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Hooray for Milton

by Tim O'Hearn

It’s a nice story. Satan was a beautiful angel in heaven, maybe even a great singer. But then he gets too proud, leads a bunch of angels in a revolt and is kicked out of heaven. So he becomes the prince of this world, and reigns here and in hell. Add to that, Jesus went to hell after the crucifixion and took some keys from him. Oh, and one of his names is Lucifer. Sound familiar? It should. It is the plot of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and many people believe it is told in the Bible, too. The problem is, it isn’t in the Bible at all. Some portions seem to be, but on closer examination they are not.

Start with two names. Satan and Lucifer. In the Old Testament the title Satan (adversary) appears in four books. The name/title is not used in the book of Genesis, even in the narration of the incidents in the Garden of Eden. (That passage only speaks of the serpent, and not even using the description as the devil.) In Job and Zechariah the one holding that title is still in heaven and appears to be some sort of prosecutor. In each case it may not even be the same angel. In either case, that puts Satan in heaven after the devil did his work on earth. It is not until the New Testament that the title Satan is in any way associated with the devil. For clarity it would have been better to say that the devil was the subject of that first paragraph. And what about Lucifer? That name or title appears only once in the Bible, if at all. The King James Version uses that name to translate a Hebrew word (that doesn’t even sound like Lucifer) which means light-bearer. Most modern translations don’t use that word at all. It only appears in Isaiah 14:12, where it is specifically addressing the king of Babylon. “How art thou fallen from the heavens.” It prophesies the downfall of Babylon from its lofty position in world politics, and appears to have nothing to do with falling from the abode of God.

What about the beautiful angel description? Ezekiel 28 speaks of the “anointed cherub” who was “perfect…until iniquity was found in thee.” Even though “thy heart was lifted up because of thy beauty” “I will cast thee to the ground.” All are very good biblical quotes that sound very much like the story above. The problem is that they are specifically addressed to the king of Tyre.

So now we have prophecies about the kings of Babylon and Tyre conflated into a tale of a beautiful cherub named Lucifer who got too proud and was cast out of heaven. It takes some serious twisting of the scriptures to make all of this symbolic of some angel, rather than the specific kings addressed.

Then there is his reign. Jesus did refer to the devil as “the prince of this world.” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) In two of those passages, however, he points out that his reign as prince was about to end when Jesus died on the stake. As far as reigning in hell, that might be a bit difficult. Because hell is a place without God, there can be no good. It is a place of chaos, of anarchy. There can be no ruler in such a place.

After this so-called rebellion someone was “cast out” of heaven. Peter does mention (2 Pet 2:4) angels that sinned who were cast down to hell and chained. He doesn’t specify the sin, although any sin could be called rebellion. Some equate these to the “spirits in prison” of 1 Peter 3:19, which would make them human, not angelic. Some point out the ambiguity of the term angel, which can be used of men or heavenly beings. Either way, these angels are chained and not on this earth. Jesus “beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” (Lk 10:18) No specifics are given as to when, why, or how. He specifies that he fell, not was cast out. To incorporate either of these passages into the narrative above would be to take them out of context and beat them as a square peg into a round hole.

As for taking the keys of hell, there is absolutely no relevant passage in the Bible. In Revelation 1:18 Jesus claims to possess the “keys of hell and of death.” It does not say that he had to take them from anyone. They have always been his.

You tell people something long enough and loud enough they begin to believe it, and even repeat it. Too bad some of them don’t research it first.