The Satan Myth
The Satan of Christendom is presented as a monster of wickedness: the instigator of every brutal crime and evil vice. This belief is widespread and deep–seated, even among true Christians, but it is utterly nonsensical. Innumerable multitudes sin grievously every day, and not only in the squalid dwellings of our city slums but also in the abodes of wealth and culture. How busy Satan must be! Furthermore, if vice and crime are signs of his presence and power, then other countries must claim more of his activity than our own. If the common view is correct, the appalling scenes of wickedness and cruelty in the darker parts of heathenism must surely prove that the Devil is more busy there than in the civilized West. But if millions are thus under Satan’s personal influence, then he must be acquainted with the life and circumstances of each individual! Are we to conclude that he is practically omniscient and omnipresent?
As regards the unseen world, any belief which does not rest upon revelation is essentially superstitious. So what is the testimony of Scripture on this subject? Chapter one of Romans describes the condition of the heathen with exceptional clarity. By this passage then let the popular belief be tested: “Because, knowing God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but fell into folly in their thoughts, and their heart without understanding was darkened: professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into [the] likeness of an image of corruptible man and of birds and quadrupeds and reptiles. Wherefore God gave them up [also] in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness, to dishonour their bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into falsehood, and honoured and served the creature more than him who had created [it], who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this reason God gave them up to vile lusts ... And according as they did not think good to have God in [their] knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind to practise unseemly things” (Rom. 1: 21–26, 28).
If Satan were implicated in all the baser immoralities of men, then it is inconceivable that a passage like this would contain no allusion to the fact––but allusion there is none. The words are clear and simple: “God gave them up” and human nature alone accounts for their depravity. Nor will it do to argue that it is only pagan degeneracy which is here in question. If no Devil is needed to account for the abominations of the heathen world, then why appeal to the supernatural to explain the atrocities that take place in Christendom? To do so is as illogical as it is unscriptural!
In any case why should Satan tempt men in this way? His doing so would make sense if his power over men depended on their leading degraded lives, but this is not the teaching of Scripture. Some who own his sway are indeed slaves of vice, but others are religious zealots of blameless character - and the Lord expressly declares that it is the zealots who are furthest from the kingdom of God (see Matt. 21: 31)!
This does not mean, of course, that immorality is a passport to heaven or in any way a recommendation to divine favour; on the contrary it is a sure highway as any to damnation. Still, for that very reason it brings man within reach of hope for the Lord Himself said “I am not come to call righteous [persons], but sinful [ones] to repentance” (Luke 5: 32). The devotee of the blameless life who thanks God that he is “not as the rest of men” (Luke 18: 11), is entirely on the Devil’s side. If, however, he was tempted to commit some gross and ‘open’ sin, then he might be brought to his knees in saving repentance.
The Satan of Scripture is the enemy of faith, not morals. Thus the apostle declares that “if also our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those that are lost; in whom the god of this world has blinded the thoughts of the unbelieving, so that the radiancy of the glad tidings of the glory of the Christ, who is [the] image of God, should not shine forth [for them]” (2 Cor.4: 3, 4; see also Matt. 13: 19). Hence it is that men turn to the Church, to religion, to morality, to ‘the sermon on the mount’––in a word, to anything and everything other than “Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2: 2, my emphasis). From the beginning the Devil has been conducting a murderous campaign to thwart God’s purposes of blessing for men in Christ (see John 8: 44). Time and time again he tried to stamp out the godly line from which Christ would come (see 1 John 3: 12; 2 Kings 11: 1 etc.), culminating in the betrayal of Judas (see Luke 22: 3) and the crucifixion (comp. Rev. 12: 3–5). Today he is no less active, and he will do anything possible to prevent men becoming Christians in the first place, and failing that, take every opportunity to hinder and damage the display of Christ’s character in their lives.
A “form of piety” (2 Tim. 3: 5) is one of the Devil’s favourite devices. Thus the most dangerous enemies of Christ and Christianity are often men who live pure and upright lives and who preach righteousness: “For such [are] false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And [it is] not wonderful, for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. It is no great thing therefore if his ministers also transform themselves as ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11: 13–15). If Christians are deceived by the fraud, it is mainly because they are blinded by the associated myth about Satan. Christendom has painted a picture of a Devil horned and hoofed, a hideous and obscene monster who haunts scenes of depravity and horror. But “ministers of righteousness” do not corrupt men’s morals or incite them to commit outrages! This fact is self–evident, but so many overlook it to their cost. How it must suit the enemy to have himself so portrayed, because it means that he and his friends can stalk many a church and chapel undetected and unknown! Certainly he can engage himself in acts of vindictive and malignant evil (see Luke 13: 16; Acts 10: 38 etc.), but he takes great pleasure in being an “angel of light”.
In the Devil, Christendom has created a scapegoat to account for the crimes and vices of humanity, but the testimony of God’s Word is that “every one is tempted, drawn away, and enticed by his own lust” (James 1: 14, my emphasis). It is “from within, out of the heart of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders ...” (Mark 7: 21). Of course Satan is the “ruler of this world” (John 16: 11) and as such casts his malevolent influence across the globe, breeding ignorance and distrust of God. He is, and always has been, the great liar (see John 8: 44), and from beginning to end will lead men astray (see Gen. 3: 1–7; 2 Thess. 2: 9 etc.). But this kind of satanic influence involves no knowledge of the inner experience of each life, and implies no special action directed simultaneously against millions of individuals scattered all over the globe. That the Devil does deal with individuals we know, but these instances are exceptional. The warning to Peter that “Satan had demanded to have you” (Luke 22: 31) is one such case. It is but natural that he should seek to drag down the Lord’s closest associates. But if even if the Devil “as a roaring lion walks about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5: 8) he can only be in one place at a time!
The old classification of the world, the flesh and the devil is a right one. In the “flesh” sphere our safety is in flight: “youthful lusts flee” (2 Tim. 2: 22), but with Satan safety lies in resistance: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4: 7). Such is the distinction clearly marked in Scriptures. The baser lusts of the flesh are entirely under man’s control (unless indeed he is enervated by vicious indulgence) but with the holiest of men “the panoply of God” (Eph. 6: 11) is the only sure defence against attacks of Satan. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities, against authorities, against the universal lords of this darkness, against spiritual [power] of wickedness in the heavenlies” (v 12, my emphasis). Indeed all Scripture testifies to the spiritual nature of the battle. We see this even in the OT. In the fall of man the Devil’s aim was to alienate the creature from God (see Gen. 3: 1–7). With Job his ambition was to get the patriarch to curse God (see Job 1: 11) With Joshua the High Priest his desire was to hinder him in discharging his sacred office (see Zech. 3: 1).
Of course no one should think that the Devil will never use the basest means to ensnare a minister of Christ, and thus mar his testimony and destroy his usefulness (see Acts 5: 3; 1 Cor. 7: 5) but it bears repeating again and again that his normal practice is not to lead us into sin so flagrant that we are driven to repentance, but to draw us away more subtly––to mere human morality, religion, or philosophy which deaden our sense of dependence upon God. Sin may humble a Christian, but philosophy and religion can only foster pride. Those who had “cast off their first faith” had “turned aside after Satan” (1 Tim. 5: 12, 15). The Devil may wield a sword, but he also uses a “snare” (2 Tim. 2: 26).
Nor should we confuse Satan with the “angels who had not kept their own original state” (Jude 6). These now have no part in human affairs, being “kept for judgment” (2 Pet. 2: 4). That there are “unclean spirits” (Matt. 10: 1 etc,) we know, and certain abnormal phases of depravity may be due to demonical possession, but this is to be distinguished from Satanic temptations. Furthermore, not all demons are even “unclean”. The warned–against “teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4: 1–3) are connected rather with “deceiving spirits” and apostasy from the faith. They are not incitements to vice, but to a more exacting morality and spirituality than even Christianity demands (see 1 Tim. 4: 1–3).
The apostle made no suggestion of satanic agency in the light of the flagrant immoralities of some of the Corinthian converts, except as a means of disciplining those who had sinned (see 1 Cor. 5: 5). The warning about Satan getting an advantage over the saints (see 2 Cor. 2: 11) was given when their zeal to clear themselves left them open to the possibility of an over–reaction against the offenders. Elsewhere, it was the advent of false teachers preaching “another Jesus” which evoked the further warning against the serpent’s subtlety lest their minds “should be corrupted from simplicity as to the Christ” (2 Cor. 11: 3, 4). So again, when persecution prevailed in the assembly in Thessalonica, Paul was anxious to know their faith in case the tempter should tempt them and the apostle’s “labour should be come to nothing” (1 Thess. 3: 5).
Some seem to think that Ephesians 2: 1–3 refutes what has been here maintained. “and you, being dead in your offences and sins – in which ye once walked according to the age of this world, according to the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience: among whom we also all once had our conversation in the lusts of our flesh, doing what the flesh and the thoughts willed to do, and were children, by nature, of wrath, even as the rest”. Those who read this passage in the light of the Satan myth entirely miss its special teaching. The life of every unregenerate man, whether marked by the grossest vice or by the highest morality, is “according to ... the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience”! The life of Saul of Tarsus had been pure and blameless (see Phil. 3: 6) and yet he brackets himself with converts from paganism and its associated immoralities: “we also all once had our conversation”. All alike had walked according to the ruler of the authority of the air and according to the age of this world, a world whose prince is Satan (see John 12: 31). Far from implying that their trespasses and sins had been due to supernatural incitement, Paul expressly declares they had been altogether natural and human “doing what the flesh and the thoughts willed to do”. The gentile sensualists were but doing the desires of the flesh, the Jewish legalists the desires of the mind.
It is important to realise that the terms immorality and sin are not interchangeable. The one refers to an arbitrary human benchmark of right, the other to a standard altogether divine. The essence of sin is lawlessness (see 1 John 3: 4) – a revolt against the divine will. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3: 23) and all are thereby sons of disobedience. Whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (as men see things) “the mind of the flesh is enmity against God” for, as the apostle adds, “it is not subject to the law of God; for neither indeed can it be” (Rom. 8: 7). No miracle is needed to enable men to lead moral and religious lives––a fallen nature is capable of that.
Finally, I would remark that the Christian who turns to prophecy with a mind unbiased by traditional views about Satan will find new meaning in the predictions about the end times. The return of the Lord Jesus Christ will be preceded by the revelation of the man of sin – Satan’s man. Now the fact that his coming “is according to the working of Satan” (2 Thess. 2: 9) has led to the assumption that his reign will be marked by the grossest orgies of violence and lust. But how then can we explain the words of Christ that apostate Israel will hail him as the true messiah (see John 5: 43)? Indeed, it seems likely that, if it were possible, even the elect would be deceived by his imposture (comp. Matt. 24: 24). This can only be understood by seeing that the one who comes in his own name will command universal homage not merely by reason of his miraculous powers, but because of his splendid human qualities. Instead of barbarity, his reign will mark the very apex of human civilisation. If read with a right appreciation of the Satan of Scripture, these Scriptures are a most solemn warning to the believer, even for the days in which we live, but read in the false light of the Satan myth they remain a hotchpotch of contradictions.