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Devilish Details


By Delan Bruce

Published Jul 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Be prepared to have everything you know about Satan turned upside down by the Bible.

Who is Satan? Is he really who we think he is?

In his new book, Satan in the Bible, God’s Minister of Justice, Distinguished Professor of English Henry Ansgar Kelly argues that the popular perception of Satan as the infinitely evil enemy of God doesn’t square with evidence found in passages mentioning him in both the Old and New Testaments.

“Satan is more or less God’s attorney general,” Kelly explains. “He’s no more evil than Jeff Sessions. He’s not perfect. Nobody likes him. He’s a nasty guy; he’s got underhanded methods. To him, the ends justify the means. He’s got no particular ethics of his own. [But] he’s still working on behalf of the government.”

The main takeaway from Kelly’s 50 years of research and writing on the subject, he says, is that “no matter what we have heard about Satan and his nature and history and activities, most are not found in the Bible, where he is much different.”

According to Kelly, confusion about the true nature of the devil arises from early mistranslations of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek, even down to his name: “In Hebrew, if you use a definite article, it’s a common noun. If you use one in Greek, it’s a proper name. There’s a continuity of a couple of appearances of ‘satan’ [adversary] in Hebrew. When it was translated to Greek, it became proper: Satan.”

When the church fathers tried to make sense of the references to Satan, they made him not a critic of humanity, but the great adversary of God.

“If you look at the Bible and examine all the passages carefully, there’s nothing to support that characterization,” Kelly says. “Satan is looking out for God. He’s suspicious of humans. He wants to check them out, uncover their vices and make sure they’re not just hypocrites.”

A literature course at Saint Louis University first piqued Kelly’s interest in the devil. The class discussion centered on the Salem witch trials, in which Satan played a key role. “The women were supposedly witches who adored the devil,” he remembers. “Looking into it, I felt the church needed to purify the doctrine on the devil.”

Kelly’s work is designed to correct what he sees as an inaccurate depiction of Satan that does more harm than good. “Most of our evils and troubles are caused by human beings. This idea that when something goes wrong you blame Satan lets us off the hook,” he says.