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And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.1
A popular minister whose sermons are broadcast on radio and television claims the Bible teaches that God has allowed Satan to be in control of this world until Jesus returns. He gave specific passages like Satan being labeled the “prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and argued that when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert and offered him the kingdoms of this world, Jesus didn't argue or say anything about the world being Satan’s. Christians will use all types of excuses to keep themselves out of today’s religious-moral-cultural battles. One of the most diabolical excuses is to claim that Satan is the rightful god of this world. This translates into believing that this world is demonic. Let’s see what the Bible actually says about this.
Satan is a creature. Like all creatures, he has certain limitations. Even under the Old Covenant, Satan had to be granted permission by God before he could act (Job 1:6–12; 2:1–7). Satan’s limitations have been multiplied since the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
The Bible shows us that if we “resist the devil he will flee from” us (James 4:7). The only power that Satan has over the Christian is the power we give him and the power granted to him by God (2 Cor. 12:7–12). Scripture tells us that Satan is defeated, disarmed, and spoiled (Col. 2:15; Rev. 12:7; Mark 3:27). He has “fallen” (Luke 10:18) and was “thrown down” (Rev. 12:9). He was “crushed” under the feet of the early Christians, and by implication, under the feet of all Christians throughout the ages (Rom. 16:20). He has lost “authority” over Christians (Col. 1:13). He has been “judged” (John 16:11). He cannot “touch” a Christian (1 John 5:18). His works have been destroyed (1 John 3:8). He has “nothing” (John 14:30). He must “flee” when “resisted” (James 4:7). He is “bound” (Mark 3:27; Luke 11:20). Finally, the gates of hell “shall not overpower” the advancing church of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:18).2 Surely Satan is alive, but he is not well on planet earth.
So then, what does Paul mean when he describes Satan as “the god of this world,”3 actually, “of this age”? (2 Cor. 4:4). To hear some people tell it, this verse teaches that Satan has all power and authority in this dispensation and in the locale of planet earth. Where God is the God of heaven and of the age to come, Satan is the god of this world and this present evil age. This dualistic view of the universe may be part of Greek philosophy, but it has no place in biblical theology.
While it’s true that the devil is said to be the god of this age, we know that God is “the King of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17). Paul is simply stating that Satan is the chosen god of those who deny Jesus as God’s rightful heir of all things (Matt. 22:1–14). These are the true antichrists (2 John 2:7; 1 John 2:18). Jesus is in possession of “all authority,” in both heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18–20). How can this be if Satan is in control of the kingdoms of the earth? In addition, we know that Satan’s power has not increased since Job’s day. He is still a permission-seeking creature. This is especially true under the new and better covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ. As the above verses make clear, Satan is a second-class creature who has been cast out and judged: “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out” (John 12:31). When is this judgment? It’s is “now.” The now is then. When would the ruler of this world be case out? Again, the “now” is then. Adam Clarke writes:
The judgment spoken of in this place is applied by some to the punishment which was about to fall on the Jewish people for rejecting Christ. And the ruler or prince . . . of this world, is understood to be Satan, who had blinded the eyes of the Jews, and hardened their hearts, that they might not believe on the Son of God; but his kingdom, not only among the Jews, but in all the world, was about to be destroyed by the abolition of idolatry and the vocation of the Gentiles.
John Gill argues in a similar way. Note the timing of this event. It is not a distant eschatological event but one that was happening because of the work of Jesus:
That is, in a very short time will be the judgment either of the Jewish world, when that shall be reproved, convinced, and condemned for their sin of rejecting Christ, and crucifying him, by the Spirit, in the ministration of the Gospel; and they still continuing in their impenitence and unbelief, in process of time wrath will come upon them, upon their nation, city, and temple, to the uttermost; or of the Gentile world, when there shall be a discrimination, and separation made in it, of the chosen of God, who shall be called by special grace, and with the converted and believing Jews, shall form a Gospel church state, separate from the world of the ungodly; or of the world of God's elect among Jews and Gentiles, whose cause, being undertook by Christ, he will now vindicate it, and redeem them from sin and Satan, who have usurped a power and dominion over them. . . . now the time was at hand, when he should be cast out of the empire of the world he had assumed, and out of the temples of the Gentiles, and out of the hearts of God’s elect among them.
Notice how John 12:31 is linked inextricably with the next verse: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John Lightfoot puts a sharp point on the meaning of the passage: “Our Saviour therefore observing at this time some of the Greeks, that is, the Gentiles, pressing hard to see him, he joyfully declares, that the time is coming on apace wherein this prince must be unseated from his throne and tyranny: ‘And I, when I shall be lifted up upon the cross, and by my death shall destroy him who hath the power of death, then will I draw all nations out of his dominion and power after me.’” We are to believe, following modern-day prophecy writers, that Jesus satisfied Divine justice on the cross and Satan remains the ruler of this world. Further in John’s gospel we learn that “the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11).
What, then, does the apostle mean when he describes Satan as “the god of this age”? First, we must never allow one passage to finalize our understanding of a particular doctrine. Scripture must be compared with Scripture. There are no contradictions. Therefore, we can’t have the Bible saying of the one true God, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5) and then making Satan a rival god. Paul must have something else in mind. We can’t say that Satan has been judged and cast out, something that does not happen to gods, and still maintain that he is the god of this world similar to the way Jehovah is God of this world. Paul is making a theological point. For example, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the devil is their father (John 8:44). We know that Satan is not their biological father. Rather, he is their spiritual father in that they rejected their true Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Physically these Jews, to be sure, are children of Abraham; but spiritually and morally—and that was the issue—they are the children of the devil.4
Jesus is describing the devil as one who gives birth to a worldview, a worldview that includes lying and murder. In this sense, Satan is their spiritual father. In the same way, Satan is a god to those who cling to the fading glory of Moses, “the ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). This is the age over which he is a god, an age that “has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it” (v. 10).
Second, the devil is chosen as a god by “those who are perishing,” and he must blind them before they will follow him: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). This passage teaches that unbelievers are fooled into believing that “the old covenant” where the “veil remains unlifted” is the way to life (v. 14). Satan is the god of the “ministry of death.” The “god of this age” (aion) keeps them in bondage, “but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (v. 16). Liberty from the ministry of death only comes where the Spirit of the Lord is: “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (v. 17). But Satan has blinded the eyes of the unbelieving so they cannot see the lifted veil. They are still trusting in the shadows of the Old Covenant.
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Third, like idols in general, the devil is “by nature” not a god (Gal. 4:8; cf. Deut. 32:17; Ps. 96:5; Isa. 44:9–20; 1 Cor. 8:4; 10:20). In Philippians 3:19, Paul tells us that those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” worship “their appetite”: “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.” The appetite is not a god, but it can be made into one.
Fourth, the only way Satan can pass himself off as a god is to blind his victims. Keep in mind that Jesus described the devil as “a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Though Satan masquerades as a god, this does not make him one.
Satan wishes, albeit vainly, to set himself up as God, and sinners, in rebelling against the true God, subject themselves to him who is the author of their rebellion. The unregenerate serve Satan as though he were their God. They do not thereby, however, escape from the dominion of the one true God. On the contrary, they bring themselves under His righteous judgment; for Satan is a creature and not a God to be served (cf. Rom. 1:18, 25). Just as there is one in the world and every pretended alternative to it is a false no-gospel, so there is only one God of the universe and every other “deity” whom men worship and serve is a false no-god.5
When all the evidence is in we learn that Satan is the god of an age that was passing away. “This age” and “this world” are used “in an ethical sense,” denoting “the immoral realm of disobedience rather than the all-inclusive, extensive scope of creation,” representing “the life of man apart from God and bound to sinful impulses, a world “ethically separated from God.”6 Calling Satan the “god of this age” is more a reflection on the condition of “this age” than the real status of the devil. Chrysostom comments that “Scripture frequently uses the term god, not in regard of the dignity that is so designated, but of the weakness of those in subjection to it; as when he calls mammon lord and belly god: but the belly is neither therefore God nor mammon Lord, save only of those who bow themselves to them.”7
When the church makes Satan the “god of this age,” it has fallen for one of the devil’s schemes—giving him a lot more credit and power than he deserves. He is quite satisfied in having anyone believe one of his lies. The cross, the empty tomb, and Jesus’ enthronement changed everything.