…then Satan (Luke 22:3)
I once had a curious dilemma when cataloguing a new book for my library. Where should I put a book about demons and Satan? In the end I decided to put it: (a) under the doctrine of God, (b) in the section about creation, (c) in the sub-division Angelology – the study of angels. Let me explain why.
Angelology comes under ‘God’ because angels are servants of his sovereignty, and under ‘Creation’ because they are shown in Scripture to be agents of his sovereignty in creation and providential care. Demonology, I decided, should come there: because of the biblical and traditional Christian view that they are fallen angels.
Metaphor or reality?
In that case, fallen angels are fallen from being agents of good in the universe. They now act for evil precisely where they should be acting for good. Some people think of angels and demons as a kind of picture — metaphorical personifications of the power of God or evil. That is certainly what I was taught while studying liberal theology at university. By then, my unbelieving father had already assured me that the supernatural can easily be explained: ‘God’ was ‘good’ and ‘devil’ was ‘evil’, metaphorically misspelt, so to speak.
However, I was not convinced, even when I became a teenaged university student at Bristol in the swinging sixties. In the first place, I thought that made the mistake of reading Scripture through a modern mindset rather than an ancient one — and frankly the mindset was less about being modern and more about being sceptical about supernatural or miraculous events.
But secondly, before my conversion from atheism to Christianity, I had been fascinated – for no reason that I could provide to myself except a rather perverse kind of entertainment – by horoscopes and demon possession stories.
An evil spirit
When I became a Christian, horoscopes were a far cry from the intellectual quest I went through. I worked towards God by reasoning my way through the credibility or otherwise of accidental evolution. To me, the possibility of an ordered universe being born out of meaningless chance and random chaos seemed obviously unlikely. Dawkins has not provided the slightest reason to change my mind, since he is not concerned with reason, but rhetoric. I had a similar experience when I read Bertrand Russell’s book, Why I am not a Christian. But there was something else. I discovered that my ‘entertainment’ was in fact, a very dark force that held me more — not less — in its grip the closer I got to the very thought of God.
When I was converted, thoughts of demons were buried by the wonderful reality of God. However they surfaced again when I became a young pastor. Then I began to experience the tangible appearing of an evil spirit. Only reluctantly did I accept this was more than a psychological delusion or a dream. How did I decide? Because nothing worked to drive it away but prayer to God, and someone else once shared my experience – a strange psychological delusion indeed. One reason my faith in God became a practical strength as well as an inner and spiritual one, is my deep conviction born from repeated experience, that there is a very real spiritual and supernatural realm.
It is therefore intensely interesting to see how Luke reports angelic and Satanic activity in Jesus’ last hours. He doesn’t repeat what he probably knew from the other gospel stories about angelic visitations, but he does give an occasion that they do not mention at all – ‘an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him’ (22:43). This ancient scientist, trained in the observational methods of Greek medicine, accepts angelology without reserve. However, Satan is also active in the drama. He enters into Judas (22:3). He asks for Peter (22:31) – and appears to receive permission from God to ‘sift him as wheat’. According to John, he is even present at the Last Supper to drag Judas into yet deeper darkness, and at the very moment Judas accepts the bread of the original Lord’s Supper, from Jesus’ own hand (Jn. 13:27).
A cosmic battle
What we have here is a cosmic battle, raging around Jesus in his last hours. Angels appear and Satan comes into the open. The cross is not ‘simply’ about Jesus and his ‘dying love’ – supremely glorious though it was and is. The cross is not only about us, and not only about Christ and the Father. It is also a supernatural and cosmic confrontation between Satan and God. It is about the root of evil, a root that has entangled every soul. It is an ultimate confrontation between the one true God and his would-be assassin and successor, the once splendid and still mighty Satan.
God’s satisfaction of himself in his own Son was the end for Satan’s rebel cause. If sin could be dealt a final blow, if sinners could be delivered from their own clear choice to live as rebels against all that God approved, then Satan would be left with little more than posturing in his claim to control the world and its populace. And in fact he has postured ever since, and convincingly so, since believing the Liar is half the battle when it comes to his gaining control of people. Satan seems to realize the enormity of the moment, and yet is driven as much by furious contempt as by strategy. So he manoeuvres his way through the last hours of Jesus’ life on earth in an attempt to destroy what Jesus had built for a future church: his circle of apostles. Then he throws himself at Christ in reason-less rage, driving in the very nails of the crucifixion that would dethrone him.
Calm and despair
Satan brings a brilliant and desperate strategy. Satan entered Judas and entrapped Peter, without compunction or compassion for the effects on them. God’s answer was to meet force with force. He calmly sends an angel of encouragement to ‘to strengthen’ His Son. These two ‘angelic’ beings were perhaps very unequal. One certainly came from the highest rank of cherubim and seraphim, glorious even in rebellion. Satan acted in his own name, and drew himself to the fullest height of which he was capable. The other was not even worthy of a name. This angel had only the name and authority of another, who was and is the true Lord of all. It was an unequal contest, though not as Satan had expected in the blindness of his rage and ambition.
‘…and Satan’ was, in fact, already answered right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this way, ‘…but God’ (Luke 5:21). It always is now that Christ has risen, and shall again be displayed to human eyes as it was at the cross. But then it will not be to a few blessed disciples. The whole creation will see it: Satan’s final stand and Jesus’ final victory when he comes again in his glory!