What the devil is the devil?

Sorry, not a very seasonal topic (though Santa is an anagram of Satan, and Christmas shopping is fairly hellish). But in recent posts I’ve been looking at superstition, bad luck, cursing and chaos. Let’s cut to the chase. Is there a real devil in all this?

The BBC ran a fascinating programme for Halloween, Andy Hamilton’s Search for Satan. Hamilton is the writer and star of Old Harry’s Game, a BBC Radio 4 sitcom set in hell with the devil as central (and largely sympathetic) character. His documentary investigated Satan and our varying perceptions of him throughout history and across different cultures and religions. I’ve put a YouTube link at the end of this post.

Most interesting to me was how views of the devil have changed within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Old Testament, Satan only plays a minor walk-on role and is apparently one of God’s own council (book of Job). His most notable appearance is as the speaking snake in the Garden of Eden, but it’s unlikely that the authors of Genesis understood the serpent as the figure we now call Satan; that’s something later interpreters have read back into the story. (That doesn’t mean it’s not a valid reading; just that this idea of Satan didn’t figure in early Jewish thought.)

In the gospels Satan comes much more to the fore, as Christ’s tempter, Prince of Demons and Father of Lies. It’s not till the Epistles though that he really comes into his own as the ubiquitous enemy of good against whom all Christians must continually struggle. And then in Revelation he is of course the great Beast and Dragon, leader of all forces that oppose God, who is ultimately cast into the Lake of Fire to be tormented forever.

So, rather like concepts of hell which start with the vague and shadowy Sheol and culminate with the apocalyptic Lake of Fire, the devil seems to grow in prominence through Scripture, from cameo role to centre-stage arch-villain.

In subsequent popular culture he has also increasingly risen to iconic status, from medieval depictions of hell’s tormenting demons through Milton’s anti-heroic Satan in Paradise Lost, to a kind of artistic Byronic rebel in the Romantic era. Nowadays he’s most represented in horror films and heavy metal albums – something of a comedown.

So has the devil actually become more powerful throughout history, or have we merely become more aware of him – or just more obsessed with him? Why has he taken on this iconic cult status; what is it about him that fascinates and frightens, appeals and appals in almost equal measure? And just who or what is he anyway?

When we look at all the depictions of the devil in the Bible, in Christian theology and in Christian-influenced popular mythology we find a highly complex and ambiguous (even contradictory) set of roles, titles and characteristics attributed to Satan. In the prevailing view he’s the great opponent of God and goodness, but in some views he’s actually an agent or servant, of God. I’ve made two lists, positive and negative:

‘Positive’ or ambiguous aspects of the devil  

  • Adversary, opponent; one who stands in the way. This can be positive – in the Balaam story, the angel who blocks Balaam’s path is (apparently) a ‘satan’ in Hebrew. And there’s the argument that adversaries shape and sharpen us; that adversity is needed to bring out the best in us.
  • Tempter; tester; tormentor. These are ambiguous roles which could at times be seen to serve God’s purposes, testing his servants and tormenting his enemies (parts of the Old Testament seem to take this view).
  • The Accuser; the one who reminds us (and God) of our guilt and seeks to exact the due punishment or price for our sins. In this role Satan is almost a prosecution lawyer in heaven’s court.
  • Devil’s advocate, representative of the alternative view; the ‘No’ man. Again, this could be seen as a useful role in the cosmic economy.
  • Afflicter, persecutor; sender of pain, disease and disaster. Even this is an ambiguous role; certainly not a nice one, but arguably necessary. At times the Bible implies that it is ultimately God who sends disaster and calamity, perhaps through ‘Satan’ as agent (I’m not saying that I subscribe to this view).
  • Morning Star, light-bearer (‘Lucifer’); angelic musician, poet, artist; beautiful and Byronic figure, self-destructively wayward and licentious but still a sympathetic character; Don Juan.
  • Rebel, rock star; anti-authority, anti-establishment figure; the one who breaks taboos and does what is forbidden (and therefore exciting); breaker of rules and laws; champion of personal freedom and individuality.
  • Restless wanderer, outcast (like Cain), outlaw.
  • Wicked jester, mischief-maker, trickster, practical joker.
  • Scapegoat; one who gets the blame for all that goes wrong; convenient label for all the wrong in our lives and the universe.

Negative aspects and titles of the devil

  • The Evil One; the personification or embodiment of all evil, darkness, chaos, horror, terror, hate.
  • Lord of death, destruction, disobedience, discord, disease, despair, chaos, madness, hell.
  • The antithesis of God and good; in some views almost all-intelligent, all-powerful and all-present like God, but all-bad.
  • Implacable hater of all goodness, truth and humanity (jealous of God’s love for humans?); anti-life, anti-love, anti-light.
  • Arch-enemy of God, of goodness, of Christians; leader of all forces in opposition to God; blinds people to the gospel and turns them from God, preventing them from being saved.
  • Archetypal arch-villain and monster (represented in fiction as Sauron, Voldemort, the White Witch etc). Of course, it could be argued that every story requires a villain and that as such Satan plays a vital role; or it could be that Satan’s existence is the reason stories need villains.
  • ‘Lord of the Flies’ (Beelzebub); Prince of Darkness; Prince of demons, of unclean spirits or lost souls.
  • Liar, deceiver, Father of Lies; twister of truth; con-man; spin-doctor (politician, advertiser, second-hand car salesman!). Again though, there is the passage in 1 Kings 22 where God sends a lying spirit to deceive King Ahab, so Satan’s capacity as liar could sometimes be seen to serve God’s purposes.
  • Father and ruler of all who do not belong to God; spirit at work in those who are disobedient, immoral, ungodly.
  • Murderer, robber, terrorist; ‘thief who comes to steal and destroy’; thief of peace, life, hope, joy, fulfilment, salvation.
  • Criminal mastermind; genius without a conscience (Moriarty; Bond villain).
  • Abaddon/Apollyon the Destroyer, Abyss-dweller; Angel of Death; the Great Serpent, Dragon and Beast.
  • Arch-predator; a rampaging, devouring lion, preying on the weak and feeding on souls; a spider trapping victims in his web. (Of course, there’s an argument that predators are a necessary part of the circle of life.)
  • Sadistic and spiteful power-hungry tyrant, delighting to inflict pain and misery; brutal prison or concentration camp guard; abuser.
  • Seducer; corrupt corrupter, depraved depraver; enslaver and ensnarer; pusher/dealer.

In the popular view (leftover of the medieval period) the devil rules Hell as chief tormentor, but the biblical picture is more nuanced. There are tormenting demons and destroyers who dwell for now in the Abyss, but in the final Lake of Fire the devil is not tormentor but tormented.

Sympathy for the devil?

So over the centuries we’ve clearly attributed a long and diverse set of titles and attributes to the devil. It seems impossible for one being – however powerful and supernatural – to bear the weight of all these conflicting attributes and depictions. So is the devil an actual character, or merely a metaphorical representation of whatever we understand as evil or taboo?

Furthermore, is the devil really so bad, the embodiment of evil, or is he just a player in God’s greater plans, a tester and even jester? Is he God’s great adversary, or is he in fact God’s strange servant, his executioner and ‘devil’s advocate’?

Is he a romantic rebel who stands for personal freedom against the establishment and its petty rules? Is he really God’s enemy or actually his friend, cast out of heaven for refusing to worship humans (one Muslim view)? Is he ultimately redeemable or irreparably lost forever?

Could there in fact be more than one entity that we lump together under the term ‘Satan’ – the tempter-tormentor who is apparently part of God’s order and purposes, and then separately the one (real or symbolic) who is the Embodiment of all Evil?

Could one aspect of the devil simply be the personification of our own shadow side – the name we give to the things we find unacceptable in ourselves? Or to the accusatory aspect of our inner voice or super-ego? Or to all the awful and fearful things we can’t attribute any other cause to; the senseless, seemingly random evil in the world, the forces of chaos and entropy and destruction? Is the devil actually a cosmic scapegoat on whom we place all our own fears, hate and darkness; the one we conveniently blame when things go wrong? Rather than the cosmic villain might he just be the cosmic fall guy?

What is Evil?

Supposing the devil is the embodiment of evil, what is evil? Is it the polar opposite of good, of life and light; or is the twisting, corrupting and perverting of good? Is it utter opposition to God, or is it just part of God’s creation – the necessary potential shadow or flip side of good, which has to be available in order for free agents to have free choice? Is it the implied or necessary Negative, the Minus, the No, the Anti-matter or Dark Matter; the dark to the light? If so, has it taken on some positive being or life that makes it more than mere negation or absence?

Similarly, did God create chaos or did he create from (pre-existing) chaos? Is chaos the primal (and final) state of matter? The Bible could be read either way, though most theologians have opted for the Creation ex nihilo version.

Either way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Evil is real; that there is some force at work in the universe which is malevolent and maleficent. At times Evil seems to have qualities of personality (intelligence, intent, will, hate), while in other ways being almost the antithesis of personality, or the shattered ruin of personality. When we look at (for example) the acts of psychopathic killers like Fred and Rose West, or of paedophile rings, or at the ideology and actions of the Nazi regime, we sense the reality of an evil far greater than any normal human badness; a depth of depravity and implacable life-devouring hate which seems to defy understanding or explanation. We seem to be staring into a black hole of a heart, into ‘eyes like ruined stars’ in Salley Vickers’s poetic description.

My own tentative theology of evil would be that evil exists as a necessary shadow side to good, but it has in some way taken on a being or life of its own and exists as a powerful reality of chaos in the cosmos, even threatening the cosmos’s very existence. Like a black hole, it has a kind of gravitational pull, drawing towards itself all that is not held by good. Satan is merely the first or greatest of those who have succumbed to its attractive force, and so in the end it will devour even him unless at the last he can be somehow rescued. Perhaps.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Evil, Hell, Suffering, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What the devil is the devil?

  1. Terry says:

    If you’re really interested in pursuing this theme, you could do worse than to read Nigel Wright’s A Theology of the Dark Side.


    • Sounds good! But never mind what Nigel Wright thinks, what does Terry Wright think?


      • Terry says:

        I don’t have any thought-out views as such. I used to believe in the devil’s existence a la Chick tracts, but not any more.

        This is what I do think:
        * the devil may be the personification of evil in a literary sense, but not the incarnation of evil in an ontological sense
        * there’s no necessary shadow side to good
        * Christians are not obliged creedally to believe in the devil
        * whatever the devil is, it and evil are defeated by God’s action in Christ’s resurrection.


        • That’s interesting – thanks Terry. I always find my theologically-minded friends’ thoughts more interesting than books written by learned strangers – perhaps because I can relate to them.

          I also used to believe very definitely in the devil’s literal existence (and I was terrified of him). I still do believe in him/it/them to an extent, but in a far more agnostic and uncertain way.

          I think I broadly agree with your points. Just a couple of questions:
          – If there’s no necessary shadow side to good, what do you think brought evil into existence? Human/angelic disobedience, God’s purpose, something else?
          – Would you accept that early Christians like Paul (and perhaps even Jesus) did believe in a literal devil, or do you think they were referring to him in a metaphorical/symbolic way?
          – What do you think the demons or ‘unclean spirits’ in the gospels are? Personifications of psychological phenomena, unquiet ghosts, fallen angels, aliens…?

          NB I’m not expecting you to have complete and thought-through answers, I’m just interested in what you think.


  2. Eric says:

    It may be worth noting that at least one set of names given to the devil in the New Testament (Beelzebub/Beelzebul) comes from the name of a Canaanite deity opposed to Israel. In fact, we seem to get two versions of the name because Elisha mockingly calls Ba’al Zebul, Lord of the High Places, Ba’al Zebub, Lord of the Flies.


  3. dsholland says:

    I don’t give him much air time in my mind. Kinda like that post on negative news, I try to avoid focusing on that part of reality. The deification of Satan can give us an easy out as it were, and doesn’t that just play to his hand? 🙂

    I tend to identify him more with Loki (Norse) or Glooscap (Native American) probably because of the clarity of their subordination. There is some sympathy for the devil, used by God for His own purpose in spite of his rebellion (how frustrating is THAT). Still there are vessels of dishonor and I don’t have a problem with utilizing what would otherwise be a waste 😉

    The whole issue of evil and creation is a difficult problem. I like the fact that we associate good with Light and evil with Dark, and your “shadow” imagery speaks to that deeper truth reflected in the language.

    I’ll leave the light on for you 😉


  4. Terry says:

    Harvey, in answer to your questions…

    1. I do think that human disobedience has a lot to do with it, in so far as God calls us to play a certain role in creation (to be the priests of creation), and we reject that calling. But on a grander scale, I don’t really know. If you say that creation necessarily has a shadow side, then that implies that God could not have created a world without evil. I do think that if you try to explain the origins of evil or find a place for it, you legitimise its existence and make it more acceptable in a weird kind of way.

    2. It’s hard to say. I’m reading Paula Gooder’s Heaven at the moment, and she points out that the satan or the accuser originally functioned as a kind of Gestapo/secret police type character in the heavenly court, trying to weed out those who were disloyal to God. Over time, this character seems to have taken on more of a specific personality. So did Jesus and Paul, etc., believe in the literal existence of a devil? Possibly. But then again, they may not have accepted the devil as the incarnation of evil, even if they accepted him as the personification of evil. The fact is, I don’t know.

    3. I don’t know what demons, etc., are. I do think they have some kind of existence, though I think (at the moment) I prefer to think of the demonic rather than demons in a Chick tract style. My father-in-law is the Diocesan Paranormal Blokey for Bath & Wells, so he might be a better person to talk to on this. 🙂


  5. Hi Evangelical Liberal,

    I love your web site, I just discovered in just now! GREAT stuff, keep up the good work!

    The question of evil is something I have had to struggle with more than I wish were true… But then, isn’t that true of all of us? … Call me a mush-head, but God is real, God is NOT real, Satan is real, Satan is NOT real… Sometimes (for some purposes) it is best to regard them as very real (which I do most of the time), but other times, it is best to regard them as abstractions. See more details on how I think, at http://www.churchofsqrls.com/Enemy_Lover/ ….

    See there (same web site) how Love is a VERY powerful weapon against Evil, to include against Satan and its minions! I have personally had to deal with this, and especially, to deal with this with my daughter, “Roxanne”… Read all about it! LOVE your enemy; it WORKS!


    • Thanks Melvin! That sounds really interesting. I do believe that God is real, though perhaps ‘he’ isn’t very much like the way we mostly imagine him. In fact I’d say that God is the true Reality – the most real thing there can be! I’m not so sure whether the devil is real though – but like you say, sometimes it’s helpful to act as though he is.

      And I really agree that love is the most powerful weapon against evil and hate.


  6. Popcicle says:

    I can’t find the video for Andy Hamilton’s Search for Satan anywhere. Youtube and BBC all seem to have removed it for unknown reasons. Since it has been removed I want to see it all the more as something or someone has a problem with it or certain pieces of information contained within the video need to be kept secret. Any idea how I can view this video or rent or buy it?


    • I think it’s probably just the BBC being over-stringent about copyright – they remove most of their programmes that other people post on YouTube. Shame this one’s gone as it was interesting (and funny), though not hugely controversial – and I can’t see any way of getting hold of a copy either. I’ll let you know if I do find it anywhere!


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