Do you remember the Looney Tunes animated series where Yosemite Sam keeps getting sent to hell? That cartoon was one of the first times I remember viewing a depiction of hell; Satan was standing behind a podium with the books open, acting as the master of his hellish domain. Such is the typical presentation of Satan, reigning and ruling over hell, cheerfully welcoming those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the flames.
Although most Christians understand this depiction to be fanciful, the concept of Satan ruling over the domain of hell is widely embraced as biblically faithful. The confusion stems from Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18).
This passage is sometimes taught in a way that conveys Satan and his band of demonic cohorts attacking the church from their evil military base in hell. But their scheming from hell is in vain because they will not prevail against the church. To be certain, Satan and the powers of darkness will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, but Jesus is not suggesting that the abode of hell is where Satan currently lives, plans, and attacks. We know this for a couple of reasons:
First, Satan is described as dwelling in the “heavenly places” and “going to and fro on the earth.” In the book of Job, Satan presents himself before God when the “sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord.” (Job 1:6). When the Lord asks Satan “from where have you come,” Satan indicates he has been roaming the earth. This is in agreement with the teaching of Peter who warns Christians to “be sober, be watchful: your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). Thus, Satan is free to roam the earth as a roaring lion.
As a spiritual being, Satan is also described as dwelling in the heavenly places. This should not be understood to mean the dwelling place of God, but rather the “ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” (Ephesians 2:2). Likewise, Paul also says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12).
Therefore, Satan is not in hell today, but he is a spiritual being who is both in the air and roaming the earth for the purpose of deception and destruction.
Second, hell is not a place where Satan takes command. Hell is a place where Satan is condemned. Satan does not smile at the thought of hell, as if he is being rewarded with his own personal domain of terror. The cross of Jesus has already brought a decisive death blow to Satan, and in the future, he and his demonic army will forever be condemned to the lake of fire and eternal separation from God. Satan has no control over hell. God controls hell.
This is why Jesus says, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). The pronoun “him” indicating who can destroy both body and soul in hell is not referring to Satan! That verse is talking about the power and authority of God alone.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Christians certainly need to be aware of the war we are fighting, and yet we should not give Satan more power than he really has. All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus. RC Sproul wrote, “Satan’s authority and power are limited and subordinate to the authority that is vested in Christ.”
Praise the Son who has defeated once and for all the powers of darkness! There is nothing to fear, my friend. Satan is defeated. Christ reigns and rules. Our lives are hidden with Christ. May the joy of the Lord be yours today.