If the right hand doesn’t get you, then the left one will.”
This maxim expresses the double jeopardy faced by a prizefighter in the boxing ring. Like the ambidextrous pugilist, our adversary Satan has a two-pronged strategy. To defeat him we must wage war on two fronts.
It is the nature of Satan to be deceptive. He is called a liar from the beginning. His first appearance in Scripture comes under the guise of a serpent. The credentials of this malevolent creature are announced in his initial introduction: “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1a NKJV).
These words fall as a sudden intrusion into an otherwise glorious account of God’s majestic work of creation. With the words “Now the serpent,” the whole atmosphere of the biblical record changes dramatically. A sudden and ominous sense of foreboding enters the narrative. An uninspired author of Genesis 3 may have introduced the record of the Fall by saying, “It was a dark and stormy day.” But such hackneyed prose would have failed to yield the foreboding dread contained in the words “Now the serpent was more cunning.”
Cunning. Craftiness. Subtlety. Guile. These are the descriptive qualifiers that paint the biblical portrait of Satan. This guile is nowhere more evident than in Satan’s two-fisted, double-front strategy by which he cloaks his own nature and identity.
The tactic is simple. He conquers by spreading disinformation about himself. He divides the church by creating two myths, two erroneous views of his own identity.
The Devil as Myth
The first deception from Satan about Satan is that he is a ridiculous myth. As a mythical figure, he can be put in the category of goblins, ghosties, and things that go bump in the night. Nothing pleases Satan more than to persuade people that he doesn’t exist at all. If we are convinced that Satan doesn’t exist, we will hardly waste time preparing to make war against him or finding ways to resist him. To put on armor to ward off imaginary fiery darts is as much a fool’s errand as Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills.
On the other hand, a stealth bomber can have its way, unimpeded in its mission, if the enemy is persuaded that there is no such thing as a stealth bomber.
Satan loves the modern image of himself. Who gives credence to an ugly little imp in red flannel underwear with cloven feet, horns on his head, bearing a trident, and flashing a diabolical grin?
I once asked a college philosophy class, “How many of you believe in God?” Out of 30 students, 27 raised their hands in the affirmative—three demurred. Then I asked, “How many of you believe in Satan as a personal reality?” This time the vote was reversed.
I pursued my inquiry. I asked, “Why do you believe in a supernatural personal being who has the capacity to influence us for good (God) and not in a supernatural personal being who has the capacity to influence us for evil (Satan)?” Their answers indicated that the devil they were rejecting was the nonexistent mythical caricature noted above.
Many qualified their positions by saying, “I do believe in the reality of an impersonal force of evil in the world.” I found this response fascinating. I asked them, “How can an impersonal force be evil?”
What is this mysterious impersonal force? Cosmic dust? Radioactivity? Impersonal objects, forces, or powers can be many things. One thing they cannot be is morally evil. Only volitional agents, personal beings, can be morally evil. Here the attempt to be modern and sophisticated becomes an exercise in intellectual regression. Are we reverting back to a primitive form of animism, imputing evil spirits into rocks and whirlwinds? At least the primitive animist realized that if the forces were evil they had to be animated.
The Devil as God’s Equal
The devil-as-myth view is Satan’s right-hand punch. If that one doesn’t get you, then watch out for his left hook.
The left-hand attack moves the disinformation to the opposite extreme. If Satan can’t get you to ignore him by denying his very existence, he will cunningly lead you to attribute power to him far beyond what he actually possesses. He will seek to persuade you that he is virtually equal to God.
Dualism, as a philosophy and a religion, has vied with Christianity from the beginning. Dualism affirms that the universe is the staging area, the combat zone, for two equal and opposite beings who struggle with each other eternally. It has virtually two gods: a good god and an evil god, a yin and a yang, a power of darkness and a power of light.
This struggle is never resolved. It cannot be resolved because the combatants are equal. The struggle between good and evil must stretch on into eternity because neither participant has the ability to gain the upper hand. It is a cosmic standoff.
Most evangelical churches would emphatically deny dualism. They understand that it fundamentally denies the very essence of Christianity. Yet when we examine views of Satan in popular religion, we see indicators of an implicit dualism. Every day I hear Christians talk about Satan as if he had divine attributes. He is described in terms of omniscience, omnipresence, and the power to do actual, not merely counterfeit, miracles. He is given attributes orthodox Christianity labels as the incommunicable attributes of God. And he is assigned power over nature that rivals the Creator’s.
In this view Satan is elevated above his actual being as an angel. The Bible teaches that Satan is an angelic being. He is a spiritual being. He is not an eternal spiritual being. He is not an infinite spiritual being. He is temporal, finite, and created. In a word, he is a creature. He is a higher order of creature than humans, but he remains a creature. He is more powerful than we, but he is not omnipotent. He is not immutable, as God is. Indeed, Satan’s mutability is profound. His most obvious mutation is his fall. He was created a good angel. He fell from his original righteousness and is now totally malevolent.
As a creature Satan is not ubiquitous. He is iniquitous, but never ubiquitous. He cannot be at more than one place at a time. The theological maxim finitum non capax infinitum—the finite cannot contain the infinite—is true of Satan, a finite creature.
This is not to say that Satan doesn’t cover a lot of ground. He goes about as a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour. Yet when he is resisted, he flees (1 Peter 5:8–9). He removes himself. And once he is absent, he cannot still be present.
As relentless as Satan was in stalking Jesus, he still departed from Him at least for a season. The demons Jesus expelled and sent into the pigs were first in the man and not in the pigs—and then in the pigs and not in the man. They were not able to be in both at the same time. Satan, as with any angel, is always limited to a single location. Thankfully, this archenemy of the soul spends most of his time in the pursuit of bigger game than you or I.
Satan is powerful. He is far more powerful than we are. That is why we desperately need the armor of God. But as powerful as he is, he is far less powerful than God. That is why the Bible declares that greater is He who is in you (the Holy Spirit) than he who is in the world (Satan). Satan’s darts are quenchable; God’s are not. You can flee the presence of Satan; you cannot flee the presence of God.
Finally, we must be wary not only of his right and left fists. He is a kick-boxer as well. Just when we shield ourselves from his hands, he cheats: He uses his feet. Here his guile is most effective.
One characteristic of Satan is his metamorphic power. He has the cunning and uncanny ability to appear sub species boni—“under the auspices of the good.” He can transform himself into the appearance of an angel of light. You don’t find him so much in the Saddam Husseins of this world. He is not so crass. He appears as a saint, a paragon of virtue, waiting to seduce you.
He is, above all, a fraud. His work is anti-Christ not merely in the sense of working against Christ, but in the sense of seeking to act as a substitute for Christ.
The good news about Satan is this, as Luther so clearly understood: His doom is sure, and one little word can fell him.
R. C. Sproul, “Right Now Counts Forever: Lucifer: Dark Angel of Light,” Tabletalk Magazine, July 1993: “You Were the Model of Perfection, Full of Wisdom and Perfect in Beauty …” (1993), 4–7.