Does Satan Have the Power of Death?

Question:  When someone goes in for an operation and others say it’s in God’s hands, is it, or is it in Satan’s hands, since he can give death not God–because God does not kill and God gave Satan the power of death.

Answer:  I presume you are thinking about this from the standpoint of the teaching in Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14).

I think, however, that you may be interpreting this without taking into account what the rest of Scripture says about who holds the right to determine whether someone dies or not.  You may recall that in the garden in Eden that God told Adam that in the day he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die (Genesis 2:17).  Satan, through the serpent, contradicted that statement (Genesis 3:4).  But God declared to Adam after he ate it that he would return to the ground from which he was taken and also removed the couple from the garden so they couldn’t eat from the tree of life and live forever (Genesis 319, 22-24).  God also delivered one of Adam’s descendents, Enoch, from dying by simply taking him (Genesis 5:24).

When human sin became so great that God decided to send the flood, he told humans that this would happen in 120 years (Genesis 6:3) and decided to end all life but Noah’s and his family’s (Genesis 6:13).  After the flood God told Noah and all mankind that He was giving them the responsibility to take human life from those who murdered other humans (Genesis 9:6).  In Genesis 22 God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but of course withheld his hand and provided a sacrifice in his place.

In the Exodus from Egypt God required the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt, saying that He would go through the land to accomplish this (Exodus 11).  In the laws He gave Israel through Moses He required the death penalty for several infractions other than murder (for example, kidnapping, Exodus 21:16) to be carried out by Israel’s leadership.

Now, in the book of Job, when Satan engineers the deaths of Job’s children, Job does not blame Satan, but says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21).  Perhaps Job was just ignorant that it was really Satan who made that decision.  But we are assured that is not the case when Satan wants to afflict Job.  God specifically tells Satan that he must not kill Job (Job 2:6).  In other words, it is God alone who determines who dies.

But this leads us to think of a very helpful distinction we must always observe.  There is the primary cause of all things, God, and there are secondary causes that God uses to accomplish His purposes.  He determines who dies, but He puts it in the hands of human officials to carry out the sentence, and sometimes allows Satan to carry out the work of bringing a deadly situation to a human life.

So when the author of Hebrews says Satan has the “power of death” we need to think clearly about what that means.  Does it mean he has the absolute power to determine who dies and who doesn’t?  Apparently not.  In the context the author speaks of the slavery we are under to fear of death.  Could the “power of death” be referring to the power Satan has to make us afraid of death?  This makes much more sense in context.  In this sense, then, Jesus has broken his power by making it clear that death leads to an eternal life with God through Christ’s sacrifice.  Satan no longer has the ability or “power” to enslave us with the fear of death.

Randall Johnson

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