Satan against Satan

Satan against Satan June 23, 2018

I have long found myself puzzled by the statement attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, depicted as a response to the accusation that he cast out demons through the power of the prince of demons, often rendered as Beelzebul. Jesus asks (Mark 3:23-26), “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.” Can you see what is puzzling? My impression had always been that Jesus thought that Satan’s kingdom would not stand, that he believed that he himself was overseeing its downfall. That is the assumption of scholars as different in their outlook as Gerd Luedemann and Christopher F. Evans. The former writes, “The end of the rule of the devil is the underlying conviction in Jesus’ religious life” while the latter says, “Jesus is not simply another exorcist, but the one who is to effect the ultimate destruction of the whole demon world.”

And yet the argument Jesus makes in this passage, unless I have misunderstood it, presupposes that Satan’s kingdom will stand, which it would not if it were divided against itself – and if it were divided against itself, then Jesus could conceivably have been using one demonic power to drive out another. For a long time, Joel Marcus seemed to be the only scholar commenting on this as a significant conundrum in making sense of the passage. His solution – that Jesus’ view of what his impact on the forces of darkness would be changed over time – is a real possibility, but one that deserves much more serious consideration than it has received.

Another possibility is that Jesus was confronting his hearers with a puzzle, one that he would himself later offer the solution to. Commenting on Mark 3:24–27, Morna Hooker writes:

Jesus’ initial answer is as logical as the charge brought by his opponents. It is absurd to suggest that he is using satanic power to cast out demons—Satan has more sense than to destroy his own kingdom. The argument in vv. 24–6 appears to assume that Satan’s kingdom still stands firm and is not breaking up: if his kingdom were crumbling, then we might conclude that civil war had broken out but, since it is not, the scribes’ accusations must be false (C.K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition, p. 61). But internal revolution is not the only way to topple a regime; an alternative method is invasion, and this, the true explanation, is set out in v. 27, introduced by the strong adversative but (ἀλλά). The assumption behind this second saying is that Satan’s kingdom is, after all, breaking up. Mark appears to have put together two separate sayings, and their juxtaposition shows that he believed that Satan’s rule was indeed crumbling, not because Satan was divided against himself, but because he had been overcome by someone stronger.

In that case, the puzzle used to stump his hearers is that the kingdom of Satan is doomed to fall. But it hasn’t collapsed yet, and so it isn’t internally divided. And the solution to the puzzle is that there is another way for a kingdom to be brought down: a stronger power conquering it.

I’m not sure that this resolves the issue in this text satisfactorily – what do others think?

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