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Demons are the Angels Who Fell by Their Disobedience to the Will of God
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
As we open our conference on the demons, let us first make sure we know exactly what we are talking about. Our faith tells us that God created the invisible world of angels at the beginning of time. We further believe that none of these angelic spirits was estranged from God.
For centuries some ecclesiastical writers thought there were two kinds of angels originally brought from nothing into existence. There were, some held, angels originally created in celestial glory. Clearly these angels could not sin. No one in heaven can sin or lose the friendship of God. Other angels were created in Gods grace, but they had to earn their eternal salvation. On these terms, only those who were in Gods grace but not yet possessing the Beatific Vision could possibly sin and lose their heavenly destiny. Following this logic therefore the devils are those who were not originally created in heaven but were still on probation. They failed in their test of loyalty to God and were condemned for their disobedience.
What we have just said, however, is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. Under pressure of erroneous ideas over the centuries, the Church has taught infallibly that all the angels were originally in the state of Gods friendship but like us, had to prove their fidelity to the Lord and thus merit the Beatific Vision. Those who failed in this test of loyalty became demons.
With that introduction, let us ask ourselves several questions in order to make as clear as possible what is an article of our faith that: Demons are the angels who fell by their disobedience to the will of God. In order to do justice to an immense subject let us again ask a number of questions:
What is a Demon?
The study of the evil spirit is the science of demonology. As we enter this dark ocean, it is important to understand our vocabulary. Since the dawn of revealed history, believers in the one true God have used four principal names for the angels who fell from Divine friendship. They are called demons, or devils, or Satan, or Lucifer.
Demon. Literally the Latin word daemon means spirit, it comes from the Greek word daimon which means a god, or a genius or a spirit. Christianity has always associated demons with evil spirits. Implicit in the pagan word demon is a spirit between gods and men. In the New Testament, a demon is the same as an evil spirit. It means a malevolent, invisible being which the pre-Christian word demon did not imply.
A word of comment might be added here to note that in polytheistic religions there are malevolent deities. As Christians you would identify these evil gods as demons.
Devil. As understood in the Gospels, the devil is an evil spirit, especially the chief of the rebellious angels. Adorned at his creation with sanctifying grace, he sinned by pride and along with many other angelic beings was denied the beatific vision. His abode is hell and he does not enjoy the benefits of Christs Redemption. Yet the devil remains an intelligent spirit, confirmed in will, who is allowed by God to exercise some influence on both living and inanimate creatures. Literally, the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos, which means accuser or seducer or liar.
Satan. Satan is the chief of the fallen angels; enemy of God and humanity and everything good. Other names for Satan are Lucifer, Belial, and Beelzebul. The serpent that tempted Eve was identified with Satan (Genesis 3). In both the Old and the New Testaments, he is considered the adversary of God, bringing about evil and tempting human beings to defy Gods laws.
Even Jesus was subjected to temptation by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Later on, the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out devils through Beelzebul, the prince of devils (Matthew 12:24). St. Paul warned the early Christians against the temptations of Satan (1 Corinthians 7:6).
References to Satan are numerous in the Scriptures. From the dawn of biblical teaching we are told that there is a personal, malign force active in the world attempting to pervert the designs of God.
Derived from the Greek Satan and the Hebrew Satan, the word means an adversary who is plotting against another person.
Lucifer. In the common teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the name Lucifer is identified with Satan, the leader of the fallen angels. In the Churchs writings, Lucifer is the Prince of Darkness, who before he fell was an angel of light. The name comes from the Latin lucifer, light bearer.
Fall of the Angels
Already in the early Church, the fall of the angels was professed as an article of the Catholic faith. When the Manichean plague struck the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Council of Braga in Spain condemned the Manicheans by declaring, If anyone says that the devil was not first a good angel made by God, or that his nature was not the work of God, but claims that the devil sprang from the darkness and had no creator at all, rather that he is himself the beginning and substance of evil...let him be anathema(A.D. 561).
In the thirteenth century the Fourth Lateran Council defined against the Albigenses that, The devil and the other demons were created by God, good according to their nature, but they made themselves evil by their own doing(A.D. 1215).
There are two classic passages in the Bible on the fall of the angels. Saint Peter writes that God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but dragged them down by infernal ropes to tartar us, and deliver them to be tortured and kept in custody for judgment(2 Peter 2:4). St. John calls sinners children of the devil, He who commits sin is of the devil; because the devil sins from the beginning(2 John 3:8).
We also have two outstanding passages on the eternity of the devils punishment, both in the context of comparing fallen man with the demons who seduced their victims. In foretelling the Last Judgment, Christ quotes Himself as saying to the wicked, Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
Saint John in the Apocalypse describes the fate of the demon who led sinners away from God: The devil who deceived them was cast into the pool of fire and brimstone, where also are the beasts and the false prophet; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever(Apocalypse 20:9-10).
It is worth noting that in both these classic passages the eternity of hell corresponds to the eternity of heaven. The Greek word aionios, meaning eternal, applies to both the endless duration of beatitude and the everlasting suffering of the angels and human beings.
Running through the writings of the Fathers of the Church are certain common elements in their teaching on the fallen angels. They affirm without qualification, that some of the angels sinned gravely and were therefore punished with eternal torment. Writers like Saint Augustine studiously justify the gravity of the penalty by stressing the seriousness of their sin. Without attempting to number the fallen spirits, the Fathers of the Church say it was a great multitude. They further emphasize that the angels who sinned had no time or opportunity for repentance, and in this, human beings are shown to be more fortunate. Finally the Fathers point out that the angels sinned in spite of their extraordinary natural perfections and supernatural graces from God. In fact, one reason for the severity of their punishment was the extraordinary sublimity of intellect before they sinned.
How Did the Angels Disobey God?
As we have been saying, all the angels were originally created in the divine friendship. Like us they were capable of obeying and loving God and thus merit eternal happiness. But like us they had true internal freedom. Also like us they had the equivalent of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. They could either cooperate with the grace they possessed or refuse to submit themselves to God.
We do not know how long their probation continued. What is certain, however, is that like us they underwent the test on which depended their destiny.
Let us be clear, we believe there is no happiness without love; no love without freedom; no freedom without a choice; that is, there is no happiness without a test. These equations pertain to all intelligent creatures, including the angels.
Two speculative questions have been asked over the centuries, and we have no definite answer. How exactly were the angels tried and how long did their trial last.
What can we say? We can say that sometime after the angels were created, there was a fearsome battle among the angelic hosts. It was a battle between two angelic battalions, of which the best description is found in the closing book of the Bible:
Needless to say this is one of the most revealing mysteries of our faith. It tells us that from the dawn of spiritual creation, there has been a conflict between love and hatred. The mystery, of course, is why both angels and human beings are capable of either loving or rejecting God by submitting or conforming to His will. Mysteries are incomprehensible but they are also credible. God wanted the angels to earn their everlasting beatitude. He wants the same of us.
The sin of the angels could not have been bodily since they are absolutely immaterial. It could only have been a sin of the spirit. The Church teaches us it was a sin of pride. Our revealed warrant for believing this is what the scriptures tell us, that Pride is the beginning of all sin(Ecclesiasticus 10:15).
The Fathers of the Church generally refer to the fall of the angels in the words of Jeremiah, which the rebellious Israel speaks to its God, I will not serve(Jeremiah 2:20). Or again, the words of Isaiah are applied to the fall of the angels,
Clearly the sin of the angels was their ambition to become God, which is the height of pride. It is a crime that, among human beings, is committed by the false messiahs of philosophy and, in our day, by the agents of the culture of death.
One major question still remains. We know that the angels were not forgiven. This is a fact of revealed truth, which more than one theologian would not accept. Why not? We must say it was not forgiven because it was not forgivable by its very nature. Otherwise we should say that Gods mercy is so great that He would have found a way to forgive.
St. Augustine saw the dilemma. His explanation is perfectly logical. He wrote, Since we know that the Creator of all good sent no grace of atonement to the bad angels, how can we fail to conclude that their sin was judged all the more culpable because their nature was so sublime(Commentaries on St. John, Migne, 35, 1924).
We return to what we said before, that the sin of the angels was unforgivable. What does this mean? It means that the nature of the angelic spirit is to see in a flash all the factors for and against a given choice before it is made. Angels, therefore, cannot retract a choice they have made. It never returns to things seen, once they have been seen; it never reconsiders decisions once taken. On these premises an angel is incapable of repentance.
For us, a sin regretted is a sin that can be forgiven; but a sin that is not repented and retracted is unforgivable. This is precisely what we mean by final impenitence. Once our soul leaves the body, it remains in its fixed state. We may say it is subject to the same laws that apply to the angels. The disembodied soul of a person who dies in Gods friendship and the faithful angels can no longer want to retract their love, nor can the lost souls and the demons retract their rejection of God.
Consequences of the Fall
The most devastating consequence of the sin of the angels was their eternal loss of the vision of God. This truth of our faith, as we have seen, has been twice defined, by the Fourth Lateran Council in the early thirteenth century and by the First Vatican Council in 1870. Significantly Fourth Lateran declares that, The devil and other demons were condemned to hell. The sin of the angels, we may say, was a collective conspiracy led by Lucifer and those who joined him in rebelling against God. Just as their rebellion was organized by the leader of the demons, so the penalty for their sin was collective. They were all condemned together.
The Churchs magisterium has often spoken on the punishment of the evil spirits. Their condition has been described in a library of theological documentation. But the single most important sanction imposed by an all just God is the eternity of hell.
If there is one truth of our faith that we had better fully accept and clearly understand, it is the eternity of hell. In so many nominally Christian circles, hell is either a piece of profanity or the psychotic fancy of misguided fanatics.
But hell is real. And the most sobering feature is its eternity. The existence of an eternal hell is a mystery. Although we believe it, we are unable to understand why it must be so or how the attribute of Gods justice, which stands behind the mystery, can be reconciled with His infinite love.
Yet, the Catholic Church has never flinched in communicating this truth from Christs along with the Saviors assuring promise that His words will never fail. It would be a mistake to blame the Church for certain graphic descriptions of hell that seem incompatible with the condition of the fallen angels, or of mans status after death. Dantes Inferno assumes the Churchs doctrine and builds around it an elaborate theme. But Dante is not the Church.
Our conferences on the angels are meant to help our spiritual life. Surely eternal punishment of the fallen spirits is to help us live a holy life.
In the last analysis, the Church basis her teaching about eternal punishment on the words of Christ. No one has better defended this truth than Saint Augustine. He is writing in De Civitate Dei, which is the patristic masterpiece on the conflict between the two cities, the City of Man led by Satan and the City of God led by Jesus Christ.
At this point, we could discourse at length on all the implications of eternal punishment. Yet, only one truth underlies everything else we know about the consequences of the angels fall. They lost the divinely ordained purpose for their existence, which is the everlasting vision of God. Deprived of heavenly glory, they are suffering eternal pain.
I cannot think of a better way of closing this conference than by quoting from St. Ignatius in his meditation on hell. He tells the one making the Spiritual Exercises, I should ask for what I desire. Here it will be to beg for a deep sense of the pain which the lost suffer, that if because of my faults I forget the love of eternal Lord at least the fear of these punishments will keep me from falling into sin.
All of us, angels and human beings, are faced with the same option: to love God even to despising ourselves, or loving ourselves even to despising God. The choice we make now in time will determine our destiny through all eternity.
Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica