The Bible is full of references to the devil (also called Satan, Beelzebul, the enemy, the evil one, etc). It would be fair to say that the existence of this being is central to the Christian faith. We learn from the gospels that Jesus, when carrying out His ministry and His miracles, was often casting out demons and rebuking the devil.
But who or what exactly is the devil? There are plenty of scriptures that mention the devil in many different contexts. In one scripture he is referred to as a “great dragon” and an “ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9). Elsewhere he is described as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:32). In another scripture the devil is described as the “son of Dawn” who has “fallen from heaven” (Isaiah 14:12).
The impression that one gets when reading the scriptures that mention the devil is that he is in opposition to God, and does not serve God. Instead, he is the lord of temptation and betrayal. He tempts Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2), and betrays Jesus through the actions of Judas Iscariot (John 13:2). Many Christians argue that while God is perfectly good, the devil is responsible for all evil in the world.
But let us consider whether it is really possible for any being to exist in opposition to God. I believe that God created this universe and everything in it. Theologians will tell you about attributes of God such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. In other words, God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere. If this is true, it means that everything that happens, and everything that has ever happened, is and always has been under the direct control of God.
In this context, is a rebellion against God by the devil really possible? If God is omnipresent, that means that nothing else exists apart from God. The whole of existence is part of God, and God is in control of everything. One would have to conclude that either the devil doesn’t exist, or he exists but is under God’s control. But why would a benevolent God create and control a being whose purpose is death, destruction, and torment?
Some Christians might respond that the devil fell from grace and acts of his own free will, as do his earthly followers. But this argument fails. It fails because, as we have said, omnipresence is part of God’s nature. If this is true, there can be no free will. All of existence is created and sustained by God. He is all-powerful and in control of everything that happens.
I believe, therefore, that it is wise to see sin and shame and death and destruction as under the direct control of God. After all, isn’t that why we pray to Him? Isn’t that why we reach out to Him? Don’t we know, deep in our hearts, that God has all power, is in control, and is the solution to every problem?
Perhaps God has created an evil spiritual being, a devil, in opposition to Himself as part of the game of life. Perhaps the devil is part of a grand scheme that God is unfolding in order to express different facets of His power and His nature. But if this is the case, I would still have to conclude that the devil doesn’t really exist as a free, independent being, because he is a part of God and is under God’s control.
For further discussion surrounding the issues raised in this post, I recommend checking out my book God’s Grand Game, which is currently available for free as an eBook. To find out more and get your copy, click here.
The existence of the devil is an uncomfortable subject in our modern world. People seem to think it glorifies the devil to admit his existence. I believe in the existence of God and the devil, but I love and follow God. For several reasons I’m convinced the devil is real, and I’ll try to mention just a couple here.
The presence of evil in the world makes no sense without believing in a source of evil that acts against God’s design.
The longer I live the more I think we massively underestimate God’s value for free will. I don’t think it’s true that God is all powerful to the point of making everything happen in this world. If that were true we would have no free will, and he would be the source of all the suffering we see. Even if we could explain away the devil we can’t explain away the wrong that we see on the news. We know that God is good.
He is omnipresent but that doesn’t mean he imposes his power wherever he is. He is with us when we do good and he stands by when we do bad as well, waiting for us to listen to him and turn back to his ways. Much as we would often prefer him to come in and sort everything out, he has set up the world so that we have agency. His design is that we choose life, and goodness, and by acting for good when we had the option to do good or ill, we glorify him by what we choose. One of the reasons there is suffering in the world is God doesn’t get his own way all the time. He has children, not puppets.
Jesus believed in the devil and frequently taught his followers about the mindset that they need to have in relation to him. (John 10:27, 1 Peter 5:8, Luke 10:18, John 12:31-32; John 8:43-45.) I don’t think he was just using an old worldview that we have grown out of. What he said on those occasions wouldn’t make sense if it was just a turn of phrase.
It’s worth noting that in the past some mental health problems have been attributed to ‘possession’ by the devil and all sorts of stuff like that. While I do think some people massively are affected by evil, we understand more about the mechanisms of the brain now, and I hope most people would agree now that ill health affects the brain as it can affect any other organ, but has a more devastating affect, so I hope they wouldn’t see it all as ‘evil’, except in the sense that all sickness is evil – there’s no sickness in heaven because bad stuff doesn’t get to be in heaven. I’m looking forward to my physical health conditions not being present in heaven, same as I’m looking forward to my friend’s mental health problems not to be there.
The questions you raise are super important. Google tells me that it was Charles Baudelaire who wrote in a novel, ‘the cleverest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!’
Hi Victoria! Many thanks for your thoughtful response. There is a lot to talk about here, but I will try and respond to your points as concisely and directly as I can.
Here you have actually described exactly what I believe which is that we have no free will and that God is the source of all the suffering we see. That naturally follows if we truly believe God is omnipresent. For me the question is not “does God cause suffering?” but “why does God cause suffering?”. It makes no sense to me to believe in a God who is partially in control and pervades some of the cosmos. God has clearly created every atom that exists, and He is holding and sustaining all of existence. The reason why I reach out to God in prayer is because I know He is in control.
I believe God must have reasons for creating suffering. I have explored possible reasons for suffering elsewhere on this blog and in greater depth in my books. Here are a couple of articles which touch on this subject:
Moving on to your next point. You said this:
I’m not sure what you imagine the term omnipresent to mean, but for me the definition is that God is truly everywhere. That means there is no part of existence which is not God. It is inconsistent to argue both that God is omnipresent and that we have free will; the two ideas contradict each other. God is all that exists and all His creatures exist within Him as expressions of Him. He holds matter in existence and is the cause of all activity in the cosmos.
If you believe in the devil, I would be interested to learn what you believe are his attributes. Is he an animal of some kind, or is he a force? Where does he reside? How does he exercise his agency? Also, if God is not in control of suffering, as you suggest, do you imagine Him to be somehow outside of His creation looking in; only to intervene in certain circumstances? In this moment, how would you describe the relationship between God and the devil in terms of ontology (or “being”)?
Sorry for all the questions, but I think they are important.
One last point. It seems to me that you believe ‘the brain’ is in control of our behaviour. I believe that God is in control of our behaviour. Once again, why would we pray to Him to shape us to be kind, generous, patient, loving, etc, if He is not in control of our thoughts, words, and deeds? Also, surely (as I often argue) it is God who is beating my heart, flowing my blood, digesting my food, blinking my eyelids, breathing my lungs, etc. I don’t understand how a brain could possibly know how to do all these things. Is our brain some kind of agent that is distinct from ourselves?! Of course not; God is the one and only agent in existence and is in control of all His creation. And yes, we are like puppets and He is the cosmic puppeteer!
Best wishes, Steven.
Do you have children? The question of “free-will” in response to a concept of “power” and the various “omni’s” of God, are some of my favorites. This is one of those areas where philosophers like to hang out, but not live. We live every day of our lives with our own “power” under restraint. Just because we’re capable of doing something doesn’t mean we do it. I have a daughter who drives me up the wall. Just because I can kill her doesn’t mean I do. I love her, and in response to that love, I restrain my power. Sure there are possible consequences I want to avoid, but the damage to the core of my soul in killing someone I love deeply is more compelling than prison or execution.
Here’s the thing, I have a tracker so I know where she is. I pay attention to what she says. I hear her heart and see her actions, and I know things about her she is unwilling to admit about herself. But I don’t control any of these aspects. The best I can hope for is influence. Why is it so difficult to believe that God limits Himself in the same way? Ephesians 6:12 we learn that our struggle is against the “rulers, powers, world forces of darkness in the heavens”. So, when we pray that “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” how different is that from what happens here any day of the week? You see what I mean? Satan is depicted as visiting God along with the “sons of God” in Job, Paul points out that the real fight is in heaven. They agree that the will of God isn’t done as we assume. Sure we want God to be all-power as we define it, but He restrains Himself. We would love it if God would simply resolve the evil of this world the way we want, whenever we see it, but He restrains Himself. Why?
The problem isn’t His power, His love, or the existence of evil. The problem is in our submission to Him as He is, not as we define Him. I don’t understand Him, but isn’t that exactly what I should expect as I relate to One who created this inexplicable universe? A Trinitarian God makes perfect sense when I agree that He should be inexplicable. One all-powerful (creation/resurrection) and yet all-loving (Jesus dies to fulfill the just requirements of God) and yet permitting evil choices makes sense when I accept an inexplicable God. Free-will, the existence of the Devil and so on are based on the same paradigm. Why would God create a rebel? I don’t know. But I don’t need to know, I simply accept what He has revealed of Himself and His character, and His creation. He reveals that Satan exists. Why deny it? Doesn’t that sort of put myself in judgement over God? And if Satan does exist, doesn’t that make me more open to his schemes and plots? Better to think of him as real, act against his kingdom in favor of God’s (as Scripture depicts the struggle), and if I’m wrong God will most likely be pleased anyway (sort of like Pascal’s Wager).
Anyway, that’s my approach.
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I think there’s a lot to be said for that approach. But it’s so difficult to try to believe things that I feel are illogical / irrational. On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to judge God. But then there are millions of Muslims who believe in the Qur’an as an act of faith, and that presents it’s own problems. Why do we choose what God says in the Bible over what God allegedly says in the Qur’an?
I don’t expect you to read every article on my blog, but I would like to direct you to just one, which I think epitomises my struggle with the subjects we are discussing:
I apologise that it’s one of my longer articles. I hope you get a chance to read it.
Best wishes and thanks for the discussion.
I read the entry, though not all the comments (I have only limited time here on earth). I left a comment there. I get your dilemma, but I think you’re overly caught up in these omni’s to which you refer and they force you away from Scripture, which is ironically what their understanding is based on. You can attempt to have a foundation apart from what God reveals about Himself in Scripture, but you then are forced, as you point out in your entry, to sit in judgement over God. And simply because you believe your actions are all completely ordained by Him and you have no freedom of your own, doesn’t absolve you of then distancing yourself from the Scripture He reveals. That’s a circular reasoning trap. You seem unaware that your own views are completely dependent upon those Scriptures you reject. It’s ironic. How can you support a view of God’s omni anything apart from Scripture?
Although, to be honest, I’m not sure Scripture really supports a modern/post modern view of omni-qualities of God anyway. He’s a Person, not an abstract linear idea. People defy such artificial constructs. Why wouldn’t God be even more so? Scripture does not paint in my mind any sort of linear immutable Deity. He’s just not that simple.
Think about the complexities of a Person who, creates a universe, and when it goes off rails fixes the problem of justice in the most unimaginable personal visceral means. He enters that creation, suffers within it and suffers a fracture in His own being, then rejoins with life forming an unbreakable connection between Himself and His creation. That’s an amazingly complex Personality. His actions defy and yet define justice, love, wrath, grace, and peace. Just not the way we would or do.
That’s why I need Scripture. I can’t figure Him out on my own, and He didn’t leave me to my own rationality.
Thank You Jesus!
Unfortunately your definition of omnipresence is neither Orthodox or accurate. To say that God is everywhere present is not the same as to say that everything is part of God. That’s a false equivocation and defeats your point that the devil would somehow be part of God.
Secondly your point on sovereignty is partly valid in that nothing Satan does is outside God’s sovereignty but it does not follow that Satan is not acting against God from his own perspective. It’s simply affirming that there is no equality between God and Satan and that nothing he does will interrupt the decree of God.
As far as a the devil being a person, the testimony of Scripture is always one of personality, therefore I would agree with divine writ over and above all else.
Hello and thanks for your comment. I would have to disagree with your first point, as I believe that God being everywhere does mean that everything is part of God. I’m not sure how you can draw a distinction between these two assertions, but feel free to elaborate if you feel you can clarify where the distinction lies. Is every atom a part of God? If so, God is everywhere, but if not, God is not omnipresent.
Concerning your second point I wasn’t sure whether you believe Satan has free will? I think this is tied up when the question of God’s omnipresence.
I respect and understand the fact that you interpret Satan as being a person due to what you have read about him in Scripture.
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