I am becoming ever more convinced that the Western world doesn’t know quite what to do with the character of Satan. And by all accounts it seems that my hypothesis may be correct. A 2009 study by George Barna found that 59% of those who claimed to be Christian agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that Satan “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.”1 It appears as though belief in Satan is passé.
Satan. The mere mention of that name may conjure up images of a towering red figure with horns, wings, a pointed tail and hooves for feet (thank you very much, Dante Alighieri). We have the phrase “The devil made me do it!” The implication? Satan has the power to coerce us to do things against our own will. In the theological world, we may assert that Satan wouldn’t be able to best God in an arm-wrestling match, but in the pop culture world we’ve made the odds pretty close. We may be alarmed that Christians are abandoning or redefining the biblical teaching on Satan; yet, given how the Western Christian world has historically portrayed Satan, I can honestly understand why. But maybe, just maybe, there are a couple things about Satan we have forgotten.
The Biblical Picture of Satan:
Saint Peter reminds us that the devil is a lion on the prowl (1 Peter 5:8). But what does this mean? We have horror movies galore that would lead us to believe that Satan is a blood-thirsty monster hiding behind a rock. However, holy Scripture needs to be our guide in these matters. The name “Satan” first appears at the beginning of the book of Job. His name means “accuser.” More importantly, he cannot pester Job without God’s permission and direction. In the Garden of Eden he appears as a crafty serpent, sowing seeds of doubt. In the wilderness Satan misquotes Scripture in order to tempt Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 8:44 that Satan is the father of lies, the originator of deceit. Paul makes us aware in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that Satan masquerades himself as an angel of light; he wants to portray evil as good, lie as truth. The characterization of Satan in the Bible is more sneaky and manipulative than ominous and foreboding.
I live in Taiwan, where there seems to be a temple on every street corner. Patrons of these temples throw moon blocks to obtain “yes” or “no” answers from the temple god about how to have financial success, good health, good luck, or other such things. They might pick out fortune sticks. They may hire a spirit medium who will use a chair or another object to write a message from a dead ancestor or god—all of which looks a little scary to Western eyes.
Now a Western person would look at this as superstition, and wonder “Why would anyone believe in that?” It’s quite simple; because they think it works. Their thinking goes like this: “Praying to this or that god brought me success. Praying to the ancestors keeps bad luck away. Crowded temples are crowded because the god there has a reputation for being effective at answering certain kinds of prayers. Believing in this works for me; Jesus will bring me nothing but trouble.”
And that’s how Satan works. He sows the lie that what God has said and done in Jesus Christ just isn’t enough, isn’t worth it. Then he uses fear, accusation, apathy, whatever is at his disposal to feed that lie. You and I are quite the same. We have our own temples we frequent when we feel the need; they might be called “shopping malls” or “sports arenas,” but they function in the same way. We may retreat to movies or video games when life seems hard, because they make us feel better. We do things of no biblical value because they make us feel good, because what God has said and done in Jesus Christ doesn’t seem to be enough for us.
The Defeat of Satan:
Different cultures have different ultimate questions. In the West the ultimate questions have been “How can I be saved?”, “How can I get right with God?”, or “Who can take my guilt away?” So it’s no wonder we have favored penal substitution, that on the cross Christ died in my place to pay for my sin and offer complete and total forgiveness. And to this we should all say, “This is most certainly true!”, because it is!
But in Taiwan the ultimate question is, “Who has more power? Jesus or the god at this temple?” A very different question that penal substitution doesn’t quite answer. Have we in the Western world favored Romans 3:23-24, “… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” over 1 John 3:8, “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work”? Does the doctrine of Justification exclude or lessen the purpose of Christ to destroy the devil’s work? When Christ uttered from the cross “It is finished!”, we have rightfully assumed that he meant sin was once and for all atoned for, but we may have regrettably forgotten it also meant the work of Satan was undone once and for all.
Whenever I visit a temple, I offer my own prayer: “Heavenly Father, may the ‘god’ in this temple never answer another prayer.” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 that what is offered in the temples of false gods is actually offered to demons. Satan and his minions are still active in peddling lies. However, earlier in chapter 8 Paul reminds us that in these temples an idol is really nothing at all. Satan and his minions have been defeated; all their work will come to naught in the end. Christ came to destroy the devil’s work, and he has! “This is most certainly true!”
We call this teaching Christus Victor, and quite honestly, in the West, we could do with a little more of it in our theological thinking. Let us not give Satan too much credit. Our old friend Martin Luther may have emphasized justification by faith (and quite rightfully so), but let us hear the good news of Christus Victor ring clear from his pen:
And though this world,
with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear,
for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
One little word—τετέλεσται—“It is finished!”, and the devil’s work was undone! This is good news for Taiwan, and good news for you.
Rev. Ben Hosch serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as a missionary for Lutheran Brethren International Mission to the unreached people of Taiwan.