The Identity of Satan

Two remarks must be made at the very outset of this series of articles. First of all, few areas of Biblical thought have been so resolutely ignored by the main stream of Protestant theology as the subject of demonology. And second, not since the days of the Church Fathers has there been such a serious interest in and discussion of the power of the demons in world history as in these days. Let us consider each of these two theses more closely.

Long Neglect

In the first four centuries of the church the early Church Fathers wrote extensively on the demons and demonic powers. ]ustin Martyr, e.g., insisted that heathen mythology originated in demonic deception. He attributed the deception practised by false teachers and opponents of the Church to the working of demons and of Satan. Lanctatitius also devoted much space in his writings to the fallen angels, and asserted that the demons are the inventors of astrology, soothsaying, divination, and image worship. Augustine likewise repeatedly referred to the demons and to their terrible power in past times and in ages to come, and considered that the righteous are the special target of their efforts.

Surveying the period of Christian history from these early Church Fathers to the present, we find but scant references to the Biblical doctrine of demons. There are a few sermons and an occasional book, but that is all. This neglect in recent centuries is all the more surprising when we recall that leaders of the Protestant churches and of the Roman Catholic Church in Reformation times made countercharges against one another’s doctrines as being from the devil, and 17th and 18th century America and Europe dealt harshly with witchcraft. By the time of the 19th century the whole subject was sneered at as being superstition and was quickly passed over in theological treatises. Even John Calvin in The Institutes said remarkably little about Satan and the demons.

To show how complete this neglect of the Biblical material has been, let me refer to the Puritan fathers in America. Richard Baxter (whose writings comprise about 10,000 pages ) has no single reference to demons except in connection with the record of our Lord’s ministry as told in the Gospels. Thomas Goodwin also neglects the subject. John Owen’s works arc contained in 20 volumes, and the conclusion is the same: almost total neglect of the subject. John Wesley devoted one page to the demons, and that is included in a sermon on the subject of the good angels. Jonathan Edwards says nothing which really deals with the subject.

Recent Interest

The present age is both puzzled and embarrassed by the subject. When reading the Bible one cannot escape the bewildering impression that somehow there is more to this world than meets one’s eyes, and that the existence of demonic powers has important bearing for a proper understanding of Christ’s work and His Church’s ministry.

The easiest solution is, of course, to set these materials aside as being out-of-date and not scientifically relevant. When the Bible is regarded as a myth or a collection of man’s opinions, not the Word of God, this solution works remarkably well. Satan is according to this viewpoint not a person but a figurative way of explaining man’s own self. The demonic powers are not real, but merely a way of describing the struggle in each man’s heart and life between good and evil. The materials of the Bible arc according to this viewpoint regarded as merely reflecting the thought patterns of a rabbinical mythology or angelology, having its source in heathen mythologies. This easy solution has led several contemporary scholars to deny the personal existence of Satan and of the demons.

But this “easy” solution is not as easy as it seems. The two World Wars and other conflicts of recent years, together with the great social upheavals of our present time, have driven men to search for the causes which underlie these appalling eruptions of evil. The frightful destructions brought about in Europe by Adolf Hitler, the awful persecution of Christians by atheistic communism in its swift progress around the world, the growing immorality and lawlessness accompanying the almost frightening progress of the sciences and of the knowledge of man indicate to thinking men that the phenomena of this world cannot be explained by reference to man alone. Brunner pointed to “a mass atheism which was formerly unknown.” These things, together with the deep deceptions abroad today, call men to find an explanation why things are as they are. Many have turned to the New Testament to search out its teachings regarding supernatural beings whose constant mission is to deceive, degrade, and destroy men.

In such times of world upheaval as we are witnessing today neither philosophy, science, psychology, nor sociology helps us understand what is taking place in our world. From the deepening darkness of this world one can only turn to the light of the Word of God which tells us of the wisdom of God and the ultimate victory of Christ and his Church.

I must refer briefly to the lack of any thorough or exhaustive treatment of this subject in Reformed theology. ProL L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology. only briefly touches on the subject of the devil and demons. Among other Reformed writers very little can he found. The same holds true in regard to the writings of Calvin, Hodge, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. A few general studies have appeared in our age, though much of what has been written is concerned with the phenomenon of demon possession.

There is an explanation for this neglect. For one thing, much of our Christian theology has developed in times of controversy, and as an apologetic against false doctrine. The Christian Church has never disputed much about the Devil and his confederates. Then too, the Church has always taken seriously and for truth what the Bible says about Satan. Though the Church has at times seriously ignored the Scriptural data, it has never denied them. Nevertheless, the scarcity of references to the Biblical revelation on this subject is striking.


As one reviews the literature on the demons and demonic forces the impression soon becomes conviction that Christian missionaries have consistently alerted the Church to the reality and the power of the Evil One. Christian missionaries have always been keenly aware of the workings of Satan, for heathen darkness is clearly one realm of his working, as we shall see later in this article.

This does not mean that Satan is not at work in societies influenced by and permeated with the Christian Gospel. Only the method of Satan changes, not the fact of his presence and absence. One can as clearly trace his activity in the Church as in the pagan world, in developed as well as undeveloped societies. And the Bible clearly delineates both areas of his work and operation.

One gets the impression that the mission field is a fertile ground for the developing consciousness of a new-born Christian community to develop a theology regarding the demonic powers and thus contribute to the theological development of the Western Christian Church. I suspect that much Western theology is lacking in relevance for many of the younger mission churches, but that a doctrine of spirits and concerning the spirit world would be extremely relevant and a real service to the Church. The opposition from paganism which one meets on the mission field is not far removed from the situation which the New Testament Church confronted.

A part of the necessary equipment of the Christian believer. worker, missionary, and witness is to know the opponent. The Apostle Paul challenges us in Ephesians 6:11, “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the expert methods of the devil.” Knowing the opposition will serve to make uS aware of the grand and glorious provision God makes for us in fighting our spiritual warfare, as well as to cause us to be strengthened in Christ and not lose heart in the heat of the battle.

The Source of Our Study

There are many “demonologies,” and much has been written about the demons in relation to divergent societies and cultures. But the Bible is the only source for a true demonology. There God speaks and from the pages of his infallible revelation we receive the knowledge we need of the spiritual forces at work in our world.

Many fine, beautiful, and comforting passages of the Word of God are often passed over lightly in our study of the Word. Some of the purposes of this present lecture series are to throw light on world events and Christian developments as they are now coming to pass, to lead Christian believers into a deeper experience of intercession and surrender, and to make possible triumphant Christian living unhampered by the fear of the dreadful powers to which we were once enslaved but have now been set free by Christ.

This is a subject concerning which Satan would indeed have us ignorant. We need not be afraid of the subject. The Scriptures arc crystal clear, and, powerful though our enemy may be, he has been defeated in Christ.

Something must be said regarding the unique and singular character of the Biblical demonology. Even to the casual reader the Scriptural materials on the demons and Satan is far removed from the demonologies and superstitions of non Biblical writers, non-Christian religions, and pagan cultures. Even though in Christian cultures many myths have gathered around the person of the devil, the Bible contains the only source of naked, simple truth, truth that needs to be learned and known about him. No age needs the plain, unvarnished truth about the devil more than our own. We need this knowledge and the light of the truth to serve us as a warning, as an incentive to vigilance, and as an inspiration to effort that will lead to victory.

The Identity of Satan

Since we accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and are speaking from that viewpoint, I shall assume that it is not necessary to prove the actual existence of a personal, spiritual, evil being whom we call the Devil, or Satan. Wherever he is referred to and in whatever context, both his existence and his personality arc assumed by Scripture. We are dealing with a spiritual being of great power (but not infinite), of great evil (though once good), created by God, and under his continual control (and therefore limited).

Perhaps the easiest and clearest way to identify our enemy is to do so by looking at the names by which he is known in the Bible. His ways, person, and work are revealed in his names.


The basic meaning of the word “satan” is “adversary.” It is important, however, to note that the word “satan” is not always used in a bad sense in the Bible. In order to understand this function or office which the Devil originally held, let us look at a few representative uses of the word in the Old Testament.

a. In Numbers 22:22 the angel of the Lord stood in the way of Balaam as a “satan,” an adversary. He did so because the anger of the Lord was kindled against Balaam. In verse 22 the angel says, “I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me.”

b. When Isaac dug the wells of water (Genesis 26:21) he gave the name “Sitnah” to the second of these wells because the Philistines quarreled over this well with him. The name “Sitnah” comes from the same root as the word “satan” (S-T-N), and means to stand against or strive.

c. Another significant use of the word is found in the story of David when he was fleeing for his life from King Saul (I Samuel 29:4). The Philistine lords did not want David to go with them, “lest in the battle he become an adversary (satan ) to us.” Of course they did not realize that all along David had secretly been this! The word is used in the same sense in connection with the building of the Temple: Solomon is permitted to do what David was not allowed, because there was “neither adversary (satan) nor misfortune.”

d. There are also occasions in which the word is used of an evil spirit who stands in opposition to the truth, to God, and to God’s people. This is the obvious meaning of the word (name) in the Book of Job (1 and 2) and in Zechariah 3, as also in Revelation 12:10 where heaven resounds with the triumphant song, “The accuser of our brethren is cast down who accuses them before God day and night.”

What is important to see is that God, good angels, and men can be “satans.” It is entirely possible that we have in this name of the Devil a glimpse of his original and holy function, but one which he has prostituted to his own sinful purposes and evil designs. “Satan” is a word and function out of heaven which is now employed, not for God but against God, not in service of the children of Cod (which is the ministry of the holy angels) but against them.

And this tells us something significant both about the Devil and about sin. One cannot sin against God except he use the good gifts God provides and the holy offices to which he calls us in a way and for a purpose that is contrary to God’s intention. This is clearly illustrated when the word “satan” is employed to describe one who left his original state and became the adversary of God and man.


This word, unlike the word “satan,” is not a neutral word, able to be used both in a good and a bad sense. The word “devil” (diabolos) is always used in a bad sense. In the spiritual world the Scriptures speak of only one devil, but there are many demons. The word means a traducer, a slanderer, a false accuser. It is the common Greek word used to translate the Hebrew name “Satan.”

A glimpse at his functions and work will make clear the evil signification of this title. He persecutes the children of God, estranges men from God, entices men to do evil, he is the enemy of God and Christ. Men who resemble him in mind and will are said to be “of the devil,” i.e., to depend upon the devil in thought and action, to be prompted and governed by him (John 8:44, I John 3:8). The name is sometimes figuratively applied to a man who, by opposing the cause of God, may be said to act the part of the devil or to side with him (John 6:70, Mark 8:33). The Scriptures warn repeatedly that we may not be “devilish” in our activities (cf. I Timothy 3:11, Titus 2:3, II Timothy 3:3).

This name is also significant for an understanding of the person and work of Satan. Let no man think of Satan as a friend, or sin as something that brings us good. The Devil seeks for us not good but only evil. His purpose is to ruin, not to build up. Jesus makes this very clear in Matthew 13:37–39 where the devil sows weeds in the good field of the Lord. The one who is fallen away from God returns again to face God in opposition and enmity.

There are still other names and titles, used less frequently in Scripture, to which we must briefly refer for the sake of completeness.

(3) THE EVIL ONE (poneros)

Jesus gives this name to Satan (Matthew 6:13), and is followed in this by Paul in Ephesians 6:16. The word is applied in the Bible in many senses and applications, but its ethical meaning clearly stands out. When used in an ethical sense it refers primarily to the positive activity of evil. An “evil” person is not content unless he is also corrupting others and drawing them into the same destruction with himself (see Proverbs 4:16). The evil person is bad by nature, and his purpose is to destroy others with himself.

The previous names called attention to the functions and methods of working of Satan; when he is called “the evil one” his bask: spiritual nature (character) is referred to. He never brings forth in himself or intends to bring forth through others that which is good and acceptable to God.


Only once is Satan given this name in the Bible although he is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31 and 14:30) by Jesus. This is an appropriate title because he is the embodiment of all wickedness and ungodliness in this world. As ruler over the wicked he blinds their thoughts so that the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ does not reach them.

Two other titles are suggested by this name. Both are names of heathen dieties and their names are ascribed to Satan.

(a) Beelzebub (Mark 3:22). This name literally translated means “lord of flies,” and was the name of a false god worshipped by the people of Ekron. This is the god from whom Ahaziah sought counsel in his sickness (II Kings 1). “Baal” means “lord” and “zebub” means “flies.” It is uncertain why this name was applied to a god, and various interpretations have been suggested. It is enough for our purposes to remark that in Scripture the name of this false pretender to deity and the associate of all that defiles and is impure is given to Satan.

(b ) Beelzebul (Matthew 10:25, 12:24,27) is regarded by some as an alternate form of the previous name. The meaning, however, is different. “Baalzebul” means “lord of dung or filth.” When applied to Satan, it emphasized that impurity is the method of offering acceptable gifts to him. He is worshipped in ways that are an abomination to the Lord (Psalm 16:4). This is amply suggested also in the immoral and impure lives which devotion to him produces in the lives of his servants. What is offered to a god is regarded by the worshipper as pleasing to the god or expressive of his character. I have witnessed on mission fields some of the most degrading and vile rites which arc associated with devil worship and devil dancing. Many of these are too degrading to speak about and only serve to emphasize the filthy impurity that is pleasing to Satan and to which he prompts men.

(c ) Belial (or Beliar) in both Old and New Testaments suggests yet another aspect of Satan’s person. The word means “worthless,” or “useless,” “good for nothing,” a destroyer of good, a counsellor of ruin. From such a one no good can be expected.

(5 ) OTHER TITLES AND NAMES. There are a number of other titles and names applied to Satan in Scripture, but which are used only a few times. For completeness we must briefly refer to them.

(a ) Dragon (Revelation 12:3–17; 13:2, 4, 11; 16:13; 20:2). There is no question but that these references are to Satan (Greek = satnnos). The term is applied figuratively to Satan, even as it was figuratively spoken of Pharaoh in Ezekiel 32:2. In Scripture the word is used of sea and land monsters whose power is great, who bring great terror into the lives of men, but whose defeat is accomplished by God. And in human society this is exactly what Satan does. He appears as a roaring beast and brings fear to the hearts of men.

(b) The Old Serpent (Revelation 12:9, 14–17; 20:2, 7). This description of Satan is paralleled in the book of Revelation with the names Dragon, Devil, and Satan. The obvious reference is to the events in the Garden of Eden where Satan employed the serpent for his own purpose in causing Eve to sin, thus leading also to the fall of Adam. He is the enemy of the Seed of the Woman, the one who will bruise his heel, but who at the same time will shortly be crushed by Christ (Genesis 3 and Romans 16:20).

(e ) The Ruler of this World (John 12:31; 16:11; 14:30) and Prince of the Powers of the Air (Ephesians 2:2). These names direct our attention to two things:

(1) the great power Satan has in this world, and (2) the fact that he has many confederates in performing his devilish work.

The Scripture clearly defines the person and character of Satan, whether this be titles specially ascribed and given, the office which he has prostituted, or the spiritual nature he bears. In no way is good ever to be expected from and through him, and the Church of God must expect continued, violent, unrelenting opposition from the Evil One, for his evil, rebellious nature will never be changed.

Some months ago the Rev. Richard R. De Ridder, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa, addressed the faculty and students of the Juan Calvin Theological School in Mexico City, Mexico. The first of these messages is presented here in the confidence that many of our readers will welcome this material on which so little is heard today.