Christianity is primarily spiritual and supernatural and secondarily moral and ethical. It’s about God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – creating us and redeeming us. It has as its background the spiritual bondage of Satan that has brought us into our rebellion against God. All this has important moral implications, but to confuse or limit Christianity to morality is to domesticate it in such a fashion that it fails even to produce moral behaviour. The driving motivation of genuine Christianity, that morally transforms people and society, is the spiritual.
The Bible clearly teaches of the devil, but referring to Satan in polite society is prone to miscommunication. The community’s level of confusion about spiritual realities is so great that any casual reference to Satan is doomed to misunderstanding.
Some people overestimate the devil’s importance, seeing his hand in everything, even to the extent of failing to take responsibility for their own actions. Others underestimate his reality or influence, failing to take into account any negative spiritual dimension to life, even to the point of denying Satan’s existence. While the sarcastic cynic parodies belief in the devil as superstitious mythology, the truly superstitious and credulous are easily manipulated into bizarre religious practices. In some circles, to speak of Satan is akin to admitting belief in fairies, hobgoblins and gnomes. To declare something or somebody to be under the influence of the devil raises the horror of witch-hunts or the terror of witchcraft. Both these groups achieve the opposite of their expectation or desire: they advance the cause of Satan. It’s in his interest to be seen as more powerful than he is or to be unseen in the damage that he causes.
But a greater confusion, than whether he is at work in the world, is the expectation of how he is at work in the world. Nobody seriously believes in the caricature of the black cape, horns and pitchfork – but what do you imagine when Satan and his work are mentioned? How would you recognise the devil or his voice, if you ever heard it? Remembering that false prophets come as wolves in sheep clothing (Matthew 7:15), that Satan masquerades as the serpent (Genesis 3) and an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and that he can even speak through the mouth of the disciple Peter (Mark 8:33), it’s unlikely that we will recognise him on sight. And even if we did, what action should we take when we see or perceive that we are dealing with Satan?
The key to recognising Satan is to understand his work. He’s essentially opposed to God and God’s people – bringing death by his lies and accusations. Jesus taught that the devil is a liar and a murderer. Jesus challenged those who had turned their back on him: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). In this charge we are taught that belief in Jesus involves spiritual discernment. The reason for rejecting Jesus is subjection to Satan and seemingly normal, law abiding citizens can be ‘the children of the devil’.
The devil is seen in his work – and his work is to lie. By his lie in the garden he persuaded humanity to join in his rebellion against God. He thus murdered humanity by bringing upon us the sentence of death. As with any liar his power is derivative; those who are persuaded by his deceit give him his power and influence over them. The chief lies of the devil are against God and in particular his Son Jesus Christ, encouraging sin and denying judgement, rejecting Christ’s uniqueness and his saving work on the cross, and arousing opposition to and persecution of Christians (Genesis 3:1-5, Acts 26:18, 2 Corinthians 4:3, 2 Thessalonians 2:9f, 1 John 2:22f, 3:8 Revelation 12:7ff).
Jesus calls people, even his disciple Peter, ‘satanic’ when he recognises the voice of the devil in the lies that they speak. Satan’s voice is not a baritone or a tenor but a liar. He is the deceiver and accuser of God and his people. To say somebody speaks with the voice of Satan is not to say that they are possessed or more morally perverted than anybody else, it’s just to recognise the source of their lies and the supernatural person whom they benefit by speaking such untruths. They may be leading academics or churchmen, teachers of another religion, actors or journalists; the devil is not discriminatory in whom he gets to tell his lies – the more high profile and popular the person the more likely to be used by Satan to lie to the public.
One of the devil’s great lies concerns his own power. The cynic and sceptic express this power by their promulgation of Satan’s lies about his non-existence. Censoring supernaturalism out of conversation is just one more deceitful tactic teaching his non-existence. But the superstitious and credulous proclaim Satan’s supposed power by their religious rituals and fear. The devil is like a roaring lion seeking to devour, (1 Peter 5:8f), and he is behind the persecution of Christians around the world (Revelation 12:7ff), but yet he will flee any resistance (James 4:7) because he has been defeated and stripped of his powers by the atoning work of Jesus on the cross (Colossians 2:13-16).
When Jesus identified his opponents as the children of the devil, he didn’t ask for any social, legal or even mob violent vigilante action to follow. The way to oppose lies is by prayerfully teaching the truth (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, Ephesians 6:12-20, 2 Timothy 2:24-26). It’s only as God opens the eyes of people to the truth of ‘Christ crucified’ that the devil’s lies are undone.