The Bible Description.
The Bible is not silent on how it depicts the devil or Satan. In fact, the devil is seen to take on a variety of forms, just as in the past the devil has been sketched in a variety of forms. Some of these sketches are shown alongside the Bible quotes, but are there purely to illustrate how they parallel past thought.
“He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be set free for a short time.” Revelation 20:2, 3
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Peter 5:8
“Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. ‘ ” Matthew 16:23
In these three instances, the descriptions have been diverse from each other. Admittedly each sketch used above is a person’s interpretation of what the Bible was describing, but a serpent (or snake) is as diverse from a lion as is a man! What then did the Bible expect us to understand from its visual imagery?
When we look again at the quotes from the New Testament of the Bible, we see that the description that the Bible is providing is not intending to be a literal one. For example, we know that the devil is not a lion, and probably doesn’t even remotely resemble one physically. But it may well resemble a lion in its nature — frightening, aggressive, and dangerous. The devil may not physically look like a snake, but it may have similar attributes – stealth, and capable of inflicting death. Peter was accused of being Satan, not because he was Satan, but because he represented the works of Satan.
So what message is the Bible telling us with respect to the devil and Satan?
To obtain the answer, we must open our vision to new horizons that are unshackled from centuries of tradition and beliefs, and look candidly with fresh vision at what the Bible actually says about the devil.
The Devil Destroyed!
It might seem incredible to you, but the Bible claims that the devil was destroyed when Jesus died on the cross.
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Hebrews 2: 14, 15
If we limit our view to that of tradition, we cannot make sense of this quotation, for isn’t the devil as active as ever today, and isn’t he to be held in the Abyss for a thousand years sometime yet in the future? How then could the New Testament writer to the Hebrews claim that Jesus’ death destroyed the devil? Since Jesus was only to die once, his death must have achieved its goal at that time. How did he destroy the devil if it is indeed true that the devil exists today? To understand the situation it is necessary to go back to the beginning of mankind as narrated in the opening chapters of the Bible.
The Genesis Record.
The first chapters of the book of Genesis narrate the creation of the earth and the establishment of plants, animals, and mankind. The first human pair, Adam and Eve, were placed in park-like surroundings in the garden of Eden. But all was not destined to remain as paradise:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?‘ Genesis 3:1
The narrative goes on to relate how Eve listened to the serpent, and then did as the serpent had suggested – she ate from the tree that God had specifically forbidden.
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Genesis 3: 6, 7
God reacted to this by pronouncing a sentence on each of the players:
“Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the animals!
You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
“Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it’, Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life…
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” Genesis 3: 14–17, 19, 23
This is the Bible record of how sin entered the world, and the Bible reflection on how sin subsequently affected the world. When we look at this record, simple as it is, we see that there are three parties involved in both the incident itself, and the subsequent curse by God: The serpent, Eve, and Adam. There is no mention of either the devil or Satan. If a devil called Satan was involved, then it would appear that he escaped any judgement on his action, and let the serpent take the blame, and to be punished for ever for something that it was not guilty of doing. This would not have been a fair result from an all-knowing God!
The serpent in Eden had been created as the wisest of the animals, apart from man himself. It had obviously been given powers of reasoning and of speech. Following the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve, it became the serpent, or snake, that we are familiar with today. It also became, in Bible terms, the symbol for everything that the original serpent did to introduce the ‘fall’ of mankind, namely sin. This is demonstrated some thousands of years later when the children of Israel were in the wilderness journey between Egypt and the Promised Land. They encountered there some venomous snakes, and called on God to help.
“The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” Numbers 21: 7-9
This pole, which saved the people at that time, itself became an object of idol worship, as recorded in a later narrative:
“He [King Hezekiah] removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)” 2 Kings 18:4
So we begin to appreciate how the serpent, or snake, began to be worshipped as a symbol associated with sin.