In Christian theology devils are seen as evil spirits who attempt to destroy the soul by tempting human beings to disobey, or to go against, God.

The Devil, Satan or Lucifer

The chief devil, sometimes simply called The Devil, is also known as Satan (see Big ideas: Serpent, Devil, Satan, Beast), a name which means enemy, adversary or accuser, since he is the enemy of human souls. According to tradition developed by early Christian commentators, Satan was once known as Lucifer, a name which means ‘Light-bearer'. Lucifer was the brightest of God's angels in heaven (see Big ideas: Angels), but he rebelled against God and, with his followers, was thrown out from heaven into hell (known as the Fall of the Angels). This is recounted in the visionary writings known as Revelation, where John tells how the ‘ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray … was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him' (Revelation 12:7-9).

‘Possession' by devils

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the word ‘devils' was also used in earlier translations of the Bible to describe the evil spirits which were thought sometimes to take possession of people's bodies. Modern translations generally refer to this as ‘demon-possession'. The Gospel writings show Jesus healing those so afflicted. In Matthew 15:22, a woman appeals to Jesus, crying ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession'. Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted' and her daughter was healed.

Devils in art and literature

Golding's Lord of the Flies

Another name for the Devil is Beelzebub, literally ‘Lord of the Flies', from which William Golding took the title of his famous novel.

Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained

Adam and EveThe story of the Fall of humankind forms the first part of John Milton's famous epic poem, Paradise Lost, which also equates Satan with the serpent, who, according to the writer of Genesis, successfully tempted the first human beings, Adam and Eve to disobey God's commands (see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'). Milton's companion work, Paradise Regained, tells of the Devil trying in vain to tempt Christ (who is sometimes called ‘the Second Adam') away from the path of God (Luke 4:1-13).

Shakespeare's Othello

When Shakespeare's character Othello realises that the supposedly honest Iago has, for no apparent reason other than delight in evil, destroyed all that mattered to him, Othello says, ‘I look down towards his feet - but that's a fable'. Othello means that Iago is like a devil, a creature of unremitting wickedness, but that he does not display the cloven feet that are usually associated with devils.

The idea of devils as the embodiment of evil can be seen in many wall-paintings in medieval Christian churches. This is also seen in paintings by artists such as Bosch, where devils are depicted as having grotesque features, horns, tails and cloven feet, and shown dragging unredeemed sinners down to hell.

Related topics

Big ideas: Serpent, Devil, Satan, Beast; Angels; Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'

Other cultural references

Golding's Lord of the Flies

Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained

Shakespeare's Othello

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.