“The Devil made me do it.” Is this just a lame excuse for human evil, or should we really be on the watch for an actual devil who influences us in mysterious ways? Some people have denied the existence of any devil, saying that each of us is completely responsible for our own actions. Others have claimed that there is an actual being called Satan.
Satan Is Real
Anyone who trusts the teachings of the Bible will believe in the existence of the Devil or Satan. Many passages show that Satan is a powerful, negative influence on us. From a Biblical point of view, the question is not whether Satan exists, but what Satan is like.
The traditional idea is that Satan was an angel in heaven before the creation of the human race, who then rebelled against God and became the leader of other fallen angels who seek to lead humans astray. There are two problems with this. First, the Bible never says that angels were created before people, but rather indicates that angels are people who have died and gone to heaven. Second, the Bible never says that Satan was ever an angel of any kind.
Where Angels Come From
The Bible gives us reason to believe that angels are simply people who have died and gone to heaven. In fact, the Bible clearly states that angels are “men” or “people.” For example, we are told that “the man Gabriel” appeared to Daniel (Daniel 9: 21). Angels were also called people when they appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18: 2), Joshua (Joshua 5: 13), Manoah’s wife (Judges 13: 6), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 9: 2, 3), Zechariah (Zechariah 1: 8, 11), and the women at the sepulcher (Mark 16: 5; Luke 24: 4; John 20: 12), Angels have always looked like people. That is why Paul says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13: 2).
In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for “angel” simply mean “messenger.” Being an angel is a matter of one’s function or office, not one’s race. For example, Haggai the prophet and John the Baptist were called messengers or “angels” of the Lord because they spoke for Him (Haggai 1: 13, Malachi 3: 1). Angels themselves reject the idea that they are superior beings. An angel said to John the Apostle, “I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 19: 10). The first chapter of the Bible mentions the creation of almost everything else: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, birds, plants, ocean, fish, even insects and worms. But no angels! (Genesis 1) The reason is that people were created to become angels. Jesus Himself said that those who are worthy become after death “equal to angels” (Luke 20: 36; Matthew 22: 30; Mark 12: 25) and would have similar powers (Luke 10: 17, 19; Mark 16: 17, 18; 11: 23; John 14:12).
Is Satan a Fallen Angel?
The Bible never describes Satan as ever having been an angel, but there is mention of Satan’s “fall” from heaven. Some people point to the fall of Lucifer as a description of Satan: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God… I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ Yet you shall be brought down to hell, to the lowest depths of the Pit (Isaiah 14: 12-15). Actually, this passage is talking about the king of Babylon, not Satan (Isaiah 14: 4). The kings of Babylon loved power, wanted to be worshipped as gods, and were very proud (Daniel 3: 5, 6; 4: 22, 30; 5: 20-23; 6: 7). Daniel said to one king of Babylon, “Your greatness has grown and reaches to the heavens” (Daniel 4: 22). Soon after he lost his kingdom, and so fell from power. This is the “fall” of Lucifer (Isaiah 14: 12, cf. Daniel 4: 14). Yet though this passage describes the king of Babylon, not Satan, it is likely that Satan’s fall was of a similar kind–a fall from power, not a fall from original goodness. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that Satan was originally good. In fact, Jesus clearly states that he was a murderer and a sinner from the beginning (John 8: 44; 1 John 3: 8).
But devils can pretend to be angels to gain power. Satan and his ministers could put on the appearance of an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11: 13). To prevent this, Jesus was waging a battle against the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6: 12). He said, “Now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (John 11: 12). Later He said, “Now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12: 31). It seems to be as a witness to this battle that Jesus says, “I beheld Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10: 17, 18). This battle is apparently similar to the one foretold in Revelation 12, where the Devil appears in heaven not as an angel but as a dragon, devouring and destroying. In this battle too, Satan is cast out of heaven and falls from power.
There are two passages that speak of “angels who sinned” (2 Peter 2: 1, 4) and “did not keep their first estate” (Jude 6). It is not clear what these passages mean. Some people believe the “angels” here are the “sons of God” who went in to the daughters of men in Noah’s time. In any case, these passages say nothing about Satan, and nothing about the angels being created before people as a different race.
The Term “Satan” Applies to People
Once we understand that angels are simply people who have died and gone to heaven, we can see that devils are simply people who have turned against God and their fellow human beings. When Peter contradicted Jesus, Jesus called him “Satan” (Matthew 16: 23; Mark 8: 33; Luke 4: 8). Knowing that Judas would betray Him, Jesus called him “a devil” (John 6: 70).
Actually, the term “Satan” is more a title than a name. It is a Hebrew word meaning “adversary” or “enemy,” usually with the definite article (ha-satan, “the enemy”). Since Hadad and Rezan were political enemies of Solomon, each of them is called a “satan” or an enemy (1 Kings 11: 14, 23, 26), and David was an enemy or “satan” to the Philistines (1 Samuel 29: 4; see also Numbers 22: 22; 2 Samuel 19: 22; 1 Kings 5:\x114; 1 Kings 11: 25; Psalm 109: 6).
The word “Devil” is also a title. It comes from the Greek diabolos which means “accuser” or “slanderer.” Paul several times warns us not to be “devils” or slanderers (1 Timothy 3: 11; 2 Timothy 3: 3; Titus 2: 3).
The Group as an Individual
When a group is working together, we tend to think and speak as if it were an individual. The group as a whole is a body, the leader is the head, the main supporters are the backbone of the organization, and people who carry out actions are its arms (as a police officer is the arm of the law).
It is very common in the Bible to describe a group of individuals as if they were one person. For example, all the descendants of Israel are called “Israel.” The Bible says that Israel fought against Amalek (Exodus 17: 8) when in fact “Israel” and “Amalek” were names of individuals who had died long before. Often nations were named for individual people: Moab (2 Kings 1: 1; 3: 10), Jacob (Isaiah 14: 1), Judah (Genesis 49: 7). The Israelites introduced themselves to the Edomites as “your brother Israel.” Then Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through my land, lest I come out against you with the sword.” In fact, Edom and Israel were twin brothers who had lived centuries before, but those names were used to describe large groups of their descendants (Numbers 20: 14-21).
Throughout the Bible, groups of people are described as individuals. The Lord said, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son” (Hosea 11: 1). On a deeper level, this refers to Jesus, but the literal meaning of the “child Israel” is the whole nation that was brought out of Egypt. After the tribe of Judah split from Israel, the two were called sisters and the history of Judah is described in very personal terms: “Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: ‘On the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you… I made you thrive, and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew… I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals…’” (Ezekiel 16: 4, 7, 10). In the New Testament, the true Christian church is described as the bride and wife of the Lamb (Revelation 19: 7-8; 21: 2, 9-10). and most people would agree that John’s description of the woman clothed with the sun is symbolic of the church (Revelation 12).
Who Is Satan?
The Bible shows that people can be devils and satans, but what about the Devil? Doesn’t the Bible describe Satan as a specific personal being of extraordinary power? The answer is a qualified “yes.” In fact the Bible shows that Satan does exist and has great power, yet Satan is not one individual but a group of individuals.
Jesus cast out a demon who said, “My name is Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5: 9; Luke 8: 30). This clearly shows that many evil spirits can act and speak as if they were one.
Note that in the parable of the sower, the Evil One is compared to a flock of birds. Later, when some scribes accused Jesus of casting out demons by prince of the demons, Jesus said, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.” He compares Satan to a kingdom or household, implying that all the devils together are “Satan.”
Paul said, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil.” We may ask, who is this Devil we fight against? His answer would be: “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6: 12; cf. Colossians 2: 15). This suggests that the Devil is more than one individual.
There is only one place in the Bible where there is a description of Satan’s appearance. In Revelation chapter 12 Satan is described as a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns. If we take this literally, we must believe that Satan is actually a dragon with seven heads. The question is, How does the Bible say we should interpret this appearance? In this chapter the dragon attacks the woman clothed with the sun, whom most would agree is a symbol of the church (a group of people). A little later we find a very similar red beast, with seven heads and ten horns, carrying a harlot. Here the meaning is explained: The harlot is Babylon, the great city (a group of people) and seven heads are seven mountains on which the harlot sits. The ten horns are ten kings (Revelation 17: 3-12). This suggests that this beast is also symbolic of a group of people. Daniel also has a vision of a beast with ten horns that were ten kings (Daniel 7: 7, 23, 24). In these visions, the woman, the harlot, and various beasts represent groups of people. And there is no reason why the dragon should be an exception. Most likely, the Dragon (which is Satan and the Devil) also symbolizes a group of people.
Once we understand that the Devil is not some mysterious evil being with almost Godlike power, but is a collection of people choosing to lust, hurt and hate, we can see the real nature of our responsibility for evil. We can’t blame evil on others. The Devil is not a tempter created by God, but the temptation we create for ourselves and for each other by our free choices. Satan is not some outside force acting on the human race, but the force of people acting against people—a force that is very much alive and real—one we add to and accept when we act in harmful ways, and one which we diminish and escape when we stop hurting others.