The powers of darkness have captured the attention of millions of people, Christian or not, for millennia. If contemporary popular culture is any indication, this fascination has hardly abated. Unfortunately, a considerable amount of misunderstanding and outright misinformation has accrued to the discussion, even within the church. In my experience, much of what Christians think they know about Satan, demons, and other evil powers is guided far more by Christian tradition and hearsay than exegesis of Scripture in its own context.
This is a problem of both method and translation. Most people interested in what the Bible has to say about the dark powers do not have access to the primary sources that frame the worldview of the biblical writers. English translations often obscure nuances crucial to correctly parsing what the biblical text says (and doesn’t say) about the powers of darkness.
To be fair, however, even scholars are not immune to careless statements about the powers of darkness. This is at times quite understandable if, for instance, their expertise is outside the nuts and bolts of textual analysis in ancient context. At other times, scholars uncritically accept a consensus.
3 Common Myths and Misconceptions
“The Devil is a Second Temple-period invention adopted by the New Testament.”
The conclusion that the Satan figure of the Second Temple period and New Testament is incompatible with the Old Testament is too hasty and exaggerated. While the Old Testament itself does not evince the profile of the Satan figure that is prominent in these later texts, the material for that later profile can be found in the Old Testament. In other words, later writers connected data points they found in the Old Testament and applied those points to the original rebel.
“Demons are fallen angels.”
This notion is ubiquitous in popular Christian books and preaching. It is both on target and misguided. The statement fails to account for a number of items in the biblical text and the development of biblical thought about the powers of darkness.
Demons are consistently cast as disembodied spirits of dead Nephilim and their giant-clan descendants. Those spirits are the offspring of the angels that sinned before the flood, so the demons cannot be those fallen angels. Consequently, while a term like “fallen angels” may be used correctly in discussing demons, it is too often used simplistically and inaccurately.
“Satan rebelled before the creation of humankind and took a third of the angels with him.”
This is an excellent example of how a Christian tradition can become doctrine. There isn’t a single verse in the entirety of Scripture that tells us (a) the original rebel sinned before the episode of Genesis 3, or (b) a third of the angels also fell either before humanity’s fall or at the time of that fall. There is only one passage that mentions a “third” of the angels (presumably) and Satan/the serpent in tandem (Rev 12:1–9).
The passage is clear that the timing of this conflict involving a third of the angels occurred in conjunction with the first coming of the Messiah. The reference to the child born to rule the nations as being “caught up to God and to his throne” is an explicit reference to the resurrection and ascension—the key events that result in the defeat of Satan and the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth.
This simply cannot be construed as describing a primeval rebellion prior to the creation of humanity in Eden. Since there is no other passage in the Bible that uses the “third” language in conjunction with a satanic conflict, the idea that Satan and one-third of the angels rebelled at that time is a traditional myth.
Take the Demons: Biblical or Myth Quiz to test your knowledge of the powers of darkness.
This post is adapted from Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness by Michael S. Heiser (Lexham Press, 2020).