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The Devil is the name given to a supernatural entity who, in most Western religions, is the central embodiment of evil. This entity is commonly referred to by a variety of other names, including Satan, Asmodai, Beelzebub, Lucifer and/or Mephistopheles. In classic demonology, however, each of these alternate names refers to a specific supernatural entity, and there is significant disagreement as to whether any of these specific entities is actually evil. The word devil is derived from the Greek word diabolos ("to slander"), and the term devil can refer to a greater demon in the hierarchy of Hell. At the same time, the term devil is also derived from the same Indo-European root word for deva, which roughly translates as "angel".

Raising the devil
Raising the devil

The notion of a central supernatural embodiment of evil, as well as the notion of angels, first arose in Western monotheism when Judaism came into contact with the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Unlike classical monotheism, Zoroastrianism features two gods, one good and one evil, locked in a cosmic struggle where both are more or less evenly matched and the outcome is uncertain. Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord"), also known as Ohrmazd, is the god of light, and Ahriman ("Evil Spirit"), also known as Angra Mainyu, is the god of darkness. In a final battle between the supernatural forces of good and evil, human souls will be judged in a fiery ordeal, and only the good will survive. Accordingly, humans are urged to align themselves with the god of light and his angels and to shun the god of darkness and his demons.

Christianity views Satan as a being created by God, whereas the evil god of Zoroastrianism is not a created being.


The devil in Judaism

In Hebrew, the biblical word ha-satan means adversary or obstacle, or even "the prosecutor", a legalistic term nodding to the fact that God is viewed as the ultimate Judge of judges.

In the book of Job (Iyov), ha-satan is the title, not the proper name, of an angel submitted to God; he is the divine court's chief prosecutor. After God brags about Job's piety, ha-satan asks for permission to test the faith of Job. The righteous man is afflicted with loss of family, property, and later health, but he still stays faithful to God. At the conclusion of this book God appears as a whirlwind, explaining to all that divine justice is inscrutable with human intellect. In the epilog Job's posessions are restored and he has a second family to "replace" the one that died.

There is no evidence in Torah, or in the books of the Prophets and other writings, to suggest that God created an evil being. In fact, Isaiah, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Deuteronomy all have passages which say that God himself creates the evil of this world. The serpent of Genesis had no direct connection with such a being either; it was only later that people came to believe that a being in opposition to God existed, and back-read such beliefs into the Hebrew Bible.

"I form light and creat darkness,
I make weal and create evil,
I the Lord do all these things"
(Isa. 45:7)

Later Christian theologians and philosophers read the Torah and, through their worldview, determined that God must have created some being of equal stature to at least temporarily afflict mankind with plagues and lamentation in an attempt to turn true believers from God, later to be purified through fire. Zoroastrianism is based around such a concept, and predates Christianity, so presumably the Jews who broke away from Judaism to form Christianity had some familiarity with Zoroastrian belief. This is not at all far fetched as the Assyrians, Persians, and perhaps even Babylonians would have posessed such teachings, and the Jews were of course scattered throughout those lands. Unfortunately there is no biblical basis for a personal being of evil in opposition to God, and such a belief is obviously contradictory to what God himself states in Isaiah, Job, Deuteronomy, and other parts of the Bible.

Names of the devil

The original names

Originally, only the epithet of "the satan" or "the adversary" was used to denote the character in the Hebrew deity's court that later became known as "the Devil". The article was lost and this title became a proper name: Satan. There is no unambiguous basis for the Devil in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings.

Zechariah 3:1--"And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and ha-satan standing at his right hand to resist him." This reading has since been erroneously interpreted by some to mean Satan, "the Devil", but such is not the case. The Hebrew Bible views ha-satan as an angel ministering to the desires of God, acting as Chief Prosecutor.

The tempter: Matt. 4:3--"And when the tempter came to him." None escape his temptations. He is continually soliciting men to sin.

In Matthew 10:25 and 12:24, Mark 3:22, and openly in Luke 11:18-19 there is an implied connection between Satan and Beelzebub (originally a Semitic deity called Baal-zebul, one of the Baals.) Beelzebub (lit. "Lord of the Flies") has now come to be analgous to Satan.

The wicked one: Matt. 13:19--"Then cometh the wicked one." Matt. 6:13; 1 John 5:19. This title suggests that Satan is one who is wicked himself. Abrahamic religions generally regarded sin as a physical manifestation of opposition to God, and therefore evil; dissent only comes from the topic of 'where does sin come from?'

In John 12:31 and 14:30 Satan is called Prince of this World; this became a nickname for him.

1 Peter 5:8--"Your adversary the devil." By adversary is meant one who takes a stand against another. In the Christian worldview, Satan is the adversary of both God and humanity.

The Devil, diabolos: This name is ascribed to Satan at least 33 times in the Christian scriptures and indicates that Satan is an accuser or slanderer (Rev. 12:9).

Dragon or The Old Serpent: These epithets are used extensively in the Book of Revelation.

The Beast (Book of Revelation 13:1-18) is a term John used to refer to a "puppet" of the dragon's (Satan), and a term supposedly used by John in Revelation 17:3-17 to designate the Devil (or the Antichrist); this name appears several times in the book of Revelation, and it became another nickname for Satan.

Abaddon or Apollyon: Referred to in Revelation 9:11, commonly interpreted as the name of Satan in Hebrew and Greek respectively.

The division of an entity in three

When the Bible was translated into Latin (the Vulgate), the name Lucifer appeared as a translation of "Morning Star", or the planet Venus, in Isaiah 14:12. Isaiah 14:1-23 is a passage largely concerned with the plight of Babylon, and its king is referred to as "morning star, son of the dawn". This is because the Babylonian king was considered to be of godly status and of symbolic divine parentage (Bel and Ishtar, associated with the planet Venus).

While this mythological information is available to scholars today via translated Babylonian cuneiform text taken from clay tablets, it was not as readily available at the time of the Latin translation of the Bible. Thus, early Christian tradition interpreted the passage as a reference to the moment Satan was thrown from Heaven. Lucifer became another name for Satan and has remained so due to Christian dogma and popular tradition.

Later, for unknown reasons, Christian demonologists appeared to designate "Satan", "Lucifer", and "Beelzebub" as different entities, each with a different rank in the hellish hierarchy. One hypothesis is that this might have been an attempt to establish a hellish trinity with the same person, akin to the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

In Christian tradition

Christian tradition differs from that of Christian demonology in that Satan, Lucifer and Beelzebub all are names that refer to "the Devil", and Prince of this World, The Beast and Dragon (and rarely Serpent or The Old Serpent) use to be elliptic forms to refer to him. The Enemy, The Evil One and The Tempter are other elliptic forms to name the Devil. Christian demonology, in contrast, does not have several nicknames for Satan.

It should be noted that the name Mephistopheles is used by some people to refer to the Devil, but it is a mere folkloric custom, and has nothing to do with Christian demonology and Christian tradition. Prince of Darkness and Lord of Darkness are also folkloric names, although Lord of Darkness tends to be incorporated to Christian tradition.

The medieval Cathars believed that the Old Testament Yahweh was, in fact, the devil, based partially on ethical interpretations of the Bible and partially on the beliefs of earlier gnostic sects (such as the Marcionists) who regarded the god of the Old Testament as evil or as an imperfect demiurge. Early Gnostics called the Demiurge Yao, the Aramaic cognate to the Tetragrammaton, YHWH (Yahweh). Moreover, research into Ugaritic texts revealed that the names of the Jewish god were the same as separate gods worshipped in the same region; Yahweh is cognate to Ugaritic Yaw who is there the god of chaos, evil, and world domination.

Most Christians believe that the Devil is a fallen archangel.

No concept of the devil in Hinduism

  • In contrast to the Christian traditions and Islam, Hinduism does not recognize any central evil force or entity such as the Devil opposing God but does recognize that different beings (e.g., asuras) and entities can perform evil acts and cause suffering in the world.
  • However, for Hindus and Vaishnavites, in particular, it is believed that God incarnates to destroy evil when evil has reached its maximum. (see avatar.) Additionally, the problem of evil is mostly explained by the concept of Karma.

The devil in literature

Many writers have incorporated the character of Satan into their works. Among the most famous are:

The devil in film

Many films have portrayed the Devil in one form or another. Among these are:

The devil in games

As with films, the Devil has appeared in numerous games. A few of them are:


  • The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels (Vintage Books, New York 1995) explores the developement, the "demonization" of the character of Satan against the background of the bitter struggle between the early Church and the Synagogue to be the legitimate heir of ancient Hebrew religious tradition. She discusses how Satan becomes a figure that reflects our own hatreds and prejudices, and the struggle between our loving selves and our fearful, combative selves.
  • The Old Enemy : Satan & the Combat Myth, by Neil Forsyth (Princeton, New Jersey 1987) seeks to show how Satan emerged from ancient mythological traditions and is best understood not as a priciple of evil, but as a narrative character in the context of "the Combat Myth". Forsyth tells the Devil's story from the Epic of Gilgamesh through to the writings of St. Augustine.
  • The Devil : Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Meridian, New York 1977) is "a history of the personification of evil" which, to make things clear, he calls "the Devil". Accessible and engaging, full of photographs illustrating the text, this is the first of a four volume series on the history of the concept of the Devil. The following volumes are, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, Lucifer : The Devil in the Middle Ages, and Mephistopheles : The Devil in the Modern World .
  • The Devil in Legend and Literature, by Maximilian Rudwin (Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1931, 1959) is a compendium of "the secular and sacred adventures of Satan". Engaging, wide-ranging and good-humored (and out-of-print for thirty years), this "classic" was re-printed in 1989.

See also

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