I have been working on putting together sets and lessons for Bible storying recently, and I had to make the decision about what to do with the creation of Satan and the angels. The traditional story that I grew up believing went something like this: God created the angels, and three of them were archangels. One of those, named Satan or Lucifer, wanted to be like God. His pride caused his fall, and God cast him out of heaven along with a third of the angels who followed him. Lucifer then was the mortal enemy to God, who was more powerful, but His ultimate victory over Lucifer seemed in doubt at times.
I remember one time in high school I was preparing a Bible study (scary thought) and went looking in the Bible to find the passages that talked about Lucifer so that I could retell the story that I knew with some proof-texts. I was really surprised when I couldn’t find anything in my Bible about Lucifer. I did some searching on the ancient internet and found out that there were a couple of passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel that talked about the history of Lucifer. I read the passages for myself and had absolutely no idea how they were talking about the Devil. I was glad that I had the internet there to explain to me why these two passages that I thought were about a king and a prince were really about Lucifer. I would have never figured that out on my own, and I happily took the internet’s advice and taught my lesson about the history of Satan.
I have several problems with the traditional story and with my own horrendous Bible study that even I didn’t understand. I’ll start off with my most basic problem:
1. The word Lucifer* is not in most people’s Bibles. That’s right, if you read your NIV or NASB or ESV Bible through in a year (a very good idea) you will not once encounter the name Lucifer in the text of Scripture. Your study notes may say something, but if you go straight by the Bible searching for Lucifer, you’re coming up empty. The only English Bibles I have found that use Lucifer are the King James and New King James Bible. The reason this is such a big deal to me is because it confuses Christians and discourages them from reading their Bibles. They go looking for God’s mortal enemy in the Bible and simply can’t find him! When we use the term Lucifer, we are creating an unnecessary barrier between people and God’s Word.
2. The traditional story gives Satan far too much credit. Truth is, there’s not a whole lot about Satan in the Bible, and even less about his life story. You’re never going to see him called an archangel, and the Bible is very clear that God never lost authority or control over Satan. The Devil may think he has a chance at winning, but the Bible consistently describes him as being accountable to God. In Job, he presents himself before God and attacks Job’s character, but can do nothing unless God sends him to do it. In Revelation he is bound by God until God wants to let him back out. He is certainly powerful, and clearly the leader of other powerful demonic beings. But he never has any mention of being better or more powerful than other angels. More importantly, he is nothing close to God.
3. Telling the traditional story of Satan makes us interpret our Bibles poorly. We have this preconceived notion about the way that the story is supposed to go, and we interpret all these passages in light of that overall story. The problem with this is that if we were to go into the Bible knowing nothing about this story, most of us wouldn’t come up with it from Scripture. If we didn’t have a KJV, we’d never come up with the name Lucifer (unless we were reading from a Latin text, which I don’t suggest). We would lose the idea of Satan’s fall from heaven, since this idea is based on several passages which have no indication that they are talking about something that happened thousands of years earlier. Instead, we would have the consistent picture of Satan as being stronger than our flesh, but sad and weak in the presence of God, who has to give him permission and consistently makes him look foolish. We wouldn’t see him as God’s mortal enemy, but the sinner for whom Hell was designed as punishment. If we just read the Bible, we’d know that Satan is the loser, and he always will be.
When I have to teach on Satan, I have fewer passages to teach on than some other people. I have a less complete story to tell, less details, less biographical information. But in truth, I think that’s okay. If I’m going to teach someone about the Bible for an hour, Satan doesn’t deserve 30 minutes. He probably ought to get about a minute, with the emphasis being on God and his perfection, man and his sinfulness, and the good news of Jesus Christ. Satan’s real, but he’s not that great.
*Notes on important passages
Isaiah 14 – The text specifically says that it is addressed to the king of Babylon, a real historical person in a real historical place. There are several indications that this is talking about a man, with no indication that a non-human spirit is in view. Verse 12 calls the king the Hebrew word heylel, meaning day star. The first Latin translation translated this lucifer, meaning either star or shining one. This was then taken as a proper name, hence one of our English names for Satan being Lucifer. However, we should not use this term since we are not generally in the habit of speaking Latin. Using Hebrew terms for the Old Testament or Greek for the New is one thing, but Latin for the Old Testament just doesn’t make sense.
Ezekiel 28 – The primary reason to take this text as referring to Satan is that it refers to the king of Tyre as having been in Eden. The only ones in Eden were Adam, Eve, and Satan in the serpent, so the logic is that it must be calling him Satan. However, a better understanding is that God is comparing the king of Tyre’s destruction to Adam being cast out of Eden. The multiple references to pride in his trade (Tyre was a major shipping port) and the fact that he is called a man, a prince, and a king all point to this not having a hidden reference to Satan, but rather being simply about a historical person like all the prophecies around it.
Luke 10 – This is often taken as Jesus describing the prehistoric fall of Satan. While this could be true, we have no textual reason for the disciples to talk about what happened last week and Jesus to answer randomly with what happened 4,000 years before. Instead, Jesus is saying that as the disciples preached and healed, He saw Satan’s kingdom being defeated.
Revelation 12 – Once again, Satan is being thrown down from heaven. Revelation is generally talking about what happens in the end times, except for the first couple of chapters written to individual churches about their current situations. In chapter 12, there are three possibilities. 1. This is referring to Satan’s prehistoric fall from heaven 2. This is talking about a battle yet to come in the end times 3. This is a timeless, symbolic word picture of Satan’s defeat. I don’t know whether 2 or 3 is more likely, but they are both far more reasonable exegetically than 1.