OK, so the headline isn’t fair. More and more Christians are educating themselves in the origins and contexts of the Bible, and no one can pretend to have any special secret knowledge that isn’t readily available to anyone. At the same time, in mainstream American Christian culture, these words (and many more) are often locked into unhelpful, non-biblical settings that obscure their true depth of meaning. These concepts are long overdue for some clarification. This isn’t “everything you know is wrong!,” I simply offer a few educated considerations.
What We Hear: Thanks in large part to the imagination of medieval Europe, most people in the western world today envision angels as shimmering, winged Caucasians who live up in the clouds. When our English Bibles say, for example, that “an angel” or “the angel of the Lord” appears in a narrative, we immediately picture a flying Osmond in bleached robes. Some Christian traditions teach that there are classes of angels, like archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, each with different stations and privileges. Clarence Odbody, AS2.
But Consider This: The Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel” in our Bibles simply mean “messenger,” or “one who brings tidings.” In these texts, “angels” are just people, at least in appearance, and they are usually on a mission to deliver important news. These are the “men” who visit Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, or the messenger Gabriel who comes to Mary in Luke’s nativity. These angels are never said to have wings, and usually appear in broad daylight among people in the real world.
In quite a different category we have strange creatures like seraphs (beings made of flame), cherubs (winged lions), and various “beasts” which inhabit visions and apocalypses. These beings often have wings but are never called angels. Our inherited readings of the Bible have conflated both categories into a single race of heavenly sprites. In reality, they inhabit a wide range of meanings, contexts, and genres.
What We Hear: Satan, or the Devil, is the personal enemy of God, the supernatural lord of evil who rules over hell, thwarts God’s plans, and tempts boys and girls to sin so they won’t get into heaven. Many Christian traditions maintain that Satan was once an exalted angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven along with his legions of demons. Most people assume that this is part of the Bible’s storyline, but apart from a few possible cryptic references, it’s not actually there. It grew out of Jewish legends, literature like the Book of Enoch, and the biblical interpretations of church fathers like Origen.
But Consider This: “Satan” in the text of the Bible is never a proper name, but always a descriptive title with a definite article: “the satan” or “the accuser” in Hebrew, “the devil” or “the slanderer” in Greek. This label is applied to many things in many contexts. In the book of Job, the accuser is one of God’s heavenly employees whose job is to prosecute and torment humans. The satan only appears a couple more times in the Hebrew Bible, as in 1 Chronicles 21 where it’s a negative spiritual influence that causes King David to make an unwise decision. (Though in the alternate telling of the same story in 2 Samuel 24, it is God who incites David to make the same decision.)
In the New Testament, “the slanderer” appears to Jesus in his desert vision quest, tempting him to abandon his earthly ministry before it begins. Jesus calls one of his closest friends, Peter, a “satan” for doubting him. In the book of Revelation, the accuser is depicted as a great red dragon which corrupts and manipulates the Roman Empire until it is defeated and destroyed once and for all. In each of these different formats and contexts, the one thing connecting all depictions of “the satan” is a spirit of condemnation and shame. Whether the satan is a singular figure, a spiritual reality, or a state of mind, it always brings accusation and oppression. It is the opposite of mercy and forgiveness.
What We Hear: The end of the world! An apocalypse, according to its modern usage, is a cataclysmic event that brings either society as we know it or the entirety of space-time to an end. Zombies, aliens, horsemen or climate change, something inevitable is coming and all we can do is hope to survive and be on the winning side when it’s all over. When it comes to the Bible, the apocalypse will be the holy war to end all holy wars, a series of trials and battles that are already preordained to the smallest detail. There is nothing we can do to stop it from coming, but we should still accuse everyone we don’t like of hastening its approach.
But Consider This: In biblical terms, an apocalypse isn’t an event but a type of text, a genre of literature. The word “apocalypse” means “hidden,” and these texts employ visual metaphors and poetic imagination to “reveal” the hidden spiritual reality behind an earthly crisis in the author’s own time. The first biblical apocalypses (eg. portions of Ezekiel and Daniel) emerge after Israel’s exile in Babylon and later Persia. Both of these cultures produced apocalypse-style texts, suggesting perhaps that Israel’s artists and prophets were subverting the cultures of their captors and adapting them for their own purposes. And those purposes, despite the connotation of “apocalypse” today, always involved bringing hope to a people in trouble.
We might think of apocalypses as the political cartoons of the ancient Near East. They are certainly more serious and consequential, but they function in a similar way. In Revelation, the only extended apocalypse in the New Testament, Rome is satirized as a monster and a whore, while Jesus is depicted as a slain lamb. The metaphors are mixed and the images are impossible, but the coded message of hope in the face of political turmoil would have been crystal clear to its original readers. None of this precludes apocalypses from being spiritually inspired or communicating timeless truths, but it does suggest that they are products of ancient historical crises and that they will always speak louder in those contexts than in our own. And when they do speak, their true voice is one of expectation and rescue, not inevitable doom.