Destroying the Works of the Devil

One of the crucial distinctions to make in our understanding of suffering and evil is the difference between the error of calling God the author of evil and the truth that God is in the business of turning evil into good.  The difference between these two concepts may seem subtle, but the implications are tremendous.  We do our young people a great service when we help them understand this distinction.  As the late Ralph Winter wrote, “God is not ‘behind’ the evil in the world, He is ‘in front’ working good out of evil.”

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is an example of this.  In their jealousy and dislike of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.  After many twists and turns, the story ends with Joseph, now in a position of power, saving his brothers and their families during a time of famine.  Joseph summarizes God’s work in the story with, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20).  Who set the evil in motion?  Joseph’s brothers were the authors of evil against Joseph, not God.  But as is His habit, God turned the evil to good.

Not surprisingly, Jesus, “the exact imprint of God’s nature” (Heb 1:3), emulated the Father in this regard during His time on earth.  The apostle John wrote, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8).  We are familiar with the great “work of the devil” destruction Jesus accomplished on the cross that set us free from both the penalty and power of sin; sin introduced in the world by Satan.  But are we as familiar with Jesus destroying “the works of the devil” in His earthly ministry?

Acts 10:38 describes Jesus’ ministry like this, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him.”  Is it possible that all the sick people Jesus healed were “oppressed by the devil”, not just those identified as demon-possessed in the classic sense?

We do know that in the case of the woman with the eighteen year illness that it was caused by Satan.  And in turning evil into good, Jesus “unwound” the evil, sickness, and suffering when He healed her.  Jesus also turned evil into good when He healed the Gerasene demoniac and returned him to his right mind.  Was every healing Jesus performed an “unwinding” of Satan’s work and turning the evil intentions of Satan into God’s redeeming purpose for good?  Just a thought.

In any case, the Jesus who went about doing good emulated God, the Father, by consistently turning what Satan meant for evil into His good purpose.  And of direct import to us, Jesus has enlisted us to join Him and continue the task of “destroying the works of the devil.”  Let’s talk about our role in the unfinished work next time.

The Author of Evil

Consider these passages from the New Testament:

“And behold, there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all” (Lk 13:11).  After healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Lk 13:16).  Jesus ascribes this woman’s illness to Satan himself.

“And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.  And when Jesus had come out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an evil spirit met Him, and he had his dwelling among the tombs.  And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him.  And constantly night and day, among the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out and gashing himself with stones” (Mk 5:1-6).  Jesus healed the man by driving out what turned out to be a multitude of evil spirits.  When the townspeople came to see what had happened they were stunned to “observe the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the ‘legion’ [of evil spirits]” (Mk 5:15).  Mark ascribes this man’s insanity to Satan’s minions.

“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land?” (Acts 5:3).  Peter ascribes Ananias’ lie to the influence of Satan himself.

“For we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, more than once – and yet Satan thwarted us” (I Thess 2:18).  Paul was thwarted by Satan himself.

“Be sober of spirit, be on the alert.  Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  But resist him firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (I Pet 5:8-9).  Given the context and sentence structure, could the exhortation to “resist Satan” be directly tied to Satan, the roaring lion, being responsible for their suffering?

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:…’Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days’ ” (Rev 2:8,10).  The trip to prison and the suffering that goes with it is directly controlled by Satan himself.

Paul referred to his “thorn in the flesh” – thought to be an illness or malady – as “a messenger of Satan” (II Cor 12:7).

Did God prescribe eighteen years of sickness for the Jewish woman?  No, Satan did.  Did God prescribe insanity for the Gerasene demoniac?  No, Satan did.  Did God thwart Paul’s plans to take the gospel message to Thessalonica.  No, Satan did.  Did God throw his followers in the Smyrna church in jail as some kind of a test?  No, Satan did.

Do you see the pattern?  In each case, evil and suffering are the handiwork of Satan.  His fingerprints are all over it.  So where is the God we worship in all of this?  Where is the God of love, goodness, and omnipotence?  The short answer:  God is not the author of evil, but is moving out in front of Satan’s evil intentions, and is actively, powerfully, and passionately turning what Satan meant for evil into good.  We will take up this topic next post.

The Dark Power

C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease and sin.”  Where did Mr. Lewis get this impression, and does it fit the message of the New Testament?  I believe it does, but it does involve some piecing the puzzle together.

Most passages in the New Testament that reference Satan describe his evil moral character or his powerful influence in the world.  Regarding Satan’s nature, Jesus simply called him “the evil one” (Mt 13:19).  Evil is Satan’s most basic attribute.  Jesus amplifies this description of Satan’s nature in John 8:44, “[Satan] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies.”  Deception as in “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) is Satan’s standard operating procedure.

Concerning Satan’s influence, Paul calls him “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2).  Additional titles for Satan that imply influence are, “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4) and “ruler of this world” (Jn 16:11).  In Ephesians 6, Paul explains that our fight is not “against flesh and blood,” but against Satan and his intermediaries whom he calls, “rulers, powers, world forces of darkness, and spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).  And finally, according to I John 5:19, “The whole world lies in the power, or grip, of the evil one.”

Now lest we imply that God has somehow left the scene and Satan is running the show unfettered, we need to balance all the New Testament teaches regarding the work of God as well as His arch-enemy.  The parable of the wheat and the weeds, along with Jesus’ interpretation (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43), give an excellent picture of the parallel growth of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (called “the enemy of God” in the parable).  For a thorough explanation of this parable and its implications for Satan’s influence click here.  Rest assured, despite his current power, Satan is a defeated enemy and his ultimate destruction is foretold in the last verses of this passage.

Returning to our question at hand, what does this mean for the world we live in today?  I think it means that evil, violence, disease, and corruption will continue to flourish under Satan’s rule.  And while we understand that in the big picture view, what does it look like on a more personal and practical level?  We will take up that question next time.

The Problem of Evil

Point three in Dr. Ruth Tucker’s categories related to walking away from faith is “disappointment with God regarding personal and widespread suffering.”  This is not surprising as the problem of suffering and evil has challenged our view of God and His revelation for a long time.  The prevalence of evil in our world from “why do bad things happen to good people” to the devastation wrought by natural disaster is an oft-mentioned stumbling block to belief.

At the risk of sounding trite or thinking that I have a novel, five-second answer to this age-old question, I do believe the biblical answer to this dilemma is straightforward.  Let’s start with what the answer is not.

Evil is not part of God’s plan for us personally or for the world in general.  In our dogmatism regarding the sovereign plan of God, we have either inadvertently or deliberately, painted God as the author of evil.  With this foundational error, it comes as no surprise that we blame God for evil and suffering on both a personal and worldwide scale.  Young, inquiring minds soon see a contradiction between our teaching on God’s love and goodness, and the evil He supposedly prescribes which, to them, becomes untenable and they abandon the faith.  Let me say again, God is not the author of evil.

I believe the Bible teaches that God has a dark, intelligent, evil, supernatural enemy.  He is not God’s equal by any means, but he is an opposing power to the goodness of God, God’s activity, and God’s creation.  In short, the author of evil and suffering in this world at both a personal and worldwide scale is Satan himself, and the best thing we can do for our young people and ourselves in this area is to have a proper understanding of demonology.  Haven’t heard the term demonology before?  I am not surprised.  As pastor Gordon Kirk of Pasadena California has observed, “Satan’s greatest achievement has been to cover his tracks.”

I couldn’t agree more.  As modern man has relegated Satan to the world of fairies and elves, we have become clueless to his devastating activity.  But Jesus and the New Testament writers, over and over again, acknowledge Satan’s existence, his presence, and his influence in the world.  We will look at their warnings in coming posts.