Theology: Satan & Devils
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If not, how does he tempt many people at one time?
—Barry Wolfe, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
By J.I. Packer
The first principle of sound demonology is that you cannot have a more adequate idea of Satan than you have of God. That is because Satan is God’s creature, and creatures must be understood in relation to their Creator.
Today’s Western world, having lost the knowledge of God, is currently in process of losing the knowledge of man and of Satan. Man is thought of as no more than a sort of ape, Satan is seen as no more than a medieval bugaboo (i.e., a sick fancy), and temptation is reduced to conflict between our higher and lower natures (Freud’s ego and id). We need biblical clarity, and we must start with getting our minds straight about God himself.
How, biblically, should we think of God’s omnipresence? The word means that God knows exhaustively, and upholds and touches continually, every single item in the universe he has made, from the tiniest genes and electrons to the most massive stars in the expanding universe to the most complex mind-body interactions in the psyche of over 6 billion people. God is here, there, and everywhere, and his mind and hand are on everything. We are never out of his sight (Ps. 139), and we cannot get away from him (John 1). Wherever we are, he is there too. This is not simply a matter of transcending spatial confines. Strictly speaking, God has no spatial location at all, for space belongs to the created order and exists in him rather than he in it. Such is the omnipresence of God.
What to think, then, of “your enemy, the devil” (1 Pet. 5:8)? “Devil” means slanderer, through malice and misrepresentation; “Satan” means adversary. He is called the evil one and an enemy (Matt. 13:19), a murderer and the father of lies (John 8:44), who “has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). He is an angel, one of the nonembodied personal creatures God made for the joy he and they would find in their worship, fellowship, and service. (To that end, he also made humans.)
But Satan is a rebel and corrupt. He leads the angels who, according to 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6–7, are now under restraint in “dungeons” and “chains” and face the judgment of eternal fire for their sins (Matt. 25:41). These fallen angels, whose character is set in the mold of their first transgression as later Adam’s would be, are called demons in the New Testament. God restrains them to limit what they can do, but their hostility toward God and the godly has no limits. Wrecking God’s work, thwarting his grace, and bringing us to spiritual ruin is their common goal with Satan.
Called “the tempter” in 1 Thessalonians 3:5, Satan seeks to trap God’s servants into doing evil, thinking it to be good, and lapsing into unbelief that makes obedience impossible and disobedience inevitable. Thus he assaults all Christians (Eph. 6:11–13). Believers walk into Satan’s war with God and should not wonder when he turns his fire on them.
Satan tempts many people simultaneously—does that mean he is omnipresent? No. Omnipresence, as we saw, is unique to the Creator. Satan comes and goes (Matt. 4:3, 11; Job 1:7–12). So how does he manage these multiple temptations? Scripture does not say, but two theories are common.
Theory one, recognizing that all angels have powers beyond ours to move around and see into people, posits that Satan has the power of “multipresence”—not “omnipresence,” but not as spacially limited as humans.
Theory two, surely the more natural, is that the New Testament writers do what we do when speaking of wars—that is, ascribe all the hostile action to the opposing leader. “Hitler (or Napoleon or Saddam) attacked,” we say, when in fact subordinates acted at their leader’s command. Most Christians, like C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, hold some form of this view, and have always done so.
Either way, James’s admonition, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (4:7), explodes any idea of Satan’s omnipresence by promising moments when he will not be with us. Jesus knew such moments (Luke 4:13)—and so may we.
J. I. Packer is a CT senior editor and professor emeritus of theology at Regent College in Vancouver. His latest book, with Carolyn Nystrom, is Never Beyond Hope: How God Touches and Uses Imperfect People (InterVarsity).