Angelology Theology Proper

Does Satan have authority or only power?

Recently, I gave a 2 hour presentation at our church on “Angels and Demons.” The next day, I had a good question from one of the attendees which I am going to answer here. I’ll call the asker of this question Q (for “questioner”).

The question put to me

Q wrote:

You mentioned last night that Satan “has power but no authority.” For some time now, I’ve assumed that Satan actually does have some authority (e.g., Luke 4:6; 2 Cor. 4:4), though only that which has been given to him by God (Rom. 13:1). But I do believe that Satan has no authority over those who are living in Christ. Is that what you meant? I guess I’m just wondering how you came to the belief that Satan has “power but no authority,” or perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue(?). I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just seeking greater understanding. I’m curious to know which scripture(s), if any, you’ve referred to in order to reach that conclusion(?). Again, your insight and experience is greatly appreciated.

Satan does not have the authority he claimed to have, when he tempted Jesus

Q, when I made the statement that Satan has “power but not authority,” I was quoting Stephen Noll, with whom I agreed on that point. Your question was helpful in pushing me to ask myself whether Noll had spoken correctly or whether I need to speak differently myself. I have concluded that Noll’s way of speaking is valid, but your question underlines the importance of clarity regarding our use of particular terms. This is a good time for us to draw upon Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of a “language game” (Philosophical Investigations). Words are used in a particular way, in a particular context, and one has to understand the rules at work in that particular game, or one misunderstands the speaker’s intention. As I recall, Wittgenstein said (and I paraphrase): “Don’t ask me what a word means; ask me how it is used?”

What I want to specify now, therefore, is the sense in which I think it is true that Satan does not have authority, although, as you rightly point out, Q, one may use the term “authority” in senses in which it would be right to say that Satan does have authority. Elucidating in what senses he has and does not have authority is a very helpful exercise in our study of Satan and his followers or servants, angelic and human.

Under the subheading, “Satan’s rank: prince or pretender,” Stephen Noll writes:

Satan is given the title prince (arch?n), both prince of demons and prince of this world. He is never called king (basileus). Thus, the New Testament acknowledges his power while utterly rejecting his authority [emphasis mine]. The end of kingship, according to Scripture, is to give glory to God as supreme Lord. When Satan promises to Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them,” he reveals that his particular role in politics is to deceive rulers and nations into glorifying themselves and thereby worshiping him. The ultimate example of self-worship on earth is what the New Testament calls the antichrist. Satan tempts the spiritual principalities and powers along with rulers on earth to constitute the antichrist, but they are “restrained” by God’s creation order and call to righteousness. Only when a king or nation is possessed by the spirit of the pretender and cries out “I am God” does God dramatically intervene to cast it down (Dan 4:28-37; Acts 12:23; Rev 14:6-8). Nevertheless, secular society, whenever it fails to acknowledge God, comes under the influence of the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). (Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically About Angels, Satan and Principalities, 120).         

In Psalm 2:8-9, the nations of the earth are covenanted to Christ and  his title to them is secured by his triumph in the cross. Consequently, just a few years after his confrontation with the devil in the wilderness, Jesus asserted to his disciples that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to” him. So Satan’s claim to having all authority is false but, as Sydney Page observes (Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons, 98), this is characteristic of Satan who is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

In a similar vein, Norval Geldenhuys comments helpfully on Luke 4:6,7, which you cited in your question. He notes that the devil declared himself able to offer the kingdoms of the world to Jesus because he claimed that they had been

delivered unto him and he has the power to give them to whomsoever he will. In these words Satan appears in his true colours, as the arch-deceiver and the aspirant after the power and glory which belong only to God. It is, indeed, true that by God’s permission the kingdoms of the world (in so far as sin rules in the hearts and lives of the leaders and also of the individual members of the nations) have been delivered to him. Thus Jesus Himself spoke of him as the prince of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). But he did not mean it in an absolute sense as the arch-deceiver himself pretended. Only to the extent that mankind surrender themselves in sin to the evil one does God permit him to rule over the world of men, but nevertheless always under His highest and final overruling, so that everything in the end leads to His glory. God never lets the reins slip out of His hands. It remains true that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that liver therein.” Even the powers of darkness cannot act without His permissive will. Moreover, the devil cannot deliver the world’s kingdoms into the power of whomsoever he chooses, as he declared in the second temptation. God Himself is, in the final instance, the establisher and dispenser of worldly power (cf. Dan 4:17, etc.; Jn 19:11; Rom 13:1) (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 160-61).

God’s permitting Satan to exercise his power in the doing of evil does not constitute “authorization” in the sense of legitimation

Fundamentally, I concur with Noll’s statement that Satan has power but not authority because God cannot possibly authorize evil doing. Satan (literally, “the adversary”) is a rebel who is consumed by a passion to undermine God’s rule in creation in every way he can. In our context today, we might make an analogy between Satan and his wicked angels, on the one hand, and the leader of the Islamic State and all those who profess allegiance to IS and attempt to contribute to its success, on the other hand.

The so-called Islamic State is unquestionably powerful, and people from many countries have placed themselves under its command, thereby acknowledging the rule of IS as the authority in their own lives, and committing themselves to help in the expansion of the territorial scope of that authority. Additionally, where IS has been able to take control of territory, they have brutally subjugated everyone in that area. IS has become the de facto authority in that territory and rules over its inhabitants, in spite of the protest of those whom it now dominates and regardless of the fact that the dominance of IS has not been legitimated or authorized by any legally constituted political entity. No properly constituted state can possibly legitimize IS and give it authority, because IS’s stated goal is to overthrow every state or government in which it operates, and to set up an Islamic caliphate in its place.  I suggest that Satan and his forces operate in the world, over which God is Sovereign, King of Kings and Lords of Lords, in precisely the same way that IS does in the nations where it has taken over regions. Satan exercises rule wherever he is given it by human beings, and he works hard to bring about their submission and to keep it.

General sovereignty perspectives on this matter

At this point, the difference between synergistic and monergistic theologies becomes very relevant. In synergistic models of divine providence, God is sovereign but has chosen to limit his control, in order to give creatures libertarian freedom (the power of contrary choice). Synergists often speak of God’s action with regard to evil as “permission” but, in their view, God’s permission is only general. The permission is necessarily entailed in God’s giving moral creatures the kind of freedom which synergists deem essential to moral responsibility. So long as God leaves creatures free to act with the power of contrary choice, he “permits” their evil acts, but he does this only in a general way, not specifically, incident by incident. All evangelical synergists believe that God remains free to take away the libertarian freedom of moral creatures if the fulfilment of his purposes requires him to do so, but this is rarely deemed to be the case. If God needed to keep a moral creature from acting with libertarian freedom, the creature would not be morally responsible for the action done.

1) Open Theism

The analogy I have drawn between IS and Satan fits most clearly or completely in the framework of Open Theism, a position that has been very well presented by Gregory Boyd, in God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. In that perspective, God gives Satan permission for nothing, so there is no sense in which one might think or say that Satan has been given authority. There is a war going on between Satan and God, and God will ultimately win that war, but he loses some battles along the way. It is Open Theists’ belief that God cannot know the future acts of libertarianly free creatures. Consequently, in giving creatures libertarian freedom, God did not know ahead of time what specific sins they would commit, and this includes Satan and his angels. Nonetheless, God is acknowledged to be omniscient in that he knows everything that can be known. But even God cannot predict with certainty (though Boyd stresses that God knows probabilities) what Satan or any free human being will do tomorrow. In his greatness, God has contingency plans for all possibilities, but he cannot guarantee victory in each confrontation. God will ultimately be victorious, and he knows what the situation will look like when that is possible, but he has probably not set a date for Christ’s return. So, in the framework of Open Theism, God unambiguously gives Satan no authority.

2) Classical Arminianism

To classical Arminians, who affirm the comprehensive foreknowledge of God the analogy between IS and Satan is less exact. They too believe that God has limited his ability to have every detail of the world’s history come out as he desires or wishes, but they are more likely to use the language of “permission” in regard to evil doing by sinful creatures. Nonetheless, this remains a general permission, not a specific one such as monergists (e.g. Calvinists) assert. Furthermore, classical Arminians believe that God does know the future comprehensively, though I concur with Open Theists in their contention that mere prescience is of no use to God because he cannot change the future. As one Open Theist philosopher put it, the problem is that by the time God knows what will happen, it is too late for him to do anything about it.

3) Molinism

The Molinist conception of creaturely freedom in this world differs very little (if at all) from that of classical Arminians. In this world, moral creatures are generally libertarianly free and so if one speaks of their action as permitted by God, it can only be permission of a very general kind, the permission entailed in allowing creatures libertarian freedom. But Molinists believe that God specifically chose to actualize this particular world from among all the possible worlds. This notion is quite objectionable to some Arminians, though others appropriate it, and it is completely rejected by Open Theists who consider it incoherent (as Calvinists do) because it would be impossible to know the counterfactuals of free creaturely action if those creatures were libertarianly free. (This is called “the grounding objection.”)  By definition, no proposition about a free creaturely action would have truth value until the creature made a decision and acted upon it, so counterfactuals are unknowable with certainty. Even if the Molinist model of middle knowledge were coherent, however, it would be objectionable to some Arminians (like Roger Olson) precisely because it introduces a stronger ambiguity into the answering of the question of Satan’s authority to do evil. In the Molinist perspective, even though Satan acts libertarianly freely, by God’s general permission, in this world, God chose to actualize this particular world, and so Molinists are deemed to be vulnerable to the same synergist objection brought against Calvinism, namely, that God must be held morally accountable for the evil that he specifically decreed.

A specific sovereignty perspective on this matter

By contrast with synergistic models, in monergistic models, God has specific or meticulous sovereignty, so that everything that happens in the history of the world is according to God’s predetermined plan. To all synergists, whether they be classical Arminians, Molinists, or Open Theists, the Calvinist perspective is deeply problematic because it entails God’s deliberately permitting evil to be done, even though God could in each instance have prevented the evil. Synergists frequently protest that monergist proposals make God morally responsible for evil. Generally, monergists (like me) defend God’s goodness in the face of evil in the world by using the “greater good defense,” the assertion that the evils God specifically permits, including all the evil acts of Satan and his demons, are part of a greater whole which is good. We believe that the good or evil quality of creatures’ actions derives from their good or evil intent. This is what makes the human conscience so  important. The standard by which God will judge each person in the judgment day is the person’s own conscience. This principle is  perhaps most clearly stated in Romans 14:22-23, but it is quite clearly enunciated also in Rom 2:12-16.

God, and he alone, is completely good by nature, and he always acts according to his nature, so that he never has any evil intent, even when evil is done by his creatures, within the will of his eternal purpose. We frequently view Joseph’s statement in Gen 50:20 as paradigmatic of this principle at work in a particular case. It was God’s will that Joseph should be sold into slavery by his brothers, but God “intended it for good,” whereas the intentions of Joseph’s brothers were evil. In Satan’s case, he is so thoroughly corrupted, and so completely determined to defeat God, that all of his acts are done with evil intent. As Jesus said in John 8:44, when Satan lies, “he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” [NRSV]. By contrast, it is impossible for God to lie because he is by nature truthful (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Heb 6:18; Ps 89:35), and hence Jesus, the Word incarnate, is “the truth” (Jn 14:6).

I share Geldenhuys’ theological perspective in regard to the way in which Satan operates in the world, namely, that he can do nothing which God does not will, just as any evil which occurs in the history of the world is willed by God. From the multitude of possible worlds, this one is the world which God chose to actualize. It was “according to God’s good pleasure” and to his “plan for the fullness of time” (Eph 1:9-10) that Satan was allowed to bring about the death of Jesus, which looked to his followers like the failure of all their hopes that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would reestablish David’s kingdom in the world. As Paul said in 1 Cor 2:8, “none of the rulers of this age,” whether human or angelic, understood what God was up to. “If they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

Jesus told Peter that Satan had “demanded” to sift all of the disciples like wheat, but Jesus had prayed for Peter, that his own faith might not fail, and Jesus was confident that his intercession would be successful, so he told Peter that, once he had turned back he was to strengthen “the brothers” (Lk 22:31-32). Jesus had this in mind when he prayed to his Father, asking him to protect the disciples whom the Father had given to him, after he left the world, so that they might be one, with the unity of the Father and the Son (Jn 17:11). Jesus stated that, while he was with the disciples whom the Father had given to him he protected them in the Father’s name; he “guarded them, and not one of them was lost, except the one destined to be lost [or ‘the son of destruction’], so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn 17:12).

I find this extremely sobering. Though Jesus had interceded for the protection of Peter, he had not interceded for and protected Judas, when Satan “entered into” him (Lk 22:3), prompting him to go to the enemies of Jesus and betray Jesus to them. Soon afterwards, at the last supper, Jesus identified Judas as the one who was going to betray him, by giving him a piece of the Passover bread, and John tells us that, again, “after he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him” (Jn 13:27). Then Jesus said to Judas: “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

The Word became incarnate so that, as the second Adam, he could be completely obedient to the Father throughout his life, and then offer up that life for the ransom of sinners (Mk 10:45). It took many people to bring that about. In addition to Judas, there were the members of the Sanhedrin who opposed Jesus and convinced Pilate that Jesus was a threat to Rome’s rule and should be crucified, which Pilate did in spite of his finding Jesus not guilty. But after the Holy Spirit had filled the believers in Jerusalem and empowered them, following the release of Peter and John by the council of chief priests and elders, the believers “raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: “Why did the Gentiles rage, . . . The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:25-28). The critical thing to note here is that, although God had predetermined that these particular people would have Jesus put to death, in spite of his innocence of any crime, those people were morally responsible to the extent of their knowledge that what they did was wrong, and God was not responsible for their evil acts.

The death of Jesus was the outworking of Satan’s attempt to defeat God’s Son, but he succeeded only in striking his heel, whereas Christ struck the head of the Serpent (Gen 3:15). The cross, though foolishness to Gentiles and a scandal to Jews, was God’s way to defeat Satan. In Christ’s vicarious righteousness, he brought about the forgiveness of our sins because he erased “the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). In so doing, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:14-15). I take these rulers and authorities to be both human and angelic, because the humans involved in putting Jesus to death were serving their master Satan, in opposition to God and his rule in the world which was his by right of creation.

The decisive battle between God and Satan was won at the cross and gloriously demonstrated in the resurrection, but the war is not over. Satan continues to do all of the sorts of things he was doing before the cross, in his attempt to keep people in bondage to sin and to his own rule, and to foil all God’s efforts to deliver sinners from Satan’s hold, primarily through the church’s gospel mission. Today, Satan has more subjects in the world than God does. Even within the visible Christian church worldwide, Satan has many willing subjects, who remain deceived and in bondage, in spite of having been baptized in the name of Christ and identifying themselves with the church of Christ. But God feels no threat from Satan, such as a number of governments feel from IS. God remains sovereign and completely in control. moving world history toward the end he purposed for it from the beginning.

Particularly within a specific sovereignty perspective (monergism), we must acknowledge a sense in which Satan and the demons do have authority

Since all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Christ, and since God rules the world meticulously, even Satan’s evil efforts are part of God’s eternal purpose, and he has no more room to operate than God gives him. God even uses him to chastise some who depart from the faith (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20; 2 Cor 2:6-7, 11), resulting in the restoration of many of these people which is the goal of church discipline.

The experience of Job

In the first two chapters of Job, we see a scenario in which Satan has access to the gathering of the heavenly beings who “present themselves before the Lord” (Job 1:6), with Satan among them. Yahweh cites Job as a “blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8), but Satan proposes that this is only because God has been so good to Job. God has “put a fence around Job and his house and all that he has, on every side” (1:10), but if God were to reach out and take away those good things, Satan believes that Job would curse God to his face (1:11). So Yahweh gives Satan permission to try Job in this regard: “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (1:12). There is a definite sense in which God “authorizes” Satan to do harm to Job, in spite of his righteousness, but God prescribes the limits within which Satan can do that harm.

What Satan then did is horrifying to contemplate. Within a short period of time, the Sabeans fell upon Job’s oxen and donkeys and carried them off, killing the servants; “the fire of God [lightning] fell from heaven and burned up the sheep” and the shepherds; Chaldeans formed 3 columns and carried off Job’s camels, killing the servants who were looking after them; and finally a “great wind came across the desert” and struck the elder brother’s house in which Job’s children were having a party and killed them.” The scope of Satan’s power is awesome here. Having been given permission (authority of a sort) to harm Job’s possessions and family (though not Job himself directly), Satan is portrayed as having been able to instigate action by two groups of people (the Sabeans and the Chaldeans) and to strategically bring about destruction by two natural means, lightning and strong wind (Job 1:13-19). This he could have done only by God’s specific permission and a significant range of temporary authority. But Job remained faithful to God in spite of it, and Satan suggested that this was because God had protected Job personally. Then Satan was given permission (and power [2:6]) to harm Job himself, but not to kill him.

The story ends well; Job learns things about God and himself, and God gives him the difficult privilege of being an intercessor for his foolish friends, protecting them from God’s just punishment of their folly (42:7-8). God then restores Job’s fortunes, indeed increases them beyond their original greatness. God gave him more daughters and sons, and he gave Job the joy of living to see four generations of his family flourishing, before Job died. But who of us would have wanted to go through what Job suffered to get to that point? Satan did not succeed in his driving ambition, to bring Job to his own side as an enemy of God, but God authorized him to try, even while God preserved Job’s faith, in a manner I take to be covered by the core principle stated in 1 Cor 10:13, that God will not allow his people to be tested beyond their ability to endure. God reigns, even when everything seems to be falling apart around us. In this regard the analogy between IS and Satan fundamentally breaks down. In God’s case, Satan and his evil forces never occupy territory which God does not cede to them for some good purpose of his own. The Iraqi government is doing its utmost to displace IS, but they are failing in many of their attempts. God is never in that position with regard to Satan or any human evil doer. His sovereignty is specific and detailed, not just general.

The incident of the lying spirit which God commissioned

The story of the divine council in 1 Kings 22 is important in regard to this matter of God’s permission of evil which seems to take the form of authorization. God had decided that it was time to let judgment fall on Ahab and he put the question to he “host of heaven” (22:19) which was standing before him: “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth Gilead?” Various proposals were made by angels in the council (22:21), but then “a spirit” came forward and offered to entice Ahab (22:22). Yahweh asked him how he would do it and he said that he would “be a lying spirit in the mouth of all” Ahab’s prophets (22:22). Yahweh said to him: “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it” (22:23). The God whose nature is truthful and who cannot lie, authorized a lying spirit to do so. It is important to note, I think, that God did not come up with the idea and order a spirit to execute his plan. The spirit was evil, and Ahab was evil, but God was good. His judgment upon Ahab was just, and it was Ahab’s own proneness to believe the lie he wanted to hear, rather than the truth that God’s authentic prophet Micaiah delivered on this and previous occasions. Augustine said that “sin is its own punishment,” and Scripture illustrates that many times. Satan serves God in the way the lying spirit did. He acts with evil intentions, trying to thwart God’s work, but he is never able to do so, and he ends up serving God’s purposes in the world without his own evil acts being justified by their usefulness to God.

The experience of the apostle Paul

In the life of Paul, God allowed Satan to afflict Paul with a “thorn in the flesh, which Paul described as “a messenger of Satan to torment me” (2 Cor 12:7). But, whereas Satan’s effort was aimed to disable Paul and reduce his effectiveness, perhaps even lead him to apostasy (as with Job), Paul recognized in that affliction the good intention of God to keep him from being “too elated” and glorying in the amazing spiritual experience he had had, when “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2-4).

The spiritual warfare in which we, as God’s people, are engaged

There is clearly a sense in which evil human and angelic powers are described in Scripture as having authority and being “authorities.” Paul told the Colossians that God created, in Christ, “all things in heaven and on earth . . . , things visible and invisible [which includes the angelic world, now good and evil, but not evil by God’s creation] whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (Col 1:16). This includes human as well as heavenly powers, both good and evil. Later, to the Colossians, Paul speaks of God’s triumph, through the cross, over “the rulers and authorities” (Col 2:14-15). Paul tells the Ephesians that God manifested his immeasurably great power when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at the Father’s right hand, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” in this age and the age to come, putting all things under Christ’s feet (Eph 1:19-22).

Christians are generally very familiar with Paul’s exhortation for us to be equipped with the “whole armor of God” so that we can withstand “the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:9-10), because we are engaged in a spiritual war which often seems to be just a conflict with powerful but evil humans when, in fact, we are at war with “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” identified as rulers, authorities, and “cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:12-13). These evil forces have been given authority by spiritual beings and by people who have chosen not to serve God, but to war against God, under the leadership of Satan, though the humans involved might not fully realize that this is the nature of what they are doing and whom they serve in the process.

The government of sinful nations by corrupt angels

This is an aspect of Satan’s power which clearly carries a certain kind of authority, but it is something about which Christians are likely to be much less aware than we are of our personal struggle with the spiritual world. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (NRSV) says: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, separated the sons of men, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods [LXX: ‘the sons of God;’ NetB: ‘the heavenly assembly’]; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.” Clinton Arnold posits that “this passage is best explained as teaching that ‘all the nations of the earth are given over into the control of angelic powers’” (Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul’s Letters, 63), and this sounds highly plausible to me.

In keeping with this concept, Psalm 82 portrays God as determined to end the power of injustice, and Stephen Noll observes that “the psalm connects this injustice with the failure of the sons of God placed over the nations” (Angels of Light, 126). It “indicates that God will respond to angelic sin and the prayers of his people by reordering divine rule in heaven and on earth” (Noll, 127). Having given principalities to the Sons of the Most High (Deut 32:8), Psalm 82:6 tells us that God will take that responsibility away from unworthy spiritual rulers. Unlike the antichrist figures, however, these beings are charged with ignorance and injustice, rather than with rebellion. (Cf., Noll, 127). And so the Psalmist tells us (82:8) that the nations belong to God, who is “judge of all the earth” and God will rule them directly when his judgment is executed.

Isaiah also predicts God’s punishment of these evil powers, angelic and human, in the day of the Lord: “On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (Isa 24:21). On judgment day, God will call before him the heavenly and earthly leaders who had ruled by God’s providential appointment, and he will strip them of their office and send them off to prison below (24:22). Isaiah depicts the natural order (moon and sun) as “abashed,” and “ashamed” about the malfeasance of powers appointed as God’s representatives, and speaks of how the Creator will manifest his glory “before his elders” (24:23). Noll sees these elders as “closely identified with the original elders of Israel,” and constituting “a new divine council” (Angels of Light, 128). Perhaps unique within the Old Testament is the idea that the wrongdoers will be incarcerated in an intermediate place of detention while awaiting the final execution of judgment (Isa 24:21-22), but this concept does recur in the New Testament, in Jude 6 and 2 Pet 2:4. (Some, like Sydney Page, would include 1 Pet 3:19 here, but I’m not inclined to that understanding myself [see Page, Powers of Evil, 62]; he also suggests that Rev 20 offers a parallel).

In Daniel 10, we meet the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” who is an angelic prince distinct from the principality he represents. Daniel’s prayer has been heard and an angelic messenger (Noll takes him to be Gabriel, which I find quite plausible [130]) has been sent to him but is delayed for 21 days by confrontation with the prince of the kingdom of Persia until Michael, the “prince of Israel” (10:21) comes to his assistance.  The result of the spiritual battle is a change of regime from Persia to Greece (10:20), and Clinton Arnold observes that “there appears to be a direct correspondence between  the outcome of the angelic battles and the fortunes of the corresponding nations.” He posits that “the title of authority probably indicates that these various angelic princes are leading hosts of other angelic powers into battle” (Powers, 63). The Septuagint uses arch?n to translate the word “prince” and this is a word used in all four of the Gospels and by Paul either for Satan or for evil spirit powers (Arnold, Powers, 63).

Probably related to this teaching regarding governmental responsibility given to spiritual beings is the recognition that Satan causes war on earth (cf. Rev 20:2,7-8). When he is bound and unable to deceive the nations, there is no more war. I am reminded of the story told by Merrill Tenney in a class I took with him at Wheaton on the book of Ephesians. He had a friend who was a missionary in Tibet at the time that  WW II was getting under way. This missionary had come upon a demonized man and was engaged in exorcism, which he achieved. In that process, however, a demon spoke to him from within the afflicted man and said that the missionary would not have been able to cast them out if were not that the most powerful demons were over in Europe starting a war. It was only months later that news of what was happening in Europe reached the missionary in Tibet, and then he grasped the full significance of what had been said to him by the demon. Paul speaks of this in the language of “principalities and powers” which

stands for a worldwide web of human affairs grounded in a spiritual hierarchy. The spiritual dimension of the world was not originally evil but has been so corrupted by sin and Satan that it is experienced more as domination than as dominion (that is, right rule). The sphere of the principalities overlaps with that of revealed law and natural order. Paul calls the natural order ‘elements [stoicheia] of the world,’ and they influence the religious and moral life of pagans much as the law gives guidance to Jews” (Noll, Angels of Light, 139).

The “ruler of the kingdom of the air” is “now at work in those who are disobedient” (Eph 2:2), and this is true of structures or institutions as well as individuals. Paul may be suggesting that the angels stand behind the secular court system when he tries to shame two Christians who refused to settle a dispute in secular court by asking them, rhetorically, if they are aware that the saints will judge the world and judge angels (1 Cor 6:2-3) (cf. Noll, Angels of Light, 143).

Summing up

Well, I will stop here, Q. I hope that what I have written demonstrates adequately the importance of indicating clearly what we mean when we say that Satan has, or does not have, authority. There is an important sense in which he does not have authority; he and his fellow demons are evil and are doing their utmost to foil God’s redemptive and constructive work in the world. Consequently, God cannot possibly give them authority to do what they want to do. That would be like the Iraqi government admitting defeat and conceding territory to IS, so that they became the legitimate governing authority in that territory. From the specific sovereigntist perspective, which I believe Scripture teaches, this is a very important way in which God’s conflict with Satan is unlike the present conflict with IS. Thus far, human governments have been incapable of conclusively defeating IS and of taking control of the territory which has been illegally taken over by rebels. But, unlike the God of Open Theism, the God I find revealed in Scripture is capable of completely subduing and punishing Satan and his forces, and he will do so when he deems the time right.

Where Satan rules, it is not because God has directly given him authority to rule. The authority comes from, and is dependent upon, humans alienated from and opposed to God who, sometimes knowingly, but most often unknowingly, allow themselves to be directed by Satan and his untruth, and to live according to the godless ideologies that have arisen as systemic formulations of the untruth which Satan propagates. Yet, for good reasons not revealed to us in most instances, God is allowing Satan to rule in this way, blinding the minds of unbelievers “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” to such a degree that Paul identified him as “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4). He is the “ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Eph 2:2). All of us were once in that position, serving Satan in opposition to God, but God is graciously delivering from Satan’s power, by the proclamation of the gospel and the inner work of God’s Spirit, a huge number of people to be children of God. These people are now empowered by God to serve him in the great spiritual struggle which will continue until our Lord returns in power and glory.

As I write these words, my mind has gone back to a hymn I have not sung in many years, written by Frances Ridley Havergal in the 19th century. The first verse may serve as a fitting note on which to conclude this study:

   Who is on the Lord’s side?

Who will serve the King?

Who will be His helpers,

Other lives to bring?

Who will leave the world’s side?

Who will face the foe?

Who is on the Lord’s side?

Who for Him will go?

By Thy grand redemption,

By Thy grace divine,

We are on the Lord’s side;

Savior, we are Thine.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “Does Satan have authority or only power?”

If the Kingdoms of the world did not truly belong to Satan (in that they had been given to him), the temptation would not have been a real temptation for Jesus. Satan could not tempt Jesus with offering him something that was not truly his to begin with.

Hi Barb, just a thought, Unless the temptation was to accept something from someone who does not have the authority to grant it. ie bow down to a usurper and illegitimate sovereign which is what the vast majority of people are doing today. The Vatican is the world administration head currently controlled by the Holy Roman Empire (Seat of Satan) but it is just a belligerent occupation of Christ’s earthly administration by Rome. (taken by force or without right)….a belligerent occupation ends when the usurper looses control to the legitimate and returned Sovereign.

Very thought provoking. Wish I had theological background to understand. Christ acknowledged that powers of Satan can be in degrees. Some harder to deal with than others(demon in child who sometimes fell in fire or water). How do we prepare? Some extremely hard to stay away from. God please strengthen us.

This is clearly authority and it’s given to the antichrist: Rev 13:4>>> And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

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