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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletDuring the early Christian church
bulletMiddle Ages to the Renaissance
bulletPresent day

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Development of the Concept of Satan, in the Early Christian Church:

Much of the attention of the early church was spent in trying to firm up theological beliefs on the exact nature of God, Jesus, Satan, salvation, Heaven, Hell, etc. The early church writers debated:

bulletwhether Satan's fall occurred before the creation of the world,  while Adam and Eve were in Eden, or after the fall.
bulletthe precise cause of Satan's rebellion.
bulletwhether angels lusted after human women, and whether this lust was the cause or a result of their fall.
bulletwhether or not Satan, his demons and unsaved humans would all be eventually saved.

Clement of Alexander (circa 150-213 CE) was the first post-Biblical major Christian writer to claim that the gods of other religions were demons: "The verdict of the prophets is that the gods of all the nations are images of demons." 1 This teaching contradicted the general belief in the Roman Empire that the gods of all religions and nations were universal, and differed only y having various local names and certain minor differences in their characteristics.

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Development of the Concept of Satan, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance:

In the development of religions, the gods of the old religion often became the demons of the new faith. This was seen above when Zoroastrianism was founded. It was seen again in the Middle Ages when many of the attributes of the Greek God Pan were adsorbed by Satan: "goat-hoofs, horns and unremitting lust; sometimes also a goat head and an attendant throng of satyrs," who became demons. 2 Pan was the horned God of the Greeks, and is also seen as the horned consort of the Goddess among the Wiccans. Later, he was given additional attributes: "a long serpentine tail with a heart-shaped tip, long claw-like fingernails, the leathery wings of bats, and a trident." 3

Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) invented a new type of demon - a kind of sexual tormentor. Incubi were male fallen angels who sexually attacked women at night time and brought them immense sexual pleasure. Succubae were female fallen angels who coupled with men during their sleep. Their existence was confirmed by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas also believed that the devil is the cause of sin, and "was probably the very highest angel who, through pride, fell immediately after creation, seducing those who followed him to become his subjects." 4

The Roman church's Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 determined that: "The devil and the demons were also created by God; at the moment of their creation, they were not evil; they became so through their own sins, and ever since they have busied themselves with the temptation of men."

The church taught that pastimes and spirituality outside of orthodox Christianity are a form of Satan worship. This included astrology, ceremonial magick, divination, pagan and rituals of other religions, etc. 5 Once other religious faiths are considered as forms of Satan worship, then the worse excesses of religious intolerance and genocide can follow. The church exterminated the Cathars as devil worshipers in the 13th Century, and killed off the Knights Templar in the 14th century. Other non-conforming religious groups were similarly targeted and wiped out.

Religious dualism, originating with the Zoroastrians, and filtered through Judaism, reached its logical conclusion in Christianity. If God has innumerable angels as messengers, and a visible church of believers, it was reasoned that Satan must have demons as helpers and an invisible assembly of Satan worshipers. And so, the church imagined the existence of an entire network of people who had sold their soul to Satan, worshiped him, and dedicated their life to harming and killing other people. With the exception of some mentally ill individuals, no such network existed.

In the 14th century, Nicholas Eymerich, a Dominican, wrote a tract called "Directorium Inquisitorum", or the "Handbook of the Inquisitors." He described three forms of Devil worship:

bulletLatria: praising Satan and flagellating oneself
bulletDulia: "combining the names of demons with those of the blessed"
bullet"curious practices, including the use of the magic circle and other necromancies such as love potions, magical philters and talismans." 6

Near the end of the 15th century, two Dominicans by the name of Henry Kraemer and Jacques Sprenger wrote a book: "Malleus Maleficorum" or "Witches' Hammer." It became the legal reference book of the Witch burning times. The book was inspired by a combination of hatred of women, fear of sexuality and religious superstition. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were accused of Satan worship, tortured until they confessed, and burned at the stake. Although the Inquisition is generally associated with the witch burnings, it was the civil courts who were responsible for most trials.

The Inquisitors prosecuted this activity with the greatest thoroughness; they feared that if even one Satanist were left alive, the church would be in danger. Their rationale for the torture/murder of heretics was very simple: their victims were destined for eternal torment in Hell because of their beliefs. By torturing them until they recanted their faith and accepted Christianity, they had a chance to attain heaven. And then, of course, the church burned them alive so that they could not revert to their original heresy. A few hours or days of pain on earth was a great bargain if it avoided eternal torture in Hell. For 3 centuries, western Europe was caught in an orgy of demonic superstition. The last European heretic was burned alive at the stake in Poland during 1792.

From some clerics' hatred of women and fear of human sexuality came the belief that every newborn was possessed by an indwelling demon. The church regularly exorcised babies at the time of baptism with the following ritual:

"I exorcise you unclean spirit in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Come out and leave this servant of God [infant's name]. Accursed and damned spirit, hear the command of God himself,  he who walked upon the sea and extended his right hand to Peter as he was sinking. Therefore, accursed devil, acknowledge your condemnation...and depart from this servant of God [infant's name]...Never dare, accursed devil, to violate the sign of the holy cross which we place upon his/her forehead. Through Christ our Lord."

When the Church of England split from Roman Catholicism, they abandoned the baptism-exorcism ritual. The Protestant churches also rejected it at the time of the Reformation. The Protestant churches continued to kill religious heretics. The main difference was that they used less torture and adopted a less painful method of execution -- they hung their victims instead of burning them alive.

The church taught that Satan can appear as an angel of light. Thus the Inquisition might charge a person with Satan worship if they claimed to have had an angelic vision. Joan of Arc was so charged, as an "invoker of demons," and burned at the stake. She was later recognized as a saint.

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The Development of the Concept of Satan in the Present Day:

The Witch-Heretic burning times came to a halt, late in the 18th century. The rationale of the Inquisition still matched church belief - that by forcing heretics to recant their faith, they might avoid eternal torture in Hell. But people simply grew to understand that whatever demonic-inspired religious activity there was in western Europe in the 15th to the 18th century, it was mostly within the church itself, and not in any supposed Satan worshipers. The church suffered a major loss of credibility.

In the 19th century, some theologians began to question the existence of Satan. They concluded that: "Jesus and his disciples drew their demonology from the common life of the period rather than from Scripture, so that the concept of Satan is not a permanent element in Christian doctrine."

In 1972, the Catholic church abandoned the office of Exorcist. Any priest can now approach his bishop for permission to cast out demons. The church now views demon possession as being primarily caused by a force "lurking within all individuals," not a living entity attacking from outside. 7 With the rise in the public's faith in the mental health professions, exorcisms have become less common. They still continue at some level, because accidental deaths during amateur Christian exorcisms by both Protestants and Roman Catholics are reported at the rate of about one a year in North America.

Belief in the existence of Satan as a living entity remains active in the Roman Catholic church. "Although Satan remained the tempter, faith and prayer would deliver us from evil, and through a constant awareness and charity, and the seeking after justice and individual holiness one can defeat the devil." 8 Satan is also regarded as an all-evil devil by Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians. Many of the latter see the Christian believer as permanently engaged in "Spiritual Warfare," fighting off continual attacks by Satan and his demons, who seek to dominate, manipulate, tempt and control.

Two socially destructive movements related to belief in Satanism became widespread in the 1980's:

bulletAllegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse: (SRA) This involved a return to the beliefs of the Middle Ages: the conviction that Satanists were secretly organized on a local, county, state/province, national and international level. They were kidnapping or otherwise obtaining tens of thousands of infants and children for human sacrifice each year in North America. The initial trigger for this civil panic was the publishing of a book, "Michelle Remembers" which alleged to be a documentary account of a young girl's abuse at the hands of Satanists. The book has since been investigated by three groups and found to be a fraud. But other similar books followed, and a whole SRA industry grew up during the 1980's, reached a peak in the early 1990's and is now in decline. The complete absence of hard evidence of any criminal activity has led to credibility problems. There are many indicators that SRA does not exist, or exists at an extremely low level. The main driving force behind the SRA panic was the belief in the accuracy of recovered memories which has since subsided.
bulletAllegations of Ritual Abuse in Day Care Centers: This involved the belief that children in some day care centers were being sexually abused; some within a ritual setting. There was a parallel belief that children were being kidnapped by adults and abused in a home setting. The first case was in Bakersfield CA; the second in Manhattan Beach CA (McMartin Preschool). Dozens of other cases arose throughout North America. The driving force behind these cases appears to be the accidental implantation of false memories by police officers, social workers and child psychologists. It was not realized at the time how easy it is for an investigator to implant memories in young children, simply by asking repeated and/or direct questions. Hundreds of innocent adults were found guilty of crimes that probably never happened, and were given long jail sentences. Many of these cases have since been reviewed and overturned.

Religious Satanists do exist. But they generally do not recognize the existence of, nor worship the Christian devil. Most recognize Satan as a pre-Christian pagan force, and have a code of behavior that promotes "indulgence... vital existence... undefiled wisdom... kindness to those who deserve it... vengeance.. responsibility to the responsible... physical, mental or emotional gratification." 9 There is no credible evidence that adult religious Satanists engage in significant criminal activity. Some teenage and youth "dabblers" into Satanism do engage in graffiti and minor vandalism, but they have little or no connection with religious Satanists.

Wiccans and other Neopagans are often confused with devil worshipers. There total about 250,000 in the United States. They follow a nature based religion, not unlike Native American spirituality. Neopagans worship a God and a Goddess, but do not recognize the existence of an all-evil deity such as the Christian devil.

A great deal of religious intolerance is generated by a key belief of some Fundamentalist and other Evangelical denominations - that the gods and goddesses of non-Christian religions are in fact demonic entities. It is difficult for a believer to accept the legitimacy of Buddhism, Hinduism, Neopaganism and hundreds of other religions, if he/she believes that the deities of those religions are demons controlled by Satan. This is particularly true if the believer has sensed what they believe to be Satanic oppression in their own lives. Also, misunderstandings occur when North American society has two very different definitions of Satanism:

bulletCommon conservative Christian definition: any non-Judeo-Christian religion, from Buddhism to Hinduism to Zoroastrianism. There are about 3 billion Satanists in the world.
bulletConventional definition: a specific religion which worships the Christian devil, Satan. There are a few tens of thousands of Satanists in the world.

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  1. Saint Clement, "Exorcism to the Greeks," quoted in G. Messandé, op. cit. (Page 262)
  2. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, (1983), Page 765 to 766.
  3. Charles Panati, "Sacred Origins of Profound Things," Penguin, New York NY (1996), Page 374
  4. S.B. Ferguson et al, "New Dictionary of Theology," InterVaristy Press, Downers Grove, IL, (1988), Page 196 to 198.
  5. B.G. Walker, op. cit., Page 895 to 896
  6. G. Messandé, op. cit., Page 279
  7. Richard Owen, "Satan gets a facelift," The Australian, 1999-JAN-26 at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/world/4214671.htm
  8. R.C. Broderick, Ed., "The Catholic Encyclopedia", Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, (1987), Page 542.
  9. A.S. LaVey, "The Satanic Bible," Avon, New York, NY, (1969), Page 25. This book outlines the beliefs of the Church of Satan, which is probably the largest Satanic group in North America.

Copyright ©1998 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-NOV-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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