As a pastor I have had many sincere Christians share their concerns about Satan and his activities with me. The concerns these people have are very real. But sometimes I wonder if they are influenced more by Hollywood’s version of the Devil than by what Scripture says about him.
Hollywood’s Satan scares us to death. But why? Why are we so frightened of this special-effects creature, with its scaly body, red glowing eyes, and sharp horns? If we are honest it’s probably because an entity who can make the lights go out, drop the room temperature to arctic levels, and talk in a deep and creepy voice has a lot of power to raise the goose bumps on our flesh. The ending of the movie Rosemary’s Baby was unnerving because we feared that we would glimpse the baby—the child of Satan. As the cultic followers on the screen were fawning over the demon child, those in the audience were on the edge of their seats, wanting to see but afraid to look.
And therein lies a great problem: we can become obsessed with Satan’s physicality. What does he look like? Where does he set up shop?What will I do if he holes up in my daughter’s doll collection? Such questions spark great ideas for horror writers, filmmakers, and special effects experts, but they don’t help us think biblically about Satan and his minions.
If we keep living under the delusion that he is the Creature from the Black Lagoon, then we will inevitably fall prey to a second myth.
The fifteen-year-old, cable-movie-addicted version of myself was distraught over something that seemed fundamentally unfair. It seemed that Satan and his demons were not only powerful, but free to move about wherever and whenever they wanted. In movie after movie, a normal American family moved into the one house that the Devil had arbitrarily chosen as his summer vacation home. And once he did, no amount of holy water or exorcisms could stop him from destroying the house, the people living in it (even the faithful family dog), and anyone or anything that tried to stand in his way. If Satan wanted to paint a bull’s-eye on your back, too bad for you! Sometimes popular Christian teaching presents Satan with this kind of unstoppable power and authority. The repercussions of such a portrayal are troubling.
When I started to wonder about a possible spiritual realm where Satan had this kind of free reign, I scared myself into virtual paralysis. What recourse would a teenager have if satanic forces made him a target? It seems that many Christians, even mature Christians, think about Satan in the same way.
I recently asked a group of twenty-somethings two questions:
1) Can Satan go wherever he wants to?
2) Can Satan make your life a living hell if wants to?
Ask yourself these same two questions. If you answered yes to either of them (as the twenty-somethings did to both), then I have news for you. The bad news is that you’ve been duped into believing the myth that Satan is all-powerful and omnipresent. The good news is that you can get unduped!
Satan Is Not Beastly, But Beautiful
While the Bible is sparse on any physical description of Satan, it gives us enough clues that we can be certain he is not some hideous creature who would make our skin crawl. When the apostle Paul warned the church at Corinth about the Devil’s activity, he urged them to be on the lookout for beauty, not beastliness.
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 cor. 11:13-14, italics added).
Some commentators use this passage to suggest that Satan is hideous in appearance, but Paul does not seem to be suggesting that here. He is contrasting the outward appearance of false teachers with their inward motivations: outwardly they are pleasant, but inwardly their motives are sinister. So Paul is not suggesting that Satan is actually physically ugly behind his façade. He is merely demonstrating that Satan has sinister motives, but that his outward manifestations can be quite beautiful.
Physical appearance is never really the issue; Satan is an angel—an incorporeal being. That should not surprise us in light of the Devil’s origin.
Based on certain New Testament passages, it is reasonable to conclude that there was some sort of angelic rebellion in ages past and that Satan was an angel who rebelled against God and was expelled from His presence.
“God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment” (2 peter 2:4 nkjv).
“And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (jude 1:6 nkjv).
These passages recount a heavenly mutiny. A number of angels banded together in opposition against God, and God responded by banning them from heaven and marking them for eternal judgment. Yet neither of these passages mentions Satan.
So how do we know he should be counted in their number? Jesus answers this question by giving us a glimpse of the original blueprint for hell, particularly for whom it was constructed.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (matt. 25:41).
Notice the phrase “the devil and his angels.” The relationship is that of a leader and his followers, a president and his cabinet, a general and his soldiers. Satan is the ringleader of a band of angelic malcontents. His essence is angelic, not bestial.
Satan Is Not All-Powerful
As much as Satan would love to be free to do whatever he pleases, to roam at will throughout the earth, the world is not his playground—at least not in the way he wants it to be. While Satan may have carte blanche in screenplays and novels, he has no such liberty in the real world.
The perfect example of the extent of Satan’s “freedom” is found in the book of Job. There we learn that Satan desires to test Job, a righteous servant of God (job 1). That’s all a modern filmmaker would need to make a horror flick. From that point in the movie, Satan would plot his evil plans to ruin Job and his family in full computer-generated special effects glory. But the Bible has a scene that would ruin the producer’s vision.
“And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that [Job] has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’ So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord” (job 1:12).
What? God puts limits on Satan’s plans? He is not free to move about the world as he pleases? That’s right! Satan is not only limited by God in what he can and cannot do, but Satan must also ask God’s permission before he can do anything! In the New Testament, Jesus confirms this limit on Satan’s freedom in a stern warning to the apostle Peter. Shortly before Jesus’ death, He wants to prepare Peter for a coming test.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (luke 22:31-32).
Notice that Satan “demanded” to have Peter. He demanded. But demand is not the same as command. People can demand all they want. A prisoner without the possibility of parole can demand that he be released, but he has no control over his destiny—that belongs to the parole board. A toddler can demand ice cream, but only his mother is tall enough to pull it from the freezer. It is no different with Satan. Yes, he demands, but it is God who determines whether his request will be granted. This is why Martin Luther is alleged to have said, “The devil is God’s devil.”
Make no mistake: Satan is evil. He is powerful. He seeks to do us great harm. But he is definitely not free!Satan is a rebellious and cast-out angel with a chip on his shoulder. We know he disguises himself as an angel of light. But what is his true identity? What is he seeking to do? What is his end game?