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Our understanding of Satan
Most of us know who Satan is. Some view him as an imaginary, mythological character, while others believe he is 100% real. He can be a cartoon figure to some, and evil incarnate to others. He could be a material or a supernatural being. Whatever he is, he certainly is memorable—often depicted with goat horns and cloven hooves, but strangely, with a very ungoatlike long pointed tail. The birth and evolution of Satan is wrapped in many layers of tradition from ancient Persia and Rome to modern-day Christianity.
The Satan we’re familiar with is a composite figure that accumulated characteristics from many cultures. If we go back in time to around 1000 BC, we can find his likeness in ancient Persia in the religion of Zoroastrianism. There, a being much like him was called Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, and he was the evil adversary of their supreme god, Ahura Mazda, the “Lord of Wisdom”. It might be only coincidence, but Ahriman sounds suspiciously like Saruman, the good wizard who broke bad in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Both of those beings seemed to fit the fallen angel theme.
Around 350 BC, Ahura Mazda joined two other gods, Mithra and Anahita, to form a triad, or a trinity. Trinities didn’t begin with Christianity. When we realize this, it’s understandable that people of other religions might see Christianity as a polytheistic religion. Trinitarian godheads were also found in Greek paganism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Hinduism.
Ahriman becomes Satan
The descendants of the Jewish elite who had been captured by the Babylonians in 597 BC where eventually freed from their captivity when the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 BC. Those Jews who returned from captivity would certainly have been familiar with the components of Zoroastrianism. So, when they returned to Palestine it’s reasonable that they would have brought knowledge of Ahriman with them.
The Jewish word satan was only mentioned in six books of the Hebrew Bible, aka the Christian Old Testament. The name meant “accuser” or “adversary”. One memorable example was in the book of Job, where Satan served as one of God’s underlings. Satan’s role was to test people as to their righteousness, and that’s where poor Job came into the picture. God allowed Satan to test Job’s loyalty and it didn’t go well for Job. In fact, Job’s ordeal was completely sadistic, but apparently God approved the test. The book of Job was the earliest written book of the Old Testament, so the evolution of the Jewish God and his “adversary” were just beginning. Many more layers would be added to both entities over the millennia.
Satan as a fallen angel
Intellectuals in prehistorical times believed that gods and other supernatural entities were closely tied to the heavens. That is where the concept of Satan gets even more confusing.
Christians have used two specific excerpts from the Old Testament to interpret Satan as a fallen angel. Those verses are Isaiah 14:12-15, and Ezekiel 28:11-19. Neither of those passages mention Satan. According to many biblical scholars, they aren’t even about Satan. Those verses were supported by various interpretations of Luke 10:18 and Revelation 12:1-12, in the New Testament. Other references in Jude 6, and 2 Peter 2:4, speak of fallen angels but have nothing to do with Satan. It all seems a very weak foundation for the idea of Satan as a fallen angel. Almost everything else in Satan’s evolution comes from non-biblical sources.
Christian tradition teaches that Satan was one of God’s three archangels. Whereas Michael and Gabriel remained loyal to God, “Satan” rebelled against him and took one third of the angels with him when he left heaven. Those sub-angels became the demons who are thought to assist Satan.
In the Isaiah 14:12, the name Lucifer (not Satan) is found, and that’s the only time the name is found in the Bible. The original Hebrew equivalent was helel, meaning “the shining one”. When Greek-speaking Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek, the word helel was translated as heophoros, or “light-bearer”. It wasn’t until Jerome translated the text into Latin in the late fourth century that the name “Lucifer” came to be used in that passage. Lucifer was the Latin name for the planet Venus, i.e., “light-bringer” or “morning star”.
So, the Isaiah verses really refer to a symbolic planet falling from heaven, not Satan. That’s not so far-fetched when astronomers observe the motion of Venus. It’s the second brightest object in the night sky and can be seen alternately rising and falling with respect to the Sun. That’s why it’s the morning star and at other times the “evening star”. The ancients always saw the Sun as the main god—the sustainer of life, for obvious reasons. Life on Earth can’t exist without the Sun. Back to Isaiah. Supposedly, he was referring to the king of Babylon being defeated in battle and compared him to Venus as a falling star. So, the Isaiah verses have nothing to do with Satan, just the king of Babylon.
Another shocker is that Lucifer as the light-bringer has also been confused with Jesus Christ. Both were bringers of light, were thought to have descended to earth, and ruled on earth in some way with God’s approval.
Satan’s fall becomes Christian tradition
It wasn’t until the early third century AD that Tertullian and Origen became the first Christian writers to mention Satan as a fallen angel. That was because they interpreted Ezekiel 28 as being about Satan. Many centuries later, in the 1600s, English writer John Milton described Satan’s rebellion against God in his poem, Paradise Lost. I’ve read that the tradition of Satan’s fall from grace wasn’t fully established until around the sixteenth century.
Today, the concept of Satan turning evil and being exiled from heaven is commonly accepted, even though it seems to be based only on astrology, mythology, and mistranslation.
One of my recurring findings
There’s something that intrigues me about Christian scripture. First, none of the original writings are still in existence so we don’t know what the originals said. Second, there have been myriad translation errors in the copies of scripture that have been discovered. Third, it’s incredibly difficult to interpret writings that developed in another culture because the translator often must substitute words and phrases based on his own cultural values. That means both linguistic and cultural translations are involved. Fourth, there are over one hundred English translations of the Bible to choose from. In the Old Testament, that’s going from the original Hebrew to Greek then Latin and then English. I don’t see how the original meaning can possibly be retained.
To me, the only realistic approach to understanding scripture is to take nothing as literal, because that’s almost guaranteed to be misleading. Strictly literal interpretation of the Bible didn’t begin until the eighteenth century. It’s much more realistic to see only possibilities and probabilities when it comes to scriptural interpretation, never certainty.
Satan through the ages
Back to Satan’s evolution. Christian tradition took a different view of Satan than the Old Testament. In Christian writings Satan was reinvented as the epitome of evil. In addition to his Persian and Jewish heritage, he took on certain characteristics from the Greek and Roman god Lucifer. So, he seemed to have become a blend of Ahriman, Satan, Lucifer, and possibly others. Whatever he was, he was a new and evolving perception of evilness.
By the way, the word devil is also applied to Satan. That word is derived from the Greek word diaolos, meaning accuser or slanderer, similar in meaning to the Hebrew Satan. This name evolved into diabolus in Latin, then deofol in Germanic, and finally devel in Old English.
In the Middle Ages, Satan was often a comic figure in European plays. He was seen as more of a nuisance to God than a terrifying figure. It was only after AD 1500 when he became associated with witchcraft, that Satan, or the Devil, became increasingly powerful and evil in the minds of Christians. These days, belief in a literal Satan or Devil is strongest among Christians in the US and in Latin America. No matter how he is perceived, many Christians must still believe he works for God because tradition shows him in popular culture as the warden of God’s torture chamber in Hell.
Satan was also seen as being able to take over minds and bodies of the living. Those aspects of his legend are often repeated in the Gospels stories of Jesus when he drives demons out of humans and animals. Today, the “demon possession” mentioned in the Gospels is mainly understood as mental illnesses that caused unusual behavior.
The influence of Hollywood
Our nebulous idea of Satan evolved further when the movie industry latched onto him as a theme for horror movies. Productions such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby, scared the hell out of us. Just as the movie Jaws had scared us away from beaches, we began to envision demons lurking in every dark alley. After people viewed The Exorcist, the Catholic Church had to increase its number of trained exorcists keep up with the demand for their services. Those movies were all fictional stories that people dreamed up, but the public took them way too literally. Later, the Catholic Church tried to downplay the role of Satan in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries because of the hysteria.
The fear of evil
In the end, we really have no proof that Satan or his demons even exist. Experts can explain that human evil is caused by alterations in brain chemistry or severe psychological problems caused by the trauma a person experienced, not some evil force in nature. Satan, demons, demonic possession, and even Hell, may be inventions of the human mind.
Those evil entities served a purpose in Christianity just like they did in Zoroastrianism. Each religion has its own concept of evil and how it originated. But the process of believing a Satan-like being to be real and terrifying seems to have peaked in modern times. Societies use fear when they need to, and it seems much of today’s use is to make people dependent on God for protection. We learned that same lesson after the 911 attacks when people became paranoid and gave up their liberty so their leaders could keep them safe. The difference was that was based on reality, not mythology.