Vol. 11 May-June, 1949 No. 3
Is the Devil Impersonal?
IS THE DEVIL (or Satan, the Adversary or Slanderer) a real, personal being, or merely a personification of the evil principle or of evil human passions? Let us introduce this discussion with a quotation from the "Temple Dictionary of the Bible" (London, 1910): "It is assumed in these days that Satan does not exist; that the only Satan there is, is simply the personification of our own evil passions. The reason of such a conclusion is not far to seek; to be in the presence of what we cannot understand frets us, and the universe would be much more easily understood if angels and devils were left out. Men of the highest spirituality, at a time when the presence of our Lord stimulated spirituality to its utmost activity, had no doubt in the matter; with them have been in agreement those souls of every age that have been most sensitive to spiritual influences. To affirm a universal negative on a priori grounds (i.e., prior knowledge independent of experience) against alleged experience is hazardous. It is impossible to deny the immense probability that we are not the highest of finite spiritual beings, that there are spirits of greater power and might than we."

Our word Devil is not connected with the word Evil, but has reached us through the old Angle language (deofol) and Latin, from the Greek, diabolos. It is therefore important to ascertain the true. meaning of this word. Some years ago there was a craze for a game known as diabolos which a top was sent spinning in the air from a string attached to two rods. Literally, the word means THROUGH-CAST. The top was cast through the air. But how are we to connect Satan with through-casting? We do not: think the verb (diaballO) can be explained as to "cast aspersions 'because of' (the accusative force of THROUGH)" as the Concordant Version Concordance, page 60, states. This explanation strikes us as being somewhat puerile, and contrary to the genius of the Greek language. It is quite true that Greek dia when followed by an Accusative noun case has the force in English of "because of," or "on account of." It is much more likely that the preposition dia here has in composition the force of "between." Is not the Devil the one who casts trouble or mischief between people? This little word dia, which enters into many English words, is very closely related to the numeral two (Greek duo). To make a road through a field is to divide it into two, and one can proceed between the two parts of it.

I would suggest that to reason (dialogizomai) becomes much more lifelike if we take it as literally, between-word-ize; divide (diamerizO) as between -PART-ize; dispense (diakoneO) as between-SERVE, and dispensation (diakonia) as between-SERVice; covenant (diathEkE) as literally, between-PLACE; doubt or discriminate (diakrinO) as between-JUDGE, rather than THROUGH-JUDGE.

To describe the Devil as the Adversary or the Slanderer has never seemed quite satisfactory. Adversaries do not necessarily use slander. To be accused by an adversary (Luke 16:1) does not necessarily imply slander. Here (the only occurrence of the verb), the 20th Century version reads "was maliciously accused to him," and Cunnington reads "of whom tales were brought to him." There appears to be malice in the Devil's methods. Let us once more quote from the Temple Dictionary of the Bible: Satan "is an official of the court of heaven, of the nature of public prosecutor. For purposes of his own, for the furtherance of his controversy with God as to man, he is eager to publish all the ill he knows of men or mankind; and this malevolent impulse is utilised by God to realise His great purposes. These purposes do not find their end in man, they involve the Angels. Satan is for ever giving God the occasion of justifying before the angels His gracious plan in regard to mankind."

Now if there is malice in the Devil's operations, he must be a person of some kind. Perhaps we ought to think of him as the "mischief-maker," rather than as the adversary or slanderer. In Modern Greek some forms of the word diabolos are given the meaning of cunning and mischief. In II Tim. 3:3 it sounds rather insipid that in the last days human beings will be "adversaries." That has always been a characteristic of men. Does it not seem much more likely that the real meaning is mischief-makers? Never was there a time in the world's history like the present for mischief to flourish, and obviously the tendency will become worse. "Wives, similarly, must be grave, not mischief-makers," says I Tim. 3:11. So also ought the aged women to be (Titus 2:3). In these last three instances we find the word used in the plural. Surely we could not teach that these women are not to be "evil principles"?

The aim of any wicked and perverted person is to sow trouble, or cast trouble between friends. Sometimes a whole country can take upon it to be a mischief-maker, and sow enmity between peaceful nations. The secret of lawlessness has a strong connection with malice and with the nation of Israel. And behind the secret of lawlessness stands Satan.

There are some very good thoughts upon this subject in an article entitled "The Devil—an Expose" in "Unsearchable Riches," March, 1932, pages 108-114, which readers ought to study. Perhaps the argument that Greek words ending in -os cannot refer to abstract terms is rather weak, as some certainly do (megethos, greatness; pathos, passion; peathos, mourning; nikos, victory, and quite a number more).

Powerful evidence in favour of the personality of Satan is presented at II Cor. 12:7, where some of the MSS{Alexandrian and corrected Sinaitic) shew the form of the genitive as "Satan" in place of the usual genitive, Satana (of Satan). That is to say, the noun is here a personal noun, a proper name. This, of course, does not mean that the vocative form, as found at Matt. 16:23 and Mark 8:33, does not refer to a person. But would the Lord have said, to Peter, "Be going away behind Me, Evil Principle?" Would we not have expected the Lord to say of the Evil Principle, "Be going away" (A.V., R.V., "get thee hence") as at Matt. 4:10? The Lord would not wish that Evil Principle to lurk behind Him, surely.

We now pass on to those verses where the word diabolos, Devil, cannot possibly refer to the Evil Principle or Evil Nature.

Matt. 25:41: Suppose we read as follows, "Be going from Me, cursed ones, into the eonian fire, that made ready for devilishness and its messengers." Must we argue that the messengers are personal, while they are sent out by an impersonal power or influence? The fire here is obviously what we find in verse 46, eonian chastening or curbing (kolasis; a process, an eonian process). What effect, however, could a process of profound mental agony have upon the Evil Principle? Why should the same kind of fire be prepared for individuals out of the nations and for impersonal devilishness?

Luke 10:18: Did the Lord say, "I beheld the Evil Principle, as lightning, out of the heaven (or sky) falling"? The seventy-two disciples had just set it on record that the demons even were subject to them. Might we argue that until this evil thing fell out of heaven, there was none of it on earth? And how can it possess great fury, when it descends towards the earth or land, having been cast out of heaven by Michael and his messengers? What is the point in saying that the Evil Principle and its messengers are not strong enough for Michael and his messengers, and that their place was no longer found in heaven? Here (Rev. 12) we find the identity of Satan stated in the clearest of terms. If he is impersonal, we possess every right to claim that Michael and his messengers are also impersonal. Once we commence this process, where will it end? I shall tell you where it will lead us. The logical inference comes to be that those who deny the personality of Satan are not too clear about the personality of God Himself.

Moreover, this being who is cast out is termed "the accuser of our brethren" (Rev. 12:10). Day and night had he been engaged upon this business, before God, in heaven. If these Hebrews merely conquer their own Evil Nature, which had been accusing them, then that Evil Nature had hitherto been in heaven, not on earth. In Modern Greek the word for "accuser" (katEgoros) is also used of a fault-finder, and a public prosecutor, and the word has special reference to mischief-making and fault-finding which is made public. All this points to personality. Only a person can exhibit great fury, and be aware that the season left to him is brief. As Dragon he persecutes the Israel woman, against whom he is angered (Rev. 12:17).

Only a living personality could have claimed the disciples in order to sift them (Luke 22:31). Rotherham here very well renders the Middle Voice of the verb used: "Satan asked you out for himself, to winnow as the wheat." Bowes also shews this force, "Satan has demanded you for himself, that he may sift you as the wheat." Cunnington renders, "Satan asked and obtained you. . . ." Now the Middle Voice forms speak specially of personality.

Judas was a mischief-maker or Devil before Satan entered into him (John 6:70; 13:27). If a man can be a diabolos, why should a superior unseen personality not possess the same characteristics? Judas had his own wiles or stratagems in order that he might betray his Lord. The greatest mischief-maker also has his wiles (Eph. 6:11). Here Paul definitely connects our wrestling contest with invisible spirit powers in the heaven lies. For us the wrestling is not face to face with blood and flesh, but face to face with the sovereignties, the authorities, etc. We do not struggle with these beings, but facing them (pros).

The Prince of Evil has his wiles and we should not be altogether ignorant of his devices. But how can the Principle of Evil possess any wiles, or follow out specific devices? If our wrestling is related to real but unseen spirit. powers of the wickedness in the heavenlies, would it not be natural and very easy to believe that there is a real Satan at the head of all these powers?

We shall now notice two passages which speak of the powerful activities of Satan, as one who possesses great intelligence, cunning, and rapacity. According to II Cor. 11:14, Satan gets himself transfigured into a messenger of light, so that his servants become transfigured as servants of righteousness. First the master power, then his servants. And if the servants are intelligent beings, how much more intelligent would we naturally expect the master to be. Indeed, it seems as though those who deny personality and reality to Satan, grant to the Evil Principle a fair measure of personality and intelligence. No new feature is this in the history of the world, that Satan should be thus transfigured as though he were doing righteousness. We may be sure that he did not suddenly learn cunningness in Paul's day. The emphatic word in this verse is "himself." Satan HIMSELF gets transfigured into a messenger of light. No big matter then, if his servants copy his example. Goodspeed renders by, "For even Satan himself masquerades as a shining angel." This is eminently the course we should expect any sinning creature with intelligence to pursue, but the procedure is wholly inapplicable to the abstract Principle of Evil.

In the other verse, Satan is seen as a wild animal. "Be sober, watch! Your complainant, the mischief-maker, as a roar ing lion, is walking about, seeking some one to be swallowing up." Let us not imagine this statement has been put out-of-date by Paul's statement above. Both statements are still very true. This wild-beast fault-finder is no gentleman. The description cannot possibly be understood of any impersonal influence. This dread being is still our ancient foe, that seeks to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.

No one would think of an animal, or a stone, or an abstract influence, as committing sin or effecting righteousness. Only intelligent beings, accountable to God, could perform these actions. "From beginning," however, "the mischief-maker is sinning" (I John 3:8). Just alter the wording a very little and see how grotesquely ridiculous you make God's Scriptures: "From beginning the Principle of Evil is sinning." The fact that there is "the spirit of the truth" (ch. 4:6) does not imply that there is no God of Truth. The spirit of the truth springs from Him who is Truth. How could Truth exist apart from God-in-Christ? Similarly, the "spirit of the deception" springs from the deceiver. If we are searching merely for influences, we do find them here in this verse. The spirit of deception is undoubtedly an evil influence. John, however, tells us more. He says Cain was "out of the wicked one" (3:12). Could he not have written "out of wickedness," or "out of the wicked principle" (ek tEs ponErias, instead of ek tou ponErou)? He tells us the wicked one was a being, not a mere influence.

That a king can have his throne in a certain city, or that a person may reside in a certain town, does not require to be laboured. But may we say that the Evil Influence can be localized in one town, and have its throne there? To the messenger of the Pergamos ecclesia it is written, "I am aware where (pou) thou art dwelling—just where (hopou) the throne of Satan is." "Antipas... was killed among you, just where Satan is dwelling." (Rev. 2:13). Dr. Bullinger, in his most helpful book, "The Apocalypse or Day of the Lord," shows how literal the whole description is, and states that "Pergamos was the seat of the ancient mysteries." He says this will be the "special place where Satan's throne will be set up in this world."

If the terms Satan, the dragon, the adversary, the serpent, the devil, all connote merely the Principle of Evil, what do we understand by demons and their prince Beezeboul? If the one, who appears to be the most important, is entirely impersonal, have we not as much right to reason that the demons are also impersonal?

If, therefore, it can be demonstrated that demons are very personal, it should be very much more easy to believe that Satan is what the Scriptures declare him to be, a powerful personage. In three out of the four contexts wherein Beezeboul is mentioned (Matt. 12; Mark 3; Luke 11), Satan is also mentioned, and there is every appearance of both of these parties being living intelligences. Beezeboul is explicitly stated to be the chief of the (inferior) demons, the daimonia. These are obviously minor demons, as the word is the diminutive form of daimones, which latter probably only occurs twice, in connection with the legion of demons which entered the hogs (Matt. 8 and Mark 5). No version appears so far to have made any distinction between these kinds of demons. It may well be that these major demons have a separate chief of their own.

The name Beezeboul may not be taken as a mere mark of rank or title. The word Satan is such. But Beezeboul is a Hebrew term which most probably signifies "Owner of exaltation." The Hebrew expression forming the latter part of the word is found in Genesis 30:20, where Leah says, "Elohim endows me with a good dowry; this time will my husband exalt (or, honour) me." The name of her son appears to mean "exaltation," (Zebulun).

The word demon is commonly taken as meaning a knowing one, or a teacher. The word is derived from a very common root DA, with the meaning KNOW, or from a longer form, DAK, meaning TEACH (as in the word didactic). In ancient times the word was taken as referring to any rank of intermediary between man and God, any intelligence which, unseen, affected the minds of men, either in a good manner or for evil.

It may be that in our own times cases of real demon possession are very rare in civilized countries. We shall, however, cite one concrete case, taken from Mrs. Penn-Lewis' very valuable work on the activities of unseen enemies, "War on the Saints" (1912). A well known evangelist in Germany, Herr Seit, met in the year 1912 a Christian lady who was clearly possessed by a demon. This demon would speak in a voice entirely unlike her own, uttering the most shocking blasphemies against God and Christ. When the frenzy came over her, she would dash about the room, with hands clenched, and face horribly contorted, howling like a dog. This occurred every day, and sometimes oftener than once. Yet in the intervals she was a "most lovely spirited Christian woman." Her health was perfect and she slept well.

She was well grounded in the faith. After a few weeks of powerful supplication made by her friends, the demon became more quiet, and lost the power to torment her. Instead of blasphemies, there was a plaintive howling while prayer continued for her. After some days the demon did not speak, except to cry out, "The authority casts me out!" He appeared as though begging for mercy, especially when those praying would command him to come out. The knowledge that he would be compelled to depart, because of the supplications of believers, brought him intolerable agony. But at last he was cast out, and the lady was completely delivered and there after lived a normal and useful life.

E. A. Lawrence, of Haverhill, U. S. A., contributed a very fine article on "Satan," to the blind Dr. Kitto's Bible Cyclopaedia (Edinburgh, 1866). He has a special discussion of the personality of Satan, which we shall quote: "We determine the personality of Satan by the same criteria that we use in determining whether Caesar and Napoleon were real personal beings, or the personifications of abstract ideas—viz., by the tenor of history concerning them, and the ascription of personal attributes to them. All the forms of personal agency are made use of by the sacred writers in setting forth the character and conduct of Satan. They describe him as having power and. dominion, messengers and followers. He tempts and resists; he is held accountable, charged with guilt; is to be judged, and to receive final punishment. On the supposition that it was the object of the sacred writers to teach the proper personality of Satan, they could have found no more express terms than those which they have actually used. And on the supposition that they did not intend to teach such a doctrine, their use of language incapable of communicating any other idea is wholly inexplicable. To suppose that all this semblance of a real, veritable, conscious moral agent is only a trope, a prosopopeia, is to make the inspired penmen guilty of employing a figure in such a way that, by no ascertained laws of language, it could be known that it was a figure—in such a way that it could not be taken to be a figure, without violence to all the rhetorical rules by which they on other occasions are known to have been guided. A personification, protracted through such a book as the Bible, even should we suppose it to have been written by one person—never dropped in the most simple and didactic portions—never explained when the most grave and important truths are to be inculcated, and when men the most ignorant and prone to superstition are to be the readers—a personification extending from Genesis to Revelation—this is altogether anomalous and inadmissable. But to suppose that the several writers of the different books of the Bible, diverse in their style and intellectual habits, writing under widely differing circumstances, through a period of nearly two thousand years, should each, from Moses to John, fall into the use of the same personification, and follow it too in a way so obscure and enigmatical that not one in a hundred of their readers would escape the error which they did not mean to teach, or apprehend the aruth which they wished to set forth—to suppose this is to require men to believe that the inspired writers, who ought to have done the least violence to the common laws of language, have really done the most. Such uniformity of inexplicable singularity, on the part of such men as the authors of the several books of the Bible, could be accounted for only on the hypothesis that they were subject to an evil as well as a good inspiration. On the other hand, such uniformity of appellations and imagery, and such identity of characteristics, protracted through such a series of writings, go to confirm the received doctrine of a real personality."

The writer concludes with the staement that, "The principle of interpretation by which the personality of Satan is discarded leads to the denial of the personality of the Deity."

With one final quotation from Scripture we conclude. "And the mischief-maker who is deceiving them is cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, just where the wild,beast and the false prophet are also. And they will be tormented day and night for the eons of the eons." (Rev. 20:10)

Whatever the fire and sulpher may be, would it be your method to deal with the Principle of Evil by subjecting it to torment? Would it not be better to exterminate it altogether, to kill it outright?The final view which we have of Satan, however, is that he endures torment, which is a most personal infliction, for a very long but limited period of time. Not one word is said about the death of this being. Whatever he or it may be, Satan is not said to suffer death. Therefore, if Satan means merely the Evil Influence, it appears to be eternal.

Let us, however, credit our God with having more wisdom than to torment an abstract quality. Not even a human being would attempt to accomplish that. As human beings, we know what torment or ordeal can be. But what is torment in God's hands, as here? It must surely be salutary and remedial, and cannot be otherwise.

Have you, dear reader, ever undergone a real ordeal? Do you know of anything more fitted to drive you to God? Was not that the purpose of the trial?

What, then, is the divine purpose in the All-Wielder causing His chief opponents to undergo such torment? Assuredly it must be in order to drive these intelligences back to Himself.

ALEXANDER THOMSON Last updated 4.10.2008