Owning Your Decisions: You and Satan
One of the long standing conversations among different Christian groups is the discussion about satan. What or who is satan? What exactly does satan do? And where does satan fit into the work that Jesus came to do?
It’s probably a good idea to firstly start with a bit of background on the Bible, as a historical book.
The Bible – Written in Different Languages and at Different Times
The Bible, as we know it, wasn’t written in English. In fact, it wasn’t even written all at one time.
Written by various authors, in different time periods and styles, it was originally comprised of three languages – ancient Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament was written in Greek and Aramaic. The Bible, as it’s read today, is the result of many translations from the original languages, into the various languages in the world. In fact, as of October 2017, there are 670 different language versions of the Bible, and over 1521 different language versions of the New Testament alone. Examining the long history of the Bible as a historical document is, in itself, a fascinating exercise but that discussion is probably best saved for another day and another blog!
The conclusion that we simply want to draw is that the Bible is a translated work from a foreign language or languages into English (for us). While the translators have made every effort to find equivalent words and phrases in the English language, sometimes it wasn’t always possible. Sometimes, an equivalent word simply didn’t exist. Sometimes, the overall context determined how the translators decided to translate a word, from several different options. And sometimes, words were translated with an underlying bias or belief that the translators themselves may have held.
We can be confident that God was and is still overseeing this process. After all, the Bible is His word and we can trust that He would protect its message and truth for all people, in whatever time they find themselves. But we also have to be honest about what biases we may bring when opening the Bible and ask ourselves whether it really does say what we have been told or long thought it says.
Let’s talk about ‘Satan’ – Who or What is ‘Satan’?
The original Hebrew word (satan) conveys a meaning of “to oppose”, “to attack”, “accuse”, “be an adversary”. We could easily replace it in English with, for example; opponent, oppose, enemy; hostile, accuse, accuser or antipathetic. These English words carry a similar meaning to the Hebrew word. It’s used in several places throughout the Old Testament but unfortunately the original Hebrew word has been brought through to the English translation, in it’s untranslated form.
The same issue occurs in the New Testament, where the original word (satanas) is left in its original form, anglicized as ‘satan’, instead of being translated as opponent or enemy (or with the definite article as, the opposer or the enemy).
What about the ‘Devil’?
The same is also true of the New Testament word ‘devil’. Instead of being translated to its meaning (which is, a false accuser, slanderer, adversary or with the definite article the false accuser, the slanderer, the liar), it has been left as ‘devil’. The Modern English word ‘devil’ actually descends from the Middle English devel, from Old English dēofol, and that in turn represents an early Germanic borrowing of Latin diabolus. This, in turn, was borrowed from Greek diábolos, meaning “slanderer”, from diabállein, “to slander”.
This is the First Important Point
We’re dealing with a foreign language every time we see the word ‘satan’ in the bible. What that means is that it’s actually incorrect to read it as ‘satan’. It’s like, for example, reading a novel containing a mixture of English and Spanish language but insisting that it’s all English. We need to be reading the word ‘satan’ in context and translated every time it occurs. Be mindful, at this point, that no assumptions should be made as to what or who it’s referring to. We’re just pointing out that, to be accurate with written works that have been translated, we must ensure we translate all, not just some or most of the text.
Check out some examples where ‘satan’ is used, untranslated:
- 1 Chronicles 21:1 “And satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” (Here, David, King of Israel is provoked by an adversary to Israel, into undertaking something that God had prohibited.)
- Job 1:6 “Now there was a day when the *sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and satan came also among them.” (Satan, in this example is described as one of the sons of God, and he goes on to question the motives of Job, a man totally devoted to God. Satan claims that Job’s devotion is only based on the fact that his life was prosperous and happy. God goes ahead and tests Job by allowing disaster and deprivation (and proves satan wrong). This person was clearly a jealous adversary of Job.)
- Matthew 16:18 “But he (Jesus) turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”. (Peter, a follower of Jesus, one of the twelve chosen apostles and the man to whom Jesus had just given “the keys of the kingdom” is described as satan. In this moment, Peter was an adversary to Jesus, attempting to sway Jesus from his avowed mission.)
It’s important to also note that these three events happen in three very different time periods. Job is believed to have been a contemporary of Abraham, around 1800BCE. King David lived around 1000BCE and Peter was, of course, a contemporary of Jesus, who was born around 4AD. There is no suggestion in any of these narratives that the adversary possessed supernatural abilities. It doesn’t make sense to suppose, then, that it is the same person – this would, of course, be an impossibility, due to the massive time variances.
The logical conclusion from these few passages alone would be that ‘satan’ can be anybody and when read correctly and translated properly, these passages make complete sense.
So where did the idea that Satan was a Supernatural Being come from?
Many cultures and religions throughout history have sought to explain the origins of good and evil in the world. Christianity is no different and the idea of satan, personified as the source of evil, began to form part of the beliefs of some Jewish sects around the time of Jesus’ birth, later merging into the developing Christian beliefs. Accepting that God created everything as ‘good’ in the story of Genesis, the idea that evil preexisted before creation become necessary to the narrative. This idea then consolidated into a belief in a supernatural being (an angel) who “falls” (rebels against God) and becomes evil. This fallen angel, now satan, becomes responsible for the world’s evils and the source of humanity’s evil choices and actions. Yet this idea springs more from philosophical roots and differing thoughts about the nature of man, rather than religious texts.
“This fall is actually isn’t described in the New Testament, or the Christian Bible” – Jerry Walls, Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University and author of “Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most” (Brazos Press, 2015).
These thoughts and ideas about a fallen angel, evil and the origins of sin contributed to the biases mentioned earlier on, in relation to the translation of various manuscripts from their original languages into the language of the day.
Owning Your Decisions – Satan and You
The subject of personal responsibility, decision making, good v evil, the origins of sin and the nature of man is a huge one and not easily covered in one blog. But, to sum up briefly, here’s what the Bible has to say about evil:
- Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander
- Gen 6:5 “When the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually…”
- Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
- Romans 7:19 “For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. Now if what I do not want, I do this, it is no longer I who do it, but sin dwelling in me.”
The Bible tells us quite clearly, over and over, that each person is responsible for their own decisions, thoughts and intents. That humans have been created with free choice in all aspects of their lives (and this ideal, by the way, is one that most modern societies highly value as part of an equitable community). And that humanity is entirely responsible for all that is evil in the world, through their choices and their lack of responsibility for their actions.
This principle of free choice was actually established at creation. From the very beginning, God wanted us to choose Him, to want to be like Him. He gave humanity the choice, and we chose wrong. We acted in a way completely foreign to God’s character. Motivated by pride and selfishness and driven by impatience, we chose to “make ourselves like God” on our terms, not His. This choice, the first act of sin in the world, brought about its awful consequence – mortality, and man’s natural tendency to act unlike God, in evil ways.
Jesus came to save us from our sins. We can exercise our free choice in a positive way and choose to be more like him. Yet, to start this journey, we first need to own our decisions. We need to recognise that there is no supernatural force, being or external evil making us to do these things. We are our own worst enemies and we can be enemies (or ‘satans’) to other people, by our poor choices and actions. It is our own personal response that will decide whether we do good or evil.
“Jesus had within himself a power of personal response which was destined to transform his circumstances. This same Jesus who was born in an ox stable, rose up to be the strongest and tallest oak in the great forest of history. This same Jesus, rose from a carpenter’s bench to give impetus to a movement which has grown from a group of 12 men to more than 700,000,000 today. This same Jesus split history into A.D. and B.C.” – Martin Luther King, Jnr, Atlanta, 1953
One of the most amazing aspects of the Gospel message is its ability to transform our lives for good, if we allow it to. The challenge for us is to listen to that message, accept personal responsibility for our actions and choose to do better.