The Devil Can’t Do That
Filed under: Bible Study, God's Sovereignty, Theology
Well, actually he can – he really does have that kind of power – but there are very good reasons to think he can’t use all that power at will.
The actions of “demons” are attributed to the “devil” in this post since demons follow his lead – making him master – and always act under his authority. Because demons only represent the devil’s agenda it isn’t wrong to say the devil is responsible for their actions.
The Devil’s Names
Unfortunately, while the Devil is not a mythological character – he is a very real person – there are many mythological ideas floating around about him. His many names contribute to the confusion:
- Serpent – stemming from the devil’s embodiment of a snake in the Garden of Eden. The word is associated with stealth and deceitfulness for obvious reasons.
- Beelzebub – literal meaning: “Lord of the flies” but was originally the name of the deity worshiped by the Philistines. In the NT the Pharisees used the name as a clear reference to the devil when they illogically accused Christ of using Beelzebub’s power to cast out demons. Christ’s response ratified their meaning while exposing their bad logic.
- Devil – from the Greek “diabolos” meaning slanderer or acccuser. As the devil, he is completely cynical. He views everyone the way he sees himself – only bad. Psychologically, slandering and accusing others makes him feel better about himself but it has no judicial value even when the accusations are true. He cannot condemn anyone.
- Satan – this name speaks of his adversarial nature. He obstructs and opposes those who faithfully serve God’s purposes. There are several instances of this in the Bible.
- Murderer – a moniker given by Jesus in John 8:44 indicating his malicious intent from the beginning. However, while murder is clearly his intent and he definitely has the power to murder anyone at will he is not allowed to do so.
- Liar and father of lies – another name given by Christ and the characterization is reflected in his many interactions with God and humanity starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden.
- Belial – meaning worthless. There are no direct references clearly identifying the devil as Belial. This term is used to refer to people who by their own choices have adopted the mindset of the devil and by that choice become the children or sons of Belial. But since the people so referenced are the worst kind – idolators, rapists, murderers – it isn’t a stretch to suggest Belial is in fact the devil.
Note: Every person is born with a sinful nature and therefore vulnerable to his influence but not every person who commits a terrible sin like murder becomes his child. Those who do commit such sins and regret it CAN still become God’s child. Those who, by personal choice, commit to murderous intent are the ones who become officially the devil’s child.
- Prince of this world – Jesus called him this three times in John (12:31, 14:30 & 16:11). Similarly Paul referred to him as the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2) and as the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
- Dragon – while “serpent” depicts the more quiet, subtle, apparently harmless expressions of Satan’s destructive nature “dragon” symbolizes the more fearful, powerful expressions of his ill will. This name is used only once (Revelations 12) and is associated more with his response to end time events than his everyday activities. As time runs out he becomes desperate and expresses himself in more violent ways.
- Apollyon – the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Abaddon” which literally means “place of destruction” otherwise known as “the abyss” or “bottomless pit.” As king of this pit Satan was awarded the name Apollyon (Revelation 9:1-11) thus associating the place and a person with destruction.
- Lucifer – of all the names this one is the most misunderstood. The Latin meaning, “light bearer,” and English rendering, “morning star,” speak of beauty and glory. The original meaning of the name characterized the state in which Satan was first created but with his reversal of character has taken on a sinister feel.
His original created state, described in Isaiah 14:12-14 and Ezekiel 28:12-18, depicts artistic ability (light, color and music), wisdom and strength. Although these passages are referring directly to the King of Babylon (Isaiah) and the King of Tyre (Ezekiel) there are clear indications that another personality is being defined.
Isaiah’s king fell from “heaven” and Ezekiel’s was in the Garden of Eden. Either the devil is being referenced or these human kings have supernatural powers. And since both these kings were quite evil – and were destroyed because of it – and the devil does have political influence it isn’t difficult to see him as the personality behind the personalities.
They aren’t all about supernatural power.
Yes, some of the names suggest powers that are well beyond the scope of human ability but taken in context those powers operate with limitations. No where is he ascribed the power to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to whomever he wants.
The Devil’s Abilities and Inabilities
- His intent is murder and although he has the power to kill he doesn’t have the liberty.
If you believe the devil has the power to kill – and most people do – then you have to ask, why are we still alive.
There is no question he wants us dead, particularly if we are Christian, so if he was allowed to use that power at will, we should all be dead. Since we aren’t, we have to believe God limits his murderous intent.
If someone suggests he uses this power strategically, killing only the ones who cause him the most trouble, then we should ask why Billy Graham ministered for so long and Mother Theresa. There are many other names we could add to the devil’s most wanted list who lived long and had very productive ministries.
Maybe he doesn’t murder people indiscriminately because God doesn’t allow him to.
Maybe he wants us to think he can to keep us fearful and hesitant.
- He can embody other life forms, e.g., the serpent. Demons are also attributed with the ability to embody humans and the devil will eventually embody the anti-christ.
But, this doesn’t suggest he can inhabit anyone at will. The serpent was judged for his part in the deception of Adam and Eve possibly suggesting he could have resisted but didn’t.
By the way, there is nothing in Scripture suggesting the devil or his demonic angels have the power to inhabit inanimate objects (trees, plants, cars, etc.) or cause them to levitate. These ideas come from SciFi not the Bible.
The devil doesn’t mind us thinking he can do these things but, nope, it isn’t in his range of abilities. He loves it when misinformation is passed around through folklore.
- As Beelzebub he can cast demons out but he can’t force them in.
In the one instance – dispossessing a demon – his power is unfettered. He’s the boss. The demon does what he is told.
In the other instance – possessing an animate being – he can only do what the animate being allows or is open to. In that case it takes two to tango. His power cannot override the will of a created being.
Which is to say, human will represents a limitation on what he can do. In fact, James 4:7 says if we resist the devil he will flee from us, suggesting not only his ability to influence our lives but also our ability to refuse that influence.
So, don’t worry about being possessed by a demon or the devil, all of a sudden, when you don’t expect it. He isn’t like Candid Camera. According to Scripture it cannot happen that way.
To see why possession is not the devil’s method of choice today go here.
- As the Devil he slanders and accuses us and we give him plenty of material to work with.
These two actions are very different.
He resorts to slander for obvious reasons. He is cynical and sees no good in any person. He can only assume the worst. That isn’t strange nor is it anything to fear and it makes good psychological sense. He views us the way he see himself.
He slandered Job before God and was proven wrong.
Just remember that his rumors are not predictive. Never believe his lies.
And, by the way, slander is a sign of weakness. Believing the best about others until they prove us wrong is a sign of emotional and mental strength. This is one instance where the devil is missing a few cogs in his psychological wheel.
But slander isn’t his only tool. He loves to accuse and we are often guilty.
He doesn’t just point to our sins he magnifies them. Paul referred to this approach as one of his “devices” (2 Cor. 2:10-11). The more he points the more guilty we feel but even here his power is limited. The church community can defuse the effect with understanding, forgiveness and acceptance of those who err.
This is what Jesus meant when he told Peter the devil wanted to sift him as wheat. After Peter denied Christ even the resurrection couldn’t neutralize his guilt. If anything it made it worse and it eventually became so bad he left the ministry and returned to his previous occupation – “I go a fishing.”
Jesus, of course, didn’t leave it at that. He met Peter and the other wayward disciples on the shore of Galilee and encouraged him out of his funk. The devil loves to keep us discouraged. Jesus loves to forgive.
The devil’s work here is not entirely supernatural. People do this to each other all the time.
- As Satan, he opposes God, God’s purposes and God’s people.
Sounds frightening but a close look settles the nerves.
Paul was hindered (opposed) by Satan not once but twice in going to the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:18) and in the second book to the Thessalonians Paul says the anti-Christ, who is empowered by Satan, is arrogant enough to oppose God (2 Thess. 2:3-4 & 8-9). In both cases the opposition was short lived.
As already mentioned, he can be resisted. But, interestingly enough, even though his opposition is mostly NOT absolute it also is not always completely bad. And in some cases his ability to oppose us is God’s tool.
God allowed Satan to inflict Paul with some kind of malady – probably an eye disease – which, according to Paul, kept him humble. Being the author of 14 books in the New Testament plus being a high profile personality would be more than enough to make anyone proud. Paul’s malady, inflicted by Satan, kept success from going to his head. In this case, Satan’s ability to inflict physical injury served God’s will.
That suggests, of course, that opposing Satan in some cases is tantamount to opposing God.
Examples Of The Devil’s Failed Efforts
While this type of meanness does strike fear in most people we mustn’t let our anxiety imagine powers or liberties he does not have. He doesn’t always succeed and, in fact, has failed on many occasions:
- He slandered Job and was instrumental in testing his loyalty but couldn’t force Job to disavow his belief in God or God’s goodness. In fact, this situation demonstrates his inability to freely use his power to hurt anyone. He needed God’s permission before he could touch Job.
- His attempt to obstruct Gabriel, the angelic messenger to Daniel, was thwarted by the intervention of Michael the archangel (Daniel 10:12-13) suggesting that his power is equaled by created beings who are on our side.
- He fought with Michael the archangel over the body of Moses but failed in the attempt (Jude 1:9), again showing limitations on the use of his power.
- Attempting to discourage the rebuilding of the Temple under Zechariah, Satan accused the high priest of being unworthy, and rightly so, but God’s grace overcame the accusation (Zechariah 3:1-4).
- He tempted Christ but couldn’t force Him into a wrong response.
- He roars like a lion – symbolizing his ability to frighten or confuse – but the damage incurred is determined by our response not his.
Examples Of The Devi’s Successes
- He led a large number of angels – some think as many as a third – to rebel against God who are now his demon support system. The demons are culpable because they willingly followed. They had a choice showing that even over angels Satan’s power is limited.
- He effectively deceived Adam and Eve but even here he employed no force.
- He incited David to take a census of the army in Israel (1 Chron. 21:1) but this was possible only because David and the people were in a state of spiritual neglect.
His Tools Are
- Temptation, indicating his inability to “make us do it.”
- Misinformation including deceptive logic, false accusations, misrepresentations of the fact, outright lies and the like.
- Opposition through discouragement, guilt, circumstance, etc.
So What Can The Devil Really Do
The bottom line is the devil is a very powerful being who is not allowed to use his power freely. Although he harbors only ill will against us, there are only two times he can actually do damage.
- When God allows.
- Or when we allow.
Remember that the Devil:
- Is not everywhere at once – omnipresent.
- Does not command all knowledge – omniscient.
- Does not possess all power – omnipotent.
He is a created being and is limited by the powers given to him at creation by the Creator.
How Many Demons Are There Anyway
Demons don’t procreate and since they are eternal they don’t cease to exist. Their numbers don’t increase or decrease. So the real question is how many are free to inhabit the realm of humanity?
Peter said some of these spirits (demons) are in prison (1 Peter 3:19) and Jude said those in prison are the ones who left their first estate or habitation (Jude 1:6). That would at least include any demon who possessed a human.
That means all the demons cast out by Jesus during His ministry are now in prison and not lurking in the dark corners of human existence. We can’t say how many there are but we can believe the number of active demons is reduced.
What Can We Do
For our part we are called to be:
- Watchful not flippant (Luke 21:8)
- Knowledgeable not ignorant (Romans 12:2)
- Cautious not careless (Matthew 16:6)
- Believing not fearful (Luke 8:50)
- Enduring not frail (2 Timothy 2:3)
- And always drawing on the grace, power and forgiveness of God.
Never discount the devil but don’t give him more credit than God would allow. Focus on the right things and the right way not the devil.
In The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis creates a fictionalized story of demons teaching demons how to be better demons, illustrating the fact that demons learn and use different strategies to match the times. Their purpose never changes their methods often do.
Heaven Is For Real is a bio of a “near death” experience (NDE) but without all the “weird” and “sketchy” images that usually accompany such stories.
It doesn’t focus on “long tunnels with lights at the end” or the sensation of watching medical personnel feverishly operate from a hovering out-of-body perspective. The details aren’t blurred and unanswered questions don’t abound. It is a matter of fact story shared from the perspective of an almost four-year-old child who had no preconceived ideas beforehand and explains everything casually. To him it wasn’t strange.