In the Bible, death is the domain of dark spiritual powers. Scripture says Christ died so that “he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). But to speak like this risks ridicule. To modern people, talk of Satan and demons may sound spooky and superstitious. “Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind,” writes Walter Wink. He is uncomfortable to speak of, like “a bone in the throat of modernity.”1 As proof, a recent survey claims that 40 percent of American Christians think the devil is not a “living being,” but merely a “symbol of evil.”2
Why is this? One reason may be that Christians have sometimes said foolish things about the devil. Satan is occasionally depicted as almost an equal power to God. And in a related fashion, Christians sometimes describe the devil in ways that make him seem all-knowing or all-present. The Bible doesn’t do that. The fancy word for this error is “dualism” since it ends up with two spiritual powers (God and Satan) with nearly equal strength. Dualism makes good superhero movies, but it is bad theology.
As a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I remember listening to a song called “The Champion” by the Christian artist Carman. To understand the musical genre, imagine that an audiobook mated with an ’80s synthesizer and the child grew up to do fight commentary for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. (If you’re under thirty, YouTube it.) In “The Champion,” the contest is literally described as a prizefight between apparently equal adversaries: Christ and Satan. The boxing match is overseen by God the Father, who utters such maxims as “You shut your face, I wrote the book!” Now, to be fair to Carman, the truth within the epic rap battle is that Jesus is victorious, but the misconception is that Satan is nearly as powerful as the divine Son of God.3
Between these two extremes—modern disbelief and a kooky dualism—resides the biblical position. Much mystery remains for Satan in the Bible. But some things can be said with confidence. Christians have always claimed that the devil is a creature. Only God is eternal. And since God is not the author of evil, the devil must have been created good originally. Unfortunately, as milk and mankind reveal when left alone for long enough—even good things can go bad. The Bible does not tell us exactly how that happened with the devil,4 but, at some point, Satan and his minions fell.5
This does not mean, however, that we encounter demons flapping independently about the sky. In the Bible, dark spiritual power seems to need to be embodied in some way. Like the COVID-19 virus, evil spiritual powers are parasites that seek hosts. Thus, in Scripture, they are described as possessing persons, pigs, and political regimes. Satan enters Judas (Luke 22:3–6; John 13:27) who is called a “devil” (John 6:70). Satan gives his authority to the “beast” in Revelation, which is a symbol for the violent power of the Roman Empire (Rev. 13:4). And, on one occasion, some demons beg to be cast into a herd of swine (Matt. 8:31; Mark 5:12; Luke 8:32). It’s weird and, perhaps, it seems unbelievable to you.
Yet this desire for possessive and devouring unions may be another sign that evil spirits were originally created good. After all, being fallen does not remove our desire to be one with other persons and groups. We still crave connection. But our brokenness renders these unions imperfect, codependent, and even abusive if we continue down dark paths. Fallenness turns union to possession and oppression. So, too, with evil spirits.
In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort seeks to unite his broken soul with physical objects (called horcruxes) in order to prolong his power. Analogously, evil spiritual power becomes incarnate in physical entities like exploitative corporate boards, violent or nationalistic political regimes, and profit-hungry tech companies that don’t care what their anxiety-inducing algorithms do to people. This doesn’t mean you can scream “Satan!” or “Possession!” every time you encounter discomfort or disagreement. (Some Christians have been too quick to smell sulfur around their enemies.) Nonetheless, you don’t need to watch The Exorcist to see something demonic. Just look to the prescription drug companies that pumped 780 million painkillers into the state of West Virginia in just six years—an overdose-inducing feat that amounts to 390 pills per person.6 Of course, those same opioids can be a blessing to suffering individuals. But the upside to this tragic problem merely illustrates my point: evil power is always a corruption of the good.7
But wait. Can we really expect modern people to believe in fallen spiritual powers? In one sense, that question is irrelevant. Evil spiritual powers do not depend on your belief for their existence. Satan does some of his best work in cultures that disbelieve in him. Still, it bears noting that our incredulity toward evil spirits has little basis in consistency. After all, belief in God still hovers near 90 percent in places like the United States. And as Alvin Plantinga notes, it’s odd to affirm the possibility of one spiritual being (God) while drawing the line firmly against all others.8 Imagine if we did this with mammals, dinosaurs, or aliens. I mean, if you are willing to grant there could be one . . . why not others?
Disbelief in evil spirits may sometimes betray a form of racial or nationalistic prejudice. We are not like those superstitious people in the “third-world,” says the sophisticated Western person. And in the same moment, we congratulate ourselves for having moved past other prejudices. African theologian Esther Acolatse calls out this inconsistency.9 After all, what is so bizarre about believing that certain creatures could be created good before falling into rebellion? Look in the mirror for evidence of such a species.
Despite our questions about Satan, all of us have heard the voice of an accuser whispering destructive words within our ears. And very few of us can look at something like the Holocaust and not wonder whether whole nations may give themselves over to a kind of possession. Who among us can gaze upon our planet—so full of beauty and bloodshed—and not wonder if the cosmos itself has a backstory that is longer, darker, and more complex than we can fathom? In the face of this mystery, it is possible, as Robert Jenson notes, to hear the voice of something out there “laughing at us.”10 We don’t just have a death-predicament, we have a devil-problem too.
This is an excerpt from How Jesus Saves: Atonement for Ordinary People by Joshua McNall. In both the book and accompanying videos, McNall addresses this great Christian doctrine with simplicity without sacrificing the nuance this topic demands.
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1. Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 9 and 6, respectively.
2. “Most American Christians Do Not Believe That Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist,” Barna Group, December 11, 2015, as cited in Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), xv.
3. Christ’s supremacy over Satan and evil can be seen in the final battle in the book of Revelation. Unlike the final struggles in movies or books (think: The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter), the ultimate fight in Revelation is over as soon as it begins. Jesus does not duel back-and-forth with Satan and the beast and then “win by a nose” after a closely fought contest. Not at all. In Revelation, Christ merely shows up and Satan is defeated (Rev. 19–20).
4. Key texts that have been seen to address Satan’s fall include Isaiah 14:12–19, Ezekiel 28, and 2 Peter 2:4. Each of these passages is less clear in certain ways. Still, Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke argues that “Satan must have rebelled against God sometime between his creation and his encounter in the garden.” Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 273. See also Joshua M. McNall, The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019), chap. 9.
5. See Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
6. As reported by Eric Eyre, “Drug Firms Poured 780M Painkillers into WV Amid Rise in Overdoses,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, December 17, 2016, www.wvgazettemail.com/news-health/20161217/drug-firms-poured-780m-painkillers-into-wv-amid-rise-of-overdoses. I encountered this story in Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019), 44.
7. This point is made by Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).
8. See James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen, eds., Alvin Plantinga: Profiles (Dordrect, Holland: Reidel, 1985), 43.
9. Esther Acolatse, Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).
10. Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 60.