Was Satan always a Fiend?

Well, no.

Was he always evil?


The scholar Elaine Pagels points out that in the early lore of the Hebrews (whence came Satan, after all) Satan was not a being but an attitude – “satan” being the Hebrew word for adversary. Later, “the” Satan was one of God’s angels, a being of superior capacity and intelligence – that’s where the Christians discovered him. But, as Pagels puts it, “in the Hebrew bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an evil empire, an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike; on the contrary, he appears in the books of Numbers and of Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger or angel . . . on the staff of the royal court.” (Or, as Mark Twain would have it, Satan was a chum of Gabriel and Michael in heaven, and visited earth to find out what the hell God had wrought by fashioning Man, his findings recorded in a series of appalled letters home.)

Soon, in Hebrew writing, Satan got up to more and more mischief, and was blamed more and more for whatever bad things happened. For example, at least one writer (in 1 Chronicles 21) blamed Satan for persuading King David to conduct a census. Why was this so bad? Because David intended it to be used as a database for the horror of taxation, and faced an army revolt as a consequence. God, apparently, hated counting his folk, and hated taxation even more (though burnt offerings to him were okay). This is possibly why some of the early gnostic gospels considered David a creature of demons, as was his son, Solomon, “who built Jerusalem with the aid of demons.” Even after David apparently saw the error of his taxing ways and debased himself, Jehovah remained mightily annoyed, and, in what surely set a record for over-reaction, offered David three bad choices: three years famine in Israel, or three months to lose constantly at battle, or pestilence in the land. David, not wanting to be either hungry or a loser, chose pestilence, and the Lord sent an avenging angel to destroy 70,000 Israelites with plague. Indeed, the Lord’s pique was so great that he barely restrained himself from destroying Jerusalem. (“And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was destroying, the Lord beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand.”)

In one of the gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, the Testimony of Truth, the whole Adam and Eve story was turned on its head. In this version, God was the villain for falsely threatening the First Couple with death if they ate from the forbidden tree; the snake on the other hand, “who was wiser than all the animals that were is Paradise,” told them their eyes would be opened and they would gain in knowledge and stature And guess who was right about that? God? Or the snake?

In any case, after Adam and Eve donned their fig-leaf aprons, God came along, looking for them, and the couple hid themselves, a giveaway for the Almighty, who knew at once that they had done what he had told them not to, and that they now knew too much. Who instructed you to do this? asked God. Eve, said Adam, passing the blame along. The snake, said Eve, passing it further. “And God cursed the snake, and called him devil. And he said, Look, Adam has become like one of us, knowing evil and good. Then he said, Let us cast him out of Paradise, lest he take from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”

At this point, the Testimony of Truth lets God have it:

“What sort is this God? First he begrudged Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said Adam, where are you? God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning?

“And afterwards, he said, Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever. He has certainly shown himself to be a malicious grudger! And what kind of God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him. And he said, “I am the jealous God; I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children until three (and) four generations.”

“And he said, “I will make their heart thick, and I will cause their mind to become blind, that they might not know nor comprehend the things that are said.” But these things he has said to those who believe in him and serve him!”


As the Christian story developed, the conventional Satanic history was codified. Lucifer, as he was then, the Bringer of Light, was the most beautiful and radiant of God’s angels, if the most willful and proud. It was Origen (born 185, died 253), an early Christian gadfly and pundit, who identified the devil with Lucifer, a fallen being of light. Lucifer, Origen wrote, “has has fallen from heaven. For if, as some suppose, he was a being of darkness why is he said to have formerly been Lucifer or light-bearer? In this way, then, even Satan was once light, before he went astray and fell from this place.” Unsurprisingly Origen, who subsequently suggested that Lucifer could himself be redeemed, had some of his writings “anathemized” by the early church fathers, despite his ingratiating self-castration. After all, Lucifer’s pride was the original sin, predating Adam’s, in that he freely chose to turn away from God—a notion that has troubled theologians ever since: how can angels, created perfect, rebel against their perfect creator? On the other hand, why bother with a devil if even the devil can be saved? But Origen had a point. From this perspective, Lucifer more or less resembled an ambitious lad wanting to take over the family business from dad—pushy, maybe, but understandable. God, then, merely looks peevish. Banishing Lucifer (and his many rebellious companions) from heaven and heaving him into a pit seems arbitrary and excessive—and really bad politics, since what he created was an implacable enemy.



(This is one of a series of excerpts, comments and observations from my forthcoming book on the devil and hell – Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, due spring 2019. More to come)