Ponerology is the branch of theology that focuses on the study of evil. In general, it is a part of theology that doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me. But the other day on our Friday morning bike ride a friend asked me: what gives Satan his power? Thinking about answers has caused me to delve into ponerology a little more than usual.
Satan is the original megalomanic. His lust for power was so great that it got him kicked out of heaven for seeking to take God’s power. Back in those early days, he wasn’t even that subtle about it:
Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down (Moses 4:3)*
As I read the narrative, it doesn’t indicate that God endowed him with power before casting him out. But there can be no doubt that Satan has power. Scriptural references to this power are too numerous to list.** Joseph Smith was carried to the brink of destruction by this power in the sacred grove (JS-H 1:15-16). Moses saw Satan’s power and trembled (Moses 1:20-21); even Jesus was tempted by it (Matthew 4:1-11). All this confirms that Satan has power but doesn’t tell us how he got it.
Francis Bacon*** is credited with saying “knowledge itself is power (ipsa scientia potestas est).” Part of what makes Satan powerful is his intelligence. Ernest LeRoy Hatch**** astutely pointed out that “the devil is not smart because he is the devil. He is smart because he is old.” With these many years has come knowledge, experience and insights on human behavior that have made him very powerful. But I think Satan’s power goes beyond the ‘evil genius’ that comes from being old, observant and determined.
Similar things about being smart and old could be said of my Dad, who is now 95 years old. When I asked him where Satan got his power, he said “I’ve always thought a lot of it was self-assumed.” I found his answer pretty insightful. Self-initiative really does go a long way. Satan has this as well as being persuasive, persistent and confident. Nobody called him to be the devil, he simply stepped up and assumed the role.
Perhaps the most important source of Satan’s power, is power that we have surrendered to him (2 Nephi 2:28-29). Surrendering power to Satan is described in the scriptures (see 3 Nephi 7:5; Alma 10:25). It is also the experience of every person who has tried in vain to resist temptation. I find most compelling, the statements of modern Church leaders on this.
“Satan has no power over us except as we give it to him. … God never forces us to do right, and Satan has no power to force us to do wrong” (Sterling W. Sill, in Conference Report, Apr. 1970, 30; Improvement Era, June 1970, 45)
Elder James E. Faust gave a fantastic Conference Talk (October 1987) on ponerology. He said:
However, we need not become paralyzed with fear of Satan’s power. He can have no power over us unless we permit it. He is really a coward, and if we stand firm, he will retreat. The Apostle James counseled: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). He cannot know our thoughts unless we speak them. And Nephi states that “he hath no power over the hearts” of people who are righteous (see 1 Ne. 22:26).
We have heard comedians and others justify or explain their misdeeds by saying, “The devil made me do it.” I do not really think the devil can make us do anything. Certainly he can tempt and he can deceive, but he has no authority over us which we do not give him.
The power to resist Satan may be stronger than we realize. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has no power over us only as we permit him. The moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 181).”
My generation would readily recognize the allegorical nature of George Lucas’ Star Wars with its galactic battles between the forces of good and evil. Luke Skywalker underestimated the power of the dark side in his struggles with Darth Vader. At Luke’s brink of disaster moment, The Emperor Darth Sidious gloated and said “your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side.” Darth Sidious was right. Luke couldn’t overcome the power of the Dark Side alone. But, as was the case when Joseph Smith was on the brink of destruction in the sacred grove, Luke’s father stepped in. His father was able to dispel the powers of darkness and save him from certain destruction (here to watch the final struggle between Luke, Darth Vader and Darth Sidious).
The combination of knowledge, assumed power and surrendered power makes Satan a formidable force to be reckoned with. But as Paul said, “there is no power but of God (Romans 13:1).” Personal righteousness is the antidote to the powers of the Dark Side (Alma 48:11-17; 1 Nephi 22:26). We can’t do this alone, but we can do it with the right help. The powers of darkness are dispelled as we have God (the Holy Ghost) at our side. “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God (Luke 18:27).”
* See also D&C 29:36
** Search combinations of power, Satan, darkness and devil to get an idea of the scope of scriptural references on this.
*** Ernest LeRoy Hatch was a Mexican physician, Mission and Temple President
****Meditationes Sacrae (1597)