Episode 63: Introducing the Devil and Satan – Part 1

Paul and Dan embark on a multi-part exploration of the terms Devil and Satan and how they are used through the Bible.  They aim to lay some foundations here by thinking about how our worldview might affect how we read the Bible and the importance of taking notice of how Jesus interpreted his Bible. They do (eventually) start to explore some verses that talk about the Devil and Satan and draw an initial conclusion that they may not be referring to a supernatural being… but there’s so much more still to cover!

Show Notes

Paul and Dan open this theme episode by acknowledging how much of a complex topic this is, more than it might first appear. They list many other terms that are related to the Devil and Satan, (including demons, evil spirits, the serpent, leviathan, Lucifer), and make it clear that they don’t intend to cover everything in one episode. In this episode they hope to lay the groundwork for a discussion about all of these concepts in later episodes.

The main question that Paul and Dan aim to answer is whether or not the Bible uses the terms the Devil and Satan as names for a real spiritual being of evil. Does the Devil exist as a real malevolent being or is it symbolic or representative for something else?

Worldviews form differing views about the Devil and Satan

To begin to unravel this question, Paul and Dan discuss how our worldviews influence our understanding and interpretation of the Bible. If you have a dualistic view of the world, that sees conflict between a good God and spiritual evil, then you are likely to interpret the Bible within this lens. But the language of the Bible appears to suggest that there is one God who is the source of everything, good and evil, blessings and sufferings. Paul and Dan discuss how Genesis 1 is a deliberate rebuttal of a polytheistic worldview, showing that God made everything and that creation of the world is not a result of a divine conflict in heaven, as the prevailing Babylonian and Sumerian myths generally depicted things. They also turn to Isaiah 45:7 and Romans 8:18-21 to show that the one God appears to have control and purpose in the evil and suffering that comes to the world, as opposed to the idea that evil and suffering is a bye-product of spiritual warfare between God and Satan.

Paul and Dan briefly consider the account of the serpent in Genesis 2, and recognise that there is no hint of malevolence in the serpent character within the text. If you read Genesis 2 with a conflict dualistic lens, you may assume it, and believe that this chapter supports that reading. However this leads to a key point that Paul emphasises; Make sure that you read the text that is there, and not what you think may be hidden behind it.

Interpreting ancient texts

They continue to think about the links between the Bible and other ancient texts. Comparing these documents alongside the Bible, (typically called comparative studies), can often be illuminating and help understand the original context and culture that lies behind the text of the Bible. However, Paul expresses caution in jumping to the conclusion that the Biblical authors believed and accepted the same things as their polytheistic neighbours, just because there are similarities in the text. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to believe that the chaotic deep described in Genesis 1:2 is actually referring to evil divine forces, just because the Sumerian and Babylonian stories portray something similar within a framework of conflict between divine beings.

Paul takes this lesson and expands it further, to demonstrate how the interpretations that Jesus and the New Testament writers give should provide a better framework for how to understand these ideas that have some overlap with extra-biblical material. He gives an example from Matthew 16:23 when Jesus calls Peter a satan because he wasn’t thinking of the things of God but rather he had the thinking of men.

Devil and satan are words not names

This leads Paul and Dan to begin looking at these terms in more detail, identifying their usage throughout the Bible and what they seem to mean.

The word devil is only found in the New Testament (37 times), whereas satan is used 27 times in the Old Testament and 36 times in the New Testament. As Paul explains, both words have meanings. The Greek word diabolos (English: devil) is a word that means a false accuser, slanderer or deceiver, (as shown in 1 Timothy 3:11).

The word satan is a Hebrew word that means adversary or opponent. They note how the passage in Matthew 16:23 makes perfect sense if Jesus was calling Peter “Get behind me, opponent” since he was literally opposing the purpose of God with his own mind.

Who or what has the power of death?

Paul and Dan turn to some of the key passages that talk about the Devil and Satan in the New Testament. Using a connection of verses that talk about both sin and the Devil having the power of death, (see James 1:14, James 4:1-8, Hebrews 2:14, Hebrews 9:26 and Romans 8:3), they determine that the word devil is used as a personification for the sin that occurs from within a person’s own heart, at least some of the time that it is used.

They note the connection between the Devil and Satan where these terms are used for the same thing in Matthew 4, and then Paul draws attention to how the word satan is used to describe the process of sinning from within a person’s own heart, in a similar way as the word devil is often used. It’s when Ananias lies to Peter and he is convicted of contriving “this deed within your heart”, whilst it also being described as “Satan” that has “filled your heart”, (Acts 5:3-4).

With all this reviewed, Paul and Dan realise that there is much more scriptural evidence that needs to be considered, but at the very least, they conclude that these two terms are sometimes used figuratively and not as names or titles of a real malevolent supernatural being.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled

Towards the end of the episode, Dan asks about a common belief among Christians, (though one that has more to do with the 1995 film The Usual Suspects than the Bible), that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist”. They consider whether they are in danger of being deceived by concluding that the devil is not a real spiritual being. Are they somehow at risk of spiritual warfare if they think that the Bible isn’t teaching that the devil is a real being?

Whilst acknowledging that it’s important to be humble about what we think and always open-minded, Paul notes that the tentative conclusions reached do not mean that he thinks the devil doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s more helpful to identify exactly what the devil is, and how there is a very real presence of evil in each human heart. That’s the real enemy – the sin that has the power over death – and this is what Jesus came to destroy. Identifying the real evil is therefore not putting us at risk of some kind of a malevolent attack.

More on the Devil and Satan

Paul and Dan conclude by promising more episodes on this theme, considering more of the specific passages that use the terms and branching out into a consideration of the related words, (e.g. demons). These episodes are now available:

Some earlier episodes have already covered a few key passages, including the temptations of Jesus in our Matthew series and Revelation 12:9 in our episode on the fantastic beasts of Revelation.