Must We Believe in Satan? As a Personal Agent?
Article by: Dan Kent
Have you ever noticed how boldly some Christians proclaim their belief in God while simultaneously shying away from belief in Satan? How strange, especially since we all form our beliefs in a cosmos that often seems more ungodly than godly. Yet most believers don’t really advertise their belief in Satan—including me!
I don’t like believing in demons, Satan, or even angels. Some of the whackiest things I’ve ever heard have come from the mouths of folks who passionately believe these types of things. Then there’s my science-friends: modern rationalists who move through life under a rainbow of pure reason: whose pockets overflow with competence and good evidence. What would they think of me if they knew I believed in little invisible rascals who hustle around trying to get good people to do bad things?
Unfortunately, though, I really do trust that Satan and demons exist. I say “trust” because “belief” is such a strong word, a word that presumes far more conviction than I actually have. To me, my cognitive relation to the demonic is like my cognitive relation to Quantum Entanglement. Entanglement claims that entangled particles can be separated, placed at great distances apart, and then, when something spins one of the particles, the other, far away, will also spin in sync with the first. This strikes as science fiction, but really smart scientists assure me this happens. So, even though I don’t really believe it deep down, I trust that it’s true. Likewise, I trust that Satan and demons truly exist, even though my conviction on the matter ebbs and flows a great deal from moment to moment.
Woefully inadequate, but here are a few brief reasons I awkwardly trust this ostracized belief in Satan and demons:
(1) Jesus tells us they exist.
If I’ve made Jesus my lord, my “one teacher” (Matthew 23:10), then it makes sense to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt about the important things he teaches to be true. Jesus explicitly teaches that Satan and demons not only exist, they also do a great amount of evil in the world around us. This teaching grounded his ministry. In fact, Jesus’s ministry begins with Satan confronting Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:9) and ends with Satan losing authority over the earth to Jesus (Matthew 28:18). Satan plays a crucial role in Jesus’s life and teachings. Because I trust Jesus, I trust that Satan and demons exist.
(2) Satan explains gratuitous evil.
Imagine if someone hired you as a very special kind of accountant. They hand you a calculator and a clipboard and say something like: “Look at all the evil in the world. I need you to record all of it and document the source of every evil. We need to see who bears responsibility for all this suffering and wickedness.” You sharpen your pencil and say to your new boss, “I’ll do my best.”
Since you know that God is perfectly good, holy, and that no evil comes from God, you cross God’s name off the list of evil sources. Then, feeling a bit overwhelmed, you turn to the seemingly endless evil and suffering still needing accounting. You realize quickly that a great many of these evils come directly from the free will of people. You start moving incidents of war, oppression, belittlement, sexual abuse, and so forth into the “Human Free Will” bucket.
Unfortunately, as you return your gaze to the world, you see a great many evils still sitting there unaccounted for. You see a young boy has drowned while playing at the lake: then you see that a young man has been struck by lightning while golfing with his friends: then, over there, a family lost their home to a tornado. No free choice chose any of these outcomes. There must be some other source.
Then you realize you can attribute all of these natural evils to the unintended consequences of the stable environment required for humans to live as free creatures. They each represent accidental evils arbitrarily related to structural goods (people need water to live, but if they have too much at once, they can drown). You slide these over into the “Stable Environment” bucket.
You feel really good about how much evil you’ve been able to account for. But there still remains leftover evil that you cannot explain by either human free will, or by the stable environment in which we freely live. You see a young girl with brain cancer, which you realize right away has no relationship to anyone’s free will or any necessary connection to having a stable environment for which to freely live. Then you see another lady born with a genetic disease. Then, as you document the evils of North America, you see Ichneumon wasps, which implant their eggs inside caterpillars so the newborn wasps can feed, eating the caterpillar slowly from the inside out.
The Ichneumon wasp is simply doing what evolution has shaped it to do, just like a cheetah slaughtering and devouring a gazelle. To hold our faith in a perfectly good God, we must answer the deeper question that rings out from the shrieks and cries of their prey: must creatures sustain themselves through the terrorizing violence of killing and devouring other conscious creatures? Since many creatures seem to sustain themselves through the peaceful consumption of leaves, seeds, and nuts, such violence must not be necessary.
You shake off your feelings of horror and create a new category of evils and label it “Gratuitous Evil,” because they seem unrelated to either human free will or accidents of our stable environment. They just seem like evil for the sake of evil. (for 7 more arguments showing how natural evil must be the result of Satan, see Greg Boyd’s thorough treatment HERE).
Then you stumble upon an otherwise peculiar teaching of Jesus. You discover his teaching about Satan and demonic powers. You learn about Satan’s power over nature and Satan’s obsession with sabotaging God’s goals and wrecking God’s creation. As you learn these things you find yourself nodding, because that’s just how nature appears: mostly good, but undeniably corrupted.
This ancient teaching about Satan and demons, as bizarre as it seems to you, just so happen to solve this fundamental philosophical problem. In fact, you realize, without this robust Satan figure, then gratuitous evil must emerge from God’s own will. But that means God wants all of these gratuitous evils, which then makes God’s supposed goodness and holiness implausible.
You make a new bucket called “Satan and the Powers of Darkness,” and slide all of your gratuitous evil over into it. You then turn in your clipboard and collect your check. Evil has now been accounted for without attributing any of it to our holy, perfectly good God.
(3) Satan and the powers must be autonomous, intelligent, and personal.
Some people believe in Satan, but not as a personal being. Instead, they say, Satan represents those abstract powers that compel oppression, violence, and war. To them, Satan serves as a placeholder for collective social forces that compel evil. They see the principalities and powers as the aggregate of human evil, as the result of collective evils accumulated into something greater than the the sum of its parts. This accumulated evil, this collective spirit, then reflects back on us to compel more sin.
I totally understand the temptation to adopt a view like this. With an impersonal Satan, you can proudly affirm the spiritual warfare language of the New Testament without all of the embarrassing cultural imagery of red demons and Satan in tights. You can carry your impersonal Satan with pride at church and at secular cocktail parties. Very convenient!
Unfortunately, though, understanding evil only as an epiphenomenon of human choice still falls flat theologically and philosophically. I can’t treat it fully here, but I will share four brief reasons why I think Satan must be an autonomous, intelligent, personal agent.
First, the impersonal Systematic-Satan doesn’t explain gratuitous evil in a way that coheres with a perfectly good and holy God. Since Systematic-Satan emerges out of free will human choices, many evils remain unexplained, such as the apparent evils of evolution, or the evils of genetic disease.
Second, if the gratuitous evil found in nature really is a corruption of God’s design, this corruption implies both an autonomous and intelligent agent. Autonomy because God wanted a good creation, and made a good creation, so perturbations in that good system must come from a source other than God. Or, as Jesus put it, “an enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). Intelligence because each corruption still demonstrates design, as wicked as that design might be (again, see: Ichneumon wasps). The Bible reflects this intelligence almost whenever it speaks of Satan, particularly when Satan’s intelligence betrays his motives. For instance, Satan works to “blind the minds of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and Satan sets traps to “snare” people (2 Timothy 2:26). Autonomy and intelligence sit at the metaphysical heart of what a personal agent is, and the Bible describes Satan as possessing both.
Third, an enemy of a personal God must also be personal. In the same way that an agent who corrupts intelligent design must also have an intelligent nature, so too, an agent who corrupts relationship must also have a relational nature. The most effective embezzlers have the best grasp of accounting. The most effective sociopaths have the best understanding of human psychology and vulnerability. And the most effective enemy of a triune, relational God is a fundamentally relational being, as deviant as that being may have allowed themselves to become.
Fourth, without a personal Satan figure, humans become enemies of God and each other. If Systematic-Satan simply emerges from the aggregate of human evil, then evil always traces down to individual humans. And if the dark powers of the world, which cause us so much suffering and pain, emerges from the choices of those around us, then my ambition now bends toward judging those around me and fighting to stop what I judge to be evil. Systematic-Satan leaves all the say-so in human hands. Systematic-Satan leaves me-versus-you in the arena of fallen creation. And, ultimately, God versus us.
Although this scenario may resonate with our experience of the world, such a scenario conflicts with what the Bible teaches us: “take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11b-12). Without embracing the personal Satan the Bible teaches, our struggle inevitably devolves into a struggle against flesh and blood. Without an autonomous, personal agent behind evil, a clear enemy against humanity and God, we inevitably become each other’s enemies.
None of this is to say that we must now obsess ourselves with Satan and demons. In fact, that’s why I didn’t even include many of the intriguing case studies of demonic possession and other dark paranormal accounts: such stories often simply absorb us in their fog of terror, while leaving us with only ambiguous evidence.
Rather, victory in this spiritual war, according to my understanding of Scripture, has little to do with Satan. Victory has everything to do with growing in faithfulness to God. Thus, our obsessions should lie there, in the stories of God and the teachings of godliness.
Daniel Kent has authored several books, including Confident Humility: Becoming Your Full Self Without Becoming Full of Yourself, and the series The Training of KX12. He also produces and hosts ReKnew’s Podcast Greg Boyd: Apologies & Explanations and serves as editor-in-chief here at ReKnew.org.