For all of our concerns about hell (and they are legion!), one of them is the presence of the Devil: will non-believers meet Satan upon their arrival? The heretical vision of hell is filled with misconceptions, shoddy theology, and pitiful Biblical exegesis that has resulted in us believing God “sends” people to a fiery domain to be tortured forever under the reign of a red-and-black tailed angelic being with horns. Is any of this true?
There is nothing about the aforementioned picture that is accurate in Scripture. I am not here to write an essay about all of that because there’s already a perfect book about these heresies: so go read Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Skeletons in God’s Closet. Hell is real, but it is very, very different from Western pictures of it. I am here, however, to touch on just one misconception that is not covered completely in Josh’s book (I don’t think), nor is it discussed much: the fact that, right now, there is no devil in hell.
Looking at the totality of Scripture, you will find it difficult to show me one passage where Satan — the fallen, angelic being who accuses and tempts the people of God alongside a troop of similar spiritual swindlers — is actually in a domain like the “hell” we believe in. Nowhere is Satan hanging out in a fiery furnace or some underbelly of the earth where future sinners face judgment and drink cold coffee. Nowhere in the Scripture is he the one executing any kind of judgment in such a place. There is nothing in the Bible that teaches that he lives there or reigns there or holds court in such a place. And this is because there is no devil in hell — at least for now.
Satan taking a stroll on earth
Scripture does not show us a picture of a devil in hell, but one loose on the earth. In fact, this is where we first meet “the serpent” (later, in Revelation 12, quite clearly identified as “Satan”): he is “more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). Satan is a created being that is wandering the earth. For his judgment, God curses him to his “belly” and tells him he “will eat dust” (Genesis 3:14, “dust” here is the Hebrew word translated as “earth” in seven other occurrences). Our first picture of Satan is on earth and his curse seems to bind him here in some fashion.
Later, in his most pronounced appearance in the Old Testament, Satan approaches God when the rest of the heavenly hosts “came to present themselves before Yahweh” (Job 1:6, again, Satan is seen as accountable and created). Before the two discuss the future of Job, God’s righteous servant, Yahweh asks Satan where he has been. “From going to and fro on the earth,” Satan replies, “and from walking up and down on it” (Job 1:7). This same line is repeated in the next chapter when Satan attacks Job’s health (Job 2:2). Here, Satan is taking a stroll on earth, meandering about as he plots his next evil. This seems to underscore not Satan’s presence in some kind of “hell,” but rather his presence on the very earth upon which we also walk “to and fro.”
The only other passage in which Satan appears is in a prophetic vision — an almost dream-like revelation — in the book of Zechariah (Zechariah 3:1–3). It is not clear where precisely that location is, but given that it is clearly a vision or dream, and that Satan is standing at “the right hand” of Joshua, the high priest, to “accuse him,” I see no evidence that this would be a “hell” of any kind.
The next place we see Satan is, you guessed it, once again on earth. He is “in the wilderness,” tempting Jesus Christ, the Son of God, right after a baptism in the Jordan River (Matthew 4:1). In the ministry of Jesus, Satan is extremely active on earth and never referred to as “in hell.” Satan is at work in false thinking (Matthew 16:23), exorcisms (Mark 3:23), demonic possession (Luke 16:13), temptation of disciples (Luke 22:31), and, of course, the life of Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3, John 13:2, 27). All of these events take place on our planet and in our system of reality, not somewhere else and definitely not “in hell.”
Snares, schemes, and stands
After Jesus’ resurrection, the repeated warnings from the New Testament emphasize not Satan’s potential future dealings with us “in hell,” but rather his present dealings with us on earth. We are told to withhold from anger and sin to “give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27) and to “[p]ut on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). Twice Paul tells his pastoral protege, Timothy, to beware of “the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7, 2 Timothy 2:26). James and Peter tell their churches to “resist” the devil (James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:9) because, according to Peter, he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, emphasis mine). For all of the places we may picture Satan, the apostles seemed to understand he was closer than we think.
The lie that Satan is “somewhere else,” wreaking havoc in his own torture chamber called “hell,” releases us from a much more important reality: that hell is being done on earth. Satan does not need his own hellish domain because he is issuing evil, temptation, destruction, and death upon the earth. Hell, in some ways, is here. In fact, the New Testament repeatedly acknowledges that Satan holds some level of power here on earth, not “down there” in hell. Satan’s domain of influence isn’t hell, it’s earth. Most dramatically, John tells us “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Paul refers to “the god of this world” (certainly a reference to Satan) as the one who has “blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and tells us the gospel has freed us from service to “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), another reference perhaps to the devil or at least some kind of demonic thinking.
The final defeat
Finally, through the lens of eschatology and the things that will come, Biblical writers pronounce the complete destruction of Satan and his banishment from the earth. In the last things, God brings heaven to earth and, in Josh Butler’s words, gets “the hell out of earth.” Hell is not Satan’s current domain; hell is Satan’s final resting place. In the final reckoning of all things, God will punish Satan and remove his influence over the earth and finally place him where he belongs but has never been: hell (Revelation 20:7–10). Jesus Christ came to destroy the works, plans, schemes, and power of Satan (Colossians 2:13–18, 1 John 3:8). It will be on earth where God reigns fully, where his glory is not shared with another, and where no evil will exist or persist. Nor will there be any doubt of who is King, Lord, and Master of all planets, including this one (Revelation 21:1–27). God wins.
Satan tempts, lies, and thwarts the plans of God through his various schemes — and they are various — but his defeat is sure. While Satan spends most of his time (it seems) here on earth, his final destination is to the hell he has never been, but tempts people to approach all the time. Satan is scared of hell because he knows that is precisely where he belongs, but not where he currently resides. Until this judgment, we should be on guard and stand in the mind, truth, and Spirit of Jesus Christ, not because we are scared to meet the devil one day in a fiery hell, but because he’s working to create one right here.