Belief in Satan — the embodiment of sin and evil who exists in reality as a personal being — has been a mainstay of Christian doctrine and popular belief since the earliest days of the faith. As with most Christian theology, however, there is great diversity in the church’s teachings on the devil, both past and present. Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really?
Before we go looking at ancient texts, however, a brief examination of present-day beliefs is in order.
Not too surprisingly, the world’s largest Christian denomination — the Roman Catholic church — teaches in its Catechism that Satan is a real being, a fallen angel responsible for temptation and mankind’s fall. Protestant views are more diverse, however. The Church of England seems to be backing off the idea of a literal Devil, with theologians like N.T. Wright promoting a non-personal, metaphorical view of Satan. Most mainline Protestant churches in North America — the United Methodists, the Presbyterians (PC-USA), and the Lutherans (ELCA), to name the big ones — have no official doctrine and make the Devil a matter of personal belief. Evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention tend to insist on Satan’s literal existence and involvement in the Fall, and Pentecostal (e.g. Assemblies of God) churches teach not only Satan’s literal existence but elaborate views on “spiritual warfare” and demon possession. Satan also plays a key role in the respective doctrines of the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
(Incidentally, discovering a denomination’s official theological positions online can be quite difficult. Most church websites prefer to focus on devotional content and social outreaches, burying doctrinal statements or omitting them altogether. Is today’s Protestant church embarrassed about doctrine, or just indifferent?)
As we investigate the rise of the Devil in scripture and tradition, it would help to remember the main attributes generally associated with Old Scratch today, whether correct or not. This will be our scorecard as we retrace his story:
- He is the enemy of God.
- He is a fallen angel.
- He is the ruler of all the demons.
- He is the ultimate source of all sin and evil on earth.
- He is the ruler of Hell.
In the Beginning: The Devil and Ancient Judaism
Ancient Judaism and other religions of the Ancient Near East originally had no real concept of a supreme evil being or a good-versus-evil duality. Their worldview encompassed numerous gods, spirits, and mythological creatures, but these were all part of a systematic hierarchy. An excellent description of this worldview is given by G.J. Riley in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (p. 236):
The word and concept ‘demon’ underwent fundamental change in antiquity caused by the rise of dualism in the essentially monistic cultures of the Near East. These monistic cultures viewed the universe as a unified system in which each member, divine and human, had its proper domain and function above, upon, or below the earth. There was (as yet) no arch-enemy Devil, nor a rival camp of Satanic demons tempting and deceiving humans into sin and blasphemy, eventually to be cast into eternal hell at the final end of the present age. Humans also had their function in this diverse but unified system: to serve the gods and obey their dictates, their Law, for which they received their rewards while alive. After death all humans descended into the underworld from which there was no return; there was no Last Judgment, and no hope of resurrection.
To the ancients, there were spirits of good fortune and ill fortune, but they all performed the will of the greater gods. In the Hebrew context, Yahweh was lord of all things good and evil where Israel was concerned; evil spirits were understood as fulfilling Yahweh’s commands, like the evil spirit sent by Yahweh to torment Saul in 1 Samuel 16:14 and the lying spirit sent to Ahab in 1 Kings 22.
Now the spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. (1 Samuel 16:14–15)
I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And Yahweh said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before Yahweh, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ Yahweh asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then [Yahweh] said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ (1 Kings 22:19b–22)
(I just love the idea of Yahweh holding auditions in his throne room to see which spirit has the best idea for outwitting king Ahab!)
Names of specific deities are occasionally invoked by Yahweh in curses in the Old Testament. Deut. 32:24, for example, declares that Jacob will be beset upon by Mawat (Mot), Resheph, and Qeteb — usually translated as “hunger”, “pestilence”, and “destruction.” (See N. Wyatt, DDD, p. 673.) There is no Devil in sight here, only Yahweh and the lesser gods who serve him.
Leviathan and Mot
Though there was no duality of Good and Evil in ancient Israelite religion, there were other dualities — particularly creation versus chaos and life versus death. In the Bible, chaos is typically represented as a sea dragon (called Leviathan or Rahab) who is conquered by Yahweh in the creation and ongoing renewal of the world. Some of the seeds of a cosmic opponent to God can be found here.
Mot, in the pre-Israelite religion of Ugarit (Syria), represented death in opposition to Baal’s life-giving fertility. Mot was a voracious eater of both gods and men, and his natural dwelling was the underworld. Conflict between Yahweh (in place of Baal) and Mot is less prominent in the Bible, and it is hard to tell whether references to Mot, which had become the standard word for “death”, have a mythological element or not.
A character known as the “satan” (a word meaning adversary or accuser in Hebrew) makes just three appearances in the Old Testament: in Job, Zechariah, and 1 Chronicles — all dating to the post-exilic Persian period or later. The most important thing to realize about this character is that he is not portrayed as an opponent of God in these passages. Just as biblical imagery of Yahweh, his throne room, and his council of advisors is derived from analogy with earthly kings, the office of the accuser (a sort of spymaster and public prosecutor) was apparently found in the administrations of Babylon and Persian empires (see Meyers, p. 184).
In Zechariah and Job, the Accuser (the word has a definite article and is a title, not a name) appears as a member of Yahweh’s divine council and exercises only the authority given him by God.
Neither in Job nor in Zechariah is the Accuser an independent entity with real power, except that which Yahweh consents to give him. The figure thus originates with the Divine Council and satan represents one of the “sons of God” who is given increasing power as in the Prologue of Job, where Yahweh has given him control over a variety of negative and hostile forces in the world. While a growing delineation of the forces of evil or hostility is to be discerned in Zech 3, the Prologue to Job constitutes the premier example in the Hebrew Bible of such power being vested in a negative personality. The emerging personification of the figures in the Divine Council, both positive and negative, is a major feature of exilic and postexilic biblical writing, and the Book of Zechariah bears unmistakable testimony to this process. (Ibid.)
In Zechariah, the Accuser appears in the role of Public Prosecutor, bringing charges against the high priest Joshua. On the other side of the courtroom is Joshua’s advocate, the Angel of Yahweh. Although we are not told what the prosecutor’s case is, Joshua prevails, and legitimacy is conferred upon his priesthood and the temple.
Similarly, in Job, the Accuser attempts to make the case that Job is not truly faithful to God; like Joshua, however, Job prevails in the end. It is also instructive to see how the Chronicler has modified his source material (2 Samuel) to introduce Satan an agent of God:
Again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” (2 Sam. 24:1)
Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (1 Chr. 21:1)
Essentially, Satan is the one doing Yahweh’s dirty work here. He could even be considered an hypostasis of God himself.
When it comes to the Satan of the Old Testament, we are unable to check off any of the items from our scorecard above.
(As a side note, when I was searching the websites of various Christian denominations for their doctrinal positions on Satan, the only one that showed any awareness of Satan’s true Old Testament role as Yahweh’s prosecutor was the United Church of Canada. Why is it that the evangelical and charismatic denominations that take Satan seriously lack such basic biblical knowledge?)
The Enochic Literature and the Fallen Watchers
The Hellenistic period saw a burgeoning interest in Apocalyptic literature — particularly within Judaism, but in the Greek and Persian religions as well. This genre has been loosely defined by John J. Collins, a leading scholar in the subject, as:
a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. (Collins 1979, p. 9)
One of the earliest and most influential Jewish apocalypses was 1 Enoch, which itself was a compilation of five separate works. The oldest section, the Book of the Watchers, combines elements from Genesis 6 and Greek mythology to tell a Promethean story in which the Watchers (some kind of angel-like being also mentioned in Daniel) descend to earth to take wives and impart illicit knowledge to mankind — sorcery, herbology, weapon-making, jewelry, and cosmetics. Their liaisons with human women beget Giants — an evil race with physical bodies and immortal souls. God sends a great flood to kill them all, but their souls survive and haunt the earth as evil spirits. The Watchers themselves are imprisoned under the earth to await judgment.
It is important to realize that apocalyptic stories were not just fantastic tales. They were symbolic interpretations of current political situations and theological conflicts in the authors’ own day, and were written in particular by marginalized groups. Just as the visions of Daniel are really about the oppression of Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Book of Watchers also addresses real-life struggles in the 2nd century BCE — possibly the intra-Jewish conflicts that arose after the Maccabean Revolt (Pagels 1991). The writers of the Book of Watchers saw many of their fellow Jews as apostates who had betrayed their positions of power — hence their characterization as fallen angels who had forsaken God and corrupted Israel.
To tell its story, Book of Watchers adapts not only Genesis 6, but also elements from Greek titanomachy — the war between the Olympian gods and the titans, which confined the titans to the subterranean prison of Tartaros — and gigantomachy — a Greek political myth that pitted the civilized Greeks against the Giants (barbarians). BoW inverts the latter theme, identifying the Hellenistic kings with the Giants instead (Portier-Young p. 44).
One character from BoW who might be considered Satan-like is a leader of the Watchers named Asael. At one point, he is the one blamed for introducing sin into the world.
You see what Asael has done,
who has taught all iniquity on the earth,
and has revealed the eternal mysteries that are in heaven… (1 Enoch 9:6)
However, he is bound up until the Judgment with the other Watchers, and is no longer free to act as an adversary to humans and therefore cannot be the fallen angel of later Christian tradition. (Wright, p. 158)
The pervasive use of symbolism and allegory allowed apocalypses to remain relevant long after their original contexts were forgotten. As Collins puts it:
By telling the story of the Watchers rather than that of the diadochoi or the priesthood, I Enoch 1-36 becomes a paradigm which is not restricted to one historical situation, but which can be applied whenever an analogous situation arises. (Collins 1984, p. 127)
A rewrite of the Enoch story known as Jubilees (c. 100 BCE) gave an alternate version of these events, painting the Watchers in a better light but introducing a new devil-like figure: Mastema, the leader of the evil spirits after the Flood. At Noah’s request, God cleanses earth of most of the spirits plaguing it after the flood, but Mastema persuades him to leave ten percent under Mastema’s authority in order to tempt humankind. At one point, Jubilees appears to equate Mastema with Satan (10:11). But in this version of events, Mastema/Satan is an evil spirit, not a fallen angel.
The Influence of Zoroastrianism
Following the relatively short period of Babylonian occupation, Palestine was ruled for an extended period by the Persian Achaemenid empire, which encouraged the restoration of Jewish temple practices and was viewed favourably by the biblical authors. Close relations between the Jews and Persians continued during the Hellenistic period, as the Parthian empire remained closely connected, both politically and culturally, to anti-Roman factions in Judaea as well as with the Jews in Babylon.
The national religion of the Persians was Zoroastrianism, which had a very different cultural and geographical background from the dominant religions of Palestine and Mesopotamia. It introduced such concepts as monotheism, a God of pure goodness (Ahura Mazda, meaning “wise lord”), a supreme “destructive spirit” named Ahriman that opposed God, hierarchies of good and evil angels (the latter called daevas), and the idea of an eschatological battle with a final judgment and resurrection in paradise (itself a Persian word). These doctrines, nearly absent from the canonical Old Testament, begin to find their way into Jewish and Christian writings during the Hellenistic and Roman periods — particularly in the apocalyptic genre.
One striking instance of direct borrowing is the Zoroastrian demon of wrath, Aeshma-daeva, as Asmodeus in the deutero-canonical book of Tobit and in the Talmud, where he is something of a trickster (Hutter, DDD, p. 106ff).
Belial and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Jewish sect associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls took the idea of an opponent to God much further, putting at the very centre of their theology a cosmic war between the forces of God and his enemies. The highly dualist nature of writings like the Community Rule show a high degree of affinity with the doctrines of a Zoroastrian sect called the Zurvanites (The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 3 (1), p. lxvi). It speaks of a Prince of Light who leads the Sons of Light, and an Angel of Darkness who leads the wicked.
The famous War Scroll, which lays out in great detail the final apocalyptic battle between the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness, names Michael and Belial as the respective leaders of light and darkness. It is heavily dependant on Persian ideas, as pointed out by Collins (Collins 1998, pp. 169–170):
The course of the war is now measured out in seven phases, with the forces of light and darkness dominating in turn, until God intervenes decisively in the final period. This balanced division, the imagery of light and darkness, and the opposing roles of Michael and Belial as well-matched adversaries under God all suggest that the Qumran War Rule has been influenced by Persian dualism.
…the division of history into periods and the dualism of light and darkness are well attested in Persian tradition. Most significant for our purpose is the motif of a balanced conflict between light and darkness, which has no part in traditional Israelite religion.
Similar themes are taken up in the sect’s Thanksgiving Hymn, and Belial appears frequently throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls as the leader of the forces of darkness. “Satan” occurs in a few scrolls as a synonym for Belial, but is much less common.
It is important to note, however, that the Angel of Darkness (Belial) is explicitly described in the Community Rule as an intentional creation of God. In this strand of Judaism, evil remained part of the cosmic dualism instituted by God with a valid role to play, despite its apparent opposition to God and righteous Jews. Belial is not “fallen”; he plays the role he was created for.
Beliar and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
Beliar (a variant of Belial) appears as the tempter of humankind in this collection of Jewish apocryphal scriptures that date roughly to the same period as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but from a different community (possibly Syria or Alexandria). The Testaments describe two paths people can follow—that of truth, and that of error—with God’s angels on one side and Beliar’s spirits on the other. Much of the time, the spirits of Beliar seem to be metaphors for weaknesses of human character. The spirits of Beliar are somewhat limited in power and have no hold over the pious (TBen 3:3). T. Naphtali shows an awareness of the fallen Watcher tradition (3:5) but does not equate them with Beliar, nor does it ever describe Beliar’s spirits as “angels”. Beliar is, however, occasionally associated with Diabolos (the Devil) and Satan.
Satan in the New Testament
Judaism of the first and second centuries was influenced by several of the theological currents discussed so far, including the Book of Watchers’ story about fallen angels and the Qumran sect’s emphasis on a cosmic dualism between light (Michael) and darkness (Belial). The name “Belial” is almost completely absent from the NT, however, with “Diabolos” (Greek for “accuser”) and “Satan” becoming the preferred names for the tempter. The New Testament reflects a variety of traditions about Satan but does not describe any systematic demonology.
The Pauline Epistles
The seven “undisputed” epistles attributed to Paul contain references to angels, spirits, archons, Satan, and Beliar. Paul’s claim that the saints will judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3) is suggestive of Enochic tradition; but rather than being imprisoned in the underworld, troublesome angels are an ongoing concern for Paul. His strange caution to women to wear veils during worship “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10) could have Enoch’s lascivious fallen Watchers in mind (Dale Martin, 1999, p. 244). The idea of angels teaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:8) is also suggestive of Enoch. Paul views Satan in 2 Cor. 11:14 as one who can disguise himself as an “angel of light” (Michael?), which brings to mind the Dead Sea Scrolls. Paul claims to be tormented by an “angel from Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7), but the angel does so with Christ’s consent. Paul also draws a parallel between Christ and light versus darkness and Beliar, using familiar Qumranic terminology but replacing Michael with Christ. Notably, however, Paul does not describe Satan himself as an angel.
Significantly, Paul blames the “Archons of this aeon” (1 Cor. 2:6–8) for crucifying Christ because they failed to understand God’s wisdom, and it is possible that he refers to malevolent angels here; but again, Satan is not named or implied (Dale Martin, “When Did Angels Become Demons?”, p. 674).
Unlike later Christian theology, Satan appears to play no part in the origins of sin the way Paul understands it (cf. Romans 7).
The Epistle to the Hebrews
Hebrews describes the Devil (Diabolos) as the one who had power over death until Christ took on human form (Heb. 2:15). Despite several mentions of angels in the opening chapters, it’s not clear whether the author sees the Devil as the same category of creature. 1:14 describes “all angels” as being in God’s service, yet Hebrews implies a rivalry between humankind and angels.
The Gospels and Acts
Sometimes, Satan seems to be fulfilling his original role as the Accuser — for example, his demand to sift the disciples like wheat (Luke 22:31). At other times, he seems to be a personification of opposition to Christ in a general sense, and his name can even be applied as a label to humans. In one synoptic pericope, he is associated with Beelzebul, a Canaanite god who, it was believed, could drive away demons of illness (Herrmann, DDD, p. 155). Acts describes the healing of people who are “oppressed by the devil” (13:10). One could infer that Satan is therefore the ruler of demons, which seems to be an innovation, as demons were specifically part of the Greek worldview and were associated with disease and mental illness — the same role they perform in the Gospels. And as Martin (Op. Cit. p. 676) observes, there is no instance of any Jewish or Christian text equating demons with fallen angels until the writings of Tatian in the late second century. Perhaps the most we can say is that the demonology of the Gospels is much like that of Jubilees, portraying Satan as the leader of evil spirits and demons, but not as a fallen angel.
The Catholic Epistles
Jude, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter all show familiarity with the story of the fallen Watchers in 1 Enoch, and they use it, in part, as an object lesson for condemning heresies in their own day. The Devil is almost completely absent from these texts; Jude’s only mention of him is in an allusion to The Assumption of Moses, an apocryphal work. 2 Peter does not mention the Devil at all. (For more information, see my earlier article on Enoch and the Catholic Epistles.)
The Apocalypse of John
Revelation resurrects the old Leviathan myth in its depiction of the final war — a classic instance of the Endzeit recapitulating the Urzeit. The dragon is identified as “the Devil and Satan”. In chapter 12, Satan loses his position as accuser and is kicked out of heaven together with his angels after fighting a battle against Michael. This portrayal of Satan appears to combine most of the motifs we have examined so far: Yahweh’s conquest over the chaos dragon, Satan’s role as heavenly accuser, the fall of the Watchers, and Belial’s war against Michael. It is important to remember, however, that Revelation is an apocalypse — a genre that makes deliberate use of mythological metaphors to depict events in the writer’s present and near-future. It is impossible to say what the author actually “believed” about Satan and the other mythical figures who appear in Revelation (e.g. Hades and Apollyon).
Taking the New Testament as a whole, we are able to check off about three of the five items on our scorecard.
The Life of Adam and Eve
The Greek version of The Life of Adam and Eve may be the earliest text to explicitly blame the Devil for the fall of Adam and Eve. The Latin version includes a scene in which the Devil explains to Adam the reason for his enmity:
When God blew into you the breath of life and your countenance and likeness were made in the image of God, Michael brought you and made (us) worship you in the sight of God, and the LORD God said, ‘Behold Adam! I have made you in our image and likeness.’
And Michael went out and called all the angels, saying, ‘Worship the image of the LORD God, as the LORD God has instructed.’ And Michael himself worshiped first, and called me and said, ‘Worship the image of God, Yahweh.’ And I answered, ‘I do not worship Adam. … I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior to him in creation; before he was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me.’
When they heard this, other angels who were under me refused to worship him. … And the LORD God was angry with me and sent me with my angels out from our glory; and because of you, we were expelled into this world from our dwellings and have been cast onto the earth. (13:3–16:2)
This text is difficult to date. All copies in the original language are lost; the Greek and Latin versions were probably written between 200 and 400 CE. At any rate, it seems to be the earliest witness to the idea that the Devil and his angels were cast out of heaven for their pride and decided to take out their vengeance on Adam and Eve—which is surely how Satan is understood by many Christians today. (Though it should be noted that the Satan of TLAE is mainly a rival to Adam, and not to God [see Jan Dochhorn, pp. 490–491].)
Incidentally, the Koran provides a nearly identical story about the fall of Satan (who is called “Iblis” in Islam) in sura 7:11–13. Thus, we have a curious situation in which a widespread Christian belief about Satan can be found in the canonical scriptures of Islam, but not of Christianity.
Caedmon, Dante, and Milton
Christian writers in late antiquity and the Medieval period would continue to develop and explore the circumstances of Satan’s fall and details about his nature. A 7th-century Saxon poem called Christ and Satan, thought by some to have been written by the poet Caedmon, tells the story of Satan’s fall — how he was a holy angel named Lucifer who had tried to overthrow God and rule in his place, but was instead banished from heaven and imprisoned in hell where he rules over a realm of torment.
The imagery described by Dante in his Inferno (14th century) was greatly influential in how people came to imagine Satan and Hell. Here, Satan is a monstrous, grotesque creature trapped in the ninth circle of Hell where he personally torments the worst sinners.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in 1667, describes the Angelic War in which Satan and his angels are defeated by Michael and the Son of God and banished to Tartarus. He takes the form of a serpent in order to deceive Eve and cause the Fall. His lieutenants and fellow demons include Beelzebub, Belial, Moloch, and Mammon.
Here at last, in Christian works from the Medieval period onward, we can check off all five items on our scorecard.
The popular Christian image of the Devil finds its roots in numerous ancient, unrelated theological strands. The two most important seem to be the Enochic story of the fallen angels (Watchers) influenced by Genesis and Greek mythology, and the highly dualistic Jewish theology that developed in the second and first centuries BCE under Zoroastrian influence. These ideas eventually coalesced around the figure of the Accuser who appears briefly in three books of the Old Testament. No systematic demonology can be found in the New Testament, but later theologians and writers fleshed out the ideas that are now considered to be a core part of “traditional” Christianity, including Satan’s origin as the angel Lucifer, his prideful rebellion, his banishment from Heaven to Hell, his involvement in the Fall, his authority over demonic forces, his role in mischief and misfortune, and so on.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve had to leave some interesting avenues unexplored, such as the views of groups like the Gnostics and Marcionites, developments in Talmudic Judaism, and traditional views of Satan’s physical appearance. Maybe I’ll get to some of these in future articles.
- Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD), 2nd Edition, 1999.
- Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1–8 (Anchor Bible Commentary), 1987.
- John J. Collins, Ed., Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, 1979.
- Elaine Pagels, “The Social History of Satan, the ‘Intimate Enemy’: A Preliminary Sketch”, Harvard Theological Review 84:2, 1991.
- Anathea Portier-Young, “Symbolic Resistance in the Book of the Watchers,” The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, 2014.
- Archie T. Wright, The Origin of Evil Spirits, WUNT 2/98, 2005.
- John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity, 1984.
- John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd Ed., 1998.
- Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body, 1999.
- Dale Martin, “When Did Angels Become Demons?”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 129/4, 2010.
- Jan Dochhorn, “The Motif of the Angels’ Fall in Early Judaism”, Angels: The Concept of Celestial Beings, DCL Yearbook 2007.