Occasionally I find myself in a conversation with those that ask the question, “Is Satan essential for the Plan of Salvation to work?” While I do not think this question is one of the more vital gospel questions we may ask, it certainly is interesting! The answer may help us to understand our place in the Plan of Salvation, as well as understand some passages that teach us of the Millennium.
In the Pre-earth life, it appears that the children of Heavenly Father were capable of some degree of agency, of choosing their destiny. In Alma 13 we read the following:
And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children (in other words, Alma is speaking of the pre-earth life); and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people. And those priests were ordained after the order of his Son, in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption. And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such. And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren. Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared (Alma 13:1-5, emphasis added).
This passage seems to indicate that there were individuals in the pre-earth life that exercised mighty faith while there were those that chose the opposite. Many of the specifics are unknown at this point and time, but one thing is certain: we all had the ability to choose who we would follow. The Adversary rebelled against the plan of Heavenly Father and did all he could to enlist followers. His rebellion existed in his own choosing- in other words before Lucifer became Satan we have no record of Satan. Another way to put it is like this: did Satan need to exist for Lucifer to rebel against God? It seems reasonable to suppose that Satan is not an essential part of God’s plan for our redemption. Let me make a couple of salient points that might strengthen this claim.
If it was a requirement that someone “volunteer” to assume the role of an adversary, what would that say about Heavenly Father’s perfect plan for his children? Would a loving, kind, merciful, and just God require that one of his children be permanently banished from his presence? It seems rational to assume otherwise. In fact the scriptures make the following claims:
Speaking of Lucifer, in D&C 76 we read that he was “called Perdition, for the heavens wept over him—he was Lucifer, a son of the morning. And we beheld, and lo, he is fallen! is fallen, even a son of the morning!” (D&C 76:26-27) If it was necessary that Lucifer become Satan, perhaps this verse would be read differently. Also it is worth noting that God’s work and glory is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). It would seem contrary to his plan that he should require one of his children to willfully rebel against his purpose for creating us in the first place. Not only this, but we are not talking about one individual, but the host that followed Lucifer in the pre-earth struggle for agency. John states that Satan “drew the third part of the stars of heaven” after him (Revelation 12:4). Whether that is 1/3 or just a “third part” represent a large number, not necessarily 1/3, we are talking about many people. Would God be just in forcing individuals to choose? Is not agency part of the entire program, the very thing that makes the plan of salvation operative?
When we read of what makes the plan operational, perhaps the clearest verses of scripture come to us from Lehi in 2 Nephi 2. Lehi lists four things that must exist for man to have agency, to be free. These are: 1)opposition, 2)laws designating right and wrong, 3)knowledge of good and evil, and 4)the power to choose. Nowhere in this text does Lehi say that Satan must exist for us to have agency. He does state that opposition is essential: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore all things must needs be a compound in one…” (2 Nephi 2:11) Is it possible that the conditions of mortality alone provide this essential opposition?
Consider the following:
We read in Mosiah 3:19 that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit…” In other words, the condition that man finds himself in as a fallen creature is one where his natural tendencies are to seek self-interest, to do all he can to look out for himself and benefit his own situation, even to the detriment of others. We do not have to look very far to see evidence of this in our world. It is as if man is “hardwired” to behave this way. In the New Testament book of James we read: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:13-15 emphasis added). James seems to indicate that it is our own natural lusts that lead us to sin. We seem quite capable of committing sin without the help of the Adversary!
This being said, let us not forget that Satan is a real being, intent on our destruction. I view Satan as one who is a stirrer of the pot, one who incites man to rebellion, who “stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29). An analogy that might work with most teenagers would be the character Ursula in the film The Little Mermaid. Ursula tempts Ariel, but Ariel’s nature compels her to want that which her father has forbidden. Of course Ursula uses Ariel’s natural tendencies against her, but Ursula is not essential for Ariel to be tempted. I realize the weakness in this analogy, as Ursula provides a means whereby Ariel can fulfill her desire to change her circumstance and completely rebel against her father’s wishes, but the desire to rebel was present in Ariel without the influence of the wicked Ursula.
Probably the most persuasive verse of scripture hinting at the necessity of Satan is found in D&C 29: “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet…” (D&C 29:39) The question I have in relation to this verse is this: is this verse saying that it was necessary that Satan should tempt us or that man should be tempted? I interpret this to mean that it was essential that God should have us in an environment where opposition exists in order that we may freely choose to follow his plan. Of course, in this mortal condition, we are subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, and would be tempted. Satan, of course only serves to exacerbate this situation. It is clear that we must have opposition in order to exercise agency, but I find it difficult to prove that someone take the role of “Satan” in order to provide this essential requirement of agency. Perhaps we will know more in the future when “the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things- Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof” (D&C 101:32-33).
One thing is certain- Satan does exist. We need not be fearful or overly focused on this fact, however.
President James E. Faust taught:
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 the devil “hath no power over the hearts” of righteous people. (1 Nephi 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 that 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.” (The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (1980), 60.)
He also stated, “Wicked spirits have their bounds, limits, and laws by which they are governed.” (History of the Church, 4:576.)
So Satan and his angels are not all-powerful. One of Satan’s approaches is to persuade a person who has transgressed that there is no hope of forgiveness. But there is always hope. Most sins, no matter how grievous, may be repented of if the desire is sincere enough. (President James E. Faust, The Forces That Will Save Us, Ensign, January 2007.)