Whenever I mentor someone—especially a guy that wants to “be in the ministry”—in other words teach in some capacity within the local church, I like to push them and challenge their beliefs to make sure they operate under the idea that our theology is shaped by the Bible and not tradition, even long held traditions that we Christians sometimes accept as fact.
And being me, I like to have a little fun with it, so one of the areas we start with is Satanology—what do we actually know about Satan? “Well he’s a liar, a deceiver, an enemy, an adversary, the serpent in Genesis, the dragon in Revelation…” Okay. What about his origin? Where did Satan come from? “Well he’s a fallen angel.” Oh, he is? (shocked expression on my face…) Where does the Bible say that? “Uh…”
Inevitably they say something about Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28. And I’ll tell them, with a smile, we’ll get to that…but let’s first actually consider what the Bible clearly says:
First question: Does the Bible ever clearly state that Satan was an angel? The answer—no. The only reference to Satan even being like an angel is in 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul comments on how false apostles disguise themselves as real apostles and thus mimic the tricks of Satan. “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (11:15). Paul’s point is Satan is a good enough liar he pretends to be something he’s not and fools people, and the false apostles are the same way.
Now the Bible does talk about fallen or disobedient angels in several places. In Revelation 12, there’s a war going on in heaven concurrent with the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus. Satan and “his angels” lose that war and are cast down out of heaven. Satan loses his ability to be an accuser before God (like he was in Job), and as Peter says—he now roams around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. In his picture, John talks about how Satan goes off to try to make war against God’s people, but he doesn’t say what ends up happening to these angels of Satan.
But Jude tells us about fallen angels—“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (6), and Peter with a similar tone, “For God did not spare angels when they sinned but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
So the only Biblical references we have to the current state of fallen angels is that they are being bound in the gloomy darkness of hell by chains until the day of judgment. So doesn’t it make sense that if Satan was actually a fallen angel as well—he would be with them?
Second question: Does the Bible clearly tell us anything about the origin of Satan? Yes and no. Yes in that every clear picture we ever have of him in Scripture is of an enemy, deceiver, liar, and adversary. Yes in that Jesus says, “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). But then no in that Jesus doesn’t define what he means by “the beginning.” Are we talking Satan’s beginning or the world’s beginning?
Here some people say, “Satan had to have been good and fallen, God didn’t create anything bad.” But… the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is the greatest act of good and Jesus’ glory through the cross is ultimately the whole purpose of creation (2 Timothy 1:8-10, Colossians 1:15-20). And to have the cross you need sin, to have sin you need temptation, to have temptation you need a tempter. Perhaps as Judas was the long-before prophesied son of perdition destined to betray Jesus, so Satan was designed as an adversary from the beginning to bring about the cross? Truly then a “vessel of wrath”…
Might still not be the actual picture, but given the vagueness of Jesus’ words about Satan, it is a possibility.
Simple fact of the matter is we don’t know much about Satan’s origin, outside of traditions and non-biblical texts.
So final question: What about those Isaiah and Ezekiel prophecies? Well, for starters we do have to recognize there are plenty of dual-fulfillment prophecies in the Old Testament. Take Isaiah’s “the virgin will be with child” one—on the one hand it clearly refers to Isaiah’s own young maiden and prophetess wife and their son Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz. Yet, Matthew shows us it also has a greater fulfillment in Mary’s virgin conception of Jesus. But that’s part of it—Matthew shows us, the New Testament shows us the greater/second fulfillment of many of these dual-prophecies. We don’t see that with the ones supposedly about Satan.
But it is clear that the prophecies are about human nations and human kings. The taunt against Babylon in Isaiah 14 was a taunt Israel could raise because Babylon fell as a nation due to their sinfulness. And let’s not forget that many prophecies in the Bible contain poetic imagery and exaggerated language to drive home the point. We see this in Jacob’s blessing of his sons (Genesis 49) where Judah is a lion’s cub, Issachar a strong donkey, Dan a serpent and viper, Naphtali a doe, and Joseph a fruitful bough. None of these and the images attached to them are to be taken literally at full face value, but through images they show something of the person’s character.
So when it says of the king of Babylon, “How you are fallen from heaven, o Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high…” (Isaiah 14:12-13), it likely is not a literal representation of an angelic being who fell. Rather it is poetic speech about the pride of the king of Babylon.
Not to mention if we do go with some of the prophetic details, this king is a man (14:16), one who desired to ascend into heaven (14:13) and thus not an angelic being already in heaven, and has sons who are slaughtered (14:21). Granted, it could still have a dual reference to the actual king and to Satan, but the Bible does not elsewhere give us a clear indication this is so. The closest thing we have is in Revelation where Babylon is the representative nation of all the world evil. But that is not enough for us to declare Old Testament prophecies concerning Babylon and its king must necessarily refer to Satan.
Then you have Ezekiel 28 and the king of Tyre. Again, the same rules apply when dealing with prophecy—poetic images and exaggerated language. And again, the language is ultimately used to talk about the pride and sinfulness of a man. If not careful, we can get carried away with the language of being in Eden the garden of God, being an anointed cherub, etc.
Some of this same language is used a few chapters later to warn Pharaoh through the example of Assyria. Assyria “was a cedar in Lebanon…it was beautiful in its greatness…the cedars in the garden of God could not revival it…no tree in the garden of God was its equal in beauty. I made it beautiful in the mass of its branches, and all the trees of Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God” (31:3-9).
Though Ezekiel uses the language of Eden and cherubs and trees, he is referring to actual men and nations. And the Bible gives us no indication such prophecies double as references to Satan.
Now in theological triage, this is like a tenth order issue. In terms of brick walls and picket fences, this is a grain of sand on the shingle of the house. It’s just a simple and kind of fun exercise I like to do—what do we actually believe and why do we believe it? The point is to teach those I mentor that all our theology must be built on the words of scripture and we cannot be dogmatic about things the Bible doesn’t tell us.
And with the origins of Satan—we can speculate to our hearts’ content, but all we can say for sure is: “We don’t know his exact origins or what kind of creature he is, but he is a liar, murder, and adversary—he is the enemy in our Story.”