What are the Evil and the “devil” in the New Testament?
By Jonathan Mitchell
Other of my writings have gone into more depth on the topics addressed by this question, so the following will be a short look at just a few NT verses to propose a different reading from how they are traditionally understood.
In the prayer that Jesus modeled for His disciples, He said,
“rescue us (drag us out of danger) away from the bad situation (the wicked person; the miserable condition; the painful labor; the unprofitable endeavor; the malicious man)” (Mat. 6:13b, JMNT).
Now the ESV renders this, “deliver us from evil.” That is a more traditional rendering, but note that the term “evil” is rather generalized. The NRSV renders the final phrase, “rescue us from the evil one.” As seen in my rendering, above, this could refer to “the wicked person,” or, “the malicious man.” But the doctrinal understanding of “the evil one” has traditionally been personified to being understood as referring to “the Devil,” to the point that The Message paraphrase renders this phrase,
“keep us safe [note: the idea of a “rescue away from” is lost in this rendering] from ourselves and the Devil.”
The term “Devil” is not in the Greek text! This is a theological interpretation. But consider the semantic range on offer in my translation: bad situation; miserable condition; painful labor; unprofitable endeavor; malicious man; wicked person. There is nothing that is necessarily pointing to some sort of “spirit being” that is inherent in the Greek word “poneros,” which is the Greek word in question here.
Now consider the context just before this proposed request, in vss. 11-12, and vs. 14 which follows it: they are all about things in this life – normal, everyday things that can affect each one of us. The “devil” (and I purposely do not capitalize the word) need not be imported into Jesus’ words. The “evil” in the NT is the result of human thoughts and actions. Jesus used this same word in Jn. 17:15,
“I am not now making a request to the end that You should pick them up and carry (or: remove; take) them out of the System (world system; ordered arrangement of culture, religion and government; secular society), but rather that You should observe, guard, protect, maintain, care for and keep them out of the worthless or bad situation, the sorry plight, the effect of the knavish and good-for-nothing person, the oppressive toil and the base or evil influence.”
Note the context: “the System,” or, “the world.” Here I gave a more expanded offering of the semantic range of poneros.
We find the word diabolos (commonly rendered “Devil”) in Eph. 4:27, but let us consider a rendering of the word that does not necessarily personify it:
“neither be folks constantly supplying nor repeatedly giving a place or position (or: so don’t go on allowing opportunity, a chance, or a room in which to expand) for (or: to; in) the person who thrusts things through [folks or situations] (or: the slanderer; the adversary; the accuser; the devil; or: that which casts [harm or division] through the midst of folks).”
Diabolos is a contraction of the preposition dia (through; through the midst of) and bolos (which is from the verb that means “to cast; to throw or to thrust”). The verb “diaballo” has the basic meaning of “to cast, thrust or throw [something] through [something else].” So the noun does not need to be personified as some “spirit being” in these texts. This verse in Eph. would easily be read in applications to normal life experiences. We have all been exposed to “back-stabbers.” Consider Jer. 9:8,
“Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully…”
Slander can pierce a heart of another, or cause division when it is thrust through the midst of a group.
Consider the question raised by Jacob (aka James):
“From what situation (place; source) [arise] battles (or: wars; situations of combat) and fights (quarrels; strife; controversies) among you folks? Are they not from this source (or: place): from out of your sensual pleasures (enjoyments and gratifications) [which are] themselves continually performing as soldiers within (centered in and in union with) your members?” (Jas. 4:1)
And then, what he said in Jas. 4:5,
“The breath-effect (or: spirit; attitude) which housed-down in us normally sets its desire (longing; affection; yearning) upon [something], [with a view] toward ill-will, malice, envy and jealousy!”
But we want to blame something else, like some “fallen spirit-being,” when it is really just something negative within us.
In 1 Tim. 3:11, we read the admonition:
“Women (or: Wives) [of the community], similarly, [should be] serious (dignified with majestic gravity, inspiring awe), not devils (or: adversaries; women who thrust things through folks), sober (unintoxicated; clear-headed; moderate in habits), full of faith and trust (or: faithful; trustworthy; loyal) in all things.”
For instructional purposes, regarding the erroneous doctrine about “the devil,” I offered the plural of the noun diabolos as “devils,” here, hoping that the reader would see that this word is applied to humans, and it applies to everyday situations. We see it used, again, in Tit. 2:3,
“Old (or: Aged; Older) women, similarly (or: likewise), [are to be] women in a state and resultant condition proper and fitting for being engaged in the sacred (suitable in demeanor for serving the temple; or: = living a life appropriate [for] a person [being] a temple), not folks who thrust-through or hurl [a weapon, or something hurtful] through [someone] (or: not DEVILS nor slanderous adversaries which bring division and hurt), nor women having been enslaved by (or: to) much wine.”
Criticism, judging others, and gossip are probably in view, in this letter to Titus.
So what about 1 Jn. 3:8?
“Yet the person habitually practicing (repeatedly doing; progressively producing) the error (the failure to hit the target or accomplish his purpose; or: the sin; the mistake; the deviation) is existing from out of the adversary who thrusts something through the midst, [with a weapon, or with ill-intent], creating a wound or division (or: = is [operating] from [the influence of] the “devil”), because this adversary is habitually sinning (or: repeatedly missing the target; continuously falling short of the goal; constantly deviating from his purpose) from [the] beginning (or: from [its] origin). Into this [situation] was (or: is) God’s Son manifested and made visible, to the end that He would unbind (loose; untie; destroy; disintegrate) the works and actions of the adversary who casts things through the midst of folks.”
“John continues his theme, now associating this negative activity with someone – or a spirit, or an attitude – that thrusts something through the midst of the group (or, an individual) and causes wounding and division…. To understand this, let us look at the end of Israel’s history: the eschatological time of Jesus and the first century called-out which led up to the end in AD 70. This was when ‘God’s Son’ was ‘manifested and made visible.’ It was the work of the cross that unbound the heavy burdens of religion that had been put on the people by the scribes and Pharisees (Mat. 23:4). It was the power of the resurrected life of Christ that set humanity free from the yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1) from the strength of sin (the Law) – 1 Cor. 15:56. It was the Jewish leadership whose conduct made them to be described by Jesus as characterized as those ‘who cast things through the midst of folks’ in John 8:44,
‘You folks, in particular, are (exist and have your being) from out of, and have your source in, the ancestor who cast [an object] through [someone] (or: the father, the devil; or: the devil father; or: the father – the one thrusting [words or issues] through [folks/groups] and dividing them), and you are habitually wanting (willing; intending; purposing) to be constantly doing your father’s passionate cravings (full-rushing over-desires).’
It was their religious works that Jesus loosed away and destroyed via His cross, and His coming in judgment on Jerusalem – as he predicted. But He also disintegrated the work of deception that is described in the Eden story of Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (foreshadow of the Law) which brought death to humanity (Rom. 5:12). So John is accessing the stories of both Israel and humanity in making his points regarding the false teachers.” (Comments on 1 John, in “John, Judah, Paul and ?”)
Another verse that should be considered within the context of everyday life is 1 Pet. 5:8:
“Be sober (or: clear headed)! Be awake, alert and watch! Your barrier in the Way pointed out (your road hazard; your opponent at court; the one “in your face” opposing your fairness and equity), one who casts or thrusts something through the midst of folks (e.g., like a soldier casting a javelin or thrusting a sword through someone, or a person throwing an issue through the midst of a group, causing division; or: a slanderer), as a constantly roaring lion, is continuously walking about, incessantly seeking to drink something or someone down (or: searching to gulp and swallow [someone] down),
[comment: this path-hazard and road barrier may have been local religions, cultural or political opposition, or a spirit of contrariness, within people]
“This verse should not be taken out of it context and made to be a description of the works of ‘the devil,’ as has been the tradition. It flows out of vs. 6-7, describing the situation in which ‘God’s strong hand’ will humble us. Jacob/James 4:10 tell us,
‘You must be made low (humbled; demoted) in the Lord’s sight (= in [Yahweh’s, or Christ’s] presence), and then He will lift you up (elevate you).’
We see God’s strong hand in Ex. 3:20 where Yahweh ‘put forth [His] hand’ to smite Egypt. The ‘rod of God’ (Moses’ staff) brought victory to Israel in Ex. 17:9-12, but it had become a snake in Ex. 7:10-12, and brought plagues on Egypt in vs. 19-20. In ch. 10:3, Yahweh says to Pharaoh through Moses,
‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?’
“Recall the story of Job, and how in ch. 40 and 42 he responded humbly to Yahweh. In ch. 2:10 he said,
‘Indeed, should we receive good from the One, Elohim, and should we not receive evil? In all this Job did not sin (err, miss the target) with his lips’ (Concordant Version; my expansion).
This last statement says that Job was right, that we should receive evil from God. But we see in the first two chapters that God used an adversary (the Sabeans; the Chaldeans), or adversarial situations (lightning; a great wind) and personal affliction (boils) – and Job was humbled. But later, Yahweh raised him up, as we see in ch. 42.
“In Hos. 5:14-15 (LXX) we see Yahweh describing Himself:
‘Because of this, I Myself am like (or: exist being as) a panther to (or: for; in) Ephraim, and like a lion to (or: for; in) the house of Judah: thus I Myself will tear, and then journey on; I will take (grasp in [My] hand; seize), and there will be no one to be rescuing and dragging [folks] out of [My grasp]. I will journey on and return into My place until they will be caused to disappear, and then they will search for My face, and seek My presence.’
“Now in vs. 9, below, he tells us that ‘these same experiences and suffering,’ which they had observed as having come upon others in the brotherhood, were
‘to repeatedly and progressively bring the goal’
that God had in mind, and in vs. 10-11 he says that it is God and His strength that will do this. These experiences are the same things that he spoke of in chapters. 1:6 and 4:12-14. Paul, in 2 Thes. 1:4-5 speaks of,
‘… all your pursuits (or: chasings; or: persecutions; harassments) and the pressures (squeezings; constrictions; contractions; tribulations; oppressions; ordeals) which you habitually have again (or: sustain hold up). [This is] a display-effect (result of pointing-out; demonstration) of God’s fair and equitable (just; righteous; in accord with the Way pointed out) decision (separation for making a distinction and an evaluation or a judging), unto your being accounted worthy (of equal value) of God’s kingdom (or: the sovereign reign which is God), over (or: on behalf of) which you are also constantly having sensible experiences (or: normally feeling emotions; or: repeatedly suffering).’
“This being the case, they were nonetheless admonished to
‘Be sober (or: clear headed)! Be awake, alert and watch!’
As the Messiah was delivered to the Romans
‘by the specific, determined, bounded (limited) plan (intended purpose, design and counsel) and foreknowledge (intimate knowledge which was experienced beforehand) of God’ (Acts 2:23),
so were they delivered into these tests and trials. As Jesus told His disciples to ‘watch’ and ‘pray’ in Gethsemane, so Peter advises these folks, and us. Paul in Eph. 6:10-18 told them to put on God’s armor and to take a stand.
“Dr. Ann Nyland (The Source NT, Smith and Stirling Publishing, 2004) points out that the Greek diabolos means “slanderer,” and thus translates in a similar way the idea expressed by my expansion ‘opponent at court,’ seeing this as a legal metaphor. What I rendered ‘Your barrier in the Way pointed out (your road hazard; your opponent at court; the one “in your face” opposing your fairness and equity)’ she sees as a figure of a lawyer in a court of law, and a legal suit. The entire clause refers to opposition against the called-out community. There are folks or forces that are trying to thrust slander, legal suits, or whatever, to defame and discredit the community of faith, and as Saul did against the early church, these folks are operating as a roaring lion, wanting to devour this move of God. We face similar oppositions in our day, and history is replete with examples. Also see 2 Tim. 4:17c” (from the commentary: Peter, Paul & Jacob).
Next, let us consider Heb. 2:14-15 where the diabolos is described as being “the one having/holding the strength of, or from, death”:
“14. Since, then, the young children have participated in and commonly shared existence of blood and flesh (= humanity), He also, nearly alongside [them], shared theirs in common (partook of the [ingredients] which comprise them), in order that through means of death He might render useless (or: deactivate; idle-down; discard) the one normally having the strength (or: the person presently holding the force) of death (or: which is death; or: whose source is death), that is, the adversary (or: that which throws folks into dualism with divided thinking and perceptions; or: the one that throws something through the midst and casts division; the one who thrusts things through folks; the slanderer who accuses and deceives; or, commonly called: the “devil”),
15. and would set them free (or: could fully change and transform these; or: should move them away to another [situation; existence]): as many as were through all of life held within slavery by fear of death (or: in fear, from death: or: with fear, which is death)!”
Let us unpack these verses. The reason and purpose for this is stated in the last half of vs. 14, and in vs. 15. The Son became human so that He could die. His death as, and in union with, the first Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and His burial of the first Adam/humanity (Rom. 6:3-8) accomplished two things:
“1) ‘the one normally having the strength (or: the person presently holding the force) of death (or: which is death; or: whose source is death), that is, the adversary’ was ‘rendered useless.’ It was not destroyed, but it just went out of service because of having become useless. The parenthetical expansion indicates that this verb could also be rendered ‘deactivate; idle-down; discard.’ What was it that was deactivated, discarded and rendered useless through the coming of the Messiah? What was it that had ‘the strength’ of death? Again we get insight into this enigmatic statement from Paul, in 1 Cor. 15:
56. Now the sharp point and stinger of (or: the sting, thus, the injection from) the Death [is] the Sin (the mistake; the error; the failure), and the power and ability of the Sin [is] the Law.
“So we see here that ‘the person presently holding the force whose source is death’ is Moses, or the person that uses the Law. These who represented and used the Law were now ‘rendered useless, deactivated, idled-down and discarded.’ This meant that the old covenant, the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the purity codes, etc., were all rendered useless. Again, recall Paul in Rom. 7:
5. For when we [= Adam/Israel] were existing within the flesh (or: = in the old alienated Adamic existence, with the flesh sacrifices and markers of the Law), the effects, impressions, emotions and impulses from the experiences, passions and suffering of the failures (the sins; the deviations which caused misses of the target) – the things through means of the Law [the Torah] – were continually operating (working within; energizing and effecting) within our members into the condition to produce fruit by Death (in death; to death; for Death).
6. But now (at the present time), we [= Israel] are (or: were instantly) rendered inactive (brought down to living without labor, released from employment, made unproductive; discharged) away from the Law (= the Torah; [some MSS add: of Death]), dying within that in which we were constantly being held down (held in possession and detained), so that it is [for] us to be habitually performing as slaves within newness of spirit (a newness pertaining to spirit and has its source in the Breath-effect; freshness and new quality of attitude) and not in oldness (obsoleteness; outdatedness) of letter (or: not in outwornness of what is written).
“Notice what God was going to do to this ‘one’ through the death of Christ: ‘might render useless (or: deactivate; idle-down; discard).’ It had been of use, in its time, age and arrangement, but now no longer. The Law has been rendered useless and is deactivated and discarded. It had brought ‘fear of death’ (15) and ‘held [them] within slavery’ (cf Galatians, on the topic of slavery) and thus was an adversary to folks who were powerless to keep it….
“2) ‘and would set them free (or: could fully change and transform these; or: should move them away to another [situation; existence]): as many as were through all of life held within slavery by fear of death (or: in fear, from death: or: with fear, which is death)!’ By means of His death we can now shout with the prophet, ‘Where, O Death, [is] your victory (or: overcoming)? Where, O Death, [is] your stinger (sharp point; sting; goad; spur)?’ [Hos. 13:14; 1 Cor. 15:55]
Or, as Paul said in Gal. 5:1,
‘For this freedom, Christ immediately set us free (or: [The] Anointed One at once frees us in, to, for and with freedom)!'” (Comments on Hebrews, in John, Judah, Paul & ?).
It was not “the devil” of common theology that had “the strength of death,” it was the Law. Paul instructed us, in Rom. 7:8b-9,
“for apart from Law (or: a custom; or: [Torah]) sin (error; failure; missing the target; deviation) [is] dead (or: [was] lifeless). Now I was at one time (or: formerly) habitually living apart from Law (or: I was once alive, independent from custom and [Torah]); yet, in connection with the coming of the implanted goal (of the inward commandment and directive), the Sin becomes alive again (or: deviation, failure, error and the missing of the target revived and comes back to life), but I die (or: and I died; yet I die).”
The word “rescue, drag out of danger” that Jesus used in Mat. 6:13 is used by Paul referring to the work of Christ in Col. 1:12,
“He who drags us out of danger (or: rescued us) forth from out of the midst of the authority of the Darkness (from Darkness’s jurisdiction and right; from existing out of gloomy shadows and obscure dimness; = the privilege of ignorance), and changes [our] position (or: transported [us], thus, giving [us] a change of standing, and transferred [us]) into the midst of the kingdom and reign of the Son of His love.”
Now “authority of the Darkness” has traditionally been assumed to be speaking about “satan” or “the devil.” However, I suggest that it was simply the authority of the Law, along with Judaism (the shadows into which the Light shone, in Jn. 1:5) – for the Jews, or, the ignorance of paganism, for the Gentiles. Furthermore, the “the governments and the authorities (or: the ruling folks or people of primacy, and the privileged folks)” spoken of in Col. 2:15a were simply the Jewish leadership, Herod’s kingdom and the Roman Empire.
To keep this study short, let me end with Jas. 4:7, where we again find the word that describes folks who thrust things through another person or group:
“Consequently, you must be subjected by (or: be at once placed and arranged under in; be humbly aligned with and to) God. So stand in opposition to the [or: your] adversary (or: take a stand [as in battle] against the person trying to thrust you through [with a weapon, or a word] or cause division), and he or she will progressively flee (take flight) away from you.”
Thus, when you read the words “evil,” or, “the evil one,” or, “Devil,” in the common translations, consider the semantic range of those words, and the contexts of their uses, before assuming that they refer to a mythical being, or to “fallen angel” of Zoroastrian-influenced, non-biblical theology. Recall again the prologue of the book of Job, and “satan’s” subservient role there, as well as the human and environmental agents that came to be Job’s adversaries in those first two chapters, and that Job never attributed to satan (the adversary; or: the adversity) anything that happened: He saw the source of his woes as being God. Also keep in mind that the opening chapters of Genesis, and the book of Revelation, are often understood symbolically – by many of both the past and the present. It is all about life here on earth, and the negativity that we encounter. We, as humans, are the source of the evil and we often become devils – folks who thrust pain and injury through people and communities.