindered. He must be reigned in; he must be “taken captive” for Christ.
While we are assured of Satan’s ultimate defeat, we don’t need to wait for this to happen. We have the power to cast out demons now!
When we recognize the devil at work, his power is greatly reduced. Indeed, his greatest power is his ability to convince us that he’s someone or something else. When we hear that negative voice and rebuke it, the devil immediately begins to lose power. In the end, he’s only as powerful as we let him be!
There are some extreme cases where the devil seems to have completely taken over a person’s life or personality. In these cases, it’s not enough simply to recognize him and rebuke him. A therapist, a psychiatrist, or even an exorcist may be needed.
In any case, we need not be overly fearful. While the devil seems to have forgotten this, his origin is in God. He can only do what God allows him to do. And one day, his power will come to end.
God will not allow the world to remain divided! God is one, and all things will eventually find their oneness in God. No one, not even the devil, can change this basic truth.