On one hand this makes immediate sense to both the believer and the unbeliever alike. Knowing that we live in a mixed world of both good and bad things, and good and bad people, it makes sense that in some way the “heavenly places” are fraught with these same difficulties. After all, this is essentially the religious worldview of Homer and Virgil, Alexander and Augustus.
But on the other hand, in a civilization shaped by the awareness (if not acknowledgement) of the biblical God, the existence of fell spirits presents some legitimate questions. Most of these questions parallel or extend issues related to the so-called “moral problem” with the existence of God (also called the theodicy): How did evil enter into an inherently ‘good’ creation? How can God create a being ‘good’ and then allow it to fall irretrievably into evil and death? How could an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow bad things to happen to good people? And, Why doesn’t God put an end to the evil in the world?
What makes these questions even more difficult is that the Bible doesn’t clarify everything we might want to know, much less in any single passage. This is so for two reasons. First, as Moses spoke to the Israelites, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deu 29:29). In other words, in his beneficent providence, God has only given us an outline of certain truths related to dark powers, and has left much unsaid—our focus should be on the latter without forgetting that we won’t know it all.
Secondly, the more difficult the subject, the longer the Lord chooses to work. God didn’t fully reveal himself as the triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit until the Christian age, because until his people saw it for themselves, the claim would have made even less sense to the human mind (Mat 3:16-17; 28:18-20; 2Co 13:13). So if God chooses to reveal himself progressively through the history of creation and redemption, how much more so the shady forces of hell! As Sweet points out:
Hence, the malign and sinister figure of the Adversary is gradually outlined against the light of God’s holiness as progressively revealed in the providential world-process which centers in Christ. It is a significant fact that the statements concerning Satan become numerous and definite only in the NT. The daylight of the Christian revelation was necessary in order to uncover the lurking foe, dimly disclosed but by no means fully known in the earlier revelation.
We first encounter the devil—or the one the faithful will later call the devil—almost immediately in the biblical narrative. God has created the world as his own temple complex and come to dwell with his people there (Gen 1-2). Man’s responsibility is to serve as the priests of this earthly paradise: “to work . . . and keep” the garden of God, and to eat freely of every tree provided except for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil . . . for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:15-16). So when a serpent approaches Eve and asks, “Did God actually say . . . ?” and then promises, “You will not surely die,” we know something has gone terribly wrong (3:1, 4, all emphases added). Yet first Eve and then Adam eat of the very tree that had been forbidden (3:1-6; see 2Co 11:3; 1Ti 2:13-14). Evil therefore invades God’s new creation, bringing guilt (3:7), alienation (3:8-9), blame (3:10-13), conflict (3:14-15), toil (3:16-18), and death (3:19) into the world.
Later, we see Satan again (this time wearing his proper name) in the account of Job, where he walks into (of all places!) the throne room of God. “The LORD said to Satan, ‘From where have you come?’ Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it’” (Job 1:6-7; see 2:1-2). If this sounds more than a little suspicious, Satan’s name says it all; he is the Accuser or the Adversary of those who serve God, as Job soon finds out (see ESV margin). But throughout Job’s tribulations, God still remains firmly in control of the situation, limiting Satan’s authority and protecting Job from temptations greater than he could bear (Job 1-2; 1Co 10:13).
Thus, in his adversarial role toward man the devil appears again and again as the tempter and accuser of God’s people: he incites King David to number his army in rebellion to the Lord (1Ch 21:1), he seeks the punishment of Joshua the high priest for his sins (Zec 3:1-2), and he prowls about still today “like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe 5:8). It is no wonder, then, why the apostle John describes Satan as “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns . . . that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world,” and “the accuser of our brothers . . . day and night before our God” (Rev 12:3, 9-10).
- The ESV Study Bible. Ed. Lane T. Dennis & Wayne Grudem. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. Accordance.
- Ferguson, Everett. Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. Vol. 2 (ECS2). Abilene: ACU, 2002. Print.
- —. Inheriting Wisdom: Readings for Today from Ancient Christian Writers (IW). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004. Print.
- Noll, Stephen F. Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically About Angels, Satan & Principalities. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003. Print.
- Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity. HarperCollins, 2009. iBooks. I have omitted most patristic citations in quotes from this work to improve readability.
- Sweet, Louis Matthews. “Satan.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. James Orr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1915. Accordance.