Satan is not in control of this world. God never has given, and never will give, to Satan any freedom that God himself does not restrain and decisively direct for his wise, just, and good purposes. In all his acts, Satan is subject to God’s overruling and guiding providence.
Since Satan is uniformly evil, we may use the words of Genesis 50:20 for every one of his acts in this world: “he meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” When Satan wills something, he always intends to diminish God’s glory and ultimately ruin God’s people. When God permits Satan to act with that design, God’s design in doing so is for his glory and the ultimate good of his people.
But given the amount of evil and pain that Satan causes in the world, we inevitably ask, Why does God permit Satan to go on working, or even existing? If God rules Satan so thoroughly, why does he not use his power and wisdom to put Satan out of existence now?
The Bible does not answer this question directly. But there are pointers. So let me venture four answers for you to test. Even though these suggestions are not given in Scripture as explicit answers to our question, nevertheless, I think they do give a partial answer.
I would sum up why God permits Satan to go on living and working by saying that God intends to defeat Satan not with one initial blow of power, but through four processes:
- He is defeating Satan with showing.
- He is defeating Satan with suffering.
- He is defeating Satan with Satan.
- He is defeating Satan with savoring.
1. God is defeating Satan with showing more of his own attributes.
Consider the lamentable condition of the woman in Luke 13:10–17, who for eighteen years “was bent over and could not fully straighten herself” (Luke 13:11). Luke tells us more specifically that “Satan [had] bound [her] for eighteen years” (Luke 13:16). Jesus is going to heal her completely, which means that God could have healed her at any time during those eighteen painful years. He was powerful and compassionate enough to do it at any time. But instead he permitted Satan to have his ugly way in her body for eighteen years.
The upshot of healing her was that Jesus’s “adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him” (Luke 13:17). We do not know why God permitted this woman to endure Satan’s “binding” for so long. But what we do know is this: by overcoming this woman’s satanic bondage, Jesus defeated Satan in two other ways — in exposing the hypocrisy of his adversaries, and in showing his compassion and authority and power so that people rejoiced at his glorious deeds.
It seems to me, then, that this one incident gives a glimpse into God’s larger purpose for his timing in defeating Satan. From this story, we may infer that part of God’s purpose is to show more aspects of Christ’s glory by the manifold demonstrations of his superiority over Satan than would be shown if he had put Satan out of existence all at once, at some earlier point in redemptive history.
2. God is defeating Satan with suffering.
The most central and staggering reality about Satan’s eventual defeat is not that he will be thrown into the lake of fire but that Jesus was thrown into the fire, as it were (Luke 12:50), to defeat Satan’s hold on his people. Both Paul and the writer to the Hebrews teach that Jesus defeated Satan by means of his suffering and death (Colossians 2:13–15; Hebrews 2:14–15).
It is more beautiful, more glorious and excellent and wonderful, that the greatest person in the universe should defeat the most despicable being in the universe by choosing to suffer and die in an act of liberating love — love for those who were in fact “following the prince of the power of the air . . . like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:2–3). When Jesus throws Satan into the lake of fire, Jesus’s justice and power will be on full display. But at the cross, his grace and mercy and patience and love and wisdom were on full display as he conquered Satan’s claim on God’s people by paying their debts.
Colossians 2:14 makes clear how Satan lost his claim on God’s people when Christ died. Christ canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” This is followed by its effect on Satan: “He [in canceling their debts] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). In other words, the only damning indictments Satan can bring against us at the last day is unforgiven sin. But Christ nailed those to the cross. This stripped from Satan’s hand his only damning weapon. He was disarmed. Indeed, he was shamed because, in all his vaunted strength and pride and hate, he lost his prize — God’s elect — to an act of omnipotent weakness and humility and love.
The ultimate goal of providence is the joyful praise of the glory of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14), and the consummate demonstration of that glorious grace is the freely chosen suffering and death of the infinitely worthy Son of God for unworthy sinners like us. Now we see some small glimpse of why Satan is given such a role in the theater of God’s wonders. At every point, Christ proves superior, and at the most important moment in history, the beauty of Christ shines most brightly as the ugliest being is undone by the greatest act of beauty.
3. God is defeating Satan with Satan.
The wisdom of God appears more fully, and his superiority over Satan in every way, not just in sheer power, shines more brightly, in the manifold ways he brings Satan to ruin. One of those ways is to make Satan serve God’s sanctifying purposes in the lives of his children. It must infuriate Satan that God’s ways are so pure and brilliant that Satan not only fails to obstruct them but unwittingly serves them.
What I have in mind is Paul’s thorn in the flesh, which he tells us about in 2 Corinthians 12:1–10. Paul had been granted a supernatural glimpse into heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1–4). God had granted Paul this privilege, knowing it would tempt Paul to be conceited. God deemed the gift worth the troubles to come. His answer to this dangerous temptation of pride was to see to it (providence) that Paul would have a thorn in the flesh. Paul tells us this with a stunning sentence about God’s aim to sanctify him, and Satan’s unwitting hand in it!
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
At the beginning and the ending of this verse, the purpose of the thorn is mentioned: “to keep me from becoming conceited . . . to keep me from becoming conceited.” Now, that is not Satan’s design. Satan does not hinder conceit; he helps it. This is God’s design for Paul’s thorn — humility and trust. Nevertheless, the thorn is called “a messenger of Satan.” In ways that exceed our full comprehension, God is able to harness Satan’s hatred of Paul and make it serve God’s own purposes of Paul’s humility and purity and glad reliance on the grace of Jesus.
So, the upshot of Satan’s attack on Paul is not only the exposure of his self-defeating folly, but also the revelation of Christ’s all-satisfying grace:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)
I think this gets close to the heart of why God allows Satan to exist and bring short-term harm on God’s people. It becomes an occasion not only to show the greater glory of Christ’s wisdom and power and worth, but also to show the superior satisfaction that this glory gives his people compared to what Satan can give. This leads to the fourth divine strategy for defeating Satan.
4. God is defeating Satan with savoring.
Notice that the climax of Paul’s experience of the thorn in the flesh is not Paul’s awareness of Christ’s grace as sufficient. Rather, the awareness and experience of this sufficiency brings Paul to “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.” When Paul experiences the all-sufficient grace of Jesus as a “glad” (hēdista, 2 Corinthians 12:9, the word from which we get hedonism!) boast, this experience makes the grace and the power of Christ stand forth all the more clearly.
I call this “gladness” savoring. And my point is that God intends for Satan to be defeated in this age not merely by showing him to be weaker than Christ, but also by showing him to be less savory than Christ — less desirable, less satisfying. If this sounds superficial or marginal to you, you and I are not yet on the same page. In my understanding of God’s purposes in the universe, the ultimate goal is that the beauty and worth of Christ be magnified as the supreme treasure of the universe through being savored above all other reality. Providence over Satan and all other created reality reaches its ultimate goal when the intensity of human savoring corresponds to the infinite beauty and worth of Christ.
Satan’s most essential role in achieving that goal is to offer us every conceivable pleasure to entice us away from savoring, desiring, and being satisfied with Christ, and every conceivable pain to turn us against the goodness of Christ. When God’s people face these temptations to prefer the world and to repudiate Christ, but instead “gladly” boast in their weaknesses and losses because of the surpassing value of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9; Philippians 3:8), Satan is defeated in the most wonderful and thorough way.
Satan is not only shown to be weaker than Christ, but, more importantly, he is shown to be less desirable than Christ. Satan is less satisfying because he is not only weak compared to Christ’s power, but also ugly compared to Christ’s beauty and disgusting compared to Christ’s sweetness. Nothing Satan is and nothing he offers can compare with Christ.
The savoring of Christ above all that Satan can give in riches, or all he can take in suffering, magnifies Christ’s beauty and worth in ways that could never have happened if God had banished Satan from the world before his weakness and folly and ugliness were fully exposed, and before Christ was shown to be infinitely more desirable. In this way, God’s plan to allow Satan’s ongoing existence and influence serves the ultimate goal of providence.