In our generation it is easy to caricature the devil into non-existence. Some preachers react by making him into the source of every evil. They see him lurking under every bed. And a previous generation of male chauvinists managed to prove he was incarnate in every woman who was not properly submissive. It is not long ago that hundreds of them were burnt as witches.
Satan and the powers of evil cannot be excised from the Bible. The devil appears in the third chapter, he accuses Job, tempts Jesus, bothers Paul, and is still doing his worst in the Book of Revelation. On the one hand he has no substance, on the other he is very personal.
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep" (Genesis 1:1,2). So in one sense we can picture evil as formless, empty, nothingness. It has no reality of its own in the sense that darkness is merely the absence of light.
But the word 'merely' is deceptive. Creativity brings beauty and order into being, vandalism is a reversion to disorder. Falsehood and lies have no meaning except as the denial of a previously existing truth. Enslavement can only exist in relation to freedom. Evil is nothing but the refusal of love and compassion. But disorder, falsehood, lies, enslavement , and moral evil are terribly real and impinge on us to destroy all that is good in our lives.
How then does the nothingness of evil become personal and satanic? We can only define evil in relation to humans who are tempted, enslaved, deprived of dignity, unjustly accused, oppressed, abused, or denied love and compassion. We cannot think of evil in impersonal terms. Temptation is a voice suggesting another course of action, as when Jesus was tempted. Enslavement needs humans to do the enslaving. You can only be deprived of dignity by one or more persons. Unjust accusation needs an accusing voice. Oppression needs an oppressor, and being abused an abuser. It is only a personal being who can deny love and compassion.
Walter Wink has shown how the oppressive powers of a city or organization or institution can take on personality (Walter Wink,Naming the Powers, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). This is why the city of Babylon was addressed in very personal terms as Lucifer. "How are you fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How are you cut down to the ground who laid the nations low!" (Isaiah 14:12). Similar imagery was used by other Old Testament writers to address nations in very personal terms (e.g. the toppling of the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:11-19).
In the Book of Revelation Isaiah's personalization of the oppressive power of Babylon was used to apply to the city of Rome (Revelation 18). In our own day Communist Russia was personalized by Stalin, the Nazi regime was personalized in Hitler, and the media personalized Iraq's militarism in Saddam Hussein. Evidently humans find it easy to assign personality to powers that they consider unjust or oppressive. That is why the names we give to the source of evil are bestial, dragonish, snake-like. "The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Revelation 12:9).
In the absence of the love of God the forces of evil quickly take on a destructive personality. In the New Testament the metaphors for Satan picture him as the enemy (Matthew 13:39, Luke 10:19), the murderer, the liar, the ruler of this world (John 8:44, 12:31, 14:30), the one who blinds people's eyes (2 Corinthians 4:4). He is even served by "false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of the Messiah" (2 Corinthians 11:14). He is "the ruler of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2). And in doing all that the evil forces behind our world are both personal and inhuman.
The biggest lie is that death is the end and therefore it must be feared. Jesus came and died "that through death he might destroy (literally 'make powerless') the one who has the power of death, that is the devil" (Hebrew 2:14-15).
Equally dangerous is the lie that suggests we are powerless in the face of evil. Paul says we have all the armor we need. "Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able withstand on that evil day, and having done everything to stand firm" (Ephesians 6:11-13). When our integrity is challenged, we have the belt of truth. Our heart is protected by the breastplate of the righteousness that God give us. When we are afraid of rough places, we have the tough boots that are needed to give us confidence.. When the enemy wants to make us doubt, we have the shield of faith. Our head is protected by a helmet with the insignia of our regiment. And there is a powerful sword to put the forces of evil to flight (Ephesians 6:14-17, see Romans 16:20, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8,9, Revelation 12:11).
Such texts are not an encouragement to view every trifling temptation
as Satanic, to look for the devil under every bed, least of all to burn
witches. The enemy is the massive power of the world around that denies
the love of God. It fills us with guilt, blinds us so that we do not know
where to turn, makes us despair of the work of liberation that God is engaged
in. Anyone who engages in the Messiah's battle of love will know that Satan
is a personal reality. But we are not alone in the battle, and we have
all the resources we need to defeat the inhuman forces of evil.