How seriously ought we to take Satan? Prior to his conversation to Christianity, St. Augustine was a Manichean, and as such he took Satan very seriously. Indeed, in the Manichean world there is a good god and an evil god. They are fighting one another and it is not clear who is going to win. Christianity, however, is unabashedly triumphalist. In the end, we know that Satan will be crushed beneath the heel and God and Christ will reign forever and ever. Yet prior to the millennial triumph, how seriously do we take Satan?
Consider the ransom theory of atonement. On this view, Christ’s suffering is explained thus: When we sin Satan gains control over us. The only way that he can be made to relinquish his control is to be bought off. Christ did this by letting Satan torture and kill him. (Incidentally, this is the theory of atonement that C.S. Lewis presents in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) The rhetoric of the ransom theory shows up all over the scriptures, but for most theologians it has been a big embarrassment. After all, why does God have to bargain with Satan at all? Why can’t he simply sweep in and rescue poor miserable sinners by overcoming Satan? If you believe in creation ex nihilio, the ransom theory becomes utterly silly. Satan is God’s creature, and as such cannot possibly force God to pay his son in ransom for sinners.
Most Mormons who have directly addressed the question have rejected the ransom theory. The consensus seems to be that it is fine to use the rhetoric of ransom in sermons, but we shouldn’t take it theologically seriously. I wonder though. After all, we don’t believe that Satan is ultimately God’s creature. Like you and me, he is co-eternal with God himself. Furthermore, as Lucifer, Son of the Morning, he was one of the great and powerful ones in the council before the world was organized by the gods. He is not exalted, but it is not beyond the realm of theological possibility that he partakes of a kind proto-divinity.
At the end of the day, I am not really persuaded by the ransom theory, at least as I have stated it. However, I do think that it is very much an open question how seriously we are to take Satan.