Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. (Revelation 12:3)
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:9)
The only time a dragon appeared by name in the Bible was in the dizzying visions of Revelation. But if you go by description and not only names, dragons appear in the Old Testament also.
In Job 41, God describes the Leviathan, and it sounds for all the world like a dragon: “Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth? His back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. … His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth. … Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.”
Near the end of the chapter, God says that the Leviathan “makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron” – a connection between the Leviathan and the sea that is echoed in nearly every mention of the creature. Asaph, praising God in Psalm 74, writes:
It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.
It is implied here that the Leviathan had, or could have, multiple heads – as the red dragon that symbolized Satan did. Another curious parallel to the vision of Revelation is found in Isaiah 27:
In that day,
the LORD will punish with his sword—
his fierce, great and powerful sword—
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea.
“The great dragon” is also called “that ancient serpent” – and indeed, John uses serpent interchangeably with dragon near the end of Revelation 12.
It is common to see dragons portrayed as good in modern Christian fantasy. Yet the Bible symbolizes Satan with a dragon and calls the dragon-like Leviathan a monster.
I will begin by admitting that if Scripture uses a dragon as a symbol for Satan, it is because something in the nature of dragons corresponds to something in the nature of Satan. Allegories and symbols, similes and metaphors are all based on a real likeness.
But not a complete likeness. That is the other side of the coin. The Apostle Peter famously wrote that the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”. And for all that the devil is like a lion, Jesus Himself is called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”. The lion as predator – brutal and devouring – resembles Satan, but the lion as the king of the beasts – strong and majestic – resembles Christ.
Like the dragon, the serpent is used to represent Satan, and imagery throughout the Bible associates snakes with evil. Jesus more than once used the denunciation “brood of vipers”. And He still commanded His followers to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Satan may be an ancient serpent, but serpents are not all bad.
Doves prove the same principle from the other side. As the Bible usually invokes snakes negatively but may invoke them positively, so it usually invokes doves positively but may invoke them negatively, cf. Hosea: “Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless.”
To think that Satan’s representation as a dragon is a commentary on the intrinsic evil of dragons ignores both the logic of symbolism and the richness and diversity of Scriptural imagery. Perhaps it ignores, too, the truth that since God is the Creator of all things, nothing is intrinsically evil.
Many things are evil, and some things are evil without redemption. But nothing is evil in its original nature, because that nature comes from God. The fierce and powerful Leviathan – the “monster of the sea”, fire-breathing, invincible, and undeniably dragonish – has another side. Psalm 104 has what may be the only gentle imagery of the Leviathan:
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Gentle – and also mighty. Like the lion laying down with the lamb, gentleness and strength may be the truest nature of Leviathan, and even of dragons.