Today is Halloween, which is short for “All Hallows’ Even,” or the evening before All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas. Today, October 31, is also celebrated as Reformation Day by Protestants, because on this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, in which he argued against the sale of indulgences by the church. This act ignited the movement that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. One of the “banners” of the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine teaches that Scripture alone is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Not the only rule, but the only infallible rule. Tradition and reason have their place too, but, according to the Reformation principle, they are always subject to Scripture.
Except, it seems, when it comes to the devil. Every year on or around Halloween, it becomes apparent that many Christians have a very detailed “theology” of the devil. They are convinced of the devil’s origins, the devil’s power, the devil’s, name, etc. But, if we subject this detailed “devilology” to sola Scriptura, we see that many, if not most, of these widely- and deeply-held beliefs have no foundation whatsoever. Here’s what we do know, from Scripture, about the devil:
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5:8).”
“Such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds (II Corinthians 11:13-15).”
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).”
Scripture affirms the existence of a creature called the devil or Satan. Scripture describes this creature as one who would tempt God’s people to sin; however, the apostle James seems to indicate that the normal way we are tempted to sin is when we are “dragged away by our own desires” (James 1:14), which makes sense, given that the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the human heart is “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). In Job, a character simply called “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew, not a proper name per se) urges God to test Job, thinking that Job will abandon his faith. We read in the Gospels that Satan puts it into Judas Iscariot’s heart to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3). I Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan incited King David to conduct a census of Israel, and that God is displeased with David’s taking a census.
Going by sola Scriptura, these are the clearest passages we have about the devil or Satan. There is also this passage in Revelation 12: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” However, this passage begins with the words, “A great sign (or portent) appeared in heaven” (Rev. 12:1), so this passage is, by its own admission, a symbolic one. This causes me to speculate about its meaning. Are we to take it as a newspaper-article description of a historic event, or as symbolic of something else? Is the event (or are the events) described in this vision something that happened in the ancient past, or during the earthly ministry of Christ (strongly suggested by the timeline of the vision)? Could it instead be a depiction of what happens as the Gospel is advanced throughout the world? Is it a future event? Or is it possibly a combination of all the above? When a passage tells us at the beginning that it is a sign or portent, we need to treat it as such and not as straightforward narrative.
In Luke 10:18, Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” but it seems pretty clear (at least to me) that he is responding to the words of the seventy disciples, who have just returned to tell him that they have cast out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus is saying that the realm of evil had indeed been dealt a crushing blow. Jesus seems to be saying that Satan is “cast from heaven” (that is, from a place of authority or power) in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Satan was certainly cast from a place of power through the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection of Christ: “When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:13-15).” Christ, in his death and resurrection, “bound the strong man.” He cast out the accuser (ha-satan). He triumphed over the rulers and authorities (in “heavenly places”) and made a public example of them.
Here’s what the Bible does not say about the devil:
- That his name is Lucifer. The name “Lucifer” is actually the Latin version of the Hebrew word in Isaiah 14:12 that is best translated into English as “day star.” This name is not applied to the devil or Satan. In this passage, it is clearly a name for the king of Babylon. God says in verse four, “You shall take up this taunt against the king of Babylon.” If we go by sola Scriptura, that seems pretty clear.
- Satan was the most beautiful angel of heaven and was cast out because he wanted to be like God. This is also derived from a misreading of Isaiah 14:12, which is not about the devil at all but instead is about the king of Babylon. The symbolic passage in Revelation 12 mentioned earlier does seem to indicate Satan’s being cast out of heaven, but it says it was because a “war broke out in heaven.”
- Satan was the worship leader in heaven. This was a new one on me just a couple of years ago. Apparently, this is based on the aforementioned misreading of Isaiah 14, along with a misreading of another passage, Ezekiel 28, which is directed at the king of Tyre, not at the devil. Ezekiel 28:13, in the KJV, makes reference to “pipes,” leading some to misinterpret this to mean that instrumental music (particularly organ music) is the “devil’s work.” The words translated as “tabrets and pipes” in the KJV actually mean “settings and sockets,” referring to the settings of jewels and other precious stones.
- The devil is the “ruler of hell.” This one seems to come from the cartoons more than anything else. The aforementioned passage in Revelation speaks of the devil being cast to earth, not into hell. The devil is cast into hell later on in the book of Revelation, but it’s as a punishment. The devil is never depicted as being “in charge” of hell, nor are any demons. Marcellus Kik, in An Eschatology of Victory, says if anything, hell would be worse for the devil than for anyone else because all the people he deceived over the centuries would be there! The devil would fear hell just as much as, if not more than, anyone else.
Most of the “common knowledge” out there about the devil comes not only from misreading these passages of Scripture and relying on a mistranslation in the KJV, but also from Milton’s Paradise Lost, from legend, and from popular culture (movies, television, and novels): hardly sola Scriptura.
For all that we don’t know about the devil, here’s what we do know:
- “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).” There is only one God. There are not two gods: a good god called “God” and an evil god called the devil. Many Christians give so much credit to the devil, it’s downright blasphemous. God alone is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. The devil, whoever or whatever it is, is none of those things.
- “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (I John 4:2-4).” Believers have the Spirit of God within them, and since there is only one God, then God’s Spirit is certainly greater than any other spirit or spirits God’s people may encounter in this world.
Martin Luther, with whom we began this article, certainly believed in the devil and in demons, to an extent that many modern Christians may call superstitious. But even for all of that, Luther had this to say:
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.
Some have speculated that the “one little word” to which Luther refers is the name “Jesus,” but according to Luther’s own writings, the “one little word” is actually a short phrase: “Devil, you lie.” Jesus said, “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).” One of those lies is that the devil is far more powerful, and far more important, than he actually is. Let’s not assist him in perpetuating this lie by relying on tradition or legend to inform our theology. Sola Scriptura! And Happy Halloween!