The Evolution of Satan in Scripture and History
John says that Jesus came to earth to destroy the works of the devil.
Who is the devil?
In this paper, we will compare and contrast the way Satan is described in both Testaments. We will see that although there are similarities, there are also radical differences. In the Old Testament, he is described as a member of a heavenly council, who cannot operate without divine consent. But then later in the New Testament, we read that he was a rebellious, independent, murderous evil power—and could only work with divine consent.
Let’s unpack this transition and then consider its implications.
A. Satan in the Old Testament
The English word “Satan” appears a number of times in the Old Testament. Sometimes, the Hebrew word “Satan” appears with the definite article “the” and at other times without it. When the word is used without the definite article (simply Satan), the word can refer to any accuser, but when it is used with the definite article (ha- Satan), it refers specifically to the heavenly accuser: the Satan.
Here are some examples: In Numbers 22:22, we read that the “angel of the Lord” approached Balaam and “opposed” him—the Hebrew word there is “ Satan” without the definite article!
Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the LORD took His stand in the way as an adversary [Hebrew says: in the way as a Satan!] against him. (Numbers 22:22 NKJV)
In 2 Samuel 24, Yahweh sends the “Angel of Yahweh” to inflict a plague against Israel for three days, killing 70,000 people as punishment for David having taken a census without His approval. 1 Chronicles 21:1 repeats this story but replaces the “Angel of Yahweh” with an entity referred to as “a Satan.”
So, the word Satan can be used to describe human or spiritual adversaries!
The concept of Satan as a specific independent celestial being is not found in the earlier books of the Old Testament. This latter idea appeared during the time of the Babylonian Captivity and especially during the domination of the Persians in the 5th Century BC. Books written during this period present “Satan” as a celestial accuser of human beings in the heavenly courts.
Job 1-2 was written at this time. In the prologue to the Book of Job, Satan appears, together with other celestial beings or “sons of God,” before God and informs God that he has been monitoring the behaviour of human beings: “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it (Job 1:7).”
Satan’s interaction with God characterises Satan as that member of the divine council who watches over human activity, but with the evil purpose of searching out men’s sins and appearing as their accuser. He is, therefore, the celestial prosecutor! He insists that Job serves God but with selfish motives and so demands that God allow him to test Job with physical suffering (Job 2:3-5). Yes, it is evident from the prologue that Satan has no power of independent action, but requires the permission of God!
The book of Zechariah was also written during the time of Persian domination in the 5th century BC. In Zechariah 3:1-2, Satan is described as the adversary and opposer (which is what Satan means!) of the high priest, Joshua, and of the people of God. And in this radical passage, we read that Satan “opposes” the “angel of the Lord,” about Joshua and the people of God. The “angel of the Lord” shuts down Satan’s claims and silences him in the heavenly courts! However, in both Job and Zechariah, we can see that Satan is an accuser but can only act with divine permission.
There is a specific reason that this additional information about Satan became available during the time of the Persian domination around 500 BC. Under Persian domination, God’s people were exposed to its religion, Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism taught about the existence of good and evil spiritual powers and even the devil himself! So, it’s now that prophets were given additional revelation about these spiritual beings.
Daniel 10 was written at this time.
1 In the third year of Persia’s King Cyrus, a message was revealed to Daniel, who was called Belteshazzar. The message was true: there would be a great conflict. Daniel understood the message, having discerned the meaning of the vision. 2 During that time, I, Daniel, had been mourning for three weeks.
Daniel acknowledges that during the time of the Persians, he received fresh revelation from God about a “great conflict.” As a result of this new information about the conflict, he began to mourn for three weeks. As we read on in the Chapter, we are told unambiguously that this great conflict was in the heavenly realms! Good and evil spirit powers were at war, and this battle impacted the future of human beings.
12 Then he said, “Don’t be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you began to pray for understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your request has been heard in heaven. I have come in answer to your prayer. 13 But for twenty-one days the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia blocked my way. Then Michael, one of the archangels, came to help me, and I left him there with the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia. 14 Now I am here to explain what will happen to your people in the future, for this vision concerns a time yet to come. (Daniel 10:12–14 NLT)
Wow! What a revelation Daniel received! Daniel is praying about the future of his people under Persian domination, and he is told that there are “spirit princes” and “archangels” at war in the heavenly realm, that are involved in the freedom of God’s people! It’s only now that the veil is lifted in the Old Testament. There is a heavenly war going on that involves the destiny of nations and not all work with divine consent!
It’s only now, with this new information about warring spirit beings, that the role of Satan begins to change.
Up till this point in time, we have seen that Satan is part of a heavenly council. He watches over the affairs of humans. He looks for ways, like a prosecuting attorney, to oppose and accuse human beings so that he can punish them—release disasters and even kill people. Read Job 1-2 carefully and note that even though Satan worked with divine consent, he was still the one that actively sent disaster, sickness and death! But then we read that Job himself attributed this all to God!
Given that Satan could only function with divine consent, God was ultimately referred to as the original cause of disaster! So, at this point, Satan is not an evil spiritual power that works against God … at least until the time of Daniel. It’s now that more information comes to hand, and it’s now that the role of Satan begins to change. His true character and role are now beginning to make clearer meanings. Newer revelation edits previous information.
The Old Testament canon comes to a close. But there is still a lot of information that becomes available between the Old and New Testaments. These Jewish writings are known as the Apocrypha and what these writings say about the evolution of the role and nature of Satan sounds nearly identical to what Jesus said!
In the Apocrypha, during the intertestamental period, Satan developed into a malevolent entity with abhorrent qualities in dualistic opposition to God. In Wisdom 2:24, Satan is identified as the serpent in Genesis 2:3, as the author of all evil, who brought death into the world. Satan is referred to as the seducer of Eve and was hurled from heaven together with other angels because of his iniquity (Slavonic Book of Enoch 24:4). Since that time, he has been called “Satan,” although previously he had been termed “Satanel” (Salvonic Book of Enoch 33:1).
So, we can see that the idea of “Satan” undergoes a radical evolution and transformation. In the ancient books of the Hebrew Bible, Satan as a supernatural being was not known. When he was revealed at the time of the Persian domination, we have noted that Satan was a heavenly prosecutor, part of a council, that sought to accuse humans and so punish and release disaster—albeit with divine consent at this point in the revelation. Then with Daniel 10, we are introduced for the first time to the fact that not all spiritual beings work with divine consent. We have just touched on the intertestamental period and now move onto the New Testament.
B. In the New Testament
The New Testament presents a highly developed demonology and understanding of Satan that far transcends the Old Testament view. It has much more in common with the Apocrypha but subverts that as well.
In the New Testament, this spiritual malevolent being is referred to by many names: He is called “Satan” (Matthew 4:10; Mark 1:30, 4:15; Luke 10:18), “devil” (Matthew 4:1), “adversary” (I Peter 5:8; I Timothy 5:14), “enemy” (Matthew 8:39), “accuser” (Revelation 12:10), “old serpent” (Revelation 20:22), Beelzebub (Matthew 10:25; 12:24).
The fall of Satan is mentioned in Luke 10:18, John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Revelation 12:9. He is the author of all evil (Luke 10:19; Acts 5:3; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 2:2), who beguiled Eve (2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9?), and who brought death into the world (Hebrews 2:13). He always tempts (I Corinthians 7:5; I Thessalonians 5:1; 1 Peter 5:8), even as he tempted Jesus (Matthew 4).
The Synoptic Gospels identify Satan and his demons as the cause of illness, including fever (Luke 4:39), leprosy (Luke 5:13), and arthritis (Luke 13:11–16), while the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the Devil as “him who holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14).” Luke 22:3–6 states that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because “Satan entered” him and, in Acts 5:3, Peter describes Satan as “filling” Ananias’s heart and causing him to sin. The Gospel of John only uses the name Satan three times. In John 8:44, Jesus says that his Jewish or Judean enemies are the children of the Devil rather than the children of Abraham. The same verse describes the Devil as “a man-killer from the beginning” and “a liar and the father of lies.” John 13:2 describes the Devil as inspiring Judas to betray Jesus and John 12:31–32 identifies Satan as “the Archon of this Cosmos,” who is destined to be overthrown through Jesus’s death and resurrection.
The idea that Satan was not a personal independent evil being opposing God came from the Talmud, which contains writings from the second century AD—well after the New Testament documents were written. This metaphorical view of Satan is not found in the Old Testament, Apocrypha, or New Testament. It never existed during these times. It’s in the Talmud that we first find the idea that Satan was a metaphor (yetzer hara) for evil inclinations within man. Conservative Judaism, however, rejects the Talmudic interpretation of Satan as a metaphor and regard him as a literal agent of God—albeit working with divine consent—defaulting to the Old Testament view.
The Rabbis who wrote the Talmud rejected all of the writings of Enoch from the intertestamental period. The books of Enoch insisted that Satan was a literal, heavenly figure which upheld what the Old Testament said! The Talmudic Rabbis set out to uproot every mention of Satan as a real spiritual being from the works of Enoch and even the Old Testament itself!
Interestingly, the idea of the Talmudic Rabbis has resurfaced in modern times as the “ha Satan” theory. It goes against the view of the Old and New Testaments. This modern idea insists that “the Satan” is a symbol for the dark side of man and is not a real independent being.
Through this brief survey, we can make the following observations. The view of Satan from Old to New Testaments has radically developed and changed. Jesus did not accept the Old Testament view that Satan worked with divine consent. Jesus makes it clear that Satan has never worked in cooperation with God. He has been at odds with God from the very beginning—from the time he sinned.
You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He 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 out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)
Satan is a liar and murderer. He has been so from the very beginning. When he speaks or acts, he does not represent divine consent or cooperation—he speaks and acts independently in opposition to God. He has always been at odds with God.
Jesus, by contrast, came to give life; Satan comes to kill (John 10:10). Jesus came for the specific purpose to pull apart Satan’s kingdom. Satan’s kingdom is at war with God’s—he is not operating with divine consent and cooperation.
26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?
28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:26, 28)
There is no cooperation or consent going on here. Satan and God are directly opposed and have been ever since he rebelled. Satan causes sickness, according to Jesus, and God’s role is only to heal (Luke 13; John 9).
The implications of these radical differences are monumental.
In the Old Testament, Satan was the direct active agent of disaster and murder—not God! But he did operate with divine consent. Jesus’ radicals alter this idea. He insists that Satan is the author of murder and disaster as the Old Testament says, but he did not gain divine consent in doing those things.
Reading in hindsight, we can gain a clearer picture of what was happening in the Old Testament times. Whenever a supernatural disaster took place, it was Satan that was the direct active agent—not God. Until the earlier Hebrew prophets knew about the existence of Satan, they could only conclude that God was the author of these atrocities and so attributed these acts to Him. They knew no better. But by the time of the later writers—Job and Daniel for example—we can see that the prophets had gained more information. God was not the one who actively sent the disasters—it was Satan albeit with divine consent. Finally, we arrive with Daniel, and now, fresh revelation has manifested. For the first time a Hebrew prophet has been told that spiritual beings exist that are at war with God—not working with His consent.
Then Jesus appears and clears all the fog away. Satan and his cohorts never worked with divine consent. They acted independently to cause sickness and disaster.
In other words, if we will read the Old Testament stories that attribute disasters to God through the lenses of progressive revelation, we will see that God never did any of those atrocities attributed to Him. It was Satan alone! He worked in rebellion with God and killed and destroyed human beings. It’s not God who gives consent to Satan, but human beings as they give themselves over to him through destructive choices.
The Old Testament did not clearly distinguish between the roles of God and Satan!
But Jesus cleared this confusion all away! So, when we read passages in the Old Testament, where God is attributed with killing people, we must not make the same mistake as Job!
In view of this greater revelation, we are mandated to reread the Old Testament stories of divine violence. We are called to see that the supernatural killings that took place were not committed by God at all. They were independent acts of Satan.
Satan comes only to steal, kill and destroy; Jesus came only to give life.