Since we know nothing about the precise nature of angelic or heavenly beings we can’t say how much or how little power they have by nature, that is, simply because they are angels. It might not be surprising to learn that some angels are inherently stronger than others are, in the way some humans are physically stronger than others are. But we can’t be sure of that.
We do read in Revelation 12:7-8 (NIV) that Satan wasn’t strong enough to win against Michael and his army, but it isn’t clear what that means. For example, we don’t know if it means Michael was inherently stronger than Satan, or if at that moment God gave Michael superior strength, or if it was the fault of the satanic army that he wasn’t strong enough. We aren’t even sure, since we’re in an apocalyptic book, if we’re to think in terms of an actual battle and spiritual muscles.
(How do angels “fight”? Is it a clash of minds and wills rather than bone and muscle? It’s difficult not to imagine how they might fight but perhaps it isn’t important to come to conclusions on this or even to spend much time on it. The word “fight” which generates images of actual collision or killing may fool us. Paul speaks of us “wrestling” against spiritual enemies or “running a race” or “fighting a good fight” but none of these phrases mean we actually run or fight or wrestle. They’re metaphors for aspects of living. Angels may war with or withstand one another simply by living to God’s glory or doing the reverse. See also Daniel 10:20-11:1).
We may be tempted to think that the differing degrees of position among heavenly beings must speak of superior “strength”. Michael is an “arch” angel and is said to be a “chief” (Daniel 10:13; Jude 9) but there’s no way of knowing if this is because he is stronger than others are (that he has more spiritual muscles and could out-fight everybody). It may mean he is more glorious in some “non-power” way or more devoted to God, or some such thing. That Satan is seen as a leader among the hostile spiritual forces doesn’t prove he has more “coercive” power than all others do. It might be he gained notoriety because of his rebellion against God and became the unspoken leader. (Al Capone, Hitler and Stalin come to mind as illustrations of people not physically strong but ruthless and shrewd and so gained a following. If we’re to speculate, something like that may be the case with Satan.)
Angels are supernatural beings and don’t belong to the “natural” realm but what does that entail? Does it mean because they are angels that they can create things? Can they work miracles? Can they read the minds of people? Because they are angels can they simply will people to become ill, or can they kill them if and when it pleases them?
What some angels did
We know angelic beings blinded sinners in Sodom, made a doubtful priest dumb for about nine months, slew a God-despising king and such like (see Genesis 19:1-11, Luke 1:19-20 and Acts 12:21-23) ; but do these events tell us anything about the power angels have as angels? In the cases above (and others like them) the angels are commissioned by God to do a job for Him so why shouldn’t we think He gave them the power needed to complete the job? In addition to that, these afflictions were judgments by good angels on crass evil or slowness of heart to believe. Are they enough for us to build a theology of angelic power (satanic or not) that is outside of God’s control and empowerment? Do any of these illustrations tell us anything about the power angels have because they are angels? Do any of them tell us that satanic angels can exercise coercive or miraculous power?
Ways in which God has given power
If and when God gives power there are at least two ways He might do it. He might build it into the creature as a permanent part of that creature’s constitution or He might give it on certain occasions only for a limited period. What little physical strength I have is structured into me; it’s connected with my physical equipment. Is that how it is with an angel or someone like Satan?
In Judges 13-17 we have Samson whose strength is legendary. The text doesn’t suggest that Samson was incredibly strong because of how he was built. The power wasn’t resident in his muscles or in his hair. He was strong beyond ordinary humans when the Spirit of the Lord came on him (14:6 illustrates the point). It seems that Samson became strong when it suited God’s purposes, rather than God depositing the strength in him as a resident quality.
In the Gospels we see Christ empowering the apostles to work miracles as they go preaching (see Matthew 10:1-8 and parallels). This power is not resident in them (that is, it isn’t part of their human equipment). It seems they were gifted for the special occasions and it was super-human power that was given to them! And when we say power is given to them it might be more accurate to say they were given access to it rather than that it was given to them.
Is that how it is with angels, good or satanic? It’s clear that in Job chapters 1 & 2 God commissioned Satan to carry out His (God’s) will. Note especially 1:11 and 2:5 along with 1:21 and 2:10. In the Job text we have no reason to believe that Satan had power over Job independent of God’s commission. Satan was God’s message boy. If we take the text as it sits it was God who commissioned him to do the job and it was God’s fire that burned Job’s fields (1:16) and it was God who brought calamity on him (42:11).
We need to remember that any power Satan had he got it from God. His very existence and continued existence is the work of God. If Satan used his life and power for evil purposes or in a spirit of malice that’s his sin and when God uses Satan’s malice for His holy and worthy agenda that’s God’s glory. If we ask why God would allow sinful Satan to continue to exist we might go on to ask why He allows sinful humans to exist
There’s power and power
For discussion purposes I’d like to isolate two general forms of power: persuasive and coercive. According to the mayor of River City (in the movie The Music Man) the con-man Professor Harold Hill was a “spellbinder.” This was certainly true because Hill made a living out of talking people into things that up to then they had no desire to get into. That’s power. The winsome and lovely life of John McKay’s wife (in Mark Rutherford’s book Deliverance) finally transformed him from being an insensitive clod of a man into a generous and warm human being. That’s power too. These are complex processes but when we discuss them the word “influence” often crops up. The power involved in accomplishing the results aimed at depends in part on those who are changed. The change-agents don’t physically (or otherwise) overwhelm or coerce those who are changed. There’s the element of “persuasion” in it all. This power isn’t irresistible and hence “coercive”.
There’s another form of power. John 2 tells us Christ willed it so and water became wine. On another occasion He spoke a word to a storm and it ceased. The very nature of the cases says there’s no persuasion; there’s no attempt at wooing. This is naked, creative power that “makes it so”. For convenience sake I’m calling it coercive power. In the two instances given it’s irresistible and so it’s coercive (non-persuasive); it has the nature of “creative” power.
Humans exercise coercive power (within human limits). Let a murderer put a gun to the head of your beloved and say, “Do this or I’ll kill her!” We rightly call this coercive power, though it isn’t irresistible. We’ve known or heard of people who refused to live rather than do what was demanded under threat. This is not coercion of the same order as changing water to wine with a wish or making a tornado so we can wreck a house and kill the children (as in the book of Job). These last two go far beyond unaided human ability and there’s no resisting the power.
Coercive power gains its objective without co-operation from anyone or anything else. Bearing in mind that since we exist and continue to exist because it pleases God (Revelation 4:11; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17) we continue to derive our power, coercive or persuasive, from Him. So it is with Satan.
No one has creative power but GOD. Even the power of Jesus was given to Him by God (Acts 10:38).
(To be continued, d.v.)