The Devil, a.k.a. Satan

The devil goes by many names — Satan, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub and Lucifer to name a few — but beside this list of aliases, what do we know about his story. That is, how did the story of Satan originate?

Many ancient religions have scriptures detailing the struggle between good and evil. For instance, in the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world’s earliest, the supreme deity, Ormazd, created two entities: the chaotic and destructive spirit Ahriman and his beneficent twin brother, Spenta Mainyu.

The ancient world struggled with the coexistence of good and evil, so people hypothesised a kind of demonic, divine force that was responsible for evil, arising out of the notion that a good god could not be responsible for bad things. 

However, in Judaism, Satan was not a prominent figure. There are few demon-like figures in Hebrew scripture, the most famous being the appearance of Satan in the Book of Job. In this book, an “adversary” or “tempter” asks God whether the prosperous Job would continue to praise God after losing everything.  He is fulfilling the function of ‘devil’s advocate’ in the heavenly council, ensuring that God sees all sides of the issue. In fact, the name ‘Lucifer’ means ‘light bringer’, helping to illuminate or ‘enlighten’ those who must make a judgment. In the story, God takes up the challenge and sends Satan to strip Job of his wealth and family, leaving the man wondering why such a horrible fate befell him. 

But note God still wields the power and makes the decisions. Satan can do nothing without God’s permission. Judaism found the notion of God having to share authority as limiting the omnipotence and even the omniscience of God, and therefore, Satan was never personified as a source of evil. Judaism’s mystical teachings, called the Kabbalah, mention a light side and a dark side of God, but not a devil.

Christianity’s Devil

Any Sunday school student can tell you that Satan is a fallen angel, but this fall actually isn’t described in the Christian bible. However, Satan suddenly appears in the gospels as the tempter of Jesus, with nary an introduction of how he got there. If God created the universe, and everything God creates is good, then Satan must be part of God’s creation, and must also be ‘good’.

The temptation story begins with the Spirit of God driving Jesus into the wilderness where he meets Satan. Could the two be colluding in order to help Jesus understand – shine light upon – the momentous religious experience he had at his baptism?

There are other references to Satan in the Bible, depending on different interpretations. The Hebrew Bible has two passages about people who aren’t respectful toward God. In these passages, Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, human rulers make outrageous boasts, and some Christians interpret these actions as expressions of Satan, but it is an interpretation with dubious scholarly merit.

So if the devil is not real, why has this mythological character remained in popular religion?  Perhaps because he is pretty useful.

“I thought of Satan as a kind of a joke, kind of a throwaway character,” said Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University and author of The Origin of Satan (Random House, 1995). “In the Book of Job, he’s a practical device to explain what happened to Job.”

The Hasids, a Jewish sect whose name translates into “The Holy Ones,” were the first group in Judeo-Christian history to seriously discuss Satan. They lived just before the time of Jesus and didn’t like how the Romans and some of their Jewish collaborators ruled their country, Pagels said.

So, the Hasids withdrew from Jewish society and began preaching about the end of time, when God would destroy all of the evil people, “which meant all of the Romans and all of the Jews who cooperated with them.”

The Hasids took a radical position: They said they were following God, while their enemies had turned to the dark side, possibly without even knowing it. “So now, it’s the ‘Sons of God’ against the ‘Sons of Darkness,'” Pagels said. “It’s a split Jewish group.”

At this point of her research, Pagels had an epiphany; she realised the concept of Satan emerges when communities split. Radical groups want a clean break between themselves and their enemies, and so they describe their enemies as Satan, as devils who will one day face God’s wrath.

“When people talk about Satan — like if somebody says, ‘Satan is trying to take over this country’ — they’re not thinking of some supernatural battle up there in the sky,” Pagels said. “They can give you names and addresses. They know whom they’re talking about.”

For instance, Islamic extremists might say, “America is the Great Satan.” That’s because “when people talk about Satan, they’re talking about people, too,” Pagels said.

The Hasids likely had a big influence on early Christianity, because John the Baptist preached similar ideas to those of the Hasids. That is, he said that the end of the world was coming and that God wouldn’t tolerate evil people. This meant the Romans and the people working with them.

Turning an enemy into Satan is useful, she added. It suggests that “our opponents are not just people we disagree with; they’re bad. You can’t negotiate with them. You can’t do anything with them, because they’re essentially evil.”

Handy fellow, that Satan. 🙂

Return to the Glossary

An open, virtual door to the world