As I write this post, Trump and Clinton are racking up victories in the race to the White House. As you read this post, you may be celebrating or bemoaning the results of last night. You may also be wondering who is to blame for the results. Apart from human voters and strategists, who gets the credit? Satan? Or God?
If you like what happened, you might be tempted to give God credit. And if you don’t like the results, we all know whom to blame, right?
Actually, it’s not that simple. The Bible presents a complex picture of how heavenly beings affect the affairs of earthly kingdoms.
Satan, on the other hand, paints a simple picture. At least that is the picture he painted as he tempted Jesus. Listen to Satan’s claim:
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” (Luke 4:5-7)
What should we make of Satan’s claim? What did Jesus make of it?
Interestingly, Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s claim. Ignoring Satan’s claim of authority, Jesus’ response zeroed in on the actual moral crux of Satan’s temptation:
“It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8)
Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s claim of authority. Does this mean that Jesus agreed with Satan? Did Jesus believe that all the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world belonged to Satan, and that he could give it to whomever he wished? Is this true of Satan today?
Some readers think Satan was speaking the truth. The kingdoms of this world are clearly full of evil, and the Bible clearly states that Satan wields great power over unbelievers. Consider these texts:
“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” (John 12:31; cf. John 14:30; 16:11)
…The god of this world [or age] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ… (2 Cor. 4:4)
…You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:1-2)
Consider Paul’s words about how all creation was “subjected to futility” and is in “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:19-22). Worse, John the Revelator saw a time when a terrible beast “was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months”; indeed, “authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation” (Rev. 13:5-8). Some interpreters think this depicts future events, but others argue convincingly that what John saw is real already today.
And perhaps most clearly of all, who can dispute this confident assertion of John?
We know that… the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)
If we stop here, considering only this evidence, two conclusions seem undisputable to me:
- Satan’s claim to Jesus was true: he does indeed possess the authority and glory of all earthly kingdoms and gives them to whoever he wishes.
- Satan is the one who gave the Super Tuesday victories to Trump and Clinton.
But I think this analysis is too simple. Good theology deals with all the evidence, not just the evidence in favor of Satan.
For example, what about Paul’s words to the Romans?
…There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed… (Rom. 13:1-2)
With the vast majority of interpreters, I understand Paul is referring to civil government leaders. Paul says these leaders have been “instituted” and “appointed” by God.
How can we reconcile this statement with Satan’s claim to Jesus? Or with John’s assertion that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”?
One solution is the idea of secondary causation. What do I mean? First, an imprecise informal example. Let’s say I leave a sharp knife on the table and my three-year-old picks it up and cuts herself. Who caused the cut? Ultimately, I am the primary cause of the cut. But my daughter is also a secondary cause. Thus, we both can rightly be said to have caused the cut.
More precisely, here is the Wikipedia definition of secondary causation:
The philosophical proposition that all material and corporeal objects, having been created by God with their own intrinsic potentialities, are subsequently empowered to evolve independently in accordance with natural law.
This is the idea that God sets up the universe to run in certain ways, then steps back and (at least normally) lets the universe run without direct intervention.
Similarly, we can observe that Satan, as a being created by God, has been permitted a sphere of authority, particularly after successfully tempting Adam and Eve. Thus Satan operates as a “secondary cause” in the affairs of earth. Meanwhile God, who first permitted Satan to gain authority, remains sovereign over all, as the ultimate “First Cause.” (As a personal being he is also much more than that!)
Thus both God and Satan can be said to be, in different senses, the C/cause of the same events, the A/authority over the same sphere of influence.
A strict application of the philosophical idea of secondary causation would mean that God no longer directly interferes in the affairs of earthly kingdoms, having given that authority over to Satan.
So, back to Satan’s claim to Jesus. Has God has sovereignly delegated all authority over earthly kingdoms to Satan, so that Satan is now free to do whatever he wishes with these kingdoms? Is secondary causation the secret for reconciling Romans 13 (God the distant, primary cause) and Luke 4 (Satan the immediate, secondary cause)?
No, I don’t think so. At least not fully. Again, I think this is too simple to explain all the biblical evidence.
Consider the two biblical accounts of David’s sin of calling for a census of Israel. In Samuel we read that “the LORD… incited David” to number Israel and Judah (2 Sam. 24:1). In Chronicles we read that “Satan stood up against Israel and incited David” (1 Chron. 21:1).
One solution for this apparent contradiction may be to see God as the ultimate cause, but Satan as the secondary cause. I do think this distinction is helpful. But I don’t think it’s enough.
It seems that God was more directly involved than that. It hardly seems that God simply allowed Satan to tempt David. The verb “incited” in Samuel suggests that God was an active agent.
Perhaps we could say that God incited David by nudging Satan to tempt him, or by permitting Satan to carry out his evil intent against David. This solution would mirror what happened with Job, where God intentionally brings Job to Satan’s attention, knowing that doing so would trigger Satan’s intent to test Job.
In summary, while I do think the philosophical concept of secondary causation has some validity, I don’t think it recognizes God’s direct agency sufficiently. Yes, there is a sense in which God has turned this fallen earth over to Satan so that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). But I think God still directly and regularly intervenes, controlling events not only through his sovereign “set-up” of how the universe runs, but also through directly permitting and limiting and even overriding Satan’s authority.
Consider some more biblical evidence. In the following accounts, God is pictured as shaping the course of earthly kingdoms. While some of these situations may possibly permit Satan’s involvement as a secondary cause, others seem indisputably to be direct interventions by God. All of these, it seems to me, challenge Satan’s claim that he freely gives the authority and glory of earthly kingdoms to whoever he wishes:
- At the tower of Babel God frustrated the language and purposes of earthly leaders. “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language,” he said. Then “the Lord dispersed them” (Gen. 11:7-8).
- In the Exodus God directly sent plagues on Egypt, countering Pharaoh’s aims and ultimately drowning him in the Red Sea. “For this purpose I have raised you up,” the Lord told Pharaoh, “to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16).
- In the conquest of Canaan God waged holy war against idolatrous nations, giving the land over to his people in fulfillment of his ancient promises. Similarly, many accounts describe God actively defeating enemy nations and removing kings during the time of Israel’s monarchy.
- In Daniel God is repeatedly described as sovereign over earthly kingdoms. In particular, consider how God, in fulfillment of his own prophetic word, took the Babylonian kingdom away from proud Nebuchadnezzar. Then—in an act that leaves even less room for Satan’s authority and agency—God restored Nebuchadezzar’s reason and kingdom, bringing him to humble repentance (Dan. 4:28-37). Why did God do this? So that “the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17).
- God chose Cyrus before he was born to be the one who would oversee the return of exiled Israel and the rebuilding of the temple. Listen to God’s words of direct agency: He “anointed” Cyrus; he “grasped” Cyrus’s right hand to make him a military victor; he said “I will go before you… I call you by your name.” Why did God do all this? “That people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other… I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Is. 45:1-7).
- When Herod allowed the people to praise him as a god, “immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down” (Acts 12:23).
As I consider accounts such as these, I have to call Satan’s bluff. Yes, there is a sense in which the kingdoms of the world have been “delivered” to him. But he does not “give [them] to whom [he] will.” Only God can rightly make that claim.
Satan is a liar. And his temptations usually include lies. Often he takes the truth, then subtly twists it, or tells only half of it. This is what he did when he tempted Jesus.
Darrell Bock, in his commentary on Luke, comes to the same conclusion:
It is probably best to say that the devil’s offer is a mixture of truth and error. He is pictured as wielding great authority on the earth, so much so that some interpreters regard the offer as totally genuine… He certainly claims such authority in saying he can give these things to whomever he wishes. It is possible that Satan believes the claim, so that the offer should be seen as involving diabolical self-delusion.
But there is evidence in the Gospel that suggests the offer is exaggerated. Jesus’ expulsion of demons is against such a view of Satan’s absolute authority. Later in Luke, Jesus’ authority triumphs over the demons, and the demons respond to his rebuke… Their fear shows that the demons are aware of a limitation on their power. That Satan can be dismissed, as he is in Matt. 4:10, may also suggest this limitation. From the text’s perspective, Satan’s offer is at best characterized as an oversell (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and at worst it is a lie (John 8:44).1 (bold added)
So, back to our opening question: Did Satan give Trump and Clinton their Super Tuesday victories? My short answer is “I don’t know.” I suspect both God and Satan were actively involved, though with God firmly overseeing Satan’s activity–prodding it and limiting it for his purposes.
I think that in most situations like this we are much like Job. He had no idea why he was experiencing what he experienced. He didn’t know Satan was behind the raiding bands, the whirlwind, and the boils. Neither did he know that God had “set him up,” intentionally inviting Satan’s attention.
We know more about heavenly involvement in the affairs of man than Job did—thanks in part to reading Job’s story. But we, like him, still don’t usually know in the moment the ways of God with Satan and man.
So, do we credit Satan or God for the results last night? I can’t give a full answer. But this much I do know: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”
May we trust and honor him, no matter where he bestows his gifts.
What do you make of Satan’s claim? Do you agree with the understanding I’ve presented here? How do you trace the hand of God in the affairs of earthly kingdoms? I’m not interested in hosting a political debate, but I do welcome your reflections in the comments below. Thank you!
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 376. ↩