I thought I’d tidy up a few loose ends left by the last two posts. One thing that has never seemed quite credible to me, in the Patristic expressions of the Ransom theory, is simply the suggestion that Satan was outwitted and blindsided by the death of Christ. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine all spoke of God deceiving Satan (justly, as the arch-deceiver), the latter even using the analogy of Jesus as bait in an animal trap (an image to which Gregory the Theologian objected).
But Satan was a bright guy: did he really have no inkling, up to the Passion, of what was going on? After all, the devil knows his Bible better than any of us, and in hindsight, at least, we may see how much OT prophecy relates to the effectual, and salvific, suffering of Messiah.
Well, I’m not sure I can completely answer that… or rather, I’m sure that I cannot, but I do think it may have been partly a case of the powers of evil seeing what was going on to subvert their purposes, and yet being powerless to stop it. To re-use an analogy from the first post in the series, remember Haman’s slow realisation that his plans to kill Mordecai were unravelling, to his own cost. And I also think that the particular form of Satan’s wickedness indeed made him blind to the greatest realities – and that is a great part of the power of the Cross’s instruction to the whole creation.
First, let’s consider again what were the purposes of Satan and his angelic allies. Popular preaching often pictures Satan as envious of God, and desirous of displacing him. But I’m not sure that’s at all realistic. Some humans may see themselves as, literally, challenging God’s rule – but that is only a result of delusional ignorance of who, and what, God is. Ten seconds in the ring with Muhammad Ali would rapidly have remedied any of our delusions that we were boxers – and the Bible suggests that Satan was part of the divine council that sees God face to face. He would know from the start that God is God, and that even angels are not. “Even the demons believe that God is One – and shudder!”
No, as I suggested last time, the object of Satan’s envy and malice was mankind, destined by God to be raised in status and power even above the angels. The prevention of that “indignity”, I think, motivated Satan’s actions in the garden and everything afterwards. This was, indeed, a rebellion against God’s will, but in the same way that Joab’s murder of Abner, against David’s orders, was a rebellion not to usurp the kingdom, but to serve the king under his own crooked terms.
The direct activity of the devil against Jesus in the NT mostly fits that pattern of seeking to derail his mission, rather than destroy his (divine) life. The temptations in the wilderness centred on getting him to follow the easy path to earthly power, rather than the chosen way of suffering. Jesus’s rebuke of Peter as “Satan” was the result of Peter’s attempt to turn him away from the Cross. And, if we accept a role for Satan as tempter in Gethsemane (which isn’t stated, but which may be implied by the garden setting), that temptation was to avoid the cup of suffering.
At the same time, of course, Satan entered Judas to betray Jesus. If it were a purely human story one would suspect that Satan lacked a coherent plan by this stage. Perhaps, as I’ve seen suggested, his failure to avoid the death of Jesus was replaced by an idea to make it as disgraceful, and so ineffective, as possible.
If there was a surprise for him, apart from the Resurrection (though the general resurrection of the righteous was a near-universal Jewish hope), it was the left-field matter of the Incarnation itself, as a plan that Scripture suggests to be a mystery hidden within the trinitarian Godhead itself since the creation, to which even the angels were not privy.
And maybe that is the point at which Satan’s own character made him blind. His vendetta against mankind was based on the unacceptability to him of the disruption of proper hierarchy by mankind’s “promotion”. From the role of God in relation to the divine council and its operations (whatever they are in the universe), he knew about status, power and responsibility – and must have known, as I have said, the infinity power and majesty of God at first hand.
Incidentally, that seems to cast doubt on those systems that form their entire theology of God from the Cross, even creation being God’s diminishing himself to make way for created things, and following that pattern in all his dealings with creatures by allowing them freedom at his expense – a God for whom suffering is a way of being. The majesty and reign of God clearly did not appear that way in the working experience of the angelic beings, of whom Satan was one of the foremost. And glory still surrounds God’s throne (see the visions of Revelation), and the risen Jesus (Phil 2:9-11).
And yet the selflessness of God is indeed the key to his nature – and that, without controversy, was exhibited by the generosity of the very act of creation from the highest guardian cherubim to the lowliest earthly creature. God did not have to give us being, but delighted to do so for our own sakes. Yet, for whatever reason, Satan remained strangely unaware of that, seeing in God’s desire to elevate Adam’s race not an opportunity for his own generous service of God, but rather a threat to his dignity and power.
With a blind spot like that, it is not hard to imagine that for God himself, as the Son, to step down not only into the lowly physical creation, but to dishonour and disgrace (Phil 2:5-11), would be seen by Satan as anything but what it was – the subversion of his own concept of power by the Author of Power himself. Perhaps Satan truly fails to realise that “loss of face” may demonstrate true power, not weakness. It’s rare even amongst humans, too, apart from those who have learned it from Christ.
And so there is a wonderfully apt response to the Genesis Eden narrative in the work of Christ, as the destruction not only of Satan’s malicious work against mankind, but the discrediting of all his supposed dignity and power by the demonstration to all creation, in Christ, of just what true dignity and power are.
“Handsome is as handsome does.”