The Legend

Luther wrote once that he threw ink at the Devil. When he wrote those words, he was thinking metaphorically about his translation of the New Testament into German that allowed ordinary people to read God’s word for themselves. Over time, many have imagined Luther was speaking literally. The story is now often told that on one dark night, while Luther suffered doubts about his mission, the Devil himself appeared in his study to taunt him— prompting the Reformer to toss an inkwell at the Devil in order to chase him away.

Similar myths and stories about Satan have multiplied over the years. Much of what people imagine they know about the Devil derives more from Hollywood portrayals than it does from the biblical descriptions.

The Zoroastrian belief that there were two gods, one good and one evil with the world as their battleground and humans as their soldiers, has been taken up into much popular thought. Added to that, are Milton’s words from his poem, Paradise Lost, placed in Satan’s mouth that he would “rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Together, these portrayals create an image of Satan sitting on a throne surrounded by flames and dancing demons, sending armies of his minions out to wreak havoc on the Earth and recruit converts to his cause. Together with Dante’s Inferno, and pre-existing Roman and Greek myths, people imagine a dark and fiery underworld where demons torment the wicked dead in gruesome ways while cackling maniacally.

Meanwhile, other demons sneak about as invisible imps whose joy is fulfilled by creating havoc: giving flat tires and making computers crash at the worst possible moment. The Zoroastrian belief in good and evil angels who pulled on people like children playing tug of war, one on one shoulder whispering encouragement to good behavior, while the other suggests a vile choice, has made its way into television and the daily newspaper comics.

The Bible paints a radically different picture of Satan than what appears in the popular media. In the Bible, Satan remains a relatively minor character, with few lines of dialogue. He is portrayed as a limited being, constrained in his behavior by God. Satan can be in but one place at a time, and his power is dependent more on perception than actual force. Although immortal, intelligent and dangerous, he is to God as a burning match is to a supernova. He roams the Earth and has access to God’s throne. The flames of Hell are his future punishment, not his current address. He is, as it were, out on his own recognizance, but God will someday send the marshals out to lock him away for good (Revelation 20:1, 10).

Satan is portrayed as a real being who talks and struts about (Job 1:7). As a real being, he has real thoughts, real attitudes, and real beliefs. He has a recognizable personality, with goals and desires.

So who is Satan? What does he want? What does he think about life, the universe and everything? What is his philosophy? His world view? His theology?

Everyone has a philosophy, an outlook on life, a theology. It comes with being a thinking being. Some people think about it more than others; some have a clear sense of what they believe and why. For others, it is a bit more nebulous. How clearly has Satan thought about what he believes and why he believes it? I think if nothing else, it would be accurate to say that his view of God is somewhat skewed, though probably broadly orthodox. For instance, he believes in God, he believes in Jesus. He’s met them and talked to them; the existence of God is not something he questions. He knows about angels–after all, he disputed with Michael. He apparently believes the Bible, since he backed down every time Jesus quoted it at him. He knows about sin, Heaven, and Hell. But I doubt Satan has a clear handle on such things as grace, love, and mercy.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. 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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