One could wonder about the propriety of setting demonology within a series on basic Christian doctrines. Satan, the dark power of evil, who appears sometimes as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), and whose designs are not unknown to us (2 Cor. 2:11)—where does he fit into the system of Christian doctrine? Doctrine is an attempt to set forth the inter-relatedness of the Word of God. But do we not have in demons the power that breaks the unity seen in the Word? In dogmatic theology we speak of our task as that of systematic reflection on the message of the Word. What can we systematize in the work of demons? Is not the diabolos the very personification of destruction and confusion, the direct opposite of system and order, especially the good order of God’s creation?
When we try to be systematic and orderly in regard to a study of Satan and his works, we are tempted to fit Satan into a legitimate and proper place within creation. We may also be tempted to use him as an explanatory principle of evil, a principle which leads, if we are not careful, to an excusing of ourselves. For instance, the dualistic schemes of Persian religions set two eternal powers of good and evil in opposition, the good one causing the good and the bad one causing the evil of the world. This was a simple scheme. But the net result in practice was the same as that of any rational explanation of evil. The personal guilt of men was hid in the shadow of the explanation of evil. And where personal guilt is obscured, the grace that frees men from guilt is obscured also.
Evil has often been systematized so rationally that the chaotic world of evil actually looked orderly. When evil is brought into a rational system that explains its existence, its evilness is always toned down. At times, thinkers have dared to seek the origin of evil in God, in spite of the Church’s most emphatic conviction that God may never be called the cause of evil. (Deus non causa peccati.) This conviction comes from the Bible which states the point with perfect clarity. “This then is the message which we have heard of him … that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). When one is inclined to excuse himself on the ground that he is tempted of God, he is warned by the Word: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God” (Jas. 1:13). The point is made in many ways by the Scriptures: sin does not find its origin in God.
We see this in God’s wrath against sin, in his judgment upon sin, and especially in his redemptive action by which he brings grace to light in the punishment of sin upon the Cross. The Cross reveals the soundness of the Church’s conviction that God is not the origin of evil. We also see in the Cross that the dualism which hypnotized Augustine for nine years is wholly unacceptable. For the Cross reveals that God does not eternally face an independent power of evil, but rather that God conquers evil and sets it within his service. The terrible evil accomplished by Judas, Israel, and the Gentiles around the Cross is taken up into the triumphant fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan.
The Powers of Darkness. In regard to all this, it is still possible to speak about the powers of darkness with real meaning, as long as we speak the language of the Bible. It is not our concern to pursue an academic curiosity about evil. This kind of interest in evil has often been too keen. Consider the large Roman Catholic book on Satan which fills 666 pages with a huge attempt to shed light on the demonic powers afoot in all phases of life. One gets an impression in such a book that evil is a triumphant, dynamic force crusading unhindered through history. The Bible, to be sure, calls us to be aware of Satan’s craft. But the biblical summons in regard to Satan is not at all like an answer to our curiosity. The Bible sounds a warning. It never suggests that evil is an invincible power to which we are hopelessly and fatally captive. We hear indeed of the reality of temptation and rebellion, of resistance and disobedience, of confusion and destruction—but these are a reality over which God is surely triumphant.
God’s triumph is particularly manifest in the New Testament where the apostles tell us that Christ has conquered and dethroned Satan (Col. 2:15). Resistance again arises threateningly at the appearance of the antichrist. But his very name suggests that Satan is not a primary figure; he gets his significance only as an opponent of Him who has already conquered. When Satan falls out of heaven as lightning, he rebels against the defeat that the cross and resurrection of Christ inflict on him (Luke 10:18).
This is why we meet Satan and his demons in the environment of Jesus Christ. Satan manifests himself especially during the earthly ministry of our Lord. He is active among the people of Israel and in the world of the Gentiles whom he blinds (2 Cor. 4). In the Book of Revelation, the dark appearance of the dragon on the scene is set back of the foreground of the Lamb who conquers. And it is the Lamb, to whom it is given to open the locked book of history—who is the central figure of the spiritual course of human history.
But we still have to reckon with the power of Satan. “Your adversary the devil goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But this is not dualism, as though we were pawns in a battle between God and Satan with the outcome still uncertain. For there is, in Christ, the power of resistance to Satan. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). We must not fall prey to a superficial judgment that underestimates the power of Satan. Resistance to him is possible only in the immediate fellowship of the Lord of lords and King of kings. Without Him we should discover to our woe that Satan is a foul spirit who possesses the power to overcome us (“how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38).
Satan’s Frustration. But at the same time, given the fellowship of Jesus Christ, there is no reason to overestimate the power of Satan either. He is not free to pursue his own destiny. He cannot and has not frustrated God. God has frustrated him once and for all at Calvary. Our only danger is that we try to frustrate Satan within the limitations of our own power.
In our day, largely because of the many catastrophic outbreaks of evil in the world, theology has turned its attention anew to demonology. This concern with demons has not always been biblically oriented. But the old optimism about the conquest of evil is surely gone. (Long before Bultmann, Schleiermacher insisted that modern insights made serious acceptance of the reality of demons untenable, even though Satan still kept a place in the Church’s hymns.) Attention is also once again directed to the antichrist figure of the New Testament. The question is asked how we are to relate the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan to the present power that Satan seems to exercise in the world. Does it not seem that evil is a constantly resurgent power? Are not we and all the world subject to this power? In considering such questions, we can easily be overcome with pessimism and lose sight of the triumphant theme of the Gospel. We must not, however, forget that when our Lord saw Satan fall from heaven, the triumph over Satan was already at hand. The preaching of the Gospel in our time must be clear at this point. Against human optimism, it must point up human inability to resist the power of evil, while at the same time proclaiming the full power of the Gospel to accomplish this.
The Christian’s Strategy. The Bible, in reference to the demons, calls us to responsibility and prayer. Think, for instance, of the Lord’s prayer. The last petition asks for deliverance from evil. But the prayer does not begin with evil; it speaks of evil only after guilt has been confessed. Satan is not an explanatory principle that does away with our guilt. The reality of Satan’s power does not undo the reality of our personal responsibility in evil. But when we have prayed for forgiveness of our own sin, we also pray for resistance against the evil power—against him who has only a little time left (Rev. 12:12), who seeks to lead men astray, who accuses the brethren before the throne of God, and who strives mightily to blind men to the great salvation that has really come into the world.
For this reason, we shall not be able to do battle with the evil of the world in our own time by means of the armament of human morality and plans for world improvement. For Satan’s ways are not unknown to us—so says Paul (2 Cor. 2:11) in warning the congregation. His designs can be summed up in one word: anti. He is anti-creation and anti-redemption. The antichrist shall appear to be for many things. He shall be for culture, for human religions, for the earth, for development of life. But he shall be anti-Jesus Christ. In this sense, the power of Satan is a negative power. It is a power that shall be revealed as nothing when the parousia of Jesus Christ confronts the parousia of the antichrist (2 Thess. 2:9). The basic weakness of Satan since the Cross will then be made manifest.
We fail to see this now. The power of Satan appears undiminished and Satan appears unconquerable at times. But our failure lies in part with the fact that Satan appears now as an angel of light. The false prophets, against whom Paul warns, bring this to the apostle’s mind. Satan stands before the entrance to a dry desert and proclaims it as the gateway to Paradise. He witnesses to the light with signs and wonders, but is really bidding men to follow him into darkness. Only in the light of Him who is the Light of the world does it become wholly clear that Jesus Christ is indeed the powerful Conqueror of Satan.
Scripture and the faithful preaching of the Church warn us against doing away with evil by finding an explanation of it. We are warned against explaining evil away by saying that God is its origin. We are warned against any dualism which makes a minor god the cause of evil. We are warned against making Satan an overpowering force who takes away our responsibility for our own sin. The Bible does not give us a rational explanation of everything about evil. But it is gloriously clear in showing the way that a man can travel in life. It is the way of faith and prayer and, in the power of the Gospel, the way of resistance to evil. In the perfect prayer the right perspective is beautifully manifest. We pray for forgiveness of personal guilt and then go on to a doxology. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Whoever prays this prayer with his whole heart has grasped the inner meaning of the doctrine of evil.
Bibliography: Besides the many handbooks of theology, see: B. Noack, Satanas und Soteria. Untersuchingen, zur N.T. Dämonogie; R. Leiverstad, Christ the Conqueror, Ideas of Conflict and Victory in the New Testament; K. Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, III/3; G. C. Berkouwer, De Zonde I.
Professor of Systematic Theology
Free University of Amsterdam
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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