Shedding light on Lucifer

GargoyleThe usual teaching about Satan starts him off as a glorious angel called Lucifer who was almost as great as God. Somehow, it’s said, he got too big for his boots and tried to take over God’s position, persuading a third of the angelic host to join him. Because of this, Lucifer and his fellow rebels were kicked out of Heaven and fell to earth. With his pride hurt and seething with resentment against God he continues the battle by opposing God and God’s people at every turn.  

Or so they say. But the more I think about it, the more I find aspects of this traditional view that trouble me; not least that it sets up a tendency for Christians to magnify Satan’s power and behave as if he were an alternative god – a god of evil to balance the God of good. That’s a heresy called dualism.

If God is as wonderful, beautiful and loving as we believe him to be, how could someone who was close to him and almost his equal possibly come to a point of hating him so much and wanting to usurp his position, let alone persuading so many other angels to join him? It doesn’t ring true.

To support this account of Satan, people usually point to two Old Testament references. The first is Isaiah 14 v 12 – 15. This contains the only reference in the Bible to the name Lucifer. The other is Ezekiel 28 v 14 – 17.  Both passages are about someone who has fallen from an exalted position but If you carefully check the context, neither refers to Satan. The Isaiah passage is about the King of Babylon and the Ezekiel passage is about the Prince of Tyre.

Sometimes people say these passages refer to a demonic prince who was motivating the earthly ruler. True, the prince of Tyre is described as like an angel but The King of Babylon is specifically stated to be a man. There is no other passage in scripture that links Satan with the Prince of Tyre or the King of Babylon.

So the identification of these two passages with Satan looks shaky. It also breaks two accepted rules of Biblical interpretation – it doesn’t take the most obvious and clear meaning and it reads something into the text that isn’t explicitly stated. It looks likely that Satan never was called Lucifer. In fct this traditional view of Satan actually owes more to poems by Dante and John Milton than to the Bible.

Counsel for the Prosecution

So what does the Bible say about Satan? Let’s look at his name first of all. It means an accuser or enemy. The word “Satan” was used for someone who brought a case against someone else in court, “The counsel for the prosecution” would be the modern equivalent. In Revelation he is referred to as “ The accuser of the brothers”. Satan is also referred to as the Devil, which comes from a Greek word that also means “enemy”.  He has at his disposal an army of demons, or unclean spirits, through whom he exerts his will. But, unlike God, he is not omnipotent, omnipresent or omniscient.

The serpent who tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden is not specifically called Satan but is identified with Satan later in the Bible.  The first time Satan is named in the Bible is in 1 Chronicles 21 v 1, where he incites David to take a census of Israel. Another early reference is in the first chapter of Job which describes Satan as appearing before God along with the other angelic beings. Satan’s role as accuser is evident in this passage as he makes accusations against Job. He has not fallen from heaven at this point and appears to have a right to be there, with a legitimate, God-given role. That role seems to be:

•    to test and question God’s work in order to demonstrate God’s glory; and
•    to test people to show what they are really made of.

Jesus acknowledges this role in the Lord’s Prayer:

“And lead us not into testing
But deliver us from the evil one”

When and why did he fall?

The idea of Satan falling from heaven comes from the lips of Jesus. In Luke 10 he tells 72 of his disciples,

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

When did this happen? It could refer to an event that Jesus saw in his pre-existence in heaven, It might mean that Satan fell from heaven as a result of the preaching and deliverance ministry the disciples had been carrying out. However, the most likely possibility is that Jesus is seeing by faith something that has yet to happen. In John 12 v 31, while predicting his crucifixion, Jesus says “Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.”

John picks up the theme in Revelation chapter 12. Here, the archangel Michael fights against Satan and casts him down to the earth where he makes war on Jesus, Israel and the church. Putting all this together I see the fall of Satan from heaven to earth as taking place at the point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Once Jesus has made atonement for sin there is no longer a role for an accuser in heaven. That’s why he is thrown out.

The picture of Satan that the Bible gives is not of an angel who loses his place in heaven because of his pride but of one who has a God-given role to act with God’s authority to test God’s work and God’s people. He has been ejected from heaven by, or because of, Jesus’ death on the cross. If the archangel Michael is a representation of Jesus, then the message of Revelation 12 is that Jesus has driven Satan from heaven and will drive him from earth. Satan is still our accuser and adversary but his role is now restricted to earth. He has a new focus, against Jesus, the gospel and the church. Can he destroy them? Will God’s work survive his onslaught?  In theory the questions are valid but in practice it’s a foregone conclusion. Jesus will ultimately be victorious.

There is a deep philosophical issue related to Satan. Either Satan’s continued existence is a testimony to God’s failure or, Satan exists because God allows him to. The traditional view risks Satan making God a failure – he failed to see Lucifer’s rebellion coming, failed to get Lucifer and the fallen angels destroyed and continues to fail to eradicate him from creation.

The created destroyer

The view I’ve put forward here puts Satan under God’s control. I believe that’s where he belongs. But does that make God the author of evil? And is there a sound Biblical foundation for it?  I believe Isaiah 54 v 16¬17 answers both these questions:

Blacksmith's forge“See it is I who created the blacksmith
who fans the coals into flame
And forges a weapon for his work.
And it is I who created the destroyer to wreak havoc;
No weapon formed against you will prevail.”

Jesus said that Satan came to steal kill and destroy. Who else merits the name of “the destroyer”? This verse tells us that Satan is but a hammer and a fire in the hands of God which God uses to make us strong for his service. Satan’s job is to test God’s work to destruction to demonstrate that it stands and endures. We are part of God’s work, so we will be tested too. But, as long as we continue in trust and obedience, no weapon formed against us will prevail.

We need to be aware of Satan but not afraid of him. The only power he has is the power that people give him over their lives by their disobedience to God. Through the forgiveness Jesus has won for us that power can be removed and, in our union with Jesus, Christians have authority over Satan and his demons.

Satan’s destiny

Revelation says that the ultimate destiny of Satan is to be “thrown into the lake of burning sulphur”. His realm of authority is progressively restricted. He fell from heaven as a result of Jesus’ work on the cross. His activity is now restricted to challenging God’s people on earth and trying to prevent people from responding to the gospel. Ultimately his role is restricted to carrying out punishment on God’s behalf for those who persistently rebel against God and end up in Hell (“the lake of fire”).

Does it make a difference?

What difference does it make? In one sense, not a lot. Whether God created Satan for a purpose or just allows him to continue for a purpose, God remains in control and will do what he plans to do. From our point of view, though, understanding the truth about Satan stops us giving him more respect than he deserves, stops us being afraid of him and makes us more aware of the authority that God gives us over him.

Gargoyle on the roof of St Kenelm's church, Clent, Worcestershire © copyright Michael Jobling

Hammer and anvil, © copyright Mike_tn, accessed from under a Creative Commons License.