If you ask the average Christian in the United States about the Trinity, or about the Holy Spirit in particular, you probably will not get a very meaningful answer. On the other hand, if you ask that same person about the devil, they will probably have a very systematic and detailed view of exactly what the devil is, what his purpose is, and how he came to be. Most people would then site the Bible as their primary source of knowledge. To me, this is perplexing, even a little troubling.
Most people use the term devil, Satan, Beelzebub, and Lucifer all to mean the same thing, and believe that all the Biblical uses of these terms are about the same evil being.
The most famous cases in the Bible of the devil are in the book of Genesis, Job, and the Gospels. In Genesis, though, there is no use of any of the devil-like words. There is simply a talking serpent, who tells Eve that nothing will happen if she and Adam eat the fruit. In Job, the Hebrew ha-satan is used, which means the accuser. By making ha-satan the word Satan, it appears as if this is a proper name of a being, instead of a desrciption or title. I wonder how much of our cultural misunderstanding of Satan would be different if the King James Version had translated ha-satan into the lower-case “accuser.”
In the Gospels, the appearance of the word “devil” comes from the Greek diabalos, which also means accuser. The devil appears to Jesus in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and tempts Jesus.
All three of these “appearances” differ much from the cultural understanding of Satan. With Eve, Job, and Jesus, the accuser is seen as an instrument of temptation – not the personification of evil. Many understand Satan as a fallen angel, at odds with God, trying to rule the world and overthrow God. This image does not match up with most of the Biblical images of the Satan. To a certain extent, this depiction is supported by images of Satan in Revelation.
It is unlikely though, that the Satan in Revelation is meant to be the same being as the Satan in Genesis, Job and the Gospels. Revelation was written in a rich and dense symbolic code to a people under heavy persecution by the Romans. It had a much different purpose, audience, and meaning than much of the Biblical narrative.
This is obviously a brief scratching of the surface of the concept of the devil, but I think it is an interesting topic. Maybe someday I will write a book comparing the cultural concepts of the devil, which has roots in propaganda against Pagan religions in Europe, and the Biblical concept of the accuser.
I suspect that an in-depth word study of the 51 appearances of the word “Satan” and the 36 uses of the word “devil” in the Bible, compared to a survey of what people think is in the Bible about the devil or Satan would reveal much about our culture.