Satan in Council.  (Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)
  • Print
  • Cite

Introduction

The Devil, also referred to as Satan, is best known as the nemesis of good people everywhere. His image and story have evolved over the years, but this malevolent being—and his legion of demons—continue to strike fear in people from all walks of life as the antithesis of all things good.

Although the Devil is present in some form in many religions and can be compared to some mythological gods, he’s arguably best known for his role in Christianity. In modern biblical translations, the Devil is the adversary of God and God’s people.

It’s commonly thought that the Devil first showed up in the Bible in the book of Genesis as the serpent who convinced Eve—who then convinced Adam—to eat forbidden fruit from the “tree of the knowledge” in the Garden of Eden. As the story goes, after Eve fell for the Devil’s conniving ways, she and Adam were banished from the Garden of Eden and doomed to mortality.

Many Christians believe the Devil was once a beautiful angel named Lucifer who defied God and fell from grace. This assumption is often based the book of Isaiah in the Bible which says, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations.”

Some biblical scholars, however, claim Lucifer isn’t a proper name but a descriptive phrase meaning “morning star.” Still, the name stuck and the Devil is often referred to as Lucifer.

Names for the Devil are numerous: Besides Lucifer, he may be referred to as the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Lord of the Flies, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Moloch or simply Satan.

The book of Ezekiel includes another Biblical passage Christians refer to as proof of the Devil’s existence. It admonishes the greedy King of Tyre but also refers to the king as a cherub who was once in the Garden of Eden. As a result, some Bible translators believe the King of Tyre was a personification of the Devil.

The Devil make more appearances in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Jesus and many of his apostles warned people to stay alert for the Devil’s cunning enticements that would lead them to ruin. And it was the Devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness to “fall down and worship him” in exchange for riches and glory.

Most other religions and cultures teach of an evil being who roams the earth wreaking havoc and fighting against the forces of good. In Islam, the devil is known as Shaytan and, like the Devil in Christianity, is also thought to have rebelled against God. In Judaism, Satan is a verb and generally refers to a difficulty or temptation to overcome instead of a literal being.

In Buddhism, Maara is the demon that tempted Buddha away from his path of enlightenment. Like Christianity’s Jesus resisted the Devil, Buddha also resisted temptation and defeated Maara.

In people of almost any religion or even in those who don’t follow a religion, the Devil is almost always synonymous with fear, punishment, negativity and immorality.

Perhaps the most lasting images of the Devil are associated with Hell, which the Bible refers to as a place of everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. Still, the Bible doesn’t state the Devil will reign over hell, just that he’ll eventually be banished there.

The idea that the Devil governs hell may have come from the poem by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, published in the early fourteenth century. In it, God created hell when he threw the Devil and his demons out of Heaven with such power they created an enormous hole in the center of the earth.

In his poem, Dante portrayed the Devil as a grotesque, winged creature with three faces—each chewing on a devious sinner—whose wings blew freezing cold winds throughout hell’s domain.

The Bible doesn’t describe the Devil in detail. Early artistic interpretations of The Divine Comedy featuring shocking images of the Devil and his demons inflicting almost unimaginable human suffering only emboldened people’s thoughts about hell and the Devil.

And by the end of the Middle Ages, the Devil had taken on the appearance of the horned, trident-wielding figure with a tail that has endured to modern times.

Fear of the Devil is at least partially responsible for the witchcraft hysteria of Europe and New England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Protestants and Catholics accused many people of practicing witchcraft and making deals with the Devil.

The Puritans living in New England’s early colonies were petrified of the Devil. They believed he gave powers to witches to those faithful to him. This fear gave rise to the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts.

The Puritan’s strict lifestyle, their fear of outsiders, and their terror of so-called “Devil’s magic” led them to accuse at least 200 people of witchcraft between 1692 and 1693—twenty of the accused were executed.

Religious translations are often controversial. There’s usually some degree of dissent on how to interpret early texts, and texts about the Devil are no exception.

Even so, throughout history, the Devil’s reputation as an evil-doer hasn’t changed much. Most Christians still believe he’s literally transformed the world and is responsible for much of the world’s corruption and chaos.

Not all religions shun the Devil, though. People of the Church of Satan, known as Satanists, don’t worship the Devil, but embrace him as a symbol of atheism, pride and liberty, among other things. Another type of Satanists, theistic Satanists, worship the Devil as a deity. They may practice Satanic rituals or even make Satanic pacts.

There’s no shortage of Hollywood films featuring the Devil. He’s been played by some of Hollywood’s elite such as Jack Nicholson, Vincent Price and Al Pacino. And after Mia Farrow’s character gave birth to Satan’s offspring in the horror-flick Rosemary’s Baby, expectant mothers who saw the film wished they hadn’t.

Given the draw of the battle between good and evil, it’s likely the Devil’s influence is here to stay, and he will continue to influence religion and pop culture.

A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials. Smithsonian.com.
Devil Worship in the Middle Ages. Loyola University New Orleans.
Jewish Concepts: Demons and Demonology. Jewish Virtual Library.
Puritans Beliefs on Satan and Witchcraft. Gettysburg College.
The Buddha’s Encounter with Mara the Tempter: Their Representation in Literature and Art. Access to Insight.
Is “Lucifer” the Devil in Isaiah 14:12? – The KJV Argument against Modern Translations. Bible.org.
A Satanist on Why Everything You Think You Know About His Religion Is Wrong. The Independent.
Theistic Satanism: The new Satanisms of the era of the Internet. TheisticSatanism.com.