That Whole Satan Business

–Daniel S. Ferguson

You hear Christians talk about spiritual warfare a lot. It’s kind of a big deal to us. In case you’re unfamiliar, what we’re talking about is the invisible struggle between God’s will for good and the will of evil that is in our world. These two forces act at odds with each other, and the Bible foretells, of course, that the Lord will ultimately be victorious.

This is important to people who have questions about Christianity, particularly to people who have left the church or who are hesitant about the faith. The reason it’s important to them is that the whole thing sounds like voodoo. To put it as bluntly as possible, spiritual warfare seems nonsensical to most people, even to many Christians. It’s the diehards who talk about it the most often, and to outsiders they appear a little, well, crazy.

So let’s talk about it some. What does the concept of spiritual warfare mean to Christianity? Why is it important? Is it really as crazy as it sounds?

No figure is more prominent on the side of evil than that of Satan. Everyone has heard his name, even people not part of our faith, but just who the heck is he?

That, as it turns out, is not at all a simple question.

You see, the Bible is really unclear as to who Satan is. He’s only mentioned in the Old Testament a handful of times, and even then, he’s not what you’d think. In the book of Job, for example, Satan is a character who seems more like a prosecuting lawyer than an anti-God force for evil. The same thing in the book of Zechariah. (After all, he’s seen in Heaven both times in the presence of God. If he’s really evil, why’s he there?)

And those are the only two times when we see Satan as a named character in the Old Testament. There’s the serpent in the Garden of Eden that many think is Satan, but he’s never identified as such. Then there’s that one time that “Satan” tempted David to take a census in 1 Chronicles 21, but the other version of that story in 2 Kings 24 indicates that God caused David to take that census. (That’s the kind of stuff that really turns off outsiders.)

Other than that, Satan doesn’t appear in the Old Testament, at least not explicitly. (There are a couple passages some people think apply to Satan but in which he’s not mentioned directly.)

So what’s the deal in the New Testament? There we definitely see Satan as a character, actively opposing and tempting Jesus. We see Paul and Peter talk about Satan quite a few times as the leader in the force of evil. And Satan is the primary villain seen destroyed in the book of Revelation.

So what gives? Why is Satan almost absent from the Old Testament, but so prevalent in the New Testament? And why is he seemingly a very different character in the two testaments?

I don’t have a Biblically sound answer to that question. There are some historical considerations, such as the influences of Hellenism and Zoroastrianism on Judaism, mostly occurring between the Testaments. However, those considerations somewhat doubt the integrity of the Bible as a unified set of documents, so I’ll stop shy of advocating that point of view.

My best answer is the influence of the Holy Spirit on believers. After all, Satan and the Holy Spirit are largely New Testament inventions. The Holy Spirit is discussed by that name only three times in the Old Testament, but is a primary figure in the New Testament, introduced and brought about by Jesus’ ministry as the third and most accessible member of the Trinity. The best Biblical answer I can think of is that the Holy Spirit, when it affects a believer’s life, makes that believer aware of a spiritual battle previously unknown to that person. And since the Holy Spirit was not introduced in the Old Testament, and particularly since it did not influence every follower of God then, then the spiritual warfare the New Testament discusses was largely not known to the Old Testament authors and characters.

My best piece of evidence is the temptation of Jesus. It opens by saying that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The story says something like this in all three accounts of the temptation. By that thinking, the influence of the Spirit introduces a whole new world of spiritual warfare.

I’ll admit that’s somewhat of a stretch, but it’s the best answer I can devise on the subject.

So why does this all matter? How does this affect the believer’s ability to relate to people who have left the church and those who doubt what we believe?

First of all, realize that to other people, the whole notion of spiritual warfare sounds like nonsense. After all, of course it does. It’s a completely foreign, invisible struggle that, if my above argument is accurate, is only known to believers. It therefore will sound crazy to outsiders. In fact, I suspect one of the reasons some people left the church is because this whole thing sounded a bit off to them. They wanted to be involved in grace and charity, perhaps, but they couldn’t quite accept this.

Please know that that’s quite alright. I don’t think the concept of spiritual warfare is an essential belief of Christianity. Neither do the most prominent creeds of our faith, which don’t even mention it. So don’t sweat. The Bible does discuss it quite a bit in the New Testament, so I wouldn’t gloss over it entirely, but start with the basic Gospel first, then worry about this.

And that’s the whole strategy that Christians need to take when it comes to spiritual warfare. It’s a dense issue that is best addressed after the full explanation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is presented. Start there. If they have questions about Satan and spiritual warfare, feel free to discuss it with them, but begin and end with the importance of salvation from sin through Jesus, talking about spiritual warfare only in that context.

That’s much more approachable, much easier to understand, and far more believable to outsiders.

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