What does it mean that Satan is "bound"?

As a preterist, it is my position that Satan is today bound and unable to cause trouble. But over the years many have asked me these questions:

  1. If Satan is bound (Rev. 20:2), how do you explain certain evils still happening today?
  2. What does it mean to say that Satan is "bound"? Can he do anything at all? Can he still influence our thoughts?
  3. If Satan is bound, what about demons in general? Are they bound, too?

At reader request I have looked into these matters lately, and have a few thoughts and comments.

If Satan is bound, how do you explain certain evils still happening today?

Initially, we need to define what we mean by "certain evils." I have made the category expansive because there are people like Joyce Meyer who blame Satan, if you can imagine, for such evils as ruining a family barbecue. Most of my inquirers, though, ask about evils of more serious categories.

Great moral evils, such as the acts of Hitler.

This one may be dispensed with by the simple point that humanity does not need Satan's help or inspiration to perform evils like these. Some find it hard to accept such evils as even happening, and perhaps find some solace in the idea that some far greater evil than a mere human being, like a Hitler, is behind such evils. But this gives humanity perhaps a bit too much credit. I can think of no reason to deny that at least some members of the human race are evil enough to do things like inspire the Holocaust.

Supernatural evils, like demonic possessions.

This one, however, gets to the heart of our chief epistemic problem as well as the second and third questions above. If Satan is bound then how are supernatural expressions of evil to be explained?

Initially, these options present themselves:

  1. These alleged miracles are fakes and frauds. I mention this one thinking it is certainly true in some instances. Charlatans, like Benny Hinn, are faking divine miracles and we cannot put it past a charlatan to fake the demonic effects that are sometimes claimed to require the intervention of those divine miracles.

    But does this solve the problem entirely? Barring a survey of evidence on the level of Keener's two-volume exposition, we cannot answer that here. There is a great need to establish an epistemic discovery of what lies behind such alleged demonic interventions. In a way, we could stop there, but for thoroughness let's explore what options would be available to us, if, indeed, such demonic interventions are found to be genuinely supernatural.

  2. The alleged miracles are real. But then, who is performing them? It cannot be Satan, if Satan is bound; or can it? I will say up front that I do not believe Satan is behind any alleged demonic miracles today, if such actually exist. But at this point we must answer the question of what it means to say that Satan is "bound". Obviously we are not talking about literal ropes of chains binding a spiritual being. But what does the word "bound" in Revelation 20:2 mean?

    The word used for "bound" (deo) is used in a variety of ways, including for things like a colt being tied down (Matt. 21:2) to tares being bound to be burned (Matt. 13:30). But let's look at the most analogous cases, in which some living being is "bound." (I am not including parallel passages.)

  3. Matt 12: 29 Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house.
  4. Matt 14:3 For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife.
  5. Matt. 22;13 Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth
  6. Matt. 27:2 And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.
  7. Mark 5:4 Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.
  8. John 11:44 And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
  9. Acts 12:6 And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.
  10. Acts 24:27 But after two years Porcius Festus came into Felix' room: and Felix, willing to shew the Jews a pleasure, left Paul bound.

    The passages that seem closest in intention to Rev. 20:2 are those that refer to prisoners: Matt. 14:3, Matt. 27:2, Acts 12:6. Even so, we can note a few things in general.

    The word "bound" does not mean totally immobile or incapable. The people "bound" here could still move, still talk. Their freedom to move around and act was limited by those who controlled them. What this means in terms of Rev. 20:2 is that Satan was put on a leash, as it were, and in some way limited where he was not before. But how?

    Prior to this binding, which again I think took place around 70 AD, Satan was described by Peter as a roaring lion looking for people to devour. In Job, Satan says he has come from roaming to and fro on the earth. One of Satan's chief attributes as described is his ability to roam at will. This is the most logical condition which we might expect to be limited by the binding. When applied to people, it means they are limited to places like a prison cell, or in Paul's case, to a form of house arrest.

    Of more relevance, note the specific limitation described by John:

    And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more…

    This leads to:

    The specific limit set on Satan is his restriction on deceiving the nations. In what way was Satan deceiving the nations? The best example we have of one of Satan's minions deceiving the nations (as in, Gentiles) would be in the book of Acts, chapter 16, where a spirit-possessed slave girl was going around interfering with Paul's preaching of the Gospel. Could this be an example of what Satan himself would do, though perhaps on a larger scale? Did Satan inspire demonic miracles for the Roman emperors, or for pagan priests? We don't know, since none of Satan' specific activities are described in detail, save his encounter with Jesus at the start of the Synoptic Gospels. We know he was engaged in deception; we don't know specifically how, or whom he targeted. We only can make reasonable guesses. In this case, a reasonable guess is that Satan is no longer able to freely move about the earth deceiving people.

    But this now leads to our next question: What about Satan's demons? Could they still be loose and doing the same things?

    The key passage that may be used to answer in the negative comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians:

    4:8 Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.

    Most commentaries affirm that the "captives" taken captive here are the demonic powers referred to elsewhere in the same letter (1:19-22, 6:12). There is a minority position which notes the derivation of Paul's words from Ps. 68, which is turn is said to rely on accounts in Numbers 8 and 18 of the Levites being taken from Israel as a special people. It takes Paul to be referring to Christians "taken captive" away from sin. I believe this position has some merit, but let us proceed further assuming that the majority view is correct, and that Paul here is referring to demonic powers. (Even if he were not, we would still be able to derive from Rev, 20:2 the very logical proposition that Satan's minions would in some way be restrained as well.)

    If Paul is referring to demons, then the first question would be whether he is saying Christ took all such entities prisoner. For a while now I have answered queries on the subject of alleged demonic miracles in modern times by saying that I do not see any difficulty in supposing that there could still be low-ranking demons loose, even if Satan is bound. There are two reasons I don't see this as problematic. First, leaving the lowest-ranking demons free would be, essentially, an honor insult to Satan as their leader, and to them as entities: It is like saying that they are so insignificant that God saw no reason to bind them.

    Second, the ancient reader would have looked at this text within the context of ancient warfare practice, and this is in line with the first point. As 2 Kings 25:12 explains, the king of Babylon took many from Jerusalem captive, "[b]ut the captain of the guard left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen." Basically, the least important and least honorable people were allowed to remain free because they were not a military threat (and of course, to do the dirty work of farming).

    So in theory at least, this leaves us with the possibility of demonic powers of an exceptionally minor variety still being loose, even if Satan is bound and locked away. Can we go any further with that?

    From the text of the Bible, no. What remains of evidence is "in the field" as it were, living examples of what may (or may not) be demonic activity. Perhaps what we'd need is a "dark" version of Keener's volume on miracles, giving accounts and evidence of reputed events of that nature. It would certainly not be the sort of study I can see anyone embarking on easily. But it would be the only way to define to any extent the contours of the matter for which the Bible has given us only the narrowest information. We'll explore that question further at a later date.