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June 04, 2023


Bradley Jersak

Gabe asked,

...if the satan is not a person, who or what tempted Jesus in the wilderness?
What was that all about then?

It's a great question and would involve speculation. But let's start with a few aspects of which we have some confidence:

1. We know that Jesus faced and overcame a three-fold temptation in the wilderness.
2. Oddly, both Matthew and Luke describe it as the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by "the devil."
3. When Jesus resists the devil, Matt. 4 quotes Jesus as saying, "Get away from me, Satan."
4. We are quite sure Jesus was there alone without other human witnesses.
5. Therefore, we know that it was Jesus himself who reported the temptations to his disciples, who then recorded what we read.
6. In his account, Jesus personifies the devil or Satan. He believed this was the best way to tell the story.
7. We know that sometimes when addressing Satan, Jesus was not literally talking to a being called Satan, but specifically to anyone who would tempt him to bypass the Cross. E.g., He says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan."

Again, Jesus is not at all averse to describing the works of the devil using personification... and this is why the claim that Satan is LESS THAN a person is still speculation. We don't make a dogma of it. We are, rather, questioning our certitude of making a dogma that the devil IS a person.

But now to your question. IF Satan is less than a person, what was Jesus dealing with? Michael Hardin, who wrote a booklet called "The Satan" (https://www.clarion-journal.com/files/fb-posts-on-the-satan-e-book1.pdf) suggested to me that we might think of the Satan in Matthew 4/Luke 4 as "Jesus' potential shadow side." What does that mean?

Romans 8 tells us that Jesus came "in the likeness of sinful human flesh," and Hebrews says he was in every way like us, tempted in every way as we are. Gregory the Theologian said that Christ assumed every aspect of human nature to heal every aspect of human nature. SO, if the temptations of Jesus were REAL, we MIGHT speak of those as coming to us externally (as the devil or satan, as Jesus does). But we MIGHT ALSO think about temptation as an authentic part of the human condition, suggestions from the flesh about finding our destiny autonomously... a condition that Jesus had to face and overcome on behalf of us all (1) for him to be fully human and (2) for his salvation to extend to every aspect of our humanity.

Michael's description would then need to be read VERY carefully. Did Jesus have a 'shadow side'? *Potentially*... meaning both (1) the temptation was authentic, (2) intrinsic to human nature, (3) but which Christ faced and overcame. IF Satan is not a person, then Jesus still felt personifying that struggle was the best way to describe it, exactly like alcoholics might describe "wrestling with their demons."

But I would add again that if Jesus used personification, he thought it was a good way to describe it, perhaps to show us how to resist temptation by externalizing it as a false self, rather than wrongly over-identifying with it and assuming the shame of the temptation. The main reason to demythologize the devil's personhood is when people skirt their responsibility and say "the devil made me do it," as if giving in to temptation is not something they need to own.

Gabe Landes

This post was very helpful! It did bring one question to mind: if the satan is not a person, who or what tempted Jesus in the wilderness? What was that all about then?

Florian Berndt

One of my big questions was how we can trust in the ontology and personhood of God if we question the ontology of spirits opposed to His love - in particular in regard to Holy Spirit. Shortly after that question arose I had a visionary experience for which I only found the words to articulate it after I got introduced to Simone Weil's cosmology. In essence, in order for us to grow into personhood and participate in the kenotic flow of the Triune life of God, there had to be 'space' for 'other' than that life. Out of that vacuum arose the lie of separation, the adversarial/satanic spirit/influence that Paul called the spirit/influence of the cosmos/world(system) - 1. Corinthians 2:12. John writes about the effect of Holy Spirit in the world, and it is interesting how the Hebrew and Greek terms for spirit are the same as breath, wind etc. Jonathan Mittchell renders the alternative translation as 'breath-effect'in his New Testament. It is here that I am far more inclined towards the Eastern conception of the Trinity, in which Holy Spirit continuously proceeds from the Father as the Source through the Son to us (John 15:26), rather than simply three divine persons sharing in one divine essence (I know, I am oversimplifying). In other words, the Spirit of God is personal, because She proceeds from the Origin of personhood and actually makes personhood as the very Spirit of relationship possible. In contrast, as your son was shown, the demonic and the satanic arise not from personhood, but from elements that arise from the state of anti-personhood, so to speak - humanities orphan mentality, based on the lie of separation. Hence, 'the father of lies' (one begets according to one's own nature). Hope that makes sense...:)

Florian Berndt

Yes!!! This is exactly the direction my thoughts have been going for a number of years now concerning this issue - even wrote a n article on it that is somewhere on my old computer. There were a lot of hurdles I had to overcome and like you,I think there are still a lot of questions, but I fully can get on board with what you wrote here, and believe it helps us far better to address the problem of evil than our old mythologies allowed. In fact, I believe those mythologies have their origin in the original lie, hindering us to look at the real issues at hand.


Interesting thoughts that need further discussion, for sure. I find it also an interesting implication in regard to the 'aseity' of God. I have sometimes quipped that evil doesn't 'exist' per se, at least not in the necessary sense. We all know evil is real, but it is negation of good/righteous/holy/God-ness.


I remember how Dr. Dan Allender, Christian psychologist at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, once said that "the satan" is not a "person." I appreciate your thoughts on this important topic and, too, recognize the mysterious, yet real dynamics of "evil." I wonder how God wants us to learn from our brothers and sisters from the Majority World.

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