the former reign of Satan

If you flip through the pages of the Bible, it's interesting to watch the character development of a certain figure known as Satan. Satan, which simply means "enemy" or "adversary" in the Hebrew language (and it's important to remember that), develops from obscure ambiguity to a basic and robust personality consensus over several centuries. In the beginning, his character is basically absent (unless you buy the midrash interpretation of the serpent in genesis 3 as the Satan figure). In Exodus, the evil in the world is attributed to Pharaoh, a slave-driving, power-wielding emperor, and to the very people whom God liberates from his grasp. In Genesis, all the blood is on the hands of the people, even when it's God who sends flood waters. And I'm sure that if there was a Satan figure at the time, the author would have gladly employed it. After all, it's very problematic to attribute such destruction to a loving God. It really wasn't until the Jewish people did time in Persia that they developed an idea that there was another character at work in all this. The Persians were themselves quite comfortable with the idea of dualism, the battle between good and evil, and the Jewish people apparently liked enough of their philosophy to use some of it in their own articulation of spiritual realities. YHWH, maintaining sovereignty, gained a nemesis. By the time the New Testament came around, surely under the influence of some Greek thought, they had a robust character who had real temporal authority, even behind the scenes of the perceivable coercive authority of Rome and the Emperor. Satan became the face of the principalities and powers, indeed of the curse of Genesis 3, over which Jesus came to triumph (however ironically).

This Satan has gained even more character development as subsequent generations have opened the Scriptures, reading into and building upon what they've found there. We've got animated images of Satan--the red-skinned, horned beast with a pointy tail. We've got our own ways of employing his character in explanations of the spiritual realities behind our current experiences. And they've come in quite handy. Indeed they've shed a light of truth on what's happening around us.

But there is a problem with this character, a double problem. There is a problem when we attribute too much or too little authority to his character (and I won't try to be gender inclusive here, Satan can be a man. My feminist persuasion has no problems with that). Especially in eschatological conversations in Christian theology, how we see Satan has become quite important. 

There is a way to attribute too little to the character of Satan. There's a way to be too optimistic about the realities we perceive, presuming that they hinge solely on the will of people and that people can eventually just come around and make things better. Indeed, things will just get better. We can neglect honesty and essentially ignore the depths of the evil around us. Since, perhaps, World War II, it has not been popular to operate on this assumption. The world has looked too evil and such optimism has readily been rejected in favor of an honesty about the suffering around us. This is good. 

However, it has become all too popular to adopt a pessimism in place of the optimism, to attribute too much to the character we know as Satan. Indeed, thanks to premillenial dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye and Joel Rosenberg, it has become a dominant American Evangelical perspective to attribute the authority over this whole world to Satan. "Satan is alive and well," they'll say, and when they say it they mean that things are essentially just gonna get worse until the end. I'm not too sure what effect they actually think the cross and the resurrection had on reality, but apparently it has not effected the earth here and now. Satan is still the king and the way of Jesus is about escaping his reign and entering an altogether different and separate kingdom. 

But a third way, the perspective I'd suggest, takes seriously both the power of Satan and the power of the cross. It affirms the "otherworldly"-ness of the Kingdom of God but does not suggest an escape into it, but rather an implementation of it in the world around us here and now. The Kingdom of God is here, Satan has been defeated, his authority has been revoked and Christ, by the work of the cross and resurrection, has taken the throne of this word and invites us to join him on it. That is the major theme of the New Testament, some minor sub-themes that serve as a challenge not withstanding.

Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18). "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Cor. 15:25). "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 2:15).

The reign of Christ has been initiated, even when the facts on the ground suggest otherwise. And it is our task, as ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), wherever the facts on the ground do suggest otherwise, to faithfully implement the reign of Christ, heralding the Kingdom of God and aligning the world under the reign of it's true king, the crucified and risen Christ. We live as citizens under the reign of God even as it is still being implemented in the world around us. We take seriously the suffering around us as current horrific truths, but we challenged them with the proclamation of God's reign.

As for Satan, well, we've still got quite a hangover from when he was on the throne and we've got a bad case of short term memory loss. We constantly forget, in word and deed, that the new creation has come and that we are part of the new humanity. Though he is thoroughly out of office, we so often still render authority to Satan, to the principalities and powers that issue sin and suffering all around us. Sure, he's around. He's defeated, but he's around and he's still interested in control and coercion. More importantly, he's convinced more than a few of us to be interested in the same things. And that is what is being redeemed as the salvation which came to us through the cross is being worked out in reality. We, as benefactors and agents of that redemption, are learning to be interested in the things in which God takes interest; namely, love.

Satan's is a former reign, not a current one. Wherever we see it around us, we must identify it as a lie. Things are getting better, they really are! There is a movement of justice and love in the world now. But things are also getting worse... let's be honest about that. But that is why the consummation of Christ's work, the reunion between heaven and earth, will be a climactic event in human history, indeed transcending history as we know it. And this culminating work will come only at the hand of God.

 "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he 'has put everything under his feet.' Now when it says that 'everything' has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all." (1 Corinthians 15:25-28)