Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Kayla Lynn:
I’ve been having a hard time discerning the rationality of the Devil.
- I do not fancy the idea of a fallen angel, particularly since there is no direct story of this rebellious angel found anywhere, to my understanding, in the Bible.
- I do not see any need for the Devil in reality (in other words, the big picture), as humans can be quite awful on their own.
- However, I think, based on my understanding of human governments, if angels have a leader, then demons must also have a leader. However, that leader could possibly be God in both cases, right?
- Furthermore, why, even if God can create such evil (in us or in another being) in the first place, would evil be needed in the world at all? Is it to teach us a lesson or guide us?
These are my doubts at the moment, but I have had personal experiences which tell me otherwise… I could really use some direction on this subject.
Confused and seeking truth,
Thanks for the great conundrum, Kayla Lynn!
I would say that you have already sensed much of the truth about the Devil.
As you say, there is little or nothing in the Bible about the Devil being a fallen angel. That idea comes mostly from books that aren’t in the Bible, and from the myths of various cultures.
In the Bible itself, the word traditionally translated “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14:12 is actually a reference to the King of Babylon. He is compared to the “light-bearer” (Latin: lucifer), or “morning star”—meaning the planet Venus, which appears from earth as the brightest “star” in the morning (or evening) sky. You can read the full prophecy in Isaiah 14:3–23. It predicts the downfall of the evil and oppressive king of Babylon by comparing him to the morning star falling out of heaven. The Biblical prophecy is about the fall of an earthly power, not about some supposed powerful angel who fell away from God and became Satan.
In the Bible, the idea of the Devil, or Satan, developed only gradually over time. In fact, the word “satan” was originally used for human enemies. Later Satan, or the Devil, became a metaphor for evil and falsity, and a personification of the spiritual forces of evil and falsity that fight against God.
Does this mean that the Devil isn’t real?
No, the Devil is very real.
It’s just that the Devil and Satan are synonyms for the whole complex of human evil and falsity. You see, we humans, and not God, were the ones who originated evil. And human evil and falsity seen as a whole is the Devil and Satan.
Wherever we see evil and falsity in the world around us, and in our own minds and hearts, that is the presence of the Devil and Satan. And anyone who has ever been the victim of human selfishness, greed, and grasping for power knows that evil and falsity are very real, and very destructive.
Let’s take a closer look.
In Part One below, we’ll look at the real, original meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words referring to the Devil, Satan, and demons. This will lead to a different view of the Devil than the one prevailing in traditional Christianity.
In Part Two, we’ll take up the question of why there is a Devil at all.
Part One: The Devil in the Bible
First, it helps to understand the original meanings of the words that are commonly translated as “the Devil,” “Satan,” “demons,” and so on.
The primary meaning of the Hebrew word שָׂטָן (satan) is “an adversary, an opponent.” So in the Old Testament, satan is commonly used to mean “an enemy.” For example, 1 Kings 11:14 says:
Then the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the royal house in Edom.
The word translated “adversary” in this verse is the Hebrew word satan. It is used the same way for another enemy of Solomon in 1 Kings 11:23-25.
In fact, outside of the book of Job, the Hebrew word satan is most often used to refer to human enemies, though it is also sometimes used of spiritual figures who stand as adversaries. In many of the places where it is traditionally translated “Satan,” it should really be translated as “an enemy” or “an adversary.”
There are no capital letters in the original texts of the Bible. Editors and translators must use their judgment in deciding whether or not words like satan in the original languages are meant to be proper names (“Satan”) or just a description of something or someone (“an adversary, opponent”).
The Greek word σατανᾶς (satanas), comes from the Hebrew word satan, and has the same meaning: an adversary or enemy. In the New Testamant, Satan is more often used as a personification of evil, traditionally interpreted as a powerful evil angel who opposes God and tempts humans to sin and destruction.
However, even in the New Testament it is sometimes used to refer to human beings. Consider, for example, this passage from Matthew:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:21-23 – see also Mark 8:31-33.)
Though the Greek word is usually translated “Satan” in this passage, it should probably be translated as, “you adversary!” In other words, Jesus uses the Greek word satanas to refer to a human being who is, at that time, opposing God’s will and God’s truth.
So even though the Greek word satanas is commonly used in the New Testament to mean Satan, a figure who is the personification of evil, it still also retains its original meaning of an enemy or adversary—specifically, anyone or anything who stands in opposition to God.
If we keep this original meaning of the word satan in mind when we read about “Satan” in the Bible, it gives new meaning to many statements about this evil being, or force, in the Bible.
And it’s clear from the Bible that “Satan” comes from a very human reality. Its original meaning was human enemies and adversaries.
Although the word “devil” appears in a few places in traditional translations of the Old Testament such as the King James Version, the Hebrew words so translated are actually words for hairy goats, satyrs, idols, or perhaps demons. The idea of some evil overlord called the Devil doesn’t appear until the New Testament.
In the Greek of the New Testament, there are two primary words commonly translated “devil.”
One of them is διάβολος (diabolos). Most of the time, this word means a ruling evil figure, the Devil, which is also called Satan. This is the figure that led Jesus into the desert to be tested:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:1–3; read the full story in Matthew 4:1–11)
However, even this word is sometimes used to speak of individual human beings. For example:
Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him. (John 6:70–71)
Notice that Jesus didn’t say “one of you has a devil,” but “one of you is a devil.”
So even the Greek word most commonly used to mean “the Devil” can also be applied to an individual human being who is bent on evil.
And the underlying meaning of the Greek word διάβολος is “a false accuser, a slanderer.” So once again, when we read “the Devil” in the New Testament, it refers to a very human reality: those who slander others and make false accusations.
The other Greek word commonly translated “devil” is δαιμόνιον (daimonion). This word is most commonly used to mean an individual demon, or devil, who possesses a person, and causes that person to harm self or others. When the Gospels speak of Jesus casting out devils, this is the Greek word used.
However, the New Testament also refers at times to “the prince of the devils,” or “the ruler of the demons,” who is synonymous with the Devil. For example, after Jesus had healed a mute man who was possessed by a demon, the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons” (Matthew 9:34).
The ancient Greek word δαιμόνιον originally meant simply a spirit or spiritual messenger, or even a deity (in early polytheistic Greek culture), whether good or evil. But in the New Testament, it is almost always used to mean evil spirits.
So the general picture that emerges is of a host of evil beings, or spirits, ruled over by a figure called Satan, the Devil, or the ruler of the demons. This is the usual picture painted in traditional Christianity.
And yet, the Bible also uses the words for “devil” and “satan” to refer to human beings who are evil and who speak falsehoods and lies.
Swedenborg on the Devil
This use of the original Hebrew and Greek words for Satan and the Devil to also mean not only individual evil spirits, but also human beings who oppose God, speak falsehood, and do evil things suggests that there is more to the Devil and Satan than meets the eye.
And according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), that is precisely the case.
Contrary to all of the Christian teachings of his day—the teachings that still hold sway in most of Christianity—Swedenborg said that there is no such thing as a Devil, or Satan, who had been a powerful angel that fell away from God and became the ruler of hell. After all, that idea of Satan as a fallen angel isn’t in the Bible. It comes from non-Biblical books, and from various traditions that had grown up over the centuries. In fact, most “Christian” beliefs about the Devil and Satan come from various human traditions rather than from the Bible itself.
Swedenborg’s experience in the spiritual world showed him a very different reality—one that is more in line with the Bible’s use of these words to mean both evil spirits and evil human beings.
In fact, Swedenborg said that these are really one and the same thing.
Evil spirits, he said, are all human beings who have lived evil and selfish lives here on earth, and have gone on to live in hell after their death. According to Swedenborg, there is no separately created race of angels, nor are there fallen angels who have become devils instead. All angels and devils were once human beings living in the material world.
Then what about the Devil and Satan?
These, Swedenborg says, are really just personifications of hell.
You know how the United States is sometimes called Uncle Sam? Have you heard of the Russian Bear? Have you seen China depicted as a Panda?
Likewise, in the Bible hell is personified as the figure of the Devil and Satan. And hell is simply the combination of all human evil gathered together in one vast evil region of the spiritual world.
So when the Bible talks about Jesus, or human beings, being tempted by Satan or the Devil, it’s really talking about the evil influence of hell working on us, and trying to drag us down into false beliefs and evil actions.
The figures of evil such as the Devil, Satan, and the ruler of the demons, that appear in the Bible were either individual evil spirits who were once humans, or they were whole communities of hell that banded together to attack Jesus, or to infest human beings.
These collective demons can be seen in the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1–20. In this story, Jesus confronts a demon-possessed man:
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. (Mark 5:6–10, italics added)
Here the demon possessing the man speaks of himself in the singular, yet names himself “Legion,” with the explanation, “for we are many.”
The angels and the demons that appear in the Bible may be individual angels or evil spirits, or they may be whole communities of angels or evil spirits banded together and acting as one. This, according to Swedenborg, is a very common occurrence in the spiritual world. And it explains many seemingly strange things about the angels and evil spirits who appear throughout the Bible.
Further, according to Swedenborg, while we humans may be attacked by individual evil spirits and by whole crowds of evil spirits, Jesus Christ was attacked by all of hell together, meaning by the combined power of all human and spiritual evil. So when Jesus was tempted by the Devil, he was fighting not just individual evil spirits, nor merely communities of evil spirits, but against all of hell working together as a single vast Devil in a futile attempt to destroy him and derail his work of saving the human race from the power of evil, falsity, and hell.
Part Two: Why is there a Devil at all?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d be just as happy without some big ol’ Devil, or hell, or whatever you want to call it, mucking up the universe!
Why is there a Devil at all? Why does God even allow hell to exist? Did God create evil and hell?
These are huge questions, which people have debated for thousands of years. We can’t do them full justice in this short article. But here are some of the basics:
Did God create evil and hell?
Yes, I know. The Bible says:
I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
Because of this, many people, Christians and Jews alike, believe that God is the author and creator of both good and evil. And it seems that many people need to believe this in order to think of God as an infinitely powerful God. For those who think of darkness and evil as especially potent realities, if God isn’t behind them, then God must be a weakling. So the Bible lets us think that God brings evil and disaster, as well as good, upon us.
And the common Hebrew word for “evil” that is used in Isaiah 45:7 is also used to mean disaster and misfortune.
But consider the possibility that this verse is speaking from a human perspective.
Consider a hardened thief, who makes a living stealing the belongings of others. If God comes along and not only says “thou shalt not steal,” but enforces that law by means of human governments, what does the thief think about that?
To a thief, God’s law against stealing is a disaster. In a thief’s eyes, that law is evil, not good, because it ruins the thief’s livelihood and takes away the huge pleasure of sneaking into people’s homes and businesses and skulking away with their precious valuables.
So from the perspective of an evil person, God does create evil, because God destroys what an evil person thinks of as good.
But of course, an evil person has everything backwards. An evil person thinks of evil as good, and good as evil.
When it comes to things that are truly evil, it is not God, but we human beings, who create evil.
- God says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But we kill anyway.
- God says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But we cheat on our spouses anyway.
- God says, “Thou shalt not steal.” But we steal anyway.
- God says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” But we lie about people and destroy their reputations anyway.
- God says, “Thou shalt not covet.” But we’re always getting jealous of other people, and wishing we had what they have.
We humans are the ones who create evil whenever we choose to go against the love, truth, and goodness that God created us for. And it is we humans, not God, who insist upon having a hell.
For more on this, see my article, Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
Why does God allow evil to exist?
Okay, even if God doesn’t actually create evil, why does God allow it to exist? Why doesn’t God just wipe out all evil? Isn’t God omnipotent, all-powerful? Couldn’t God just eliminate all evil with the stroke of a hand?
Yes, God could do that.
But in the process, God would destroy every human being on the face of the earth, not to mention every angel and spirit in the spiritual world.
Because ever since we humans first decided that we enjoy evil as well as good, evil has become a part of us.
And it became a part of us by our own choice.
Taking the second point first, since we have chosen and continue to choose evil, in order for God to destroy all evil, God would have to destroy our freedom of choice. And that would destroy us as human beings.
Without the ability to choose and live evil lives, would we really be human? Or would we merely be puppets in the hands of God, automatically and unquestioningly doing whatever God says?
God does not want puppets. God wants beings who freely choose to live by God’s love and truth. And that means God has to allow us to make the other choice as well. If we do not have the ability to reject God, and everything God stands for, then any choice to love God and live by God’s love and truth would be hollow and meaningless. We would be no different than robots, programmed to do God’s will.
God wants human beings, who freely choose to love God, and to love our fellow human beings.
Now for the first point:
Every time we choose and engage in evil, it becomes an indelible, permanent part of our character. Yes, we can later choose not to do that evil. But its memory and imprint never leaves us.
In fact, often it becomes one of our major motivators to do good. Who hasn’t looked back at something awful or insulting or evil or just plain stupid that they’ve done in the past, and resolved never to do that again?
We humans can learn from our mistakes. And the memory and history of those mistakes is key to keeping us going forward toward the good.
- We look back at the Nazi holocaust, and resolve to overcome the bigotry, racism, and xenophobia that led to it.
- We look back at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and commit ourselves to finding peaceful solutions to our conflicts so that no more cities will be obliterated.
- We look back at a life of addiction and many wasted years of our life, and resolve to keep ourselves clean and sober, and do something good with the rest of our life.
- We look back at hateful words that we spewed at someone who once was our best friend, and resolve not to speak and act from such blind rage again.
If God were to wipe out all evil with the stroke of a hand, all of those memories would be gone as well. All of the terrible lessons of our history would be erased. All the tough lessons of our lifetimes would vanish. We would never have learned the difficult and painful lessons that made us into the people we are today.
Our very humanity would be gone. We would no longer be the people who made mistakes and learned from them; who did evil and destructive things, and learned the hard way why we never again want to be those sorts of people.
In other words, in the process of wiping out all evil, God would destroy every single one of us.
Through our choices and our actions, we are all patchworks of good and evil, both in our past and in our present. Imagine what would be left if you took a patchwork quilt and ripped out every square that contains any dark colors. If God were to wave a hand and instantly destroy all the evil in our world, we humans would be like the tattered and useless remnant of that once beautiful quilt that was formed of many colors, both bright and dark.
Once we humans created evil, God allowed that evil to exist precisely because without evil, we would never learn to be good.
- Without experiencing hatred and anger, we would never learn how to truly love.
- Without learning where lying lands us, we would never understand the value of telling the truth.
- Without discovering where our own arrogance and stupidity leads us, we would never humbly accept that God knows better than we do what’s best for us.
Our greatest lessons of love, and truth, and compassion, and appreciation for diversity, and the joy of true friendship with others, come from learning the hard way what our life becomes when we live from their opposites: from hatred, lies, oppression, bigotry, jealousy, and striving for dominance over one another.
No, God will not destroy all our evil with a wave of the hand.
But as we experience the pain and destruction brought about by our own selfishness and greed, God will help us to overcome them both in ourselves and in our world.
- It is through the very battle against evil that we become strong for good.
- It is in the battle against lies, deception, and slander that we learn the value of honesty, truthfulness, and appreciation for those who are different from ourselves.
- It is in the battle against hatred that we learn to love.
Although God did not create evil or hell, God stands ready to lift us out of evil and hell whenever we are ready to leave our own stupid and selfish lives behind, and begin living according to the greatest commandments, on which all the Law and the Prophets depend:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
So why is there a Devil?
There is a devil not because God wanted one, but because we wanted one.
There is a Devil not because God created evil, but because we humans created evil.
The Devil is not some fallen angel who rules over hell. God rules over everything, earth, heaven, and hell alike. There is only one supreme ruler of the universe, and that is God.
Instead, the Devil is all of human evil and falsity seen as a whole. The Devil is the combined force of all evil humans, and all evil spirits, who work against God, and gain their enjoyment from dominating and destroying others rather than loving them and serving them.
The Devil is simply another word for hell. And there is a hell because even though God teaches us and leads us and woos us toward heaven, some of us reject God’s teaching, and God’s leadership, and God’s love, and choose to live from our own selfish and greedy desires instead.
That is why there is a hell. That is why there is a Devil, and Satan.
But God does give us the power to overcome the Devil, Satan, and hell in our own lives, and in the world.
Will we use that power, and banish evil and hell from our world and from our own souls?
That is our choice to make.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
- Why is Evil Sexier than Good?
- How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 1
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth