Satan and Hell: A Brief History (Part 1 of 2)

Satan and Hell: A Brief History (Part 1 of 2) February 19, 2013

(I was invited to take part in a debate about hell at a university recently, but unfortunately, the dates don’t work with y schedule this time. But since it’s an interesting topic, and one about which many folks have questions, I thought I’d share a couple of short essays I’ve written on the subject.) 

While Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the first to preach about hell and condemnation, his ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ sermon in 1741 crystallizes the beginning of a modern movement in the church. Edwards employed fear of punishment as a primary means for conversion and doctrinal adherence. Meanwhile, his congregants fainted in the aisles and clung to the pews to avoid being dragged down into the abyss.

We can argue day and night about whether or not fear-based theology is effective, biblically accurate and even necessary. But it’s worthwhile to consider where our contemporary ideas about hell and Satan even come from.

Today, we’ll begin with Satan; we’ll save hell for tomorrow.

Some understand the serpent in the Genesis story to be an incarnation of Satan.  However, Satan first emerges in the Old Testament by name in I Chronicles, and again in Job. His primary role is to demonstrate the weakness of humanity in the face of hardship. 

In Job, Satan must receive permission from God to prove the fragility of Job’s faith by submitting him to any number of hardships. Satan’s sentiments about people are summed up in Job 2:4, when he claims, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.”

He shows up again in similar form in II Samuel and Numbers, always as the antagonist. The name Satan actually means ‘adversary.’ While some may interpret this to mean he is God’s adversary, it’s more accurate to define him as humanity’s adversary, always trying to show how unworthy we are of God’s love.

In the Old Testament, Satan has no latitude to operate outside of what God gives him permission to do. Think of him more like a prosecuting attorney, beholden to God’s judiciary authority. He actually works alongside God instead of against God.

Some people also erroneously refer to Satan as Lucifer. The word “Lucifer” means “Light Bearer” in Latin, which was the term used to describe the planet Venus. Some people take Isaiah 14, about Lucifer’s fall, to be a story about Satan being cast out from heaven, as it looks similar to a quote in Luke. However, most biblical scholars and historians contend that this interpretation is taken out of context.

The “Morning Star” actually was a term commonly used to describe the Babylonian Empire. The king of Babylon not only oppressed the Israelites, but he also made a habit of comparing himself to God in the scope of his power. With this understanding, the scripture in Isaiah actually is prophesying the fall of the Babylonian Empire.

As for the use of the names “Lucifer” and “Satan” interchangeably in the Bible, it doesn’t happen. Satan is not described as Lucifer until secular literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost adopted the pseudonym. From there, the name seeped its way into our culture until we mistakenly began taking it as scripture.

Satan is much more prevalent – and more powerful – in the New Testament. He possesses people, tempts Christ, and Jesus even claims to see Satan in others, including Peter, his most faithful disciple.

Some maintain that Satan is an embodied figure, while others understand the stories about Satan more metaphorically, representing the perennial weakness of the flesh. There is one thing upon which we can all agree: evil exists.

Theologian Frederick Buechner says that evils exists because, in being allowed to choose whether or not to love God and one another, we also have the choice whether on not to live out our most evil impulses. In this way, Satan lingers in our choices rather than in the shadows, and in the mirror rather than the depths of hell.

Now, that’s scary stuff.

 Read “Into the Shadows: The Origins of Hell and Satan” (part 2 of 2) HERE

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  • You have it ½ right and messed up…you need to read the bible
    in context and not read in your feeling, here is a better biblical treatise…..

    • From the first link: “he was second only to God Himself (Ezekiel 28:12-15)”

      However, Ezekiel 28 doesn’t seem to make any such statement.

  • No comments on Ezekiel 28:11-19? It contains perhaps the greatest amount of information presumably about Satan in the Old Testament.

    • Interesting interpretation of Ezekiel 28. I’m no bible scholar so I looked it up; the passage you allude to is about the “king of tyre” and the commentary I have access to says this is a reference to Adam. Ezekiel seems a pretty psychedelic place to base a theology on.

      Just like there’s no direct evidence that the serpent in the garden was Satan, so there’s only conjecture and disagreement over whether Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 are about the Adversary…

      Interesting discussion nevertheless as could be either…

      • Thanks for replying Samir.

        At a certain point, I think that all of the metaphors have to resolve to something distinct, otherwise no one can really determine what a passage is saying at all.

        That then leads to our hermeneutic, or method of interpretation; I don’t think that Adam can be classified as a guardian cherub, so in my opinion that interpretation doesn’t hold water. That there could be another being, other than Satan, being addressed as the King of Tyre, I could buy that; I just don’t know of any other beings that meet the specifications mentioned in the text.

        • good point, but why would a pre-fallen Satan be dressed up like a priest, ephod and all? I though being a priest was the job for men, not angels? But then Ezekiel calls him a cherub, which is different to an angel, is it not?

          I’m pretty confused, to be honest, as until I read Christian’s piece I thought Isaiah 14 was about the Old Nasty One…

          But you’re right in your assertion that at some point you need to make a decision about what the metaphors mean. Otherwise it’s just poetry, isn’t it?

          See you on another blog post somewhere soon, no doubt!

  • This is really interesting. I’d like to see this fleshed out more. Book recommendations?

    • Art

      Elaine Pagels has a nice chapter (ch. 3, I believe) in her book “The Origin of Satan” on the topic. Also try “Satan: A Biography.”

      • The Origin of Satan is a fantastic book, I highly recommend it.

  • Linda_Brendle

    Regarding whether Satan and the serpent in the Garden are one and the same, what is your take on Revelation 20:2 “he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” ( This is from the NIV)

    • I see “serpent” as symbolic, used as a literary device, like a recurring character, but not literal. I mean, is it a snake or a dragon? Does it matter? I mean, the whole section is wild. Technically a pit with no bottom issn’t a pit; it’s just a cylinder. And if it has no bottom, pretty easy to escape, I’d think 🙂

  • Darren

    For an interesting exploration of the origins and evolution
    of the concept of The Devil, I would suggest Gerald Messadi’s, “A
    History of the Devil

    The beginning is definitely slow. I suppose it makes sense
    for the author to explore all of the cultures that do _not_ have the devil
    first, but it does make for a bit of an extended prelude. Once we get to the
    Persians, though, things take off quite nicely.

  • Darren

    For an interesting exploration of the origins and evolution
    of the concept of The Devil, I would suggest Gerald Messadi’s, “A
    History of the Devil

    The beginning is definitely slow. I suppose it makes sense
    for the author to explore all of the cultures that do _not_ have the devil
    first, but it does make for a bit of an extended prelude. Once we get to the
    Persians, though, things take off quite nicely.

  • N.B.

    What about Revelation 12?

    7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

    10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

    “Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God,
    and the authority of his Messiah.
    For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
    who accuses them before our God day and night,
    has been hurled down.
    11 They triumphed over him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony;
    they did not love their lives so much
    as to shrink from death.
    12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
    and you who dwell in them!
    But woe to the earth and the sea,
    because the devil has gone down to you!
    He is filled with fury,
    because he knows that his time is short.”

  • rumitoid

    Could it be…SATAN? Loved the Church Lady. If Satan is the tempter, it seems it is more how he lets himself be used and interpreted by the Church. As I understand the NT, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus defeated Satan, yet he still seems to play a role for much of what I hear as an opposing power.

    I don’t know if I am like a lot of other Christians who take his existence with a grain of salt. Could be metaphorical, could be real but what is the difference if one stays hidden in Christ and loves as Christ loved us? The psychological “outs” for our behavior that seems natural to our species, defense mechanisms (such as projection, sublimation, etc.) as well as the deferment of spiritual growth if evil is embodied in adversary and not “a look in the mirror,” is like being his sub-contractor by believing in a literal Satan.

    The temptations of Jesus after leaving the desert are similar to those of Sidhartha. Any ego would find such offers very attractive.

    “I was not myself.” “I’m not like that.” “I don’t know what came over me.” When we act against our values or how we usually are in the world and with others, it feels like it was an outside force; there must be something else to blame. We do not like the weakness or the effects on our self-image. Denial takes over. First Eve and then Adam made this plain. Satan works well in these scenarios. Writing as if a literal entity makes sense, for the presence seems real. Any writer of the Books would have an intimate relationship with this overarching nemesis within themselves that appears to make them do what they do not want to do or would not normally do. But I am sure these obvious observations have all been noted somewhere before.

    As to at some point “all of the metaphors have to resolve to something distinct,” as Eddie noted, I would mention the seven metaphors Jesus gave us about the kingdom of heaven. How distinct a picture do we get? Can we draw a schematic of it? A metaphor is used to express something deeper and richer than can be easily grasped by language, defined and explained neatly in black and white terms.