The fall of the angels

By Brandon A. Evans

First in a series

The world we live in is surrounded by and filled with a deeper reality.

Our faith illuminates this reality as one that exists in superabundance on the spiritual level; it is filled with a myriad of angels and the surging rivers of God’s grace.

It is a reality that is not dulled by the void of space and expanse of the cosmos, but rather is brimming to its very boundaries by the brilliance of the Son of God.

It is a reality where the saints dwell around us, ever waiting to assist the pilgrim Church on her journey, and where the poorest and most despised in our world often radiate glory and praise to God, as Jesus taught.

Still, there is a dark serpent that winds his way through every part of this reality, stinging it with the pain of the absence of God and marring our world with sadness.

Thus, this deep reality is often manifested—and yet persistently denied—when we encounter the problem of evil.

Christianity has always dealt with this problem, and every generation looks to the Church for answers.

In its most simple form, the reason that evil exists is rooted in freedom—a freedom which God values so highly for us that he is willing to allow us to abuse it.

But what is the nature of our abuse of freedom, and when did it begin? And just why is freedom so highly prized in God’s kingdom?

Ultimately, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the only way to know evil is to know its brilliant and infinite opposite: Jesus Christ.

“We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on him who alone is its conqueror (#385).”

Only in the glory and the intense love of Jesus can we truly understand what it is like to betray him, to turn away, to reject him.

In the beginning, there was one who knew God better than any and still turned away.

As the catechism teaches, the Lord created the entire universe and all the life within it—all that is seen and unseen—from nothing.

The Church also teaches, as a truth of the faith and of Scripture, that part of that creation is made up of purely spiritual beings called angels.

Tradition places the creation of these angels, who exist spiritually as beings of intellect and will, before the creation of the material universe.

Citing Pope Pius XII, the catechism says that “they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.”

Mark Shea, senior content editor at, said that according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “each angel is its own species, containing only one member, because angels don’t reproduce.”

“We’re not living in a two-story house with us on the bottom floor and God upstairs and that’s it,” Shea said. “Far more realistic is to realize that we’re living in a skyscraper and that there are who knows how many dimensions of creation above us.”

“I sometimes wonder how the universe is going to look to us once we finally get to heaven,” he said. “I wonder how much we’re going to laugh about the way we thought the real world was when we discover that all of our calculations about the real world had completely ignored the reality of angels.”

In the first instant of their creation—at least that first instant, St. Thomas Aquinas demands—all of Christ’s angels were completely pure and holy.

At some point immediately after that, there was one angel that used his free will, by some mysterious and hidden motivation, to turn away from the blessed vision of God and, throught that evil, forever distort the Lord’s creation.

And it was not simply that one dark angel, but many. The saints have speculated that a full third of all the angels fell from heaven in that rebellion.

Jesus himself attested to this reality when he said that “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky” (Lk 10:18).

Other references to the fall of the angels are found in both the Old and New Testaments.

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general, said that looking at Scripture, he sees pride as the motivation for the fall of Lucifer. The devil and his angels “refused to obey God.”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, director of the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign and vicar for social justice in the Diocese of Peoria, came to the same assessment about the devil’s fall.

“My own speculation—and this is the classic Medieval answer—is pride,” Msgr. Swetland said. “One of the great Medieval speculations is that Satan was shown the possibility of the Incarnation and the idea that he would have to worship God made man was too much for him to handle.”

Shea said that it is very difficult to get to the bottom of the devil’s motivation.

“All we have are human analogies,” he said, “because we’re not dealing with a person in the sense that we’re used to. The devil is not a human being. By nature … he’s vastly superior to us.”

“When you’re dealing with someone who is a liar and the father of lies, you’re really dealing with a being that has completely cut himself off from facing reality,” Shea said.

“Sin is, in its essence, a renunciation of the truth,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a homily.

The denial of truth, especially on such a basic level, is to fashion oneself as the creator of truth.

“Evil is that decision to ignore God, to want to be a god yourself,” Msgr. Schaedel said.

But the considerable problem for theologians and saints has been to wonder how Lucifer—whose name means “light bearer” and who was created as the highest of angels—could have thought for even a moment that he could be God.

St. Anselm tackled this in his dialogue De Casu Diaboli.

“If,” he wrote, “God cannot be thought of except as sole, and as of such an essence that nothing can be thought of like … him, [then] how could the devil have wished for what could not be thought of? He surely was not so dull of understanding as to be ignorant of the inconceivability of any other entity like to God.”

His solution was that Satan did not seek to be God, but only to have a little of the independence which is rightly God’s.

The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia records that “although St. Thomas [Aquinas] regards the desire of equality with God as something impossible, he teaches nevertheless that Satan sinned by desiring to be ‘as God.’ ”

Msgr. Swetland defined evil in a simple manner—as “a lack of a good that ought to be there.”

“Evil is real, but a real absence,” he said. “Let’s say I hate my brother. Hating a brother means that there’s a privation, there’s a lack of a good that ought to be there: namely, the lack of love that ought to be there.”

The goodness of Lucifer’s worship to God was interrupted with the lack of perfect praise and the subsequent desire for praise of himself.

The catechism says that the fall of the angels “consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign” (#392).

“It is the irrevocable character of their choice,” the catechism continues, “and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable. ‘There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death’ ” (#393).

The result of the disobedience of the angels was an eternity lived apart from the loving presence of God. Nevertheless, the devil has remained active in the world, causing spiritual and even physical harm, the catechism says.

“The action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but ‘we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him’ ” (#395).

The fall of Lucifer—and of those angels who followed him—set in motion a series of events that affected our universe and our world in unknown ways.

As God’s creation became more complex, there came a time when the Prince of Darkness cast his shadow over the only creature that God made for his own sake—man—but in doing so, his greatest triumph became his greatest mistake.

(Next in series: The devil turns his eye toward humanity and in the fall of man, the fall of creation is complete.) †


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