Satan, in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the prince of evil spirits and adversary of God. Satan is traditionally understood as an angel (or sometimes a jinnī in Islam) who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven with other “fallen” angels before the creation of humankind. Ezekiel 20:14–18 and Isaiah 14:12–17 are the key Scripture passages that support this understanding, and, in the New Testament, in Luke 10:18 Jesus states that he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. In all three Abrahamic religions, Satan is identified as the entity (a serpent in the Genesis account) that tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and was thus the catalyst for the fall of humankind. (For further discussion of Satan in Islam, see Iblīs.)
The word Satan is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word for “adversary” in the Bible. With the definite article, the Hebrew word denotes “the adversary” par excellence, mainly in the Book of Job, where the adversary comes to the heavenly court with the “sons of God.” His task is to roam through the earth (like a contemporaneous Persian official) seeking out acts or persons to be reported adversely (to the king); his function thus is the opposite of that of the “eyes of the Lord,” which roam through the earth strengthening all that is good. Satan is cynical about disinterested human goodness and is permitted to test it under God’s authority and control and within the limits that God sets.
In the New Testament the Greek transliteration Satanas is used, and this usually appears as Satan in English translations. He is spoken of as the prince of evil spirits, the inveterate enemy of God and of Christ, who takes the guise of an angel of light. He can enter a man and act through him; hence, a man can be called Satan because of his acts or attitude. Through his subordinate demons, Satan can take possession of human bodies, afflicting them or making them diseased. According to the visions in the Book of Revelation, when the risen Christ returns from heaven to reign on earth, Satan will be bound with a great chain for a thousand years, then be released, but almost immediately face final defeat and be cast into eternal punishment. His name, Beelzebul, used in the Gospels mainly in reference to demonic possession, comes from the name of the god of Ekron, Baalzebub (II Kings 1). He is also identified with the devil (diabolos), and this term occurs more frequently in the New Testament than Satan. In the Qurʾān the proper name Shaitan (“Satan”) is used.
Among early Christian writers, the figure of Satan played a larger part in the discussion of the nature of evil, the meaning of salvation, and the purpose and efficacy of the atoning work of Christ. Early and medieval church writers discussed at length problems raised by belief in the existence of a spiritual being such as Satan in a universe created and sustained by an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving God. Under the influence of the 18th-century revolt against belief in the supernatural, liberal Christian theology tended to treat the biblical language about Satan as “picture thinking” not to be taken literally—as a mythological attempt to express the reality and extent of evil in the universe, existing outside and apart from humanity but profoundly influencing the human sphere.
Learn More in these related Britannica articles:
Christianity: Satan and the origin of evilIn the Bible, especially the New Testament, Satan (the Devil) comes to appear as the representative of evil. Enlightenment thinkers endeavoured to push the figure of the Devil out of Christian consciousness as being a product of the fantasy…
biblical literature: Purpose and theme…visions of catastrophe and of Satan, the destroyer, the appearance of two witnesses and other martyr examples to spur the church to endurance, the victory of the archangel Michael over the dragon (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb (Christ), and the representation of the powers of emperor cult and…
Christianity: The Middle Ages…usually stressed the role of Satan as cocreator of the world, as the creator of the human race, or as a being whose fall is responsible for the evil that exists in the world. They also taught that Jesus entered the Virgin Mary’s body through her ear and only appeared…
Eastern Orthodoxy: God and humankind, Satan), who is also the “murderer from the beginning,” has dominion over humanity. From this vicious circle of death and sin, humans are understood to be liberated by the death and Resurrection of Jesus, which are actualized in baptism and the sacramental life in the…
DevilDevil, (from Greek diabolos, “slanderer,” or “accuser”), the spirit or power of evil. Though sometimes used for minor demonic spirits, the word devil generally refers to the prince of evil spirits and as such takes various forms in the religions of the world. In the monotheistic Western religions,…
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- “Brothers Karamazov”