Genesis 1:31 says, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” God did not create anything evil. It was all very good.
Then, suddenly when chapter three opens, there is this serpent. And he is clearly evil. He is calling God’s Word into question. Genesis 3:1: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” He is devious and deceitful and destructive. God had told Adam in Genesis 2:17, “The day that you eat of [this tree] you shall surely die.” But the serpent says in Genesis 3:4: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Therefore, Jesus says of him in John 8:44 that he is both a liar and murderer:
“He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
Satan, That Ancient Serpent
Who is this serpent? The fullest answer is given in Revelation 12:9: “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
So, the serpent in the garden is the devil (which means slanderer), and Satan (which means accuser), and the deceiver of the whole world. Jesus calls him “the evil one” (Matthew 13:19) and “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The Pharisees call him “Beelzebub, the prince of demons” (Matthew 12:24). Paul calls him “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).
That’s the one we meet in Genesis 3. He is already evil, already a deceiver, already a murderer when he appears in the garden of God. In Genesis 3:15, God speaks to the serpent and pronounces judgment on him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Notice that at first it looks like the warfare will be between two offsprings: “between your offspring and her offspring.” But in the next words something different is said: “He shall bruise your head.” Who is “he”? Answer: the woman’s offspring. Who is “your” (“he shall bruise your head”)? Answer: the serpent himself, not his offspring.
The Crushing of Satan at the Cross
The day is coming, God says, when you (not just your offspring) will be defeated and removed from the earth. The offspring of this woman will crush you (see Romans 16:20 and Hebrews 2:14). That decisive blow was struck by the perfect offspring of the woman, Jesus Christ, when He died on the cross. This is one of the reasons why the eternal Son of God had to become a man—because it was the offspring of the woman who would crush Satan.
Colossians 2:14–15 describes what God did for those who trust His Son, when Christ died on the cross: “[The record of debt that stood against us] he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
When Christ died for our sins, Satan was disarmed and defeated. The one eternally destructive weapon that he had was stripped from his hand, namely, his accusation before God that we are guilty and should perish with him. When Christ died, that accusation was nullified. All those who entrust themselves to Christ will never perish. Satan cannot separate them from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:37–39).
The Insurrection of Satan
But where did Satan come from? And why does God tolerate his murderous activity? In Genesis he just appears. Between the perfection described in Genesis 1:31 (“behold, it was very good”) and the appearance of evil in Genesis 3, something happened. The good creation was corrupted.
The little books of Jude and 2 Peter in the New Testament give us clues as to what happened. Jude 1:6 says, “The angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” And 2 Peter 2:4 says, “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.”
It appears then that once there was a host of holy angels. And some of them, including Satan, “sinned,” or as Jude 1:6 says, “did not stay within their own position of authority.” In other words, the sin was a kind of insurrection. A desire for more power and more authority than they were appointed by God and under God. So Satan originates as a created angel who, with other angels, rebel against God, reject Him as their all-satisfying king and joy, and set out on a course of self-exaltation and presumed self-determination. They do not want to be subordinate. They do not want to be sent by God to serve others (Hebrews 1:14). They want to have authority over themselves and exalt themselves above God.
The Origin of Satan’s Sin
So we ask now again: Why? How could this happen? There is not an easy answer. In fact, the ultimate Biblical answer creates more questions. So it seems that in this age, while we “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12), some people find help in saying that the angels had free will and God could not exert enough influence to keep them adoring Him. But I don’t find that idea helpful. It simply doesn’t answer the question: Why would a perfectly holy angel in God’s infinitely beautiful presence use his free will to suddenly hate God?
A Failed Approach
This idea—that God was helpless to prevent this rebellion, and that it is owing to the innate self-determining wills of sinless angels—is not a solution to the problem. It doesn’t account for why perfectly holy beings would use their wills to despise what they were created adoring. And it doesn’t fit with what the rest of what the Bible says about God’s rule over the devil.
The Biblical Approach
My approach to answering the question of how to think about the origin of Satan’s sin is to read the whole Bible with the question: How does God relate to Satan’s will? Is God helpless before the will of evil powers? Is there a power outside Himself that limits His rule over them? Or is God presented throughout the Bible as having the right and the power to restrain Satan anytime He pleases? And if so, why doesn’t He just destroy him?
God’s Sovereign Sway over Satan
Though Satan is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), Daniel 4:17 says, “The Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom he wishes.” And Psalm 33:10 says, “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.” Yes, Satan is the “ruler of this world,” but the ultimate one—God—holds final sway.
God Governs Satan’s Every Move
From cover to cover the Bible presents God as governing Satan and his demons. He has the right and power to restrain them any time He pleases.
I conclude, therefore, that God permitted Satan’s fall, not because He was helpless to stop it, but because He had a purpose for it. Since God is never taken off guard, His permissions are always purposeful. If He chooses to permit something, He does so for a reason—an infinitely wise reason. How the sin arises in Satan’s heart, we do not know. God has not told us. What we do know is that God is sovereign over Satan, and therefore Satan’s will does not move without God’s permission. And therefore every move of Satan is part of God’s overall purpose and plan. And this is true in such a way that God never sins. God is infinitely holy, and God is infinitely mighty. Satan is evil, and Satan is under the all-governing wisdom of God.
Why Not Wipe Out Satan?
Why, then, does God not simply wipe Satan out? He has the right and power to do this. And Revelation 20:10 says He is going to do it someday. Why didn’t He cast him into the Lake of Fire the day after he rebelled? Why let him rampage through humanity for centuries?
The ultimate answer is that “all things were created through Christ and for Christ” (Colossians 1:16). The Son of God, Jesus Christ, will be more highly honored in the end because He defeats Satan through longsuffering, patience, humility, servanthood, suffering and death, rather than through raw power. And the more highly honored the Son is, the greater the joy of those who love Him.
For the Fullness of Christ’s Glory
The glory of Christ reaches its apex in the obedient sacrifice of the cross where Jesus triumphed over the devil (Colossians 2:15). Jesus said, “Now [in my final hour] is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31). Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24). Jesus said to Paul about Satan’s thorn in Paul’s side, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In the end, Satan and all his pain serves to magnify the power, wisdom, love, grace, mercy, patience and wrath of Jesus Christ. We would not know Him in the fullness of His glory if He had not defeated Satan in the way He did. When we renounce the designs of the devil and trust the power and wisdom and goodness of God through Christ, we fulfill God’s purpose in letting Satan live. We glorify the infinitely superior worth of Jesus. ©2017 Desiring God Foundation.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally.