Some Thoughts on the Devil

Some of my thoughts about the Devil are as follows:

The apostle James comments that demons believe in one God “and tremble’ (James 2:19). One obvious thing about Satan, therefore, is that he is not an atheist. He knows there is a God in the same way that you know you have a spouse, child, acquaintance, friend or enemy. He doesn’t wonder about it. The philosophical questions and theological arguments about his existence are of little interest or importance to him. You might as well develop arguments to demonstrate the existence of your best friend. It would make as much sense. You have personal experience with such people and likewise Satan has personal experience with God. He has talked to God, argued with God, and even tempted God.

Satan is a convinced monotheist. He knows there is only one God, not many. He can count, after all. He knows God is powerful. He’s seen what he can do.

But does Satan understand God? Is his perception of who God is, what God wants, and what God expects accurate? Does he have a clear picture of God’s personhood, his personality, his desires and wants, his nature? Does Satan know, metaphorically speaking, what God’s favorite color, favorite music, or favorite dessert might be?

Does he know God?

Whether Satan has ever sat down at a desk somewhere and written out what he believes; whether he has ever stared at the ceiling and pondered what he thinks about life, the universe and everything—it is clear that he does have a point of view, a way of thinking about reality, a way of interacting with those around him. Like a character in a novel, we can look at what he says and does and get a pretty good sense of who he is.

Satan is first mentioned by name in the book of Job (if we follow the Jewish order of the canon). Prior to that, he does not appear, unless the serpent that seduces Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 is to be understood as somehow empowered or possessed by the Devil. Given that the Bible nowhere makes that connection, we are left to speculation. Admittedly, most people do assume that the serpent is to be identified as the Devil.

So. Assuming that the serpent in the Garden of Eden is somehow motivated or directed by the Devil, perhaps one of our first insights into Satan’s thinking shows up at the very beginning of the biblical story:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

The serpent casts doubt into the mind of Eve, convincing her that God was holding back on her: that in fact, God did not really love her or want what was best for her, since he has forbidden her something that is “beneficial.”

Is this then an indication of one of Satan’s core beliefs about God?

Consider what he says about Job when he approaches God in his throne room: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11)

In both the words to Eve and the words spoken to God, Satan betrays his fundamental doubt of both God’s goodness and his love. Satan believes God “loves” only as he gets something out of it. He believes that God is just as selfish as the creatures made in his image are. It is a belief that Satan has seeded into the hearts of people: he planted it in the mother of us all so that it infects the entire species. Satan does not believe that God is good and he does not believe that he loves anyone. He expresses this thought to Eve and she decides to accept his belief as the truth. The consequences of believing and then acting upon that belief were devastating for Eve and Adam and for the human race.

A question that arises at this point (which may be unanswerable) is an obvious one. Does Satan believe what he told Eve? Does he, in fact, believe that God was withholding something good and worthwhile–that he did, indeed, not have Adam and Eve’s best interests in mind? Or was Satan simply trying to create havoc for havoc’s sake—vandalizing the creation for no other reason than to create chaos?

If the latter is true, we still have to wonder why he would do that? Why would he want to harm Adam and Eve? What motivated him to destroy?

Or, does Satan actually believe deeply that God is less than good, that he has a selfish agenda? That he withholds something from his creatures because he fears that they will become like him? After all, that is something the serpent itself tells Eve.

On the other hand, the Bible tells us that Satan has “no truth in him” and that “when he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (see John 8:44) and so it is unreasonable to simply accept what Satan says at face value. Based on Jesus’ statement, if the Devil told me the sky was blue, I’d be wise to poke my head out a window and double-check.

Liars—especially good ones—do not tell only fibs. The truth tends to get mixed with the lies. And liars generally lie for the purpose of self-preservation, out of fear that something bad will happen if the truth comes out. The child caught sneaking cookies from a cookie jar lies not out of maliciousness, but out of fear of punishment. People generally love themselves, but are afraid that no one else does. They think that the truth will make people love them less, or that they will stop loving them altogether. My oldest daughter was four before she understood that when she was disciplined it did not mean that we had stopped loving her, or that our love for her was dependent upon how she behaved. Our discipline of her, in fact, was a result of our love for her.

I think that what Satan believes is that when it comes to love, God’s love is conditional. I don’t think the Devil understands that love—real love—exists: love that loves regardless of the behavior of the beloved. Notice that when he talks with God about Job, he believes, without any apparent doubt, that Job’s love for God was entirely conditional: dependent upon Job continuing to be blessed by God. He was certain that as soon as Job suffered, he would turn against God and curse him—just as he and Job’s friends were certain that God’s love was expressed only when blessings flowed and life was good. Like Satan, therefore, Job’s friends think that God’s love is conditional. The advent of suffering, in both Satan’s mind and the mind of Job’s friends, was proof of God’s disfavor: of the withdrawing of God’s love. Satan was therefore certain that Job could not respond to God but in kind: that Job would withdraw his love and curse him instead.

So why does the Devil do what he does? What motivates him?

Well, why do you do what you do? Why do you think Satan would be any different than you?

He is a limited, fallen creature. He differs from you in but one essential as far as we can see from the Bible: he is not mortal. Is he corporeal? If the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels, then they—and he—are corporeal enough to successfully mate with human beings. We see other angels eating (cf. Genesis 17-18 and the “three men” for whom Abraham prepared a meal; they didn’t leave until after eating).
So again: why does Satan act the way he does?

And again: why do you?

First, simple self-interest. I do what I do because I derive pleasure from it. It’s fun. It helps me. I gain something from it. It helps those who are important to me (and they are important to me because I derive pleasure from them.) Second, I do what I do because it is, for some reason, important to me. I believe in it—which is why I share my faith, attend church, vote, participate in community activities and give to charities. It is why people give themselves for others or a cause. Though to be cynical about it, even giving for others, ultimately, may be due to the perceived benefit for oneself: self-esteem, helping others helps me, it’s fun, and so on.

Satan does not really believe in selfless love. Satan is certain that God is mostly concerned about the rules, and that God’s favor is based on performance. Likewise, he is certain that the only reason human beings obey God is because they believe that by so doing, they will receive a blessing from God.

Satan probably wonders sometimes whether even that common human belief is justified. It appears, in fact, that Satan doubts God’s ultimate goodness and suspects, or perhaps is convinced, that God is only interested in what he can get for himself: that God’s motivation in how he treats people is in how they treat him. And Satan would not be unreasonable for thinking that way, since most people’s relationships are founded on just that point of view.

After all, we spend time with people who are nice to us. If my neighbor spits in my face every time I talk to him, chances are I’ll stop talking to him. If someone is always mean to me, chances are I’m not going to go out of my way to be nice to him. If someone invites me to dinner, I’ll feel obligated to invite her to dinner. And so on. Satan understands how people behave; he’s had lots of experience over the years. It’s how the world works. It is how he works. Thus, his statement to God when he talks about Job, that Job will curse God if God takes away all his stuff, his family, and his health (see Job 1:9-11), is based on his experience with other human beings and how they relate to each other. It is also based, quite frankly, on his own motivations, which seem no different from that of human beings. He sees himself in us.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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