Satan has gone to hell

The devil: from heavenly prosecutor to lustful tempter

You can paint it on the wall and it's in the details: the devil. Without him, the history of Christianity and European cultural history would look different and who knows whether the Christian churches would have existed for so long without him. The devil is - probably not only - a fascinating figure for religious scholars, to whom this blog post is definitely worth dedicating.

The devil comes from heaven

Where did the devil come from? From the sky. In the writings of the Old Testament one encounters Satan as a member of the heavenly court, which YHWH (Yahweh), according to an ancient oriental ruler, has. The members of this court, also known as angels, have different tasks and those of Satan does not necessarily make him popular with the people: he is what you could casually call a public prosecutor. He roams the world accusing those who are guilty of offenses against the heavenly ruler. In this function he encounters, for example, in the book Zechariah 3: 1-2: "But Satan stood at his right hand to accuse him. The angel of the Lord said to Satan: The Lord shows you in your place, Satan; yes, he Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, put you in your place. "

Far better known is Satan's appearance in the book of Job. Here he is already more Agent provocateur because public prosecutor, he leads godly Job so long into temptation until he is at least very sad. That such a figure was not a person of sympathy from a human perspective, but downright for the role of Bad guy predestined, is obvious. However - and here the history of religion and popular half-education diverge - in the writings of the Old Testament, Satan is not yet an opponent of God and also not "the evil one" per se - and certainly not the snake that appears in chapter three of the book Genesis from Tree curls. This equation takes place later. The Satan of the Old Testament also has no family or other relationship to the demons that are known, such as Azazel (Leviticus 16: 5-10) or Ashmodai (Tobit 3: 8). He is an angel who embodies an aspect of God that is problematic for humans, precisely that of "monitoring and punishing", as Michel Foucault will later call it and which we will come back to in the Middle Ages.

From the unsympathetic angel to the main villain

In the New Testament, Satan is clearly the "bad guy" as he is known and feared (or loved) from now on: He tempts Jesus (Luke 4), Jesus says he saw "Satan fall from heaven like lightning "(Luke 10:18), he is the father of lies (John 8:44) and skillful in camouflaging and deceiving, he disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) and thus leads the first Christians astray and heresy.

Which brings attentive readers to the question, when between the Old and New Testaments did the unsympathetic angel become the main villain? The answer lies in the last centuries before Christianity, when a personified evil is evidently more and more necessary, and in that tradition that is called parabiblical (i.e. around the Bible) and apocryphal (hidden). This is where the story of the angel Satan and his rebellion against God, the battle of angels among themselves (rebels against loyalism) and the suppression of this rebellion and the banishment of Satan from heaven down to hell, together with those angels who support him, takes had shape on.

Passages like Isaiah 14:12 about the fall of the shining morning star (actually related to the king of Babylon) and Ezekiel 28:14, where the "shining cherub" and its proud beauty are mentioned, could now be interpreted in terms of Satan. As in the Book of Enoch, the talk of the sons of God who got involved with human daughters in Genesis 6.1 could now be interpreted as a further explanation for the fall of the angels: arrogance and sexual greed - that was just right for early Christianity.

The devil and the snake

In general, our image of the devil as a haughty, fallen angel and ruler of hell, as a tempter in all, but above all erotic, situations of life is essentially due to the Christian theologians of the 3rd to 5th centuries. They took up the biblical and non-biblical narratives and ideas just described and molded the wicked one according to their understanding of sin and corruption. Arrogance and claim to power over the highest authority were qualities which, according to St. Augustine, had already led Adam and Eve to their ruin - of course with the active help of the devil: "But then that haughty angel, who enviously in his arrogance from God, chose and turned to himself, a slippery and scaly animal that suited his purpose and through which he could speak; and through this (...) he spoke to the woman, namely beginning with that weaker part of the human couple (... ) ". (Augustine, De civitate Dei XIV, 11)

For him - more than questionable from a biblical point of view - the serpent was the haughty, fallen angel aka Satan. And if you sit as a hermit in the desert, the devil sits on your lap as a pretty girl: "He (ie the devil) took the form of an Ethiopian girl, (...) sat on my lap and excited me, that I believed I was committing fornication with her. Then I came to my senses and slapped her on the ear, whereupon she disappeared. " (Palladius, Lives of the Holy Fathers 23).

Sex, hell and the damned

The devil owes his horns, goat legs and the proverbial horse's foot (which was originally a goat foot) to the problem of the early theologians with sexuality: the god Pan, in Greek mythology a sexually hyperactive, but otherwise rather harmless fellow - at least From the point of view of patriarchal ancient society - and far removed from any metaphysical evil, for the Christians it becomes the iconographic model of the devil: Those who constantly chase after women under drive control are precisely the same evil that pious ascetics paint on the wall.

The Greek antiquity is also responsible for the name most commonly used in our country: diabolos> diabolus> tiufal> devil (linguistically shortened) means, unlike Satan, not accuser, but confounder. He who disturbs the divine order is evil. The third known name of the devil, Lucifer, goes back to his equation with the morning star or son of the dawn in Isaiah 14:12 - where originally Satan was not meant - because Lucifer means light bearer.

Hell, too - since the inglorious end of the rebellion the inevitable habitat of the devil - also constituted itself in the course of Christian late antiquity as a place where all the damned come. And if one follows Augustine, already mentioned, those were the overwhelming number of people, the so-called massa damnata. Anyone who does evil or even thinks is literally going to hell.

From here it is only a small step to the colorful images of hell of medieval churches and the devil as an indispensable helper of ecclesiastical pastoral power. But more about that soon in this blog. (Theresia Heimerl, April 18, 2018)


  • Christoph Auffarth (ed.), The Fall of the Angels. Leiden 2004.
  • Jeffrey Burton Russell, Biography of the Devil. Radical Evil and the Power of Good in the World, Vienna 2000.
  • Gustaf Roskoff, History of the Devil. A cultural-historical satanology from the beginnings to the 18th century, Nördlingen 1987.
  • Alfonso Di Nola. The devil. Essence, Effect, History, Munich 1997.

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