Where did the idea of a red-flanneled, pitchfork-bearing Devil come from? The roots of this grotesque caricature of Satan are found in the Middle Ages. It was popular sport in medieval days to mock the Devil by describing him in ludicrous terms. There was a method in this madness. The medieval church believed in the reality of Satan. It was aware that Satan was a fallen angel who suffered from an overdose of pride. Pride was Satan’s supreme weakness. To resist Satan, that proud but fallen creature, required fierce combat. The combat focused on Satan’s most vulnerable point, his pride. The theory was this: Attack Satan at his point of weakness and he will flee from us.
What better way to attack Satan’s pride than to depict him as a cloven-hoofed court jester in a red suit? These silly images of Satan were intentional caricatures. Unfortunately, later generations responded to the caricatures as if they were intended to be the real thing.
The biblical view of Satan is far more sophisticated than the caricature. The biblical images include that of an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). The “angel of light” image indicates Satan’s clever ability to manifest himself sub species boni (under the appearances of good). Satan is subtle. He is beguiling. The serpent in the garden was described as “crafty” (Gen. 3:1). Satan does not appear as a fool. He is a beguiling counterfeit. He speaks with eloquence. His appearance is stunning. The prince of darkness wears a cloak of light.
A second image we have of Satan is that of a roaring lion who goes about seeking whom he will devour (1 Peter 5:8). Notice that the same figure that is used for Christ, the lion, is used by Satan, the archetype of the Antichrist. The anti-lion devours. The Lion of Judah redeems.
With both allusions to the lion we find a symbol of strength, though with Satan it is an evil, demonic strength. His strength is no match for Christ, but it is a strength that is certainly superior to ours. He is not as strong as Christ, but he is stronger than we are.
There are two frequent ways that Satan deceives us. On the one hand he will seek to have us underestimate his strength. On the other hand there are times that he seeks to have us overestimate his strength. In either event he deceives us and can trip us up.
The pendulum of popular belief about Satan tends to swing between two extremes. On one side there are those who believe that he doesn’t exist at all, or if he does exist. he is a mere impersonal evil “force,” sort of a collective evil that finds its origin in the sin of society. On the other side there are those who have a preoccupied fixation, a cultic focus of attention upon him that diverts their gaze from Christ.
Either way Satan gains some ground. If he can persuade people that he does not exist, he can work his wiles without being detected or resisted. If he can get people to become preoccupied with him, he can lure them into the occult.
Peter underestimated Satan. When Jesus warned Peter about his impending betrayal, Peter protested, saying, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). Peter was overconfident. He underestimated the strength of the adversary Moments before Jesus had warned him about the strength of Satan, but Peter rejected the warning. Jesus said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31).
Peter’s protests notwithstanding, he became as putty in the hands of Satan. It was as easy for Satan to seduce Peter as it is to sift wheat in a sieve. In common jargon it was as if Jesus said to Peter, “Peter, you are a piece of cake. You are no match for the formidable strength of the Devil.”
Even so, Satan’s power over us is limited. He may be stronger than we are, but we have a champion who can and does defeat him. The Scripture declares, “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4, NASB). James adds these words: “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). When we resist the roaring lion in the power of the Holy Spirit, he runs away with his tail between his legs.
Satan sifted Peter, but his victory was temporary. With the warning Jesus gave came also the consolation: “But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Jesus predicted both the fall and the restoration of Peter.
To underestimate Satan is to suffer from the pride that goes before destruction. To overestimate him is to grant him more honor and respect than he deserves.
Satan is a creature. He is finite and limited. He is subordinate to God. Christianity never embraces an ultimate dualism of equal and opposite power. Satan is stronger than men but no match for God. He has no divine attributes. His knowledge may exceed ours, but he is not omniscient. His strength may be greater than ours, but he is not omnipotent. He may have a wider sphere of influence than we have, but he is not omnipresent.
Satan cannot be at more than one place at one time. He is a space-time creature who is limited, as are all angels good or bad, by space and time. Chances are that in your whole lifetime you will never experience a direct, immediate encounter with Satan himself. You might encounter one of his junior-grade lieutenants or one of his host of disciples, but he is likely to spend his time and space in bigger targets than you or me. Even in his concentrated attack on Jesus, Satan departed from him “for a season” (Luke 4:13).
In our day there has been a renewal of interest in the work of Satan. Hollywood has given us The Exorcist and The Omen and a host of other films to whet our appetite for the occult. Within Christian circles there has arisen a new concern for ministries of deliverance. Some of these deliverance ministries have developed a bizarre and radically unbiblical view of demon possession and deliverance.
For example, we hear that we can recognize the departure of a demon from a human soul by a manifest sign that is linked to the particular point of bondage. We have people saying that particular demons cause particular sins. There is, they say, a demon of alcohol, a demon of depression, a demon of tobacco, and so on. I have listened to tapes from well-known deliverance ministers (whose names I will not mention, to protect the guilty) in which they teach the signs of departure of the demon. A sigh, for example, indicates the departure of the demon of tobacco. Since the tobacco demon enters with the inhaling of smoke, he leaves us with an audible exhale. Likewise vomiting may be the sign of the departure of the demon of alcohol. There are demons for every conceivable sin. Not only must each one of these demons he exorcized, but there are necessary procedures to keep them from returning on a daily basis.
I know of no polite way to respond to this kind of teaching. It is unmitigated nonsense. Nowhere in sacred Scripture is there to he found the slightest hint of this kind of demonic diagnosis. These teachings cross the line into the sphere of magic and result in serious harm to believers who are duped by them. Sadly, too much concern with Satan and demons means that we focus less of our attention on Christ. That must please Satan, though it certainly is not pleasing to God.
The Scriptures indicate that Satan can oppress us, assault us, tempt us, slander us, and accuse us. But a Christian who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit cannot be possessed by a demon. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. If a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit can at the same time be sovereignly controlled by an evil spirit, then our redemption is defeated.
All this emphasis on Satan and demons tends to distract us from another very real menace, our own sin. Yes, there is a Devil. There are real demons. But there is also the reality of sin. Satan may be our accomplice in our ongoing sin, but we cannot pass the blame and responsibility for our sin to a controlling demon. We do not have to he possessed by a Devil to get drunk. There is enough abiding wickedness in us to do it all by ourselves. We can never say, “The Devil made me do it.” We can say that we are tempted or incited or seduced by Satan, but not that we are controlled or coerced by him.
There are two serious problems with the view that our sins are the result of controlling demons. The first is that we yield to the temptation to take no personal responsibility for our sin. How can we be responsible if in fact we are not able to resist? Second, we are lured into thinking that we are powerless without the aid of the deliverance minister. We are encouraged to think that we are not really guilty and that we are actually helpless without a minister with special powers of deliverance. This negates the entire biblical concept of sanctification. It is surely unbiblical to teach that we cannot lead lives pleasing to God unless some so-called expert on deliverance enters into the battle. Therefore, I say with all urgency that believers must turn away from those who teach such things. Indeed run, for your very spiritual lives.