Where the Devil is Satan (in Contemporary Christianity)?

Where the Devil is Satan (in Contemporary Christianity)? May 20, 2013

Where the Devil is Satan (in Contemporary Christianity)?

            When I write about “contemporary Christianity,” for the most part, I’m addressing what I see as my own religious-cultural context—moderate, centrist, evangelically-oriented Protestantism in the U.S. I’m not usually (unless I say otherwise) addressing fundamentalist or liberal Protestantism or Roman Catholicism.

            I hold in my hand a copy of the so-called Jefferson Bible (officially titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) created by Thomas Jefferson. In spite of some revisionist historians’ claims, it was not created as a tool of evangelism of native Americans. Jefferson explained very clearly, in letters to John Adams among others, why he created it. He admired Jesus but disagreed with much of what he said and most of what the writers of the gospels claimed about him. So, he cut everything out of the gospels he thought conflicted with reason and left only those teachings and acts of Jesus he considered admirable and believable.

            Evangelicals especially love to use Jefferson’s truncated New Testament as an example of what goes wrong when we come to the Bible with interpretive lenses determined by culture and philosophy rather than, in the inimitable words of theologian Hans Frei, allow the Bible to “absorb the world.” And yet, it seems to me, we (especially moderate to progressive) evangelicals (and other Christians) do it all the time.

            A glaring example, it seems to me, is the way we have exorcised Satan and demons from our New Testaments. Oh, sure, we haven’t literally cut all references to them out of our Bibles, but we have gotten used to ignoring them or “interpreting” them non-literally. We are, it seems to me, extremely uncomfortable with believing in Satan or demons—except perhaps as personifications of the evil that humans do.

            But it seems to me that’s very difficult to do while attempting to take the New Testament seriously. Satan is all over in it; he’s a major player, a significant character in the narrative.

            Some years ago my family and I were members of a church that advertised itself as “evangelically committed, ecumenically open.” The pastor announced he would teach a series on the Gospel of Mark on Wednesday evenings. The first evening he let us know that he did not believe in a literal Satan or demons. He explained that the believed them to be primitive personifications of human evil and mental illness or diseases. I wasn’t shocked as I knew that is fairly common among such moderate, centrist churches. (He did believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, salvation by grace alone, etc.) But I told him publicly that I would be interested to see how he handled Mark 5—Jesus’ exorcism of the demons from the “Gerasene demoniac”—the man possessed of many demons. According to the story, the demons leave the man but enter a herd of swine which then rushes off a cliff. The pastor never did get to Chapter 5 in his series on Mark.

            Most conservative Protestants will not openly or blatantly deny the non-symbolic existence of Satan or demons and, if pressed, will claim to believe in them as non-symbolic realities of some kind. But, in my experience, anyway, most such pastors and theologians do not really want to deal with them. They are left aside and rarely mentioned in sermons, Sunday School lessons, and Bible studies.

            My question is—why? Why do those Christian pastors and teachers who claim to take the Bible seriously, claim to love C. S. Lewis (author of The Screwtape Letters), claim to stand in basic continuity with historic, orthodox Christianity, so seldom even mention Satan or demons when the New Testament is full of them?

            It seems to me there are two interrelated reasons and a third. First, many such pastors and teachers grew up in fundamentalist or Pentecostal contexts where Satan and demons were over-emphasized. I recall, for example, seeing a book in our church’s library (and in some members’ homes) that claimed to contain illustrations of demons “seen” by a woman. The book gave me nightmares! Another popular book in my religious milieu was Pigs in the Parlor: A Practical Guide to Deliverance. You would have to see it to believe it. Another book guaranteed to give children (and maybe some adults!) nightmares.

            A second, related reason, I think, is our moderate Protestant craving for cultural respectability. Belief in a literal Satan and demons seems, however nuanced, guaranteed to bring scorn from sophisticated people living under the influence of the Enlightenment.

            A third reason may be the influence of philosophical reasoning, channeled through rational apologetics, among evangelicals (including many who consider themselves moderate, centrist). A big part of such apologetics is theodicy—the explanation of evil in light of the existence of God. Theodicy rarely finds place for Satan or demons in explaining the existence of evil in God’s universe.

            I’m tempted to add a fourth possible reason for the disappearance of Satan and demons and that is Calvinism. If God is the all-determining reality and Satan is just God’s instrument (however explained as a “secondary cause”) then why focus any attention on him it all? Go right to the ultimate cause of everything including evil—God. But, of course, Calvinist theologians generally do not deny Satan. But I suspect many pastors and lay people who teach in Calvinist churches do not see the point of Satan if God is the all-determining reality and so what’s the harm in leaving mention of him aside?

            I struggled with this issue for a long time—how to believe in what I’ll here call “Satanic realism”—Satan and demons are real beings and not merely symbolic representations of evil without falling into fanaticism or leaving behind reason.

            A bit of autobiography will help explain my dilemma and its solution (however partial) and, hopefully, resonate with some readers and help them.

            I earned my post-seminary Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in Religious Studies (with heavy emphasis on Christian theology) at a major, secular, national research university. As a graduate fellow I was assigned to help teach a course on C. S. Lewis to undergraduates. It was a team taught course with the chair of the Religious Studies department overseeing the two of us (graduate students) who actually taught the course. Of course, we read The Screwtape Letters and other books by Lewis that included Satanic realism. But some students and others argued that it was all allegory and not at all to be taken literally. I recall several heated conversations with fellow graduate students over Satanic realism; most of them considered it primitive, pre-modern belief not to be taken seriously by anyone in such a context.

            For a while, then, I seriously considered latching on to Karl Barth’s idea of Satan as “Das Nichtige”—“that Nothingness”—the power of evil that comes into being (or not-being but existing) as that which God does not will and opposes. After careful consideration, however, that did not seem plausible in light of the Satanic realism of the New Testament.

            During my fifteen years teaching theology at a moderate, centrist evangelical college and seminary, I taught an elective course on “America’s Cults and New Religions” (which I promoted as “Unsafe Sects” to get students to register for it). During that time I encountered many, many convincing evidences of Satanic realism in the dark underworld of American occultism. And I read many books about the occult in modernity that seemed to support Satanic realism in spite of the Enlightenment taboo against it.

            I will just mention one personal experience I had that seemed to me to provide experiential support for continuing belief in Satanic realism. As part of my research for my course I visited some occult shops in the metropolitan area where I lived. They were more numerous than most people knew. One in particular I had come to know as a favorite hangout for both Wiccans and Satanists. (A Wiccan high priestess told me this and claimed that the Wiccans would have nothing to do with the Satanists but that they came there anyway—to purchase books on occult power to use for their nefarious purposes.)

            I drove up to the bookstore, parked across the street and attempted to get out of my car. As usual, I had prayed for divine protection during my drive there. I found myself literally unable to get out of my car. I sat there for a very long time trying to exit the car but could not. It wasn’t fear; I’ve been in many occult and esoteric bookshops and was not afraid of any mere bookstore. As I sat there pinned inside my car by some mysterious force, I remembered praying for divine protection. Eventually I pulled away and never did go inside that bookstore.

            Two books appeared about that time that strongly influenced me to continue believing in Satanic realism—I Believe in Satan’s Downfall by Michael Green and People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. The first one is, of course, a theological treatment of what used to be called “Demonology” in Christian theology, and the second one is a semi-autobiographical testimony of coming to belief in Satanic realism and demonic possession by a secular psychologist who became a Christian in part, at least, because he could not explain the pathology of some patients without belief in Satan.

            As for the first book—I Believe in Satan’s Downfall—I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially for Christians who struggle with belief in Satanic realism and want a reasonable, biblically faithful, account of demonology that avoids extremes and is rooted in revelation and Christian tradition.

            It seems to me that moderate, centrist Protestants need to overcome our own pathologies including 1) throwing the baby out with the bathwater (of fundamentalism or Pentecostal extremism), 2) seeking respectability from Enlightenment-based culture, and 3) being fascinated, if not obsessed, with rational apologetics including theodicies that have no room for Satanic realism.

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  • Jack Harper

    Roger, I read ” Pigs in the Parlor” when I first became a Christian at 16. I had an experience that proved to me that Satan was real, but that Jesus was victor. My wife is bipolar and there was a time when our pastor thought she was demon possessed. I know that the devil uses people’s weaknesses against them, but I also think it’s important not to jump to conclusions that every mental illness is demonic. Not that you did, but some do and it is unfortunate reality in Christendom. There is such a stigma attached to mental illness that it has been hard to even confide in others about my wives condition, for fear that they will feel the need to cast out demons. I know there is the demonic and some mental illnesses are a result of their influence, but it is my opinion that not every case could be said to be demonic, but a physical deficiency that affects the emotional state. Thanks for bring out this reality, Keith Green wrote a song in the 70’s that no one believes in satan anymore, very true.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very important subject and a good summary of the issue. We love to be vague on this topic, for obvious reasons, yet the NT writers are anything but vague. Theodicies that struggle to avoid the realness of spiritual evil fail time and again, but just take a deep breath and try again. The result is either to trivialize evil (it’s not really that bad, necessary you know, all under God’s control, his doing actually) or, as you have said many times, to make God into a monster.

    If we Christians really believe in a spiritual reality (God is spirit and we must……. or tarry in Jerusalem until……) then why should it be difficult to believe that there is conflict in that spiritual reality? There certainly is plenty of conflict evident in material reality. Scripture strongly implies and often says that these conflicts are linked – are one in the same actually.

    Rather than ignoring spiritual reality, Christians should be leading the way in thinking about the relationship between material and spiritual reality. The dualistic approach of the past (and often enough the present) has been discredited. A more holistic understanding is desperately needed. Even secular studies along these lines sometimes appear to be more bold than many evangelical approaches.

  • mjk

    As a preacher who has battled people-pleasing tendencies, I have emotionally struggled with the notion of alienating vast swaths of our culture by professing a belief in a personal evil, as described in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.

    However, it occurred to me one day, while struggling with a passage that confronted that issue head on, that if I can boldly profess a belief in God, I can boldly profess a belief in Satan. It suddenly seemed odd that I could passionately profess to believe in an invisible being vested with unfathomable power for Good but would hesitate to just as passionately profess to believe in an invisible being vested with unfathomable power for Evil. In my mind, problem (re)solved.

    • Roger Olson

      Good point. I have often wondered about people who believe in God but not miracles (for example). How can miracles be impossible or unbelievable if God exists?

  • philqb2

    Answer: Satan isn’t real, obviously.

    • Roger Olson

      Is this meant to be a serious contribution to discussion of the matter or is it tongue in cheek or what? How is it the case that “Satan isn’t real, obviously?” Have you personally observed the non-reality of Satan? Explain or don’t post such cryptic comments.

  • rvs

    I would suggest that Calvinist theology suppresses “Satanic realism” more so than other mainstream Protestant theological outlooks.

    • Roger Olson

      Except perhaps liberal theology which often has no room for supernatural beings. However, to be fair, evangelical Calvinists do believe in Satan. I suspect, however, that many people influenced by it find little purpose for Satan in the picture of world history or individual lives–since God is the all-determining reality.

      • Steven Tyra

        Dr. Olson,

        I have often benefited from your work, and am appreciative of this post – it addresses a concern I’ve had as well, working as a Presbyterian pastor in a “moderate” evangelical context. That being said, I want to raise a question about the connection (or correlation?) you draw between a theological emphasis upon divine sovereignty and inattention to “Satanic realism.”

        I’d actually own the Reformed “neglect” of Satan to some extent – I don’t see a terribly significant role for demonology in many “classic” figures in my tradition, including Calvin himself. However, the Heidelberg Catechism contains a good number of references to Satan, especially when invoking the motif of “Christus Victor.” (It may be significant on that score that Ursinus had experience in Lutheran circles, and the Cat. itself grew out of an attempted compromise between Lutheran and Reformed).

        Which leads me to my real point: What about Martin Luther? In De servo arbitrio itself Satan plays a major (some would even say outsized) role: The famous image of the will as a horse ridden by either God or the Devil speaks for itself. Luther, the “man between God and the Devil” can hardly be accused of neglecting Satanic realism. And yet Luther is also accused, often enough, of being a gross determinist (something I’d deny).

        I wonder if the origins of the Reformed neglect of Satan is not so much theological as cultural. Many of the Anglophone Reformed theologians in particular were concerned to achieve philosophical and cultural respectability at the very historical moment when belief in a literal Satan was becoming embarrassing. I think of a figure like Francis Bacon – strongly influenced by Calvinism, yet also the early modern scientist par excellence.

        Luther, ever the late medieval German peasant in his heart, could easily believe in a very active Devil while espousing a very “strong” view of divine causation. Later Reformed, holding a similar (if not identical) view regarding divine action, found Satan a little awkward. The difference wasn’t theological, but a changed cultural, philosophical, and scientific context.

        Again, thanks for your post! I think I’m going to go reread the Screwtape Letters now.

        • Roger Olson

          You’re right about Luther, but I’ve always found him self-contradictory. Many positions one would expect him to take (given things he said and wrote)–he doesn’t. He goes in an opposite direction. But, if I recall correctly, somewhere he did say that Satan is “God’s Satan”–meaning the instrument of God (the deus absconditus). In my opinon, based on much reading of Luther and secondary sources about his theology, Luther was no slave to consistency. My main point was not about Calvinist theologians. I think I said that. My concern is that lay people (and probably some pastors) in Reformed churches quickly conclude, based on the theology of divine determinism, that Satan really isn’t someone worth thinking about because, after all, he is just God’s instrument, a secondary cause.

  • So you believe in demons as the counterpart of god, but are you able to prove any of this besides personal experience which is exactly that personal.

    But more importantly would you consider depression for example (I have it) as demons at work or do you consider it a medically treatable disease like diabetes.

    • Roger Olson

      I’m not sure where that question comes from. Did I say anything that would indicate that I think all mental, emotional and physical illnesses are caused by demons? I did not. That they are not all caused by them is no indication that Satan and demons are not real and active in the world.

      • That why I asked would you consider, thanks for taking the time to reply. 🙂

    • Andrea Shishmanian

      Hi Christian, I read your question and thought I’d share my experience, for whatever it’s worth! I am a UCLA grad and had been on anti-anxiety meds as well as medication for depression for years. Though the medication never seemed to work for me, I was dependent on them emotionally, fearing that if I gave them up I would not be able to function at the high level necessary to complete my education, hold down a job, etc. However, after the birth of my first child at 30, things really went downhill. I couldn’t even get out of bed to care for our child. Long story short, I went through deliverance and subsequent inner healing and have not struggled with depression, again. Praise, Jesus! My experience has been that until we effectively deal with the spiritual root of issues, counseling and meds are just a bandaid. I bless you, Christian, on your journey with peace in knowing that The Redeemer calls you by name, and it is His good pleasure to bring wholeness and healing to His kids!!

      *Forgive me, Mr. Olson, if this post seems inappropriate in light of the theological nature of the discussion, but there is power in the testimony!

      • Roger Olson

        Not all depression or anxiety are rooted in “spiritual issues.” Much is rooted in brain chemistry.

        • Andrea Shishmanian

          Agreed. Some cases of depression are the result of chemistry imbalance. Some are not.

      • I have to say that’s great an well for you, but no god or anything helped my depression. The doctors have said that they can find no emotional reason why i get depression. It happens overnight and they believe it must be genetic as they see no possible other explanation. And before you ask I have seen christian psychiatrists as well who say the exact same thing. See below for more information.

        • Roger Olson

          Comment edited

        • Andrea Shishmanian

          I’m sorry you haven’t experienced improvement under medical care. I am willing to dialogue with you further, but I’m sure Mr. Olson would agree it would need to be in a different forum.

          • Sorry I think you misunderstood. I have receive great benefits from taking prozac. I suppose I am one of the lucky ones that can actually use Prozac, I know many people cannot due to side effects.

  • Steve Rogers

    Accepting your premise that Satan is real, I think the less attention he gets the better. He is to be behind us, not in front of us. He is, after all a usurper and thief who loves any press he can get. I once met with a group of people who had the peculiar habit of inserting into their prayers direct rebukes to Satan, something like, “Dear God, we thank you for your tender mercies and, Satan, we rebuke you.” The first time I heard it, I thought who invited him to the party?

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, but neither is it biblically sound to deny the reality of Satan or ignore him completely.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Hi Roger,

    I was trying to make sense of what you sense is happening in evangelicalism in the disappearance of Satan, mainly because I see deliverance ministries alive and well today. They are especially potent outside the Western context, but stories continue to come through testimonies here as well. I tried to come to terms with beliefs of Christians concerning Satan and his activities twenty years ago when my family was declared to be under the influence of “generational demonization” when a family member got involved in the Christian therapeutic counseling of “Repressed Memories.” Believe me, with what we lived through, I believe in Satan and his activities, but just not the way the church applied them to my family. In fact, the activity of the church when I tried to get them involved with the whole family in a biblically responsible way was to keep everyone else but the “victim” sidelined. I remember the pastor hardly giving me the time of day when I insisted he talk to me. Leaving that short meeting, I asked if he had any children. He responded that he had three young boys. So I left him saying “twenty years from now, if one of your sons does this to you, you are going to hope to God the other two are me.” He was stunned and angered, but only glared at me with the insistence that I was poking around where I did not belong! Imagine that. Being thrust into the role of “advocate for the defense” could not be allowed into the mess created by Christian counseling and the church while a personal lynching was going on in the name of Jesus.

    At any rate, when I was doing my research into this thing (five years worth) that had gripped the nation from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, I came across Jaroslav Pelikan’s series “The Christian Tradition.” In his first volume he has a section on how the church’s belief in Satan moved outside the biblical boundaries and into superstition. It would seem that that was what was happening again in my time. While focusing on Satan and demons that they “clearly” thought had delivered a frontal assault on my family, their “deliverance” from their perspective drove him out the front door, but (from my perspective) only served to allow him to come in the back door in the most deceitful way I could imagine.

    The therapeutic, which Os Guinness remarked at the time, “creates a culture of suspicion” in its Freudian variety (insight-oriented therapies), when combined with the church’s utter lack of discernment and discipleship that creates the superstitions Pelikan mentions, is a combination that can only destroy. I found in the responses of even well-educated Christians towards my situation to be one paralysis, a reluctance to get involved. I could only conclude that the church was probably the most dangerous place a father could take his family, seeing how willing everyone was to cut off the limb on which they all sit.

    Where is Satan? As they say, “the Devil is in the details.” When I see theologians tackling doctrine these days concerning this topic, such as new books like “Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views,” I shudder as I know much of what is written is unaware of just how Satan is actually working – in more deceivious ways than we tend to imagine.

    • Roger Olson

      Perhaps you should read that “four views” book. You might be surprised at some of what they say there. To be sure, there are many churches in America and around the world that over-emphasize Satan and have distorted views of Satan’s power and influence. My post was explicitly aimed at so-called “moderate” and “progressive” churches (among evangelicals) who, by and large, have abandoned belief in Satan or the demonic by neglect.

      • Mark Nieweg

        Hi Roger,

        I guess what I am trying to get at is that the average church person (and their leaders sad to say) will not work hard to get a handle on a biblical doctrine that would help them discern and deal responsibly with the situation I relate in my comment. All witch hunts continue because the group does nothing. Most times it stops only when those conducting it end up on the receiving end of their own beliefs – a thought I tried to leave with that pastor. I am familiar with all the players and positions of that book I mention. And when I interacted with other reviews of it, I found the typical response (sorry to hear what happened, but…..).

        Given the church’s track record, I would almost rather see – if it falling into error is the large percentage – it fall to the position of the “moderate” or “progressive” neglect. From there, I might be able to work to a more biblical stance. Coming from the other end of the spectrum, because so much of it is tied up today with the therapeutic emphasis on its understanding of meaning, healing, and deliverance at the expense of others being accused, that becomes a much harder situation to move in the proper direction.

        Just relating my story makes me a pariah amongst the brethren. All I am trying to do is help people understand the implications of their beliefs beyond the parochialism that blinds them to those implications; and more to the point, what Jesus would call us to as being followers of a crucified Messiah that does bring true deliverance and healing. However, even if they see, there is always the “but.”

  • Craig Wright

    A couple of other considerations are that the OT rarely mentions Satan. It is a surprise to people to notice that Satan is not mentioned in the snake incident in the Garden of Eden. Satan is only mentioned 3 times in the OT, and Zechariah and Chronicles are late books, which might also affect the dating of Job. The Chronicles mention is interesting, because the author changes the 2 Sam. 24: 1 mention of the LORD inciting David, to Satan (1 Chron. 21: 1) inciting David.

    This leads to the other point, that people are often too quick to blame Satan for their own responsibility in sinning. Clint Arnold, dean of Talbot School of Theology, points out is several of his books (as well as his commentary on Ephesians, discussing the “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places”) that the Bible is purposely vague on the origin of Satan and demons. Even he had his own Satan story, which I heard a seminar of spiritual warfare, in which he attributed a severe headache to the demonic.

    • Roger Olson

      Like I said in my post, I was addressing the almost total absence of reference to Satan in moderate to progressive churches. We all know that some Christians “on the fringes” over do it when talking about the devil. Where is the happy medium? That’s my question.

  • John C. Gardner

    The Michael Green book that you mention is wonderful. I read it a number of years ago and have decided to read it again based on your recommendation. Would you please explicate further on Satanic realism as you interpret it. This was a great, very helpful post for me personally since I have struggled with this issue at times. Thank you.

    • Roger Olson

      By “Satanic realism” (a phrase I coined–so far as I know) I mean that there exists in reality a supernatural, spiritual entity who tempts people to sin and who opposes the will of God. That being is not merely a symbol or projection; he or it is real apart from any other creature’s mind, will or actions.

  • Ray Wilkins

    I have to admit that in the past I have felt uncomfortable mentioning Demons and Satan in sermons. However, I always go back to a book I read in a Missions class, “And the Word Came with Power,” by JoAnne Shetler. JoAnne describes the very real presence of demons among the Balangao people in the Philippines. Although she could never see them and they never afflicted her, their presence and effects among the people and the fear of the people was very real.

    I have added your suggestions to my Amazon Wishlist and look forward to reading them.

  • Stephanie D.

    Thank you for posting this… I’ve always believed in Satanic realism, mostly in a general, non-oppositional sense, and then in recent years because of personal experience. Between school and church (not fundamentalist or Pentecostal, but still affirming Satanic realism) I felt like there were very different worldviews. People in school usually only speak about demons in hushed tones. Rather, there was a gap in ideology between the two that I am having to fill myself, so that’s why I’m grateful for this. While I am generally fine with Occam’s Razor I have come to realize that it doesn’t serve us well in this area – in both of its interpretations (if I’m remembering correctly). That is, it would refuse the belief that something COULD more than one explanation – having demonic (spiritual) AND psychological roots, which I think is possible. I would be interested in the followup to your beliefs on this – a “so what” portion, if you will. It can be confusing, truly but I really think that’s why the Spirit has given the gift of discernment, among others.

  • Tim

    I believe that many Christians either deemphasize and/or deny the reality of Satan and his demons not because the idea is primitive in such a way as to be worthy of dimissal but because it is deeply disturbing. More to the point, such beings, if they exist, are clearly beyond us and, therefore, frighten us to the point where it’s tempting to deny their existence for the sake of our own mental health. Of course, according to Christian tradition we can always invoke the name of Jesus to combat these nefarious spiritual beings, but even then it is the spirit of Jesus that triumphs over the demonic realm and not us.

    • Roger Olson

      Sure, you’ve put your finger on another reason. I’m sure we could come up with more. I think the reason depends on the individual and (sometimes) on the church and its culture.

      • Tim

        I would further say that my thesis can be naturally generalized to the overall modernist rejection of spiritual/supernatural categories. In particular, I would argue that this rejection is driven more by fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable then by any kind of rationally compelling argument against the existence of such things. Once again, it’s easier for people to deny and/or ignore the existence of potentially disturbing realities that are beyond one’s control then it is to intellectually engage them.

        • Roger Olson

          I don’t disagree, but I never said people deny or ignore Satanic realism because they believe there is a rationally compelling argument against it. There isn’t, of course. What I think is that an Enlightenment-based, rationalistic and naturalistic mindset has infected moderate-to-progressive churches in America such that people don’t even think about Satan or the demonic and when the subject is brought up to them they say things like “That was then” (viz., in “Bible times”) or “Things like that happen in other cultures but not here.” Fear of the unknown and unpredictable is part of the problem, but if that were the whole problem Christians in Africa (for example) would also avoid belief in and talk about Satan and the demonic. They don’t. I think we human beings tend to see what our dominant worldview allows us to see and don’t see what it doesn’t allow us to see. If the Bible truly absorbed our world for us (Hans Frei) we would be more likely to recognize much evil in the world as instigated (not caused) by Satan.

          • Tim


            I agree you, however, individuals in moderate-to-progressive churches in the West don’t think about the demonic realm because the religious communities they belong to don’t think about such things. The real question is why moderate-to-progressive church communities don’t think about the demonic realm and not necessarily why regular folks don’t think about it.

            “Fear of the unknown and unpredictable is part of the problem, but if that were the whole problem Christians in Africa (for example) would also avoid belief in and talk about Satan and the demonic.”

            In my opinion, you can’t really draw such an equivalence because the metaphysical aesthetics of people in Africa were shaped by a completely different dialectic of sorts than those of Westerners. For most of the world today, and even throughout history, the existence of a spiritual realm with its own categories is practically a given and not cause for alarm; however, that isn’t the case for post-Enlightenment Westerners, who tend to ascribe to either a Christian worldview or a materialistic worldview. More pertinently, modern Western society has managed to break from its medieval past by rejecting all spiritual categories, which has happily allowed it to conduct its affairs without worrying about such troublesome things as a G/god to whom it might have to give an account. Obviously, other cultures not shaped by this history (e.g., Africa) won’t necessarily have the same aversion to spiritual categories.

          • Roger Olson

            I think our disagreement is minor. All I was saying (and continue to assert) is that Africans are also alarmed at the supernatural works of evil (the Satanic and demonic). Many of them live in fear (perhaps rightly) of them. I know this because some of my close relatives have been missionaries in Africa and I have had many African students over the years. But I think we agree that there are at least two reasons U.S. Christians avoid talk about Satan and the demonic (except as symbols)—our worldview tends to rule it out and we are afraid of it.

  • Andy

    I agree with absolutely everything you have said in this article.

    I do find myself wondering though….

    Whilst we all challenge the ‘crazy’ extremists of demon theology (and I do) – I sometimes wonder whether any of these contemporary theological perspectives are as extreme as that of Jesus (e.g. casting Demons into a herd of pigs).

    If someone tried that today we would all think that person was completely out of their mind.

  • Joshua

    Thanks for writing about this. I am part of a Pentecostal tradition but until recently have preferred to mostly ignore the topic of demons/satan. Part of that stems from the ambiguous experiences I’ve had. There is a practice in my circles to label many problems as demonic; someone will then pray a deliverance prayer of some sort binding the devil and rebuking the demons. When it’s over we are supposed to clap and cheer and assume that prayer did the trick. Except that most times nothing much changes.
    But in the last couple weeks I was working a young lady that has made me a firm believer in the reality of demons – and Jesus’ power over them. She was doing things that defied my natural explanations (writing death threats to herself in languages she did know, convulsing at the name of Jesus, etc). And when my wife and I expelled the demons in Jesus’ name, she was instantly a different person. She said that for a long time she had wanted to become a Christian but had been somehow unable to do so until that moment. She then proceeded to quickly and joyfully give her life to Jesus.
    I’m taking the stories in the NT a lot more seriously now.

    • Roger Olson

      For the most part, in my experience, we moderate to progressive, centrist evangelicals rejoice at testimonies like this–so long as they are told my missionaries to foreign lands. The very same people who would rejoice at such a story told by a missionary (about such an event in a foreign land) will often recoil in horror and unbelief if they hear it told about something that happened here in the good ol’ USA. I’ve always wondered about that double standard.

  • Josue

    The Bible has many references to Satan and his angels. Jesus spoke with Satan in the desert. God spoke with Satan in the book of Job. Job sickness was caused by Satan (God allowed him). Michael and his angels fought against the dragon (which is the ancient snake and Satan) and his angels. Even Paul taught that we fight against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

  • Matt W

    As a pastor in mainline church (though a conservative
    mainline church) I find myself holding back about openly talking about Satan.
    Although I do believe in his existence, in the past I have held back from mentioning
    him and I confess the reason why is because of the fear of sounding too
    extreme. The name ‘Satan’ has a lot of
    baggage in American Christianity simply because of the over-emphasis that you mention
    in your post above. And I worry that visitors might think I’m a Holy Roller for
    talking about him openly. I’m just being honest. However, in an effort to stay true
    to myself and to God’s inspired Word, lately I now will openly acknowledge the
    reality of Satan from the pulpit – however whenever I mention him I call him ‘the
    Accuser’ (the translation of the Hebrew ‘ha-Satan’). I hope that this is a
    faithful way to introduce people to the reality of an ultimate personal force
    of wickedness and teach people what the Biblical text means when we come across
    the name Satan.

    Thank you for mentioning the Scott Peck book, I have
    previously read it and found it interesting but I find I often refrain from
    embracing it too much because I am still trying to discern where Peck stands on
    certain teachings that are essential to Christian orthodoxy. However his
    perspective has certainly been helpful at times and interesting to ponder.

  • Norman

    Dr. Olsen:
    As an undergrad I held the position that Satan was not real until I was studying Greek and translated the Mark 5 that I had to change my belief. I could not deny the existence of Satan and believe what I was translating. If my Lord and Savior cast out deamons then they had to be real and their affect upon humas was real. For me it was just accepting a Truth versus a simplistic, modenist, secular thought that was formed without examing the evidence.

    As for the the effect of Satan in the world I believe the greatest accomplishment of Satan has been to get humans to believe he is not real. Then any affect he or his deamons could implement will be regarded as something other than deamon possession. This thought does not suggest that everything ‘not normal’ is caused by deamons.

  • I would say that I believe in a literal Satan primarily because of theodicy reasons. I have a hard time justifying how the world is so broken without Satan/demons being a part of the picture. I’m definitely not satisfied by the Calvinist answer that conflates the role of Satan with the role of God. I’m not particularly satisfied by just saying that it is only human brokenness. That’s more on an emotional level than a logical or Scriptural, maybe, although I support and broadly understand those arguments, too.

  • Jordan Bradford

    I don’t remember where I read or heard this, but for what it’s worth the general idea is that in Western culture and parts of the world where people no longer fully believe in the spiritual/supernatural realm, Satan’s tactic has been to convince people that he doesn’t exist. In the parts of the world where people still believe in the spiritual/supernatural realm and take it for granted, Satan’s tactic has been to keep people in the bondage of fear so that they will worship idols or spirits or perform magic or anything else to keep evil spirits away.

  • Lydia

    “I Believe in Satan’s Downfall by Michael Green ”

    Just tried to find the book. You have to get it from England or BC,Canada. Out of print?

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, for the most part. I think I got my new copy (after I loaned my old one and never got it back!) from Regent College bookstore. I am going to suggest to Wipf & Stock that they republish it. We’ll see. It needs to be in print again.

  • $53469816

    Thank you very much for your thoughts about Satan and how we have found ways in our culture to explain away the personification of such a being. You mentioned your early exposure to C.S. Lewis and his Screw Tape Letters, are you aware of the book entitled JUNTA. It is just released on Amazon. The author writes a unique story to expose the source of evil and reveals God’s ‘Divine Conspiracy” [to quote Dallas Willard] to defeat it. The author recognizes and exposes the dangers of the occult especially as it has invaded our television, books and film.

    • Roger Olson

      No, I’m not aware of it. I’ll check it out. I hope its not an over the top treatment of Satan and demonology. So many Christian books that treat the subject seem to me to go way over the top–beyond anything we are really warranted to know by Scripture.

  • Jamie

    Have you read Tripp York’s, The Devil Wears Nada? It seems a perfect match for this conversation.

    • Roger Olson

      I haven’t. But it’s a great title! I tend to stick to reading serious theology and avoid popular books about Satan and demons. The one exception I make is C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. It’s full of really good theology and spiritual advice.

  • Dwayne Polk

    I have a question, Dr. Olsen. How much power over Creation does must Satan have to become a plausible factor in the problem of evil? As I remember reading in Gregory Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of evil, he follows Athenagoras, an early church father, in saying that Satan is the “prince of matter”. Quoting Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, page 47.

    “According to this insightful early writer, Satan was originally ‘the spirit which is about matter who was created by God, just as other angels were…and entrusted with the control of matter and forms of matter.’ This spirit, however, has chosen to exercise its freedom to abuse ‘the government entrusted to [him]’ and thus, ‘the prince of matter, as may be seen merely from what transpires, exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God.’ ”

    Basically, Dr. Boyd use Athenagoras’ ideas, along with scriptures that say that claim that Satan is the “god of this world” or the “ruler of the power of the air” to affirm that Satan indeed have administration authority and control over matter (and therefore, also energy, space, and time) in Creation. To Boyd, it is this level of power and that power’s permeation of Creation that significantly grounds the level of “natural” and moral evil that we see in play in Creation. This claim is a bedrock claim for his theodicy in that it describes pre-humanoid animal suffering and what not.

    Here’s my problem: Doesn’t this view effectively make Satan a Demiurgic figure? Having a sole created entity over ALL matter/energy/time/space seems to imply such a thing. Even things such as carnivorism and the 2nd law of Themodynamics in such a view are *ultimately satanic in origin*. More than that, it would seem that Creation would NOT be “window” to God primarily, but a window into God’s created agent who is over matter/energy/space/time.

    So, Dr. Olsen. I understand the importance of Satanic realism for biblical coherency. My question to you is: How POWERFUL is Satan in the grand scheme of things? Do you hold the same view as Athenagoras and Boyd?

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t, but I find his view intriguing. I think it’s speculative and has problems–as you point out. Having said that, I admire Greg for going out on limbs (sometimes thin ice, too) and attempting to answer difficult questions. For my own part, I think our Satanic realism ought to remain very modest and minimal. Satan is real. Satan tempts and accuses. Satan is under God’s ultimate control. Satan is a defeated enemy who, for a time, remains powerful and needs to be recognized as a force for evil and opposed.

  • Andrea Shishmanian

    Great article! A related point to #2 is that churches want to remain “seeker friendly” to win souls for Jesus. What the church fails to recognize is that most people in the secular world have had power encounters that the church doesn’t want to address out of fear and so the default becomes denial. I’ll never forget a Bible study I went to a few years back. A woman had just lost her husband and was obviously still grieving. In her mourning, she had had a visitation. When she went to her pastors seeking answers, they shut her down, so she consulted a medium. Trying church one last time, she came to our Bible study group. Again, her story was met with blank stares; She never came back. The church should be the most understanding of spiritual dynamics, yet sadly we lack anything to offer a culture that in many ways is more aware of and sensitive to spiritual realities.

    • Roger Olson

      What in the world do you mean by a “visitation?” And what does this have to do with Satanic realism? I’m just confused where you’re coming from.

      • Andrea Shishmanian

        My point was that in attempting to be “seeker friendly” and “relevant” to our highly educated generation of MBA and PhD grads, we have ignored the supernatural element of the spirit realm to avoid looking irrational and unsophisticated. The woman I referred to saw things in the spirit realm that scared her and went to pastoral leadership for understanding, guidance, and help. They had no regard for Satanic Realism and she felt rejected and misunderstood by the church. Sadly, the New Age movement has been able to provide her what she initially went to the church, seeking.. however, distorted.