This article looked a the various concepts related to "satan" and "the devil" and how we can relate Christ's words to our modern perspective on evil. This is not purely a linguistic article. The linguistic concepts are covered in this article on "Demons, the Devil and Satan." This article goes into the philosophical concepts touched upon in that article, but it goes into them in more depth.
The Personalization of Evil
Our word "Satan" is from the Greek form satanas from a Hebrew satan ( שטן) meaning "adversary", "opponent," or "one who opposes another in purpose or act. " The Greek version of this word appears initially only in the New Testament. Interestingly, the Greek Septuagint actually translates the Hebrew word satan into the Greek word diabolos.
The meaning that Satan has today as the name of "the chief of evil spirits" comes from Christian traditions unknown at the time the Gospels were written. The Hebrew word was not a name, but a descriptive noun. King David is described as an adversary of his enemies with the term "satan." Even in the story of Job, where the adversary is personalized, the Hebrew "satan" is never used as a name, since it is used with a definite article ("the"), which Hebrew never does with proper names. More about the meaning of the Hebrew word from the Old Testament in this Bible Topics article.
In the Hebrew sense, "satan" means "an adversary" or more generally, "adversity" in the sense of "life's adversity" and, even more, "the accuser" in the sense of our inner voice of self-doubt.
Christ uses the word only three times in Matthew (Mat 4:10 Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God..., Mat 12:26 And if Satan casts out Satan, Mat 16:23 Get behind me, Satan). While he appears to use it as a name addressing someone twice, this is an artifact of poor translation. In the Greek, the word is clearly not in the form of an address (called vocative) but in the form of an object of the verb. The sense is not "go away, Satan" but more like "take away adversity" or "take away a barrier."
While Christ’s references to satan make perfect sense when we take the “persona” out of the equation and think of his references simple to "adversity," Christ clearly intends to personalize the idea of adversity and. In Mat 12:26, for example, Christ suggest that adversity has a "realm" or "kingdom" that it controls. However, we should realize that the Greek word "kingdom" doesn't mean a state or country, but possessions controlled by a given system. Christ refers also refers to this leader as "Beelzebub" (Mat 12:27) and, more simply, the devil (Jhn 8:44). The word "devil" is from Greek word "diabolos " which is the same Greek word that satan is translated into in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint. While we could argue that these terms are used for different concepts, let's consider all such references as describing the same "phenomena" to see what type of picture we get.
The term Beelzebub is a play on words that did not originate with Christ, but one that Christ refers to in Mat 10:25. The word "Ba'al Zebub" ("Lord of the Flies" or "Lord of the Flyers") is a Hebrew pun on "Ba'al Zebul" meaning "Lord of the Manor". Christ refers to this pun in Mat 10:25 using the Greek word "master of the estate" to introduce it. Christ connects the concept of the "Lord of the Flyers" to the master of demons (Mat 12:27) because Christ's concept of "demons" move through the mind and ideas, not through the physical world. God's messengers may be another type of "flyer". Interestingly, Christ use the term "flyer" to describe birds, rather than the Greek term for "bird".
In references in Matthew starting at Mat 12:26 (and related references in Mark, starting at Mar 3:23), Christ's central point is that those ruled by adversity(devils, see related article here), cannot be divided from him or against him. We are going to examine this verse in some detail, so you may want to open our examination of the Greek to see the source of our commentary.
This verse in the KJV might be familiar: Jhn 8:44 "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."
However, our alternative version, based more directly on the Greek, appears very different: "You are from the father of slanderer and wish to create the desires of your father. That one was a man-killer from the start as he didn't keep with the truth. This is because the truth is not in him. When you tell lies, he has spoken from his own. This is because he is liar and the father of the same." To see how we get there, you may want to look at the original Greek.
However, there are a number of important ideas here:
Jhn 8:44. We are going to examine this verse in some detail, so you may want to open our examination of the Greek to see the source of our commentary.
However, our alternative version, based more directly on the Greek, appears very different: You are from the father of slanderer and wish to create the desires of your father. That one was a man-killer from the start as he didn't keep with the truth. This is because the truth is not in him. Christ uses the term "tou pater tou " as a title: "the father of the slander." The Greek term diabolos means "slanderer." This title is consistent with on of the other terms Christ uses to describe this entity, The word "Ba'al Zebub" ("Lord of the Flies" or "Lord of the Flyers") is a Hebrew pun on "Ba'al Zebul" meaning "Lord of the Manor". Christ uses this word in Mat 10:25 in conjunction with the Greek term "lord of the estate" another term for a "lord". This title is also consistent with the title used later in this same verse, "the father of lies."
Just as importantly, Christ describes this entity as having "no truth in him. In Greek, the word for "truth" means literally "not hidden." It means "reality" as well as "the truth." So this entity is purely false, hiding what is real.
Note how this falseness is the source of this entity's power as a killer. He is a murder from the beginning because he "doesn't keep with the truth." This falseness is the source of death. However, he used of the modifier "man" added to killer may change his meaning. Give what follows, he may mean killing the reputation of a man, which in the ancient world, was also a form of killing them physically. People could not easily survive if others didn't trust them.
There are, of course, many ways that falseness leads to physical death. The lies we tell ourselves can be fatal ("I am not too drunk to drive"), and many fatal diseases can be thought of as "falseness" such as the "lies" in our DNA that cause cancer. However, the "death" that Christ refers to is not just physical death, but more importantly to spiritual death. Those who are under control of what is false cannot connect with God because God's word is the definition of "truth" (Jhn 17:17).
In the role of "killer," we should also introduce another title Christ uses "the prince of the world" (see Jhn 12:31, Jhn 14:30, Jhn 16:11). Christ uses this title to refer to a personification of worldly power, but, as such, it also becomes another term for "the adversary" and "father of lies."
The Ruler of "Demons."
When Christ asks in Mat 12:26, "How can Satan cast out Satan?” he is simply asking, in the non-personified terms understood by his listener, “How can adversity throw out adversity?” This is a question of logic. No amount of more adversity can undo other adversities, at least, not as normal people use these terms.
However, he doesn't stop there. He goes on to personify the enemy and connect him to other spiritual beings in Mat 12:27, “How can Beelzebub cast out devils?” The answer to that question would be easy if we see these entities as spiritual beings: by the authority of one personality over a group of similar beings.
However, the point of this article is that our perception of "demons" today is that they exist as mental disorders. Another way of saying this is "mental delusions." All mental disorders are a form of delusion, that is, a form of believing a "lie."
This connects nicely with the concept of "the enemy" as the source of lies, i.e., the source of delusions. Our delusions, including our self-delusions, are the source of many of our problems.
So, we can think of Satan either conceptually, as an underlying source of all falseness and delusion, that is, our limited human nature or we can personify this source as a spiritual being. Many readers have written to express their firm belief in a real Satan as a personality and unique being and in demons as spiritual creatures active in the world. I find nothing in Christ’s words that prohibits the existence of demons as spiritual creatures. The point is that Christ’s ideas have a broader application in everyday terms. More importantly, Christ’s words do not require any understanding or even belief in spiritual creatures to have meaning. My general view is the as human, we are not equipped to understand the "spiritual" in any meaningful way, except in relating them through analogy to our experiences in this world, which is why Christ chooses to speak in the way he does.
However, if people want to use "demons" to explain the “problem of evil,” we must be cautious. Suffering is often the natural by-product of free will and our need for a challenge in this world. It is necessary for life in this world to have any meaning at all (more about that idea here). So, in that sense, "demons" and Satan may be necessary as well.
Kingdoms Under God?
So let us move on logically. Is adversity caused by a group of evil spirits who fight against good? Is the deeper reality of the universe a battle between good and evil? While this belief has existed in all ages, is it what Christ taught?
Christ certainly talks a lot about "the kingdom of God." The meaning of this phrase also requires a lengthy discussion (offered here), but we need not rehash the meaning of the phrase here. The question is whether there are other such "kingdoms."
While Christ doesn't say that the enemy has a kingdom, he implies it in Mat 12:25, "And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." Notice, however, that he goes on to use the terms "city" and "house" in this verse. The feeling is that "kingdom" isn't quite the right term.
In the end, Christ seems to suggest that that the enemy's domain is better described as a "house" than a kingdom. After all, the next title he uses "Beelzebub" is a pun on "Lord of the house." And in Mat 12:29, as part of the same conversation, he discusses entering a "strong man's house" and binding him. This again is in the context of explaining how Christ casts out "demons." If we accept that "personal demons" are modes of thinking that lock people into their own personal destruction, it is a short step to considering them living ideas that travel from person to person, In other words, "flyers", Christ's word for "birds". The Hebrew meaning of "Beelzebub" is "Lord of the Flyers".
Another "realm" is a human society. Christ uses the Greek term kosmos to describe human society, especially the institutions of human order, that is, the powers-that-be. The "prince of the world" may describe the enemy, but probably more precisely describes earthly powers.
In one sense, Christ only recognizes one kingdom, one rule ("rule" is another meaning of the Greek term translated as "kingdom"), the rule of the God. Those who teach that the rule of God is somehow divided between good and evil do not understand the nature of power and the nature of authority. The universal rule is not at conflict with itself. It is over all societies and houses. Christ actually says this in Jhn 14:2 "In my Father's house are many mansions."
When rules conflict with themselves, they are not rules at all. In making human rules, for example, we run into problems when laws can be interpreted in different ways, so broadly to make everything a crime or so narrowly to make nothing a crime. The rule cannot stand because it contradicts itself.
However, the universe is God’s kingdom and it not divided against itself. It has clear rules and one rule-maker. There is no separate authority of equal power. There is not one good ruler over an another over evil. There is one authority over all.
Christ goes further and says that God doesn’t treat the good and evil, or, more accurately, the beautiful and the worthless, any differently (Mat 5:45) and neither should we. Not only does God have authority over all, but the world was created in a way that accepts justice as well as injustice. Without such a universe, we would not be free.
The Purpose of Adversity
What is the purpose of having a "house" of adversity? Perhaps we can get some feeling for this from Mar 3:26. In the KJV, this is translated as "And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end." However, our alternative suggests that the Greek phrase is closer to: "And if adversity rouses action up against itself and is minimized, it cannot last but it has a purpose."
In the standard translation, this line seems to just rephrase one from Matthew (and Mark) about kingdoms and houses divided, but it does much more than that. First, it brings in the new concept, of “rousing people to action.” The term translated as “rise up” is anistemi, which means “to make stand up,” and “to raise up.” If we understand that “satan” means “adversity,” the verse sudden is discussing adversity forcing people to rise up and make a stand.
Next and most importantly, it introduces the idea of telos, the Greek term for, purpose. The term so often translation as “end” in the Gospels is actually ” from telos, which means “performance,” “result,” “product,” “outcome,” “end,” “achievement,” “attainment,” “goal,” and “state of completion.” In other words, it never means simply the termination of something but the consummation of something. When Christ talks about “the end of the world. it is closer in meaning to “the completion of the world or “result of the world.”
In Mar 3:26, Christ is simply telling us the purpose of adversity. He is explaining that problems and suffering serve a purpose. Adversity cannot eliminate itself. Nor is adversity caused by some war between the gods (a pagan view that unfortunately touches many versions of Christianity). Adversity is subject to God’s will as a “house” within his kingdom.
Adversity wakes up opposition in us against it. It exists to call us to action. Since the source of adversity is "lies," another way to think of this is that the source of our problems is our ignorance. The more we know, the less we will believe in lies. The challenge of life is to learn. All learning of what is true is learning about the nature of God and the purpose of life.
Mar 3:26 goes even further, saying that this opposition to adversity ends up dividing or minimizing it. Though our ignorance is as big as the universe, we can cut it down to size through the course of our lives. In the process, we learn and grow. This makes each individual problem temporary, and adversity as a whole cannot stop us. It teaches us the meaning of progress. Progress is the purpose of adversity.
Our Inner Demons
What does Christ mean when he describes people as houses in which an unclean spirit dwells (Mat 12:44 ). “Spirit” is from pneuma, which means “blast,” “wind,” “breath,” “the breath of life,” and “divine inspiration.” If we define is simply as “conscious thoughts,” we humans can be easily seen as house of “spirits,” that is, a conglomerate of conflicting thoughts.
In Mat 12:43 Christ describes our minds as a home for thoughts, both good thoughts and bad thoughts. We can try to throw out our bad thought, but unless something better takes their place, our minds are an “empty house,” and the bad thought will simply return and multiply (Mat 12:44). In the battle against our inner demons, we have to fill the house of our mind with something else, something better. A person who believes in nothing will fall for anything.
Christ discusses these inner demons when he says (Mar 3:27) “No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.”
If our awareness is strong, we can protect our private fief of interior mental territory. However, if our conscious mind is enslaved by worthless habits, dominated by thoughts tied to our “bellies” and not our hearts, our personal demons. Once our conscious mind is bound, our house can be spoiled. In Christ system, the heart (relationships, feeling) must direct the mind, not the belly (physical desires). A pure heart allows the mind to see God.
Just take a step back from the traditional translation of the Gospels for a moment and ask yourself: what was Christ really doing when he was going around casting our demons? Was there are these possessed people wandering around back then or what his world more like our own: inhabited by a lot of people tortured by their own inner demons, their addictions, the lack of self-control, the depression and so on? What we call a mental disorder today was just called a “demon” in his time.
Thinking in terms of people fighting their “inner demons” is a lot more useful than today’s framework psycho-babble and an alphabet soup of illusive mental disorders. Much of psychology has always been the type of magical thinking that says that if we give something a name, we understand it. We have found that drugs can affect the mind and the “demons” that inflict it, but what does this tell us really? I prefer to think that we do not understand the invisible realm of the mind, the nature of our consciousness, and our spirit. Psychology is just our pretending that we do.
Personalizing all demons as free-floating evil disembodied characters with names and histories ala The Exorcist is just as problematic. First, leads to the excuse, “The devil made me do it.” Next, it leads us to imagine a spiritual realm, whose characters, natures, and motivations we cannot understand. Whatever demons are, pretending that we understand the world of spirit in that sense is just another form of self-deception.
However, thinking about our inner demons as an external force is valuable. As Christ says, a house divided against itself cannot stand. If the enemy is us, who do we fight? How can we fight ourselves? Instead, Christ says we must think of ourselves as the “strong one” who must defend ourselves against these outside forces. We can get tied up by them, but we can still fight and get free. This view allows us to fight back, and, more importantly, seek the help of God in our fight.
The Authority of Christ
For Christ, his authority over physical disease and mental disorders is identical. In line with his general teaching, both forms of disability arise from a natural, if spiritual cause. In the modern era, we may see nature as solely materialistic, but Christ’s view was that the physical was only what was apparent while the spiritual is what hidden. During Christ’s era, people accepted that they couldn’t see everything that was happening in nature. Today, we know about atoms and DNA, which were once hidden, but despite describing most of nature as “dark matter,” and “dark energy,” most materialists refuse to acknowledge that most of nature is still hidden, especially that there is “dark information” encoded in nature that we cannot see. By Christ’s definition, that unseen or “dark information” is the essence of spirit.
While all of the world is temporary, the spiritual, that is, the underlying information that drives the universe and all life, is what persists over time. Matter and energy is rearranged, but rules, the knowledge, and the message persists and grows over time.
Christ’s authority over people’s disabilities and inner demons comes from the Holy Spirit, which has access to this underlying information. Part of that information, however, is the idea that adversity is part of the natural world and cannot be eliminated if the earth is to serve its purpose.
For Christ, the concept of adversity persists eternally even though individual instances of adversity come and go. An individual adversary, say a thief might be stopped by another adversary, say a competing thief, but this does not destroy the nature of adversity itself. This anthropomorphizing of adversity takes us away from what Christ is trying to explain what is really going on in the universe.
Christ refers to the personalization of evil with the term Beelzebub (Beelzeboul). This discussion always starts with his opponents using that concept. In response, Christ refers to others using the term (and the concept), aiming it at him as a person:
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub…” (Mat 10:25)
“And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils…” (Mat 12:27) (Luk 11:19)
“…ye say that I cast out devils through Beelzebub.” Luk 11:18
In some of these cases, Christ switches the conversation from Beelzebub to Satan (Mar 3:23). Of course, today we see “satan” as another of the chief devil’s names, but this idea is mostly and artifact of incomplete translation.