Religious Dogma / Rethinking Christianity

The Evolution of Satan

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the antagoni...

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the antagonist of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A main staple of Christian doctrine is the spiritual warfare for the human soul between God and Satan. Satan is presented as an evil angelic being ousted from heaven and doomed to an eternity in the realms of hell, kept company by disobedient and unrepentant human souls.

I was taught this doctrine as a Christian, but have sense discarded it for the acceptance that Satan is a concept that personifies the destructive interactions between humans and defined as varying types of evil. Abandoning deeply rooted concepts such as Satan and hell for me didn’t just happen haphazardly but became permissible only after a careful study of Satan’s evolution through the old and new testaments and other ancient religious texts.

Satan in the Old Testament

In Christian theology Satan is first introduced in the book of Genesis as the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve. Like much of the doctrinal basis for Satan, this occurs as an act of scriptural conflation. The Genesis text does not assign the serpent with the stature of Satan, but as an animal to be punished by curse for misleading Eve. In antiquity people would have not thought of the snake as the being of Satan because the concept of an evil being preying upon weak human souls was not yet introduced. It would become a reference to the modern idea of Satan when future generations of doctrine creators combined the snake of Genesis with misconstrued descriptions of Venus, and the dragon mentioned in Revelation to create a portrayal of a being that opposed God, as an effort to absolve God from the horrific maladies afflicting human existence.

The Hebrew texts of the Old Testament offer the word ha-satan, translated the satan, which means to obstruct or oppose as the accuser or adversary. The article of ha (the) denotes that it is a title being bestowed upon a being rather than the name of one.

In the early books of the Old Testament, the Satan is represented as an opponent who misleads, misdirects, and in the case of Job, tests and prosecutes, the faithful before God. Either as a human or angelic opponent, or as an abstract evil of the self, the Satan is a subordinate acting in accordance to the will of God. It begs the question then, if Hebrews saw Satan in this way why would early Jewish Christians, and even Jesus, have seen it differently?

Satan in the Midst

Between the oldest writing of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, a period of time elapsed where early Hebrews became influenced by the religions of other cultures. During the period when Israel was taken into exile by the Babylonians the Israelites were introduced to religious beliefs which challenged their own. In the interim period between the oldest writings of the old and New Testament, Israelites were introduced to religions like Zoroastrianism and Hellenism and began adopting cosmological ideologies into their beliefs, and with it the revision of their understanding of the forces behind good and evil, and the acceptance of angelic and demonic beings. The Book of Enoch references the binding of a demonic being called Azazel before the deluge that will destroy the world.  Since the Book of Jude contains comparable scripture to that of Enoch it would seem to indicate that the writer of Jude was familiar with the Book of Enoch. During this time the concept of the Satan of the New Testament begins to appear, seemingly influenced by the good God named Ahura Mazda, and the evil opponent named Angra Mainyu of Zoroastrianism.

During this inter testament period the Septuagint written in Greek emerged. The Septuagint is thought by many scholars to be the text used by early Christians. While mainstream rabbinic Jews rejected it as valid Jewish scripture, it, along with changing cosmological ideology still influenced many early Jews. Eventually ancient Judaism would fracture into many sects including the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes and Hellenistic Jews. Among these varying cosmologically influenced beliefs in opposition to traditional rabbinic Jewish beliefs the idea of Satan as an evil being and his fall from heaven would develop.

New Testament Satan

In the New Testament Satan is referenced as an evil being much more vividly. Often Satan is referred to as the devil, translated from the Greek word diablos, meaning liar, confuser, and slanderous accuser. The New Testament focuses on the life and gospel of Jesus, and Jesus’ ideas about Satan take center stage. It is obvious from a literal reading of some text that Jesus is claimed to hold a strong belief in Satan. He spoke about the kingdom of Satan. He claimed that he saw Satan fall from Heaven. He called those who opposed him sons of Satan. He cast out demons and even claimed himself greater than Solomon, a renowned demon sorcerer and exorcist. But these are literal interpretations of Jesus’ comments. A different interpretation is to read them with the understanding that Jesus may have said them within the early Hebrew concept of ha-satan, the adversary, opponent or evil inclination within. Either way will make sense but the Christian religion did not develop from a non-literal interpretation and the evil being of Satan would grow in stature with the interpretations and subsequent doctrines of the early church fathers.

The final construct of Satan as the evil opponent of a good and loving God comes from the book of Revelation. According to traditional Christian theology Revelation is the story of the final battle in the spiritual war for the human soul when Satan is defeated and cast into hell. Modern scholarship however considers this book to be a writing intended for a Christian audience of the time, and not a prophetic warning of the world’s end. According to many scholars the writer of this book is writing in regard to the Roman Empire much as the writer in Isaiah wrote about Lucifer (morning star, aka Venus) to describe the power of Babylon. Interesting is that some biblical historians are now contemplating the idea that the writer in Revelation 18 was describing the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii as evidence of God’s wrath against the wicked and justice for his faithful enslaved in Rome.

The Satan of the Church Fathers

The devil as we know him today is thought to begin with the conflation of scriptures by Origen. He pieced together references from Job, Isaiah and Ezekiel to argue that Lucifer, the Prince of Tyre and Leviathan of Job were identical to the devil. Tertullian had taught that Satan, the foremost angel, abused his free will and being jealous of humans sought to teach them to do the same. Origen and Augustine also promoted the idea that the devil was envious not only of humans, but also envious of God resulting in his fall from Heaven and the desire to deceive and capture weak souls to his servitude.

High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave D...

High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. Caption: Lucifer, King of Hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Satan of the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages Satan figuratively becomes a lion seeking whom he may devour. The Crusades and the Inquisitions and subsequent witch hunts are shameful events in Christian history. In addition, fictional works such as Dante’s Inferno and later Milton’s Paradise Lost stirred the human imagination on Satan and Hell blurring the representation in religious texts with fiction. Hellfire preachers utilized the influence of these fictional works to their advantage in increasing the substance of Satan to a fearful audience.

Satan in the Modern Day

Despite protests from Christian fundamentalists Satan is evolving again. Some liberal and progressive Christians are now beginning to view Satan comparable to the dark self as defined by Carl Jung. This new ideology of Satan is similar to the ha-satan of the early Hebrews. The devil is not a being outside of the self, but rather the dark and ugly nature of evil that humans possess in the shadow part of the psyche. It seems that the evolution of Satan is coming full circle. After hundreds of years of Christian doctrines evolving him into a powerful being warring with God, Satan is now returning to the limitations of his original concept, to represent the evil inclination within the human soul.

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6 thoughts on “The Evolution of Satan

    • A Jewish friend was the first to introduce me to “ha-satan” and how Jews consider “satan” to be an agent of god and not a warring adversary. Most Christians I know have no idea about the history of satan or even question how a religion that developed from Judaism could have stayed so far away from its roots. They simply tell me that Jesus exposed the truth about satan and the true nature of evil.

  1. Great post! I never realized the “back story” behind “Satan’s” evolution, so to speak. I think having a dark, evil, being gives people someone else to blame when they do something horrible also. I think It’s easier for people to say “Oh well that wasn’t ME, that was SATAN confusing me!” so we don’t feel quite as guilty…

  2. This is a fascinating post! Did you attend theological seminary? How did you find all this information? I had often thought that the Christian idea of Satan was much amplified from the biblical sources, but I didn’t realize how that had occurred. Our book group read Paradise Lost this past summer, and it almost seemed as though Satan was the hero of the piece!

    • This post is a summation of what I have learned through a lot of research and study. I constantly read the works of biblical scholars and whatever I can find from historians on cultures and religions of the societies in antiquity. I read too much! Right now I have at least twenty books in hardcover and on Kindle that I am waiting to read (including yours.)

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