In my recent preparation for a sermon in Hebrews, I came across a unique phrase that required further study. The verse is Hebrews 2:14. It reads, “Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil…” (NABRE)
Now, the phrase at once raises the question, “Does Satan have power over death?” The answer to that question, is “Yes and No.”
Take, for example, Psalm 90:3, “You turn humanity back into dust, saying, ‘Return, you children of Adam!’” G-d has the power of death, not Satan. Or Matthew 10:28, where Jesus warns us to fear his Father, and not human villains. He states, “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” In a way, then, Satan does not possess power over death.
Yet we have read the verse in Hebrews. Is this a contradiction? Absolutely not!
Scripture, when taken in whole, shows us that Satan is a tool of God. David Allen, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, “It is because he was the instigator of sin through his temptation of the first couple in the garden. God, not Satan, holds the ultimate power of death, ‘but the power which he presently wields is also the power by which he is destroyed.’” [David Allen, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Hebrews page 219.] In his large work solely on the topic of the Devil, Paul Carus comments, “It is noteworthy that Satan, in the canonical books of the Old Testament, is an adversary of man, but not of God; he is a subject of God and God’s faithful servant.”
Now, in my preparation for the sermon, I began (and still am) looking into Satanology, the study of Satan. We must, when dealing with a subject as grave and dangerous, I believe balance is a key. For example, Paul states that we are not ignorant of Satan’s purposes (see 2 Corinthians 2:11), but we must also seek to be simple concerning evil (see Romans 16:11).
I endeavor, then, to keep these two admonitions in balance. As I stated, I have been researching (and continue to do so) the teachings of Scripture on Satan. Carus’s section, addressing the views of the Devil in early Christian quotes, at length, two chapters of the Gospel of Nicodemus.
Here it is,
1 Quarrel between Satan and the prince of hell concerning the expected arrival of Christ in hell.
WHILE all the saints were vv rejoicing, behold Satan, the prince and captain of death, said to the prince of hell, 1
2 Prepare to receive Jesus of Nazareth himself, who boasted that he was the Son of God, and yet was a man afraid of death, and said, 2 My soul is sorrowful even to death.
3 Besides he did many injuries to me and to many others; for those whom I made blind and lame and those also whom I tormented with several devils, he cured by his word; yea, and those whom I brought dead to thee, he by force takes away from thee.
4 To this the prince of hell replied to Satan, Who is that so-powerful prince, and yet a man who is afraid of death?
5 For all the potentates of the earth are subject to my power, whom thou broughtest to subjection by thy power.
6 But if be be so powerful in his human nature, I affirm to thee for truth, that he is almighty in his divine nature, and no man can resist his power.
7 When therefore he said be was afraid of death, he designed to ensnare thee, and unhappy it will be to thee for everlasting ages.
8 Then Satan replying, said to the prince of hell, Why didst thou express a doubt, and wast afraid to receive that Jesus of Nazareth, both thy adversary and mine?
9 As for me, I tempted him and stirred up my old people the Jews with zeal and anger against him?
10 I sharpened the spear for his suffering; I mixed the gall and vinegar, and commanded that he should drink it; I prepared the cross to crucify him, and the nails to pierce through Ibis hands and feet; and now his death is near at hand, I will bring him hither, subject both to thee and me.
11 Then the prince of hell answering, said, Thou saidst to me just now, that he took away the dead from me by force.
12 They who have been kept here till they should live again upon earth, were taken away hence, not by their own power, but by prayers made to God, and their almighty God took them from me.
13 Who then is that Jesus of Nazareth that by his word hath taken away the dead from me without prayer to God?
14 Perhaps it is the same who took away from me Lazarus, after he had been four days dead, and did both stink and was rotten, and of whom I had possession as a dead person, yet he brought him to life again by his power.
15 Satan answering, replied to the prince of hell, It is the very same person, Jesus of Nazareth.
16 Which when the prince of hell heard, he said to him, I adjure thee by the powers which belong to thee and me, that thou bring him not to me.
17 For when I heard of the power of his word, I trembled for fear, and all my impious company were at the same time disturbed;
18 And we were not able to detain Lazarus, 1 but he gave himself a shake, and with all the signs of malice, he immediately went away from us; and the very earth, in which the dead body of Lazarus was lodged, presently turned him out alive.
19 And I know now that he is Almighty God who could perform such things, who is mighty in his dominion, and mighty in his human nature, who is the Saviour of mankind.
20 Bring not therefore this person hither, for he will set at liberty all those whom I hold in prison under unbelief, and bound with the fetters of their sins, and will conduct them to everlasting life.
1 Christ’s arrival at hell-gates; the confusion thereupon. 10 He descends into hell.
AND while Satan and the prince of hell were discoursing thus to each other, on a sudden there was a voice as of thunder and the rushing of winds, saying, 2 Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.
2 When the prince of hell heard this, he said to Satan, Depart from me, and begone out of my habitations; if thou art a powerful warrior, fight with the King of Glory. But what hast thou to do with him?
3 And he cast him forth from his habitations.
4 And the prince said to his impious officers, Shut the brass gates of cruelty, and make them fast with iron bars, and fight courageously, lest we be taken captives.
5 But when all the company of the saints heard this they spake with a loud voice of anger to the prince of hell:
6 Open thy gates that the King of Glory may come in.
7 And the divine prophet David, cried out saying, 3 Did not I when on earth truly prophesy and say, O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men.
8 For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder. He hath taken them because of their iniquity, and because of their unrighteousness they are afflicted.
9 After this another prophet, 4 namely, holy Isaiah, spake in like manner to all the saints, did not
I rightly prophesy to you when I was alive on earth?
10 The dead men shall live, and they shall rise again who are in their graves, and they shall rejoice who are in earth; for the dew which is from the Lord shall bring deliverance to them.
11 And I said in another place, O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?
12 When all the saints heard these things spoken by Isaiah, they said to the prince of hell, 1 Open now thy gates, and take away thine iron bars; for thou wilt now be bound, and have no power.
13 Then there was a great voice, as of the sound of thunder saying, Lift up your gates, O princes; and be ye lifted up, ye gates of hell, and the King of Glory will enter in.
14 The prince of hell perceiving the same voice repeated, cried out as though he had been ignorant, Who is that King of Glory?
15 David replied to the prince of hell, and said, I understand the words of that voice, because I spake them by his spirit. And now, as I have above said, I say unto thee, the Lord strong and powerful, the Lord mighty in battle: he is the King of Glory, and he is the Lord in heaven and in earth;
16 He hath looked down to hear the groans of the prisoners, and to set loose those that are appointed to death.
17 And now, thou filthy and stinking prince of hell, open thy gates, that the King of Glory may enter in; for he is the Lord of heaven and earth.
18 While David was saying this, the mighty Lord appeared in the form of a man, and enlightened those places which had ever before been in darkness,
19 And broke asunder the fetters which before could not be broken; and with his invincible power visited those who sate in the deep darkness by iniquity, and the shadow of death by sin.
(this is reproduced from http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob10.htm accessed 23 June 2017)
This Gospel of Nicodemus is not canonical, and thus has no authority to provide us with any teachings on the truth. However, when coupled with Paul’s mysterious description of Jesus’s actions during his death, it provides a possible outlet of what Jesus was doing. Paul writes, “He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8). This is a quote from Psalm 68:19, where David writes, “You went up to its lofty height; you took captives, received slaves as tribute.” Jesus, as the Apostles’ Creed informs us, “descended into hell”. It is, as Mary Healy so beautifully expresses, “The great paradox is that Jesus conquered death through death—not by escaping it but by experiencing it, destroying death from within.” [Mary Healy, Hebrews, page 65]
Jesus went to hell and back for us.
There really is no end of his love; it is a sweet and fragrant flower, always blooming. May we relish, nay, worship Jesus for the great love wherewith he loves us.