Ask An Evangelical: Satan, Hell and Demons

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By Elizabeth Backstrom

How did satan come to rule hell and how were demons created?

Thanks for your question. To answer this well, I need to put a big disclaimer on the front and say our ideas about hell should all be taken with a grain of salt, or maybe a few salt mines, because none of them are definitive.

I can tell you what the text in the Bible says about hell, but that text has been so heavily debated and influenced by cultural ideas (such as Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’) that to me, it often feels like one needs an advanced degree in religious studies to sort it out.

In the Bible itself, hell is described by several different words, including the Hebrew word ‘sheol’, the word ‘Gehenna‘ (named for a place where child sacrifice was practiced) and the Greek word ‘Tartarus’ (functions as both a god and a place in Greek mythology). While these words have considerably different origins and meanings, the general idea is obvious; to the writers of the Bible, hell is a place to avoid.

Satan’s list of names and the stories surrounding him are just as numerous (legion, if you like.) He goes by, among others, the devil, the evil one, Beelzebub (derived from a Philistine god) and my personal favorite, Lucifer, which means morning star, or light-bringer.

Lucifer is derived from the Latin name for the planet Venus, known for its erratic appearances in the night sky. This name is my favorite, in case you’re curious, because it implies a mixed villainy. Maybe it’s naive of me, but based on what I’ve read in the Scriptures, I think God loved everyone once. Even the devil. A name like morning star implies bright, talented potential – beauty, something that was once treasured. We can learn a lot from a name, even if it tells us more about the name-giver than the person whose name it is.

Isaiah 14:12 reads:

How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.

But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit. Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: ‘Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a wilderness, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?”

Many say this passage refers to the devil, and answers your question. It seems clear enough – a story as old as time – someone got ideas above their means, and started down the wrong path. However, it’s debated for several reasons that are too long to go into deeply here, but the easiest one to mention is the timing.

At the time this part of Isaiah was written, (around 700 BC), Lucifer or morning star was not being used as a name for the devil. Earlier in this passage (vs. 3-4) the author refers to the King of Babylon, and this passage could be about him. While plenty of passages in the Bible mention various aspects of hell, its origin story and actual parameters, when we start to read about them and line them up next to one another, become somewhat unclear. (For example, another passage, Luke 1o:18, mentions the devil and says ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ but when you read the footnotes on this passage, they refer the reader right back to Isaiah 14:12! If that’s not confusing, I’m not sure what is.)

Not being a Biblical scholar, I don’t feel as qualified as I’d like to fully answer this question, other than to point you toward the verses and here and to say that this has been very heavily debated and is still debated today. Also, none of us has ever been to hell and back to tell the story, including the writers of the Bible. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to say with humble certainty that while this is a good question, we simply don’t know for sure.

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