Was Jesus mistaken about Satan and demons?

May 31, 2013

Re-reading The Screwtape Letters last night and today has been like holding up a deeply unflattering mirror to my soul. I didn’t like what I saw, but I’m glad I saw it. I can learn from it. Earlier this week, I saw a reflection of an earlier version of myself in another book on spiritual warfare, Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall.

Five or six years ago, I either didn’t believe in or was extremely skeptical of the existence of a literal Satan. (It depended on which day you asked me.) He (or it) was probably just a symbol of evil, a literary personification of it. Perhaps “Satan” was the sum total of all evil to which each of us contributes. Human beings are “bad enough,” I believed, without demonic forces also working against us. I was a little embarrassed by those quaint gospel accounts describing demonic possession and exorcisms.

Needless to say, I have long repented of my skepticism. As I’ve indicated on my blog and in a few sermons since then, I believe strongly in the existence of Satan, a spiritual realm of angels and demons, and literal spiritual warfare.

In his book, however, Green parroted back an argument that I used to make (in my head, at least) against the apparent problem of Jesus’ belief in Satan: Of course Jesus believed in Satan and devils; he was limited in knowledge by his incarnation, having emptied himself of, among other things, omniscience; therefore, as a product of a culture that accepted uncritically the reality of angels and demons, Jesus did as well. All mental illness was understood as demon possession in Jesus’ day. Therefore when Jesus was healing these illnesses, he—along with disciples and onlookers—believed he was exorcising demons. He was mistaken, but being mistaken is no sin.

See how neatly it all fits together? You don’t? Well, neither do I—at least not now!

While I have an amazing tolerance for cognitive dissonance, even I had to finally admit defeat: not believing in Satan and demons is incompatible with orthodox Christian faith. If we accept the Bible as authoritative in any sense, we ought to believe what it says about the spiritual realm. As I said in a post last week, it’s really not so hard. In fact, it makes better sense of the world, in my opinion, to believe in the demonic.

To be clear, I still believe Jesus’ incarnation meant he wasn’t omniscient: that’s a condition of being human. As Luke 2:52 indicates, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” When he was an infant, Jesus didn’t think, “I’ll bide my time and pretend to be like any other human child until I get old enough to reveal who I really am.” No—he was fully human. He had to mature, learn, and grow just like the rest of us. Inasmuch as he appears at times clairvoyant in the gospels, I believe this is based on revelation from his Father or a hyper-intuition that comes from the closeness of his relationship with God.

Regardless, Green points out the biggest problem with the “kenotic theory”—that Jesus was mistaken about Satan because he was a product of his culture.

If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else? Perhaps his belief in the free forgiveness of God is equally culturally conditioned—is there not some talk of free acceptance before God in the Hymns of Qumran covenanters?

This kenotic theory if applied to Jesus’ understanding of Satan, proves much too much if it proves anything at all. It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us. Such eclecticism is academically indefensible, and is not a proper option for those who call him Lord and set out to be his learners or disciples. The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

2 Responses to “Was Jesus mistaken about Satan and demons?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I agree with almost all of this, but have a slight question about this part of what you said:

    “To be clear, I still believe Jesus’ incarnation meant he wasn’t omniscient: that’s a condition of being human. As Luke 2:52 indicates, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” When he was an infant, Jesus didn’t think, “I’ll bide my time and pretend to be like any other human child until I get old enough to reveal who I really am.” No—he was fully human. He had to mature, learn, and grow just like the rest of us. Inasmuch as he appears at times clairvoyant in the gospels, I believe this is based on revelation from his Father or a hyper-intuition that comes from the closeness of his relationship with God.”

    Since Luke 2:52 says Jesus “increased in wisdom,” I have to agree with you that something that happened in the incarnation was a “limiting” of what he would otherwise know as God (i.e., everything). But I don’t think that means he just knew things “as a man.” He frequently prophesied his own death, in detail. He knew Judas would betray him long before Judas did. He knew Peter would deny him. He “knew their thoughts,” it says several times, such as speaking of the Pharisees. I don’t think these can be passed off as a “special revelation” (as though God the Father was constantly “whispering in his ear”) or a “hyper-intuition.” HE KNEW! And he knew things a “normal” man could not know. In fact, even when he was 12, he knew he was the Son of God (“must be about my Father’s business”).

    So, when did he know what? I confess ignorance. But I think he clearly and at a minimum in his adulthood frequently knew things that “only God could know”–he was the “God/man.” (Much as, I would think, he was “God” in being able to walk on water and calm a raging storm, or multiply the loaves and fishes, etc. “Ordinary” men cannot do those things.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Fair enough. I don’t have a strong opinion. I think “revelation from his Father” and “hyper-intuition” cover the cases you cite, but those were just words I was grasping at. There is much mystery here.


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