Evolution of Satan and Hell

The Evolution of Satan


Brent Walters, Prof Religious Studies, San Jose State University

Satan as a character developed in the West over several centuries, and this is reflected in the numerous names used to describe him in the ancient Near East. He first emerged in the biblical text in the opening chapters of the Book of Job as a subordinate of God, an agent and prosecutor in the celestial court. Nowhere in Hebrew scripture, however, is he an opponent of the Lord, nor does he represent a rival kingdom of evil. In fact, he first assumed the function of supernatural adversary during the post-exilic age after a major shift in theological perception that was likely due to Persian influence. The outcome was an inclination toward dualism that did not exist previously in Judaism, since in its monotheistic system the Lord was responsible for all forms of supernatural manifestation.

This new perception was the result of a literary movement called apoc­alypticism; it was a unique worldview that gained prominence during the early Hellenistic age. Its drew from old prophetic images, especially visions used to describe the celestial domain. Principal among its features were a dualistic struggle between light and darkness, rivalry between Satan and Messiah, activity of angels and demons, belief in resurrection, and restoration of the world. Apocalypticism was a way of coping with reality by providing a meaningful framework to interpret events that redefined national identity. The Jewish form maintained a strict dualism that distinguished between this world and the one to come. However, it was not comprised of a single social movement or strand of theology.

It was during this time that Satan was read into the biblical text, such as the serpent in Eden and the cause for the deluge. Gradually, all evil was attributed to his realm of influence as the enemy of creation. Meanwhile, theories of his origin included his former status as an archangel who was hurled out of heaven and cast to earth, even though no such concept is preserved in scripture. While such notions were popular in Hellenistic Judaism, the Pharisees retained the view that evil was primarily the consequence of human choice. Nonetheless, the sages and rabbis developed a complex demonology to explain their paradigm of the created world. Anticipation of Messiah was high during this period and deliverance from the domain of evil became a preoccupation.

New Testament references to Satan are personalized; he is the spirit of evil and the enemy of the church. The principal task of Jesus was to destroy his kingdom and thus loosen the authority of his subordinates. In Paul’s letters, the devil is the apocalyptic ruler of this age, while Satan and Christ are mutually opposed in the writings of John, since attachment to the world enslaves humanity. In essence, Messiah came to conquer the present world order. The devil’s dominion is described as belligerent toward the kingdom of God in post-apostolic writings. In fact, heresy and paganism were said to originate with him as an attempt to divert believers from the truth. Martyrs waged the most intense war with the servants of this rival kingdom, one that retains authority until Christ.


Origins of Contemporary Christian Doctrine on Hell

(From notes on Brent Walter’s God Talk program aired on KGO radio).

Hades, Ghenna, and purgatory … each leads us to tow moral questions,

  1. Is Hell a moral concept?
  2. Is it possible for a loving and just God to punish for eternity the sins committed in a short human lifetime?

Hades – an Ancient Greek concept of a place located in the shady bowls of Earth but which carried not special …..  The definitions of Hades were by no means consistent.  It became know as the underworld …. i.e. the opposite of the open, visible, sunlit world of the living.  It referred to the place of the dead but not necessarily a place of torment for the wicked.  It was a place where the dead led a shadowy existence … a nether world so to speak.

The Ruler was Hades (corresponds to the Roman god Pluto) a personification of the underworld.  The deceased entered the underworld crossing the River Akrion but only if they had a small coin placed under their tongue (to pay passage to the boatman).  Paupers and the friendless gathered instead on a near shore.

The underworld was described as possessing various levels.  The ruler dubbed the Unseen was the son of Titan’s Kronos Andrea. The soles of the dead dwelt in Hades without knowledge of their former lives.  Without memory, there is no reason initially to hreward or punish the dead.  About the time of Plato, reward and punishment became associated with Hades.  Standardized rules and expectations of behavior for the living aand this carried over into western society.

NOTE:  “Hell” is not in the Bible it is a British term.  Gehenna, Sheol, and Hades are all mentioned in the Bible … the first two are Jewish words and the last is a Greek word.  Jesus never mentions Hell or suggest that one who doesn’t follow his teachings will suffer eternal punishment.  Here’s an example.  Jesus wouldn’t say  obey the speed limit because a policeman might catch you speeding it you don’t.  He says drive as if the policeman was in the car with you.  In other words, live the word don’t obey it out of fear.  In fact the Gospel of ……, Jesus turns to a common criminal at his side as says, “on this day you shall join me in paradise”  (Check out what the criminal said … did he profess Jesus to be the savior???)

Original Sin vs Committed Sins:

The early church did not believe that humans were basically evil.  They believed that humans responded to their environment, to their culture could be misled but they were not intrinsically evil.  Judaism had no Original Sin nor did early Christianity.  The notion of Original Sin, i.e. that humans are basically evil and condemned to Hell without some sort of conversion experience, first emerges in the writings of Augustine some 400 years after the death of Jesus.  The modern concept of Hell also started with Augustine.  Jesus never taught either of these beliefs.  In fact the Bible has numerous references describing the purity of a new born baby and declaring that a child who dies in infancy will go straight to God.

Augustine’s writings came at a time when the early church was rolling its own authority and wanted to control the future destiny of all believers.  In other words,  fear of Hell becomes an instrument that the Church uses to assert control over its dominion of believers.

Brent poses this logical conundrum.  If Hell is a place of eternal punishment, how is that punishment exacted.  The body dies, the soul lives for eternity … if there is no flesh, what is being tormented?

Matt 25:46 what does it mean?  All of the references Jesus makes to “punishment” are contained in parables.  The purpose of a parable is to take in the culture and draw conclusions from it.  It is not meant to be doctrine.  The kingdom of God was about God’s rule over individuals  i.e. you belong to the Kingdom or you don’t.  Jesus taught there are two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan; you belong to one of the two.

Jesus is speaking to the issue where you find people not taking in the needy, caring for others ..so Jesus says that these are not entitled to in the Kingdom.


In early Rabbinical literature described Sheol as the place of the dead.  In Hellenistic Judaism,  Hades replaced Sheol in the Septuagint with a translation of the OT, as the dark, depressing, place of death.  It is from this history that it also passed into Christianity.  Overtime, subsequent generations of Christians embraced expanded views of Hades depending on the particular theological argument they were making such as the immortality of the soul or as a place of purgatory, for the dead.  But these generations of Christians and Jews had but one ruler God … there was no devil, no evil one who competed with God for man’s soul.  God rules everything.  In fact, God appointed angels to bless or punish those waiting for final judgment.  The only time in Judaism that there was punishment was in perdition not Hell i.e. in a place called Purgatory.  This was not a Christian concept; it was exclusively a Jewish concept.

Over time, as language and culture develops, so does the religious view of the nature of Hades and the ideas of punishment and eternality of a souls sentence in Hell.  These later concepts do not proceed from the Bible but from this Hellenist literature the chief of which is the Book of Enoch.  Here he introduced satan, demons, witches, arch angels and other evil entities who played roles in an apocalyptic battle with God.  Hades eventually contained two distinct compartments, one of woe and one of paradise.

In 3rd Century BCE, Pharisaic doctrine about the return of the pious dead was modified where, after Hades, these souls had a place to go where they would await the resurrection.  But in Judaism, the resurrection was spiritual not physical.  Jews revisited this issue and developed ideas that both the souls of the good and the bad are and will be judged and sent to different places before the final judgment:  one a place of woe and the other a place of blessedness.   These two compartments are what Jesus refers to in Matthew 25.  Purgatory was deemed to be the place were the souls of those who were sinful were sent.  It was a purging of bad thinking not eternal physical punishment.  Purgatory was not a place of punishment nor did a soul reside there for eternity.  All souls eventually ascended to the same part of Hades inhabited by the souls of the pious.

God has sovereignty over the dead and these places were where God would protect the souls until the final judgment and for resurrection but for Jews, the resurrection was not a physical experience, it was a spiritual experience.  At the end of time, Hades would be sealed so it could no longer host any souls.

Did Jesus introduce anything new to this underworld place where souls were held between death and the final judgment?  He did not teach “turn or burn” he taught eternal life and the kingdom of God.   The parable of the Tares was about casting the bad thinking into the fire.  It was not about casting souls into the fire.  The tares were metaphoric symbols of bad thinking … i.e. weeds in the garden.  There are no fiery flames of Hell in the New Testament.

In Greek, ionis does not mean eternal; it means an unspecified period of time like an eon.  There is no concept that dead souls in Hades would be there for ever but rather that they would be there until the final judgment an unknown date sometime in the future.

Fifteen “Hard Sayings” on Hell

A fair amount of controversy stirred as a result of last week’s topic; some listeners called me heretical or evil, while others condemned my soul to eternal damnation. I can think of few issues as theologically charged as “hell” because so many people feel hopeless when they face the same sort of assaults. The self-righteous were confident of their position at the time of Jesus as well, and for this reason we extend our previous discussion and look at the fifteen most difficult statements in the Gospel of Matthew involving: gehenna, hell, hades, fire, eternal fire, eternal life, eternal punishment, and gnashing of teeth.

Five “hard” sayings are discussed each hour, and they are arranged according to overall theme. The first deals with matters concerning religious leaders, both Jewish and Christian, and they primarily involve the fires of purgation. The second hour covers some of the most popular phrases used to describe hell, including fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. The final five address the principal issues of eternal life and eternal punishment, and all fifteen passages are listed below.

6:00: Religious Leaders (Jewish and Christian)

  • Calling a Brother “Fool” is Liable to Fires of Gehenna  (Matthew 5.21-22
  • Woe to Pharisees Expecting to Escape Fire of Gehenna  (Matthew 23.27-33
  • Parable of the Servant Supervisor and his Punishment  (Matthew 24.45-51)
  • Pharisaic Teaching Results in Twice as much Gehenna  (Matthew 23.15)
  • Some Cities of Galilee Lowered to Hades in Judgment  (Matthew 11.20-24)

7:00: Fire, Weeping, and the Gnashing of Teeth

  • Warning against False Prophets for Fire Awaits Them  (Matthew 7.15-23)
  • Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds and Furnace Fire  (Matthew 13.24-43)
  • Parable of the Fishnet—Separating Evil and Righteous  (Matthew 13.47-52)
  • Parable of the Talents—Worthless Cast into Darkness  (Matthew 25.14-30)
  • Healing of a Centurion’s Servant and Outer Darkness  (Matthew 8.5-13)

8:00: Eternal Life and Eternal Punishment

  • Criteria for Inheriting Eternal Life and “the Wealthy”  (Matthew 19.16-23)
  • Last Judgment —Eternal Separating of Sheep and Goats  (Matthew 25.31-46)
  • Better to Lose a Limb than Body Thrown into Gehenna  (Matthew 5.27-30)
  • Better to be Maimed and Blinded than Face Eternal Fire  (Matthew 18.7-9)
  • The One who Destroys both Soul and Body in Gehenna  (Matthew 10.26-28)

I have carefully analyzed each of these sayings from the Greek text and have compared them to what the Jewish religious leaders of the day taught. Rather than try to reconcile them with modern theology, each was evaluated in light of the culture in which it was spoken. This is the greatest obstacle to understanding the gospels today and is the cause of the countless theological interpretations of Jesus. Especially difficult is the way many denominations define the “Kingdom of God” as if it refers to heaven. We therefore close out the broadcast with a definition of this central concept from a first-century perspective.

Despite accusations to the contrary, my only “agenda” is to understand religious literature or history from the viewpoint of its writer. That is precisely my intent this Sunday, as we challenge convention and take an honest and contextual look at the doctrine of hell.