Satan was integral in the betrayal, arrest, torture, and execution of Jesus. During Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, Satan entered into Judas to betray Jesus (Jn. 13:2, 27; Lk. 22:3). Revelation 12 tells us that Satan couldn’t wait to get his hands on Jesus, so that he could “devour” him (Rev. 12:4).
The question is simple: Why?
If Jesus’ death ultimately brought about the defeat of Satan (1 Jn. 3:8; Col. 2:14-15), why would Satan do this? As we’ve already seen, Satan is a remarkably intelligent being. Why would he follow through with his plot to kill Jesus, if this would lead to his eventual demise?
Theologians have offered at least three different reasons for why Satan crucified Jesus:
(1) Satan the SUBMISSIVE. Those in the Reformed tradition often argue that Satan crucified Jesus, because God is sovereign and made him do it (Acts 2:23). We have no problem with God overriding Satan’s freewill to do such a thing. Since God is sovereign, this could very well be the case.
(2) Satan the SADIST. Since Satan is a bloodthirsty murderer (Rev. 12:4; Jn. 8:44), perhaps he simply couldn’t help himself. While he knew that the crucifixion of Jesus would open up heaven for humanity, perhaps he simply couldn’t resist torturing and killing the Son of God.
(3) Satan the SEIZER. This perspective fits under the notion of Christus Victor (see “Defending Substitutionary Atonement”). Under this view, Satan thought he could hold Jesus in death, but he underestimated the power of his resurrection (Heb. 2:14).
All three of these theories are certainly plausible. But there is another theory that has more explanatory power than all others: Satan didn’t know what would happen if he crucified Jesus. This theory is espoused by my friend and mentor Dennis McCallum in his excellent book Satan and His Kingdom. We will look closely at this here.
Couldn’t Satan have read the prophecies about Jesus in the OT?
Certainly the prophecies about Jesus in the OT are abundant (see Jesus and Messianic Prophecy). Satan definitely knew of these prophecies. In fact, we see Satan citing Scripture from memory in his interactions with Jesus (Mt. 4; Lk. 4). Thus the question is not whether Satan was aware of these predictions. Instead, the question is whether he understood them. Did Satan expect Jesus to come as the Suffering Servant, or was he expecting a Conquering King like everyone else (Jn. 6:15)?
No one before Jesus believed that the Messiah was going to come to die before he came to rule the Earth. We find no extrabiblical commentators who believed that Isaiah 53 referred to the death and resurrection of the Messiah. NT scholar George Ladd writes, “Judaism before Christ never interpreted [Isaiah 53] as referring to the sufferings of the Messiah.” NT scholar D.A. Carson concurs, “There does not seem to be an unambiguous pre-Christian source within Judaism that identifies the Suffering Servant of Isa. 53 with the anticipated Messiah.” Even critic Bart Ehrman agrees, “We do not have a single Jewish text prior to the time of Jesus that interprets the passage messianically.”
This shouldn’t surprise us. Even throughout Jesus’ life, the people around him did not understand the purpose of his mission on Earth.
The crowds: When Jesus told them that he would be “lifted up” at the Cross, the people said, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (Jn. 12:34).
Peter: At the Last Supper when Jesus told the disciples that he was leaving, Peter said, “Lord, where are You going?” (Jn. 13:36; cf. 14:17-18)
John the Baptist: While John the Baptist was the most righteous man on Earth—next to Jesus himself (Mt. 11:11), he was still unable to fully comprehend Jesus’ mission. While he did call Jesus “The Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29, 36), he also was very confused over Jesus’ identity later in life. In fact, later on, he sent messengers to discern if Jesus was even the Messiah at all (Mt. 11:2-3).
Even though Jesus explicitly taught about his death and resurrection (Lk. 18:31-33), Luke records, “The disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said” (Lk. 18:34). It wasn’t until after he rose from the dead that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:45-47). While the passages about the Suffering Servant are crystal clear after the Cross, these were mysterious before. For one, the Suffering Servant is anonymous, and he is never explicitly called the Messiah. To readers before the time of Christ, this connection was never made.
Satan is brilliant, but like unbelieving human interpreters, he would not have understood these predictions before the Cross. We believe that non-Christians can use the grammatical-historical method to interpret Scripture, arriving at the same conclusions as believers. But when it comes to understanding God’s plan and mysteries, these are left for only believers. For instance, regarding his own prophecies, Daniel was told, “Those who have insight will understand” (Dan. 12:10). This is why Paul writes, “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). James writes that we need to act on the truths of Scripture to really understand their meaning and value (Jas. 1:22-25).
While there are brilliant people in the world today, God reveals his truth to the humble of heart. For instance, Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Mt. 11:25). While Satan was certainly more brilliant than any human on Earth, he isn’t omniscient or omnipresent (Jn. 14:30). Thus he missed what Jesus was planning on doing.
Satan would never have expected that God would go to such great lengths to love humans. Satan is a self-seeker. He is out for his own glory, and so, he expects everyone else to be also. He would have never expected God to glorify himself by hanging naked and bloody from a Cross (Jn. 17:1). This is antithetical to everything that Satan believes in, and it would have blindsided him to even consider. As C.S. Lewis’ fictional demonic character Screwtape writes to his fellow demon:
I slipped by mere carelessness into saying that the Enemy really loves the humans. That, of course, is an impossibility. He is one being, they are distinct from Him. Their good cannot be His. All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else—He must have some real motive for creating them and taking so much trouble about them. The reason one comes to talk as if He really had this impossible Love is our utter failure to out that real motive. What does He stand to make out of them? That is the insoluble question. I do not see that it can do any harm to tell you that this very problem was a chief cause of Our Father’s quarrel with the Enemy. When the creation of man was first mooted and when, even at that stage, the Enemy freely confessed that he foresaw a certain episode about a cross, Our Father very naturally sought an interview and asked for an explanation. The Enemy gave no reply except to produce the cock-and-bull story about disinterested love which He has been circulating ever since. This Our Father naturally could not accept. He implored the Enemy to lay His cards on the table, and gave Him every opportunity. He admitted that he felt a real anxiety to know the secret; the Enemy replied “I wish with all my heart that you did”. It was, I imagine, at this stage in the interview that Our Father’s disgust at such an unprovoked lack of confidence caused him to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence with a suddenness which has given rise to the ridiculous enemy story that he was forcibly thrown out of Heaven. Since then, we have begun to see why our Oppressor was so secretive. His throne depends on the secret. Members of His faction have frequently admitted that if ever we came to understand what He means by Love, the war would be over and we should reenter Heaven. And there lies the great task. We know that He cannot really love: nobody can: it doesn’t make sense. If we could only find out what He is really up to! Hypothesis after hypothesis has been tried, and still we can’t find out. Yet we must never lose hope; more and more complicated theories, fuller and fuller collections of data, richer rewards for researchers who make progress, more and more terrible punishments for those who fail—all this, pursued and accelerated to the very end of time, cannot, surely, fail to succeed.
Satan convinced himself that God isn’t loving. He’d rather rule in hell, than serve in heaven. Ever since, Satan has tried to “liberate” others from the cruel and sadistic control of God. He convinces believers regularly that God is a Cosmic Cop or a Divine Tyrant. He accuses God of being a control-freak, who is out for his own glory and worship. He tells humans that God is unloving, self-serving, and tyrannical.
But the Cross of Christ was the ultimate defeater of Satan’s accusations!
The Cross of Christ must have ultimately blindsided Satan, because he never believed that God would be so sacrificial, so loving. He must have never saw it coming. We might picture Satan thinking, “You, the God of the Universe, died for these smelly, hairy, little primates! What was in it for you?”
Satan’s accusations were defeated at the Cross
Since the Cross, Satan’s accusations have been robbed of their power: Any time we wonder if God is a tyrant, we look at the Cross. Any time we think that God is self-serving, we look at the Cross. Any time we consider that God is a controlling sadist, we look at the Cross. After the Cross, we see clearly and unmistakably that Satan is the deceiver—not God!
As a result, Satan’s accusations have been eternally defeated. The night before his death, Jesus predicted that “the ruler of this world will be cast out” (Jn. 12:31). By dying on the Cross, Paul writes, “[Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Col. 2:14-15). Through the Cross, Jesus “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13; cf. Acts 26:18). He freed believers from the fear of death, which is one of Satan’s essential tools to oppress humans (Heb. 2:14-15).
While Satan will be ultimately destroyed at the Second Coming of Christ, he has been presently defeated by robbing him of his accusations against God.
Why did God go through all of the trouble?
God could have overpowered Satan at any moment. When it comes time for God to overpower Satan, he throws him like a ragdoll into the lake of fire (Rev. 20). The psalmist writes, “Who in all of heaven can compare with the Lord? What mightiest angel is anything like the Lord? 7 The highest angelic powers stand in awe of God. He is far more awesome than all who surround his throne. 8 O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies! Where is there anyone as mighty as you, O Lord?” (Ps. 89:6-8 NLT). If God simply wanted to crush Satan, the match would be a “no contest.”
God didn’t want to merely DESTROY Satan, when he needed to be REFUTED. Satan’s strongest weapon isn’t his power, but his suspicion about God’s character. From the beginning of the biblical record, Satan casts doubt on God’s character to the earliest humans (Gen. 3:1-4). If God came as a Conquering King to destroy Satan, this would only confirm Satan’s accusations about God’s self-serving character.
Imagine the celestial scene in heaven the moment after Satan made his first accusation against God’s character. Consider Satan saying, “You’re a control freak! You’re selfish! You don’t consider anyone else’s views but your own!” Now, just imagine if God pulled out a celestial shotgun and blew Satan away. Then, turning to the billions of other angels in heaven, He says, “Does anyone else have any accusations to make?”
Clearly, this would be perfectly just and righteous for God to do, but it would have only further created suspicion about his character. Forster and Marston write,
We may indeed accept that he had the sheer power to stop or even destroy Satan. The problem is that in this case, even as Satan sank under God’s wrath and destruction, he would have gone with a sneer on his lips as though to say, ‘I told you so.’ Such a ‘solution’ would have left forever unanswered Satan’s accusation that God’s kingdom was based (like his own) on force and expediency. It was not lack of power that prevented God from crushing Satan—it was a matter of principle. It is, perhaps, comparable to the moral restraint that makes it impossible for God to lie. Satan’s accusations must be answered, and they cannot be truly answered by a force that simply crushes the accuser.
Instead of destroying Satan in an instant, he sets forth his plan to refute him forever.
The mystery taught throughout the New Testament
As we read our NT, we see that everyone expected Christ to come as the Conquering King—not a Suffering Servant. In fact, when Jesus confronted several demons in the country of the Gadarenes, they asked him, “Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Mt. 8:29) Clearly, none of the demons expected that Christ would be tormented on the Cross. Instead, they thought that he was coming to torment them.
Paul seemed to have a clear grasp on the fact that God had kept his plan a secret or mystery from everyone before Christ came. The demonic realm would not have crucified Jesus, if he had understood his plan. For instance, Paul writes,
(1 Cor. 2:6-8) We do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Many commentators believe that the “rulers of this age” refer to Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod, and the Sanhedrin. Yet in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he describes Satan as “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), and he calls demons “world rulers of this darkness” (Eph. 6:12). Could it be that the world rulers that he is referring to are actually the demonic realm, who were blindsided by the self-sacrificial act of the cross?
We see the concept of the “mystery” all over the NT writings. Paul writes, “Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, 26 but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26; cf. Col. 1:25-27). Certainly, the gospel cannot be the mystery that Paul is writing of here. The gospel was preached in the OT, as well as in the NT (Heb. 4:2). We know that believers were justified by faith in the OT, just like in the NT. Likewise, the concept of Gentiles entering into the kingdom of God cannot be the mystery either. God’s purpose of blessing the Gentile nations was overwhelmingly clear in the OT (Gen. 12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ex. 9:16; Josh. 4:24; 1 Kings 8:41-43; Ps. 72:17; Jer. 4:2; Zech. 8:13; Ezek. 36:22-23; Isa. 19:24-25; 37:20; 45:22-23; 52:10; 66:18-19).
The mystery refers to God’s plan of salvation through Christ. Paul writes elsewhere,
(Eph. 3:3-6) By revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. 4 By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; 6 to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Here Paul explains that the mystery was related to the Gentiles being a part of God’s covenant. But as we noted above, this wasn’t really a secret in the OT. It was predicted throughout. Paul continues to unpack what this mystery really is:
(Eph. 3:7-11) This grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; 10 so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul writes that this mystery was “hidden in God” himself—even the angels didn’t know his plan completely. In fact, as a result of this mystery is that the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” will learn something about God’s character.
This is why Paul writes that “God displayed publicly” the propitiation of Christ (Rom. 3:25). The Cross was a public demonstration—not just to himself—but to humans and even angels. Peter writes,
(1 Pet. 1:10-12) As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.
Christ’s plan was kept even from the angelic realm “hidden in God” himself (Eph. 3:9). We also know that angels look at the events on Earth (Lk. 15:10; 1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:21). As they watched the nails being driven into Jesus’ hands, they must have been utterly perplexed: “Why is Jesus being killed? Why doesn’t he defend himself?” But after the floodgates of heaven were opened to sinful people, the angelic realm (perhaps millions or billions of spiritual beings) learned something about the nature of God that they had never seen before: God is far, far more loving that we could have ever imagined!
What is Satan thinking at this point?
From all we can tell from Scripture, the Cross hasn’t deterred Satan one bit. Satan knows that he is defeated, but this hasn’t made him depressed or apathetic; it’s made him furious (Rev. 12:12). Consider Hitler after D-Day: When it became clear that he was defeated on the western front, Hitler dug in deeper, fighting even more tenaciously. He executed prisoners of war at Valkyrie—even though he knew he had lost the war.
Even though Satan has lost the war against God and his people, there are still many battles ahead. But hopefully, this conception of Satan’s defeat can help bring a better grasp to the believer, to trust in the work of Christ deeper and to refute the accusations of Satan with our greatest weapon: The Cross of Christ.
McCallum, Dennis. Satan and His Kingdom: What the Bible Says and How It Matters to You. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2009. See Appendices 2 through 4.
Michael S. Heiser, “What You Know May Not Be So: How Biblical Prophecy is Unclear and Why.” While we do not agree with Heiser’s view on interpreting OT prophecy (see “The NT use of the OT”), he holds to this same view on the mystery of prophecy in the OT regarding Christ.
Return to “Satanology”
 Ladd, George Eldon. I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975. 66.
 Beale, G. K., & Carson, D. A. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos. 2007. 1034.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 166.
 Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. New York: HarperOne. 2009. 99-101.
 Forster, Roger T., and V. Paul Marston. God’s Strategy in Human History. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1974. 8.
 This illustration was generously taken from Dennis McCallum. McCallum, Dennis. Satan and His Kingdom: What the Bible Says and How It Matters to You. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2009. 51.