Skip to main content

Want a daily email of lesson plans that span all subjects and age groups?

Learn more

A brief history of the devil - Brian A. Pavlac

  • 376,215 Views
  • 698 Questions Answered
  • TEDEd Animation

Let’s Begin…

Satan, the beast crunching sinners’ bones. Lucifer, the fallen angel. Mephistopheles, the trickster striking deals. These three divergent devils are all based on Satan of the Old Testament. But unlike any of these literary devils, the Satan of the Bible was a relatively minor character. So how did he become the ultimate antagonist, with so many different forms? Brian A. Pavlac investigates.

Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Brian A. Pavlac
  • Director Reza Riahi, Mehdi Shiri
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Music André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Many societies have a figure who embodies a force of evil. “The Devil” is the unique personification that arose out of Judaism, becoming much more prominent in Christianity. But even as the Devil is “unique,” he has changed through many transformations to become a character in our culture.

Thus an important question in understanding the Devil, is whether he actually exists or not? From a scientific point-of-view, there is no empirical evidence that the Devil exists: no physical remains, no photos, no credible witnesses to diabolic encounters or acts. Believers in the Devil would respond by saying that their religious ideas and experiences of the demonic show the Devil to be very existent and dangerous. Today various Christian denominations offer divergent interpretations of the Devil. Some view him as portrayed in the Gospels: a real personality who regularly encounters and tempts humans to sin or possesses them. Some have even imagined a vast and complex hellish hierarchy of demons as the Devil’s assistants (mirroring that of angels). The omnipotence of the Christian God led theologians also to argue that any evil done by Lucifer is by divine permission—only we do not yet understand the godly plan. Other Christians consider Satan a mere symbol of an outdated way to explain how bad things happen, for which they do not want to blame a loving God. 

Belief in the Devil made possible the tragedies of the medieval Inquisition and the Witch Hunts. Sinners were supposed to have sold their souls by signing his special book in their own blood. Of course, such a book was never found and alleged heretics and witches never had special supernatural powers. Thus, many innocent victims suffered from persecution based on their alleged contacts with the Devil. These TED-Ed videos offer brief overviews of witch hunting: “Ugly History: Witch Hunts” and “Salem Witch Trials”. For a short, readable book on the Witch Hunts, try Brian A. Pavlac, Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Witch Trials (Greenwood or Bison Books). Some explanation of the connections between the Devil and witches may be found on this webpage. Many modern believers in and practitioners of witchcraft deny any connection with the Devil, instead having faith in natural forces (such as Mother Earth) or polytheistic deities (such as Artemis/Selene/Hecate).

For most people these days, the Devil is merely a fictional character used to entertain. In novels, television series, comics, music, and movies, no one is supposed to believe that the Devil is any more real than the ghosts, zombies, werewolves, vampires, space aliens, and other monsters portrayed. Often this fictionalized Satan has become an anti-hero, if not an actual heroic character, in such works as Lucifer and South Park. The latter and many other cartoons, or movies like Bedazzled, mock the idea of the Devil with laughter. We keep getting more devils from which to choose for our liking or fearing. 

Customize This Lesson

Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Brian A. Pavlac
  • Director Reza Riahi, Mehdi Shiri
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Music André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more

More from Everyone Has a Story