Jesus said to his disciples, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
A friend once described Satan as “a supernatural evil intelligence” and I continue to use these words because it helps us get away from the ridiculous image of some red horned figure with a pitchfork who dances on your shoulder and stomps his feet.
Yes, I believe in the devil. I believe that there are non-physical beings with minds and wills that have power to effect this physical reality. I believe there is a being at the top of this evil hierarchy and is active in this word. In some ways when you clearly proclaim belief in Satan, or the devil, it can sound out there, but I think it makes sense in a few ways. First of all, as a Christian I get my picture of reality from the bible and while the devil is not there in every chapter or book, you cannot dismiss his existence without gutting major elements of the Bible’s story line. Second, I think the existence of supernatural evil makes better sense of the depravity in this world than simply saying it is all of human origin. Third, there are experiences that are difficult to explain without reference to some external spiritual reality. I know that these will not be convincing to those who share a different view of reality in which there is only matter in motion, only a physical world. But it’d be pretty hard to convince me that there is nothing more than molecules and chemicals.
So I’ll spend this post and the next writing about the devil. Rather than an encyclopedic entry I’ll share the scriptures and stories that have been most helpful in my understanding of the evil one and equipping Christians to deal with him.
The primary passage which comes to mind is Revelation 12-13 which looks at devil’s rebellion against God from a cosmic perspective. The passage is rich in symbolism drawn both from the Old Testament and the world of that time. Here are four pieces which jump out and tie into themes expressed in other parts of the scriptures
1. Anger & Futility: The dragon (devil) in this passage is full of rage against God and his followers, which is exacerbated by his continued defeat. When the devil is unable to destroy Jesus, war arises in heaven but this too is unsuccessful and cast down to earth. The devil pursues the one who has given birth to Jesus but is again thwarted by God’s intervention and then goes on to assault the followers of Jesus. Even his “success” in harming God’s people is for an allotted time (13:5,7), by God’s appointment. While the devil has power and rages against God, there is always a limit. Rebellion agains the God who mains and sustains all things is inherently futile and this seems to drive the devil’s rage even more.
-Practically, this gives the Christian a rich sense of both hope and realism. Until the last day the devil does have power to inflict harm and pain, but only so far as God allows. This even will be used for God’s purpose and all of the devil’s efforts will come to naught.
2. Violence and Assault: The dragon himself and his servants animated by his power pursue their ends through violence. This is not merely tied to the actions of individuals but to institutional and state power (allusions in 13:1-3). Since Jesus was executed by the imperial power of Rome Christians have suffered various levels of violence. This is not merely a sociological or political reality but a conflation of our own longing for power and willingness to do anything for it, such that human desires are somehow also animated by the devil. Jesus described the devil as a thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. And he gladly walks hand in hand with people as he pursues his end.
-Practically, Christians should remember fellow Christians suffering violence and oppression in their day. I also remember a paster and professor who spoke of visiting one of his congregation’s members on the anorexia ward at a local hospital. This very learned, formal, almost genteel man spoke of a spiritual darkness that was palpable among these young women who were destroying themselves. The self-hatred, overpowering sense of inadequacy, blindness to reality, and ensuing destruction so accurately reflect the devil’s priorities. This does not equate to an overly simplistic dismissal of the many factors that underly persecution of different religions or our self destructive behaviors but challenges us to see that there is more happening that we might think.
3. Deception and counterfeit: The devil is called the deceiver of the whole world and associated with ancient serpent who lies to Adam and Eve in the garden. When the dragon (devil) is cast to earth and makes war on Jesus’ followers he raises up two other creatures (ch 13) to form a counterfeit trinity, in which each of the members mimics the actions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is a seeming resurrection, and “signs from heaven” heaven lead many astray. Again there are indications of both he work of individuals and institutions tied into this stream of lies.
-Practically, it takes wisdom to discern what truly comes from God. The devil loves to hide in religious clothing and Christians must develop their ability to test what is true. The devil loves to confuse, discourage, tempt, and distract believers through all manner of lies and like Jesus, (Matthew 4) we keep going back to the word of God. T
4. Accusation: One of the unique ways in which the devil deceives is by accusing. He crushes people with their guilt and shame, when God in fact deals with the issue and welcomes with open arms.
-Practically Christians must cling to the promise that there is forgiveness in Christ and learn how to argue with devil, claiming all that God has done on behalf of his people.
Wow, there is a lot here and my thoughts are increasingly incoherenent, with the late our.