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Casting the Devil Out of the Jesus Story
Image: History Channel

The Bible TV miniseries, created and produced by husband and wife duo Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, was a 2013 sensation, raking in more than 100 million views. It was nominated for three Emmy awards, and a sequel title, A.D.: Beyond the Bible, has been planned for NBC.

But amid the hype came controversy. The same episode that debuted Jesus also included scenes with the devil. Downey was immediately disappointed to find the media fixated on the devil rather than Jesus: some were claiming that the actor who played Satan looked like President Obama.

In order to avoid further controversy, the producers decided to remove Satan from the Son of God movie rereleasing this Friday. "I want the name of Jesus to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so I cast Satan out," said Downey.

Although perhaps not the movie's target audience, the large number of viewers who are agnostic about or deny the devil's existence could simplify the decision to omit him. Recent polls suggest a large number of Americans don't believe the devil exists. A 2009 Barna survey reported that nearly 60 percent of Christians in America view the devil as only a symbol of evil. Only one quarter of participants strongly affirmed the devil's personal existence, though this figure more than doubles among "born again" Christians.

What muddies the poll, however, is the inconsistency of responses. Nearly half of those who treated Satan as a symbol believed that demons could influence people. Furthermore, a strong majority affirmed that one "must either side with God or with the devil." And only 11 percent strongly disagreed. Such results suggest that even those who believe the devil is a symbol of evil are not ready to do away with him altogether.

Other recent polls only add to the confusion. A 2013 YouGov poll concluded "that more than half [57 percent] of Americans believe in the devil" and that only 28 percent denied his existence. Admittedly, this poll did not provide the "symbol of evil" option. And a 2010 Lifeway survey found that four in ten Millennials believe Satan is not a real person but just a symbol of evil.

Given his role in the Gospels, symbol or not, it seems natural that Satan would appear in a movie about Jesus. Downey has voiced publicly her belief in the devil's personal existence, so she and her husband didn't exclude Satan from the big screen because of theological bias. Yet with the devil's absence from the film, some Christians have questioned whether the Christ story can be told without mentioning Satan.

The short answer is yes.

We can't include every detail when presenting the gospel. For many of us, the devil is usually one of the first elements we drop in recounting the big picture of Christ's life. Even the apostles did this. The sermons in Acts rarely include the devil. And when they do, their discussion of his activity is limited. For example, in Acts 10:38, Peter simply says that Jesus healed and delivered those "under the power of the devil." He doesn't go into detail.

Following the example of the apostles, we can tell the gospel story without detailing who Satan is and what he does. If the producers of Son of God can better communicate the Christ story without including Satan, I won't complain.

Nevertheless, Satan does play a key role in the Gospels, where he is mentioned more than 30 times and is described performing various activities. These passages help us to better understand Christ's mission, the challenges we face, and the reality in which we live.

Satan in Mark

Mark's Gospel, the shortest one, mentions Satan explicitly in only four passages. The first is in Mark's introduction, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Chapter 1 introduces Jesus as both the Spirit-baptizer (v. 8) and an example of one who experienced the Spirit in baptism (vv. 9–10). What does the Spirit do with Jesus after he is baptized? He thrusts Jesus into the wilderness, for 40 days, where he is tempted by Satan (vv. 12–13). The Spirit-empowered life is hardly portrayed as one of tranquil bliss.

For Mark, Satan is a real figure, and one of his primary roles is that of tempter. Not surprisingly, Jesus quickly begins confronting demons, Satan's agents. These confrontations provide context for Satan's next appearance.

Some of Jesus' critics accuse him of using demons to drive out demons (3:22)—a common magical practice in antiquity. Jesus responds by saying that Satan cannot drive out Satan, and that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (3:23–26). Jesus says he has overcome and tied up "the strong man"; that is why he is able to liberate what Satan has possessed (3:27). Some scholars argue that here Jesus is referring to his defeat of Satan.

Satan's next appearance in Mark's Gospel is more subtle. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains to his disciples that Satan snatches the kingdom message from the hearts of many hearers (4:15). This suggests that Satan's activity is not limited to people directly demonized. Rather, Satan is active in the world on a wide scale: he distracts individuals from receiving the gospel. But since Satan is not omnipresent, he presumably accomplishes this through inferior evil spirits or other means of influence. Mark does not indicate that Satan has been bound from this particular role or that the solution to such distraction is casting him out. Rather, we can only keep preaching the kingdom message and keep praying that people may receive it.

Mark's final mention of Satan seems most ominous, and warns Jesus' own followers. When Peter wants to prevent Jesus' suffering, Jesus calls Peter "Satan" (8:33) and rebukes him for acting with human rather than divine motives. The kingdom without the Cross misunderstands the King's mission. One thing from this passage is clear: Avoiding the suffering that accompanies following the truth is more reflective of Satan's values than Christ's.

Satan in Matthew

Matthew provides more details than Mark about Jesus' temptation. In Matthew's account, God has just declared Jesus his Son (3:17), and this is what Satan challenges: "If you are the Son of God . . ." he says twice (4:3, 6). Satan wants Jesus to turn stones into bread (4:3). Although Jesus will later multiply food for others, here he refuses to comply with Satan. Satan also urges Jesus to call for the angels' help in a daring act (4:6). While Jesus could ask the Father for 12 legions of angels if he wished (26:53), he refuses to take matters into his own hands. As a result, the Father rewards Jesus' faithfulness: when the temptation ends, angels come to help Jesus (4:11).

Satan is cunning in his tempting. When Jesus quotes Scripture, Satan responds with the same tactic. It's a Scripture sparring match. Nevertheless, their approaches to Scripture are vastly different, including their approach to context. Because Satan challenges Jesus' sonship, Jesus starts by quoting from a passage that instructs God's children how to live godly lives, and then he offers two other quotations from the same context (Deut. 6; 8). By contrast, Satan twists the meaning of the passage he quotes. Psalm 91:11–12 promises protection for those who fall, not for those who jump.

The most significant temptation in Matthew's narrative is the third and final one. Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, provided that Jesus will bow down and worship him. "Go away, Satan!" Jesus commands, refusing Satan's offer (Matt. 4:10). It's no surprise that Jesus later gives a similar rebuke to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan!" In both cases, Jesus was offered a kingdom without the Cross.

In Matthew's passion narrative, Jesus' mockers continue to borrow Satan's lines, urging Jesus to save himself from the Cross, since he claims to be the Son of God (27:40–43). Just like Mark, Matthew sees any theology downplaying suffering and the Cross as satanic.

Matthew also includes the story of Jesus being accused of using Satan to cast out demons (12:24). As in Mark, Jesus counters by saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan, the ruler of demons, has no incentive to undertake widespread deliverance of people from demons. Jesus also says he expels evil spirits by God's Spirit, demonstrating that he is ushering in God's kingdom (12:28). Jesus' critics are so determined to evade any evidence for Jesus' messianic identity that they brand God's Spirit as the devil. Such hard-heartedness, Jesus warns, risks blaspheming the Holy Spirit (12:31–32). Jesus concludes his response by turning the tables with a parable about his generation. He has been casting demons out, but his opponents are so determined to reject his work that they are inviting eight times as many demons back (12:43–45). Who, then, is really serving Satan?

As in Mark, the evil one snatches the gospel message from uncommitted hearts (13:19). Indeed, those who are not true followers of Jesus remain aligned with the devil (13:39) and are destined for the eternal fire designated for the devil and his angels (25:41). No wonder so many Americans find the devil problematic. Jesus doesn't give a feel-good message on this subject; his portrayal of Satan is dark and serious.

The devil is bad news not only for outsiders but also for Jesus' followers. Although the translation could be debated, it appears that the evil one stands behind temptation more widely (5:37). When we pray for God to protect us from temptation, we also pray for protection from the tempter, "the evil one" (6:13). Whether this refers to Satan's direct activity or his indirect activity, the reality of cosmic evil cannot be underestimated—and there is a cunning personal force behind much of it.

Satan in Luke

Many of Luke's observations about the devil overlap with Mark's and Matthew's, so I'll focus on how he supplements their points.

At the temptation, for example, Satan claims that he has authority to give kingdoms to whomever he wishes (Luke 4:6). Satan doesn't bother to mention that his authority is merely delegated to him, and that God holds the ultimate authority over all kingdoms (Dan. 4:32).

When Jesus' followers celebrate demons being subject to their command, Jesus reaffirms their authority over the enemy (Luke 10:19), but he reminds them that being destined for heaven is a greater blessing (10:20). Jesus also says he was watching Satan fall from heaven (10:18). Jesus could be referring to the primeval fall of Satan, but many scholars think that he is describing what he saw as his disciples cast out demons. That is, as the message of the kingdom was advancing, Satan was retreating and losing some of his hold over the world.

Luke 13:16 suggests that Satan also causes some illnesses, even in people who have done nothing wrong to invite his activity. As Peter said, Jesus healed those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38). This reminds us that when we seek people's physical welfare—whether through prayer, medicine, or other means—we are working for something that God cares about. Evils will not all be destroyed before Jesus' return, but in the meantime we work against them, whether they harm people physically or spiritually.

Luke also indicates that Satan acts in a spiritual manner. Besides snatching the message from people's hearts (Luke 8:12), Satan wants to destroy the faith of Jesus' disciples (22:31). Jesus prayed for Peter and encouraged him that when his faith was restored, he needed to take the lead in restoring his fellow disciples (22:32). Peter's restoration probably began when he witnessed the risen Lord (24:12, 34). While Satan tried to destroy all the disciples, he actually entered Judas (22:3).

Satan in John

John is the only Gospel that doesn't elaborate on Jesus' casting out demons. Instead, John focuses on the Cross as the moment when Satan is cast down (John 12:31; 16:11). While Satan is still active in the world, he can no longer accuse us before God, and his doom is inevitable (Rev. 12:9–12). While John doesn't include Jesus' temptation, he reports that Satan has no power in Jesus' life (John 14:30).

In the Lord's Prayer in Matthew, we pray for protection from the evil one; in John, Jesus himself also prays for our protection from the evil one (John 17:15). Just like Matthew, John indicates that those who do not embrace God's message are aligned with the devil (8:44). And elsewhere, John says that the entire world is in the devil's grip (1 John 5:19).

John focuses more on Satan's work through Judas than do the Synoptics. As in Luke, Satan moves Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:2, 27). And while Jesus calls Peter "Satan" in Mark and Matthew, he calls Judas a "devil" in John (6:70–71).

In the Gospels, we see an elaboration on what the Old Testament and ancient Jewish tradition say about Satan: he is an accuser, deceiver, and tempter. I fully respect Downey's reasons for omitting Satan from the Son of God film. You can certainly tell the gospel story without including him. Nevertheless, Satan remains an uncomfortable part of the gospel story, and knowing who he is and what he does helps us to fully understand what Christ has done for us. Jesus endured temptation, triumphed over evil, and brought life and healing to those who were oppressed. And because Christ was triumphant, securing the devil's inevitable demise, we can have confidence that Christ will reign victorious in our lives. Christ's Word is more powerful that Satan's deception. Satan and his demons will try to make life as difficult for us as possible—just as he made the road to Golgotha as difficult as possible for Jesus, by moving Judas to betray him. But in Christ, we can endure the difficulties of life and withstand the devil's schemes. This is our reality, until Christ returns.

Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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Casting the Devil Out of the Jesus Story