Writing in 1941, German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann suggested that the Bible is filled with “mythological thought,” which can be traced to “Jewish apocalypticism” and “the Gnostic myth of redemption.” Bultmann suggested that such mythological thought “is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world is a thing of the past.” Given our more scientific approach to the world, Bultmann concluded, it is “the task of theology to demythologize the Christian proclamation.”
Considering the hundreds of billions of dollars earned by The Avengers, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Shazam, and their superhero friends, it is difficult to seriously sustain the suggestion that it is “incredible” for men and women today to think mythologically or that “the mythical world is a thing of the past.”
But it is not only to Hollywood that we must look for evidence of fascination with the supernatural. Walk into a popular Christian bookstore and browse for books on angels and demons and you will soon realise that our fascination with the supernatural is hardly a thing of the past. Much of contemporary Christendom is enthralled by completely unbiblical ideas of angels and demons. Rather than reacting against such misunderstandings, it is necessary for us to go back to the Bible to gain a proper angelology. The Confession helps in this regard:
God also created angels as moral, personal and spiritual beings (Colossians 1:16). Some of the angels rebelled against God and were cast out of heaven, thus becoming evil spirits called devils or demons; the chief among them is Satan (Revelation 12:7–9). Within the limits of God’s permission, these creatures have a certain capacity to influence the world and oppose the work of God (Job 1:12; 2:6; Revelation 12:10–17). (Sola 5 Confession 3.2)
Confession 3.2 begins: “God also created angels as moral, personal and spiritual beings.” Paul concurs with this affirmation when he writes of “all things” that God created including things “visible and invisible” and “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Colossians 1:16).
Angels are “moral” beings because, like humans, they were created with the ability to obey or disobey God. They were created, with the rest of God’s creation, good and perfect, but with the capability for obedience or disobedience.
They are “personal” beings because, like humans, they were created with individual personalities. The Bible describes them using personal pronouns (“he,” “we,” “us,” etc.) rather than “it.” For something to qualify as a personal being, it must possess three basic characteristics: (1) intelligence and moral knowledge, (2) emotion, and (3) a personal will. All three of these things are seen in angels.
Intelligence and moral knowledge can be seen in angels when, for example, angels are ascribed “wisdom” (2 Samuel 14:20). Matthew 24:36 show that that angels know certain things, though not everything. For example, the angels at the tomb knew that the women were looking for Jesus (Matthew 28:5). Angels—even fallen angels—know who Jesus is (Luke 4:33–34). They can experience fear (Matthew 8:28–29; James 2:19), rejoicing (Job 38:6–7; Luke 15:10), and anger (Revelation 12:12) and can recognise God and servants of God (Acts 19:15). They can hold to and promote doctrine (1 Timothy 4:1–3). They are also seen to exercise a personal will, like the choice to worship God (Luke 2:13–14; Hebrews 1:6) or to rebel against him (Jude 1:6). They can make requests for their own good (Matthew 8:31; Luke 8:32) and individual submit to divine authority (Mark 1:27; Luke 4:35–36). They can think and reason and interact with others (Matthew 12:43–45).
Unlike humans, angels are “spiritual” beings. They were created as spirit beings (Hebrews 1:14), without physical bodies, though they sometimes appear in human form in the Bible.
There are many common misconceptions about angels in Christianity and beyond today. For example, there is no solid biblical evidence that every Christian has a guardian angel, even though God may sometimes use angels to protect, guard, and minister to his people (Psalm 91:11–12). Artwork often portrays angels as baby-faced cherubs, but they are spirit beings, without physical bodies. While the Bible does sometimes describe the appearance of certain angels, these are usually in the context of visions, and we need to be careful of pushing a vision too far and suggesting that that is what they actually look like. They appear in a certain form in visions because the vision is trying to communicate something about them. There is not even a hint in Scripture to support the common idea that people become angels when they die. In fact, angels long to understand God’s working with humans (1 Peter 1:12). Nor is there any evidence that angels have halos or wings. These misconceptions all portray things about angels that the Bible simply does not support.
The Confession also addresses the existence of fallen angels: “Some of the angels rebelled against God and were cast out of heaven, thus becoming evil spirits called devils or demons; the chief among them is Satan.” Satan is here referred to as “the chief” of the fallen angels. The Bible supports the notion that Satan led the angelic rebellion (Revelation 12:7–9), even if it doesn’t give us a full explanation of how that all happened. Michael the archangel is sometimes seen as Satan’s opposite when he leads heaven’s armies to battle against Satan and his angels.
Since God created the heaven and the earth and everything in them in six days (Exodus 20:11), it seems that the angels were created within the creation week. Since the Bible also speaks of the angels witnessing God laying the cornerstone of creation (Exodus 38:6–7), it seems likely that he created them on the first day and that they watched creation unfold from then. Remember, though he created heaven and earth in the beginning, only earth was unformed and unfilled. It seems quite possible that he created heaven already populated so that he would have a crown of witnesses to his amazing creative work during the creation week.
If this is the case, it means that Satan was created and fell within a week. We don’t know a great deal about Satan’s fall. It takes a great deal of exegetical acrobatics to read Satan’s fall into Isaiah 14:12–15ff and Ezekiel 28:11–19, though many have been eager to perform this exercise. We do know that Satan was cast out of heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18) and that he was one of a group of angels who “did not stay within their own position of authority” (Jude 6). For whatever reason, at some point in the creation week, Satan tried to usurp God’s authority and was cast out of heaven for it. He immediately tried to bring down humanity with him.
Some interpreters doubt that Satan is an actual, personal, being, and think that he is rather some form of personification of evil. As with our discussion of the personality of angels above, however, Satan is ascribed (1) intelligence and moral knowledge (1 Chronicles 21:1; Zechariah 3:1; Acts 5:3), (2) emotion (Revelation 12:12, 17), and (3) a personal will (Job 1:6–9; Luke 22:31; 2 Corinthians 2:11). He is clearly portrayed in Revelation 12 as leading the demonic forces against Michael and his army. He is also referred to as “the prince of demons” in Matthew 12:24. All of this supports the idea that he is a personal being.
The Confession recognises divine sovereignty in its closing affirmation in 3.2: “Within the limits of God’s permission, these creatures have a certain capacity to influence the world and oppose the work of God.” In Job 1:12 and 2:6 Satan is seen being given the ability to affect Job and thereby oppose God’s plan through him, but in both texts specific limits are placed upon what Satan is able to do. In the first instance, Satan was forbidden from touching Job personally; in the second, he was given permission to touch Job, but not to take his life. In both instances, Satan had no option but to obey.
Revelation 12:10–17 portrays the same truth in spectacular visionary fashion. In this vision, Satan is seen exercising his will to oppose God’s work, but he is limited in what he can do by divine intervention. The limitations imposed upon him anger him tremendously, but he has no authority to throw off those limitations.
On a related note, we ought to think clearly and biblically about Satan’s ability to perform miracles. He certainly inflicted illness upon Job. Pharaoh’s magicians also appear to have had power to replicate certain miracles. Second Thessalonians 1:9–10 speaks of “false signs and wonders” performed by Satan’s power. These texts should not, however, be interpreted to support the notion that Satan has inherent power to perform genuine miracles. Jesus frequently said that his ability to perform miracles was evidence that he was sent by God (see Luke 11:20; John 14:11). If Satan has inherent power to perform miracles, Jesus’ ability to perform miracles would only prove that he was sent either by God or by Satan. The weight of evidence suggests that Satan can only perform miracles when God grants him the ability to do so in order to fit divine purposes.
One more important note: As a created being, Satan is not omnipresent. While we sometimes speak of Satan tempting us, it is unlikely that most Christians have ever had a direct, personal encounter with Satan. He can only be in one place at a time. We should remember, though, that he has a host of demons at his disposal who may well be used to attack God’s children.