When Did Satan Go From Inmate to Warden?
Both Satan and hell have complicated histories that are often but not always intertwined.
To hear pop culture tell it, Satan—or the devil, if we are being formal—is the ruler of hell. He runs infernal operations in Far Side comics, canoodles with Saddam Hussein in South Park, reclines on a throne in Lucifer, and receives lap dances from Lil Nas X in the delicious “Call Me By Your Name” video. He is, ubiquitously it seems, in charge of eternal punishment and, though it is work, he seems to enjoy it. You might be surprised to learn, therefore, that in the Bible there’s no reference to Satan lording it over the damned. On the contrary, if the devil is in hell, it is only because he is being punished himself. All of which makes you wonder, when did Satan go from inmate to warden?
Both Satan and hell have complicated histories that are often but not always intertwined. In the oldest books of the Bible, hell feels like an afterthought. There is Sheol, a dark pit under the ground where people go after death, but it houses everyone, not just the wicked. He pops up in Numbers as well but as a bit player in the heavenly court. Satan first appears as a real character in the book of Job, but here he is a legal figure. He’s an adversary who engages God in a wager about the righteousness of Job. Satan isn’t evil, he’s just a lawyer.
It was the Second Temple period, and in the shadow of Alexander the Great’s conquest the supernatural population witnesses an explosion. Angels, God’s messengers and hit men, had been a relatively stable feature in the Bible. It was an angel who guarded the entry to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were evicted. And it was angels who visited Abraham, wrestled with Jacob, and slew the first born of Egypt. Demons, however, were something else and it is in this period that we find the first descriptions of demonic activity and fallen angels.
One of the most influential accounts of the origins of demons comes from a section of the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch known as the Book of the Watchers. Dr. Archie Wright, author of The Origin of Evil Spirits and Satan and the Problem of Evil and a visiting lecturer at Catholic University of America, told me that 1 Enoch takes its leave from the biblical flood story, which refers to angels who have sex with human beings. “In 1 Enoch [these] fallen angels, or Fallen Watcher Angels, rebelled against God and his creation activity and created their own offspring with human women which are referred to as the Giants.” The problem with the Giants is that they ate a lot and, having run out of less offensive sources of protein, eventually set their sights and appetites on human beings. As a result, said Wright, “God sent the Flood to destroy the Giants, but they were only destroyed physically; their spirits survived and are identified as evil spirits or demons.”
The Fallen Angels, the parents of the now disembodied Giants, were imprisoned by God in a Pit or Abyss (a kind of small-scale version of hell). They will only be released at the end of time. As for the demons they continued to roam the earth tormenting human beings in a new form. According to the second century B.C. Book of Jubilees, said Wright, 90 percent of the evil spirits were imprisoned with their fathers while 10 percent were free to work with a mysterious figure named as Mastema, an individual later identified with the devil. This Mastema, however, works in much the same way as the Satan of Job: he tests humanity with the assistance of evil spirits but he “is not an autonomous being.”
At no point in the Bible, Wright told me, is Satan ever hell’s ruler or warden. Instead, as bestselling author and Princeton professor Elaine Pagels has written in her book The Origin of Satan, Satan was a servant of the Lord, an angel of God. If Satan or Mastema torment humanity, it is only because God has granted them permission. Satan never acts independently of God. Satan turns on God, writes Pagels, at the same moment when Jewish groups turn on one another. The Essenes, the sectarian group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the followers of Jesus, who faced some opposition from fellow Jews, use demonic figures as ciphers for these real-world opponents. For the Essenes, demonizing those with whom one disagrees as the sons of darkness is a way of restaging grievances on a cosmic stage.
This leader of these figures, who is variously known as Satan, Belial, and Beelzebub, is the chief rival to God. In the first century Book of Revelation (the final book of the canonical Bible), Satan is seized by an angel of God and cast into “the Abyss.” This, says Wright, is likely not the same pit in which the Fallen Angels of Genesis and Enoch were imprisoned. There Satan remains for a thousand years before a final battle and eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire.
It is, according to Pagels and Wright, a small group of Christian philosophers known as the Gnostics who promote Satan from rebellious angel who can be bested by another angel to an evil deity with enviable powers. Satan in Gnostic thought is still identified as a subordinate being, but it creates its own inferior material realm in which humanity is (currently) imprisoned. Just as the Essenes had done, Christians used the devil to still a story of cosmic struggle in which first (other) Jews, then the Roman authorities who opposed them, and finally other dissident Christians were all cast as demons. The devil takes shape in antagonistic encounters between competing groups.
But throughout this period, and in fact for the first thousand years of Christianity, the devil still does not sit on a shadowy throne or reign over the tortured subjects of hell. As Dr. Meghan Henning has written in her recently published book Hell Hath No Fury, early descriptions of hell show human beings being tortured by angels, not demons. It is angels who administer “justice” in a space that, while infernal, is still clearly owned and operated by God. Any reader who recoils in horror should remember that, in the eyes of these authors, the horrors of hell are not in conflict with the Divine. This is what God’s justice looks like.
It is only truly much later, in the writings of Dante, Milton, and their successors that the popular mythology of the devil emerges. For Dante, the devil is Lucifer, the bringer of Dawn, who had once been God’s favorite. As a perfectly created being, Lucifer refused to bow down to and worship newly created humanity. Lucifer fractured the heavenly hosts and waged war against those loyal to God. He was defeated and cast into the inferno where he rules his fellow demons from the frozen tundra of the ninth circle of hell. Though bound in the bowels of hell, he was nevertheless able to project himself onto a mortal plane to tempt and deceive. Milton’s Satan is similarly consumed by envy. In the words of Thuswaldner and Russ, he “prowls through the chasm between hell and the newly created earth” scheming the demise of human beings.
What these images of the devil bring to the surface is the paradox in Christian ideas about Satan. As Philip Almond puts it in The Devil, “the devil is God’s most implacable enemy and beyond God’s control…yet, he is also God’s faithful servant, acting only at God’s command.” Satan may hate humanity and (quite effectively) scheme its demise and destruction, but he is barely God’s sparring partner, much less an equal. What all of this means is that hell is ruled by God. Satan is not the Lord of Hell, but if he is then he is just a puppet king ruling at the behest of a God who permits demonic interference but does not tolerate disobedience.