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The Fall of the Rebellious Angels

General Audience — August 13, 1986

—    Satan—cosmic liar and murderer

Today we continue the theme of the previous catecheses, which were dedicated to the article of the faith that concerns the angels, God's creatures. We shall begin today to explore the mystery of the freedom which some of them have turned against God and his plan of salvation for humanity.

As the evangelist Luke testified, when the disciples returned to the Master full of joy at the fruits they had gathered in their first missionary attempt, Jesus uttered a sentence that is highly evocative: "I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning" (Lk 10:18). With these words, the Lord affirmed that the proclamation of the kingdom of God is always a victory over the devil. But at the same time, he also revealed that the building up of the kingdom is continuously exposed to the attacks of the spirit of evil. When we consider this, as we propose to do with today's catechesis, it means that we prepare ourselves for the condition of struggle which characterizes the life of the Church in this final time of the history of salvation (as the Book of Revelation asserts—cf. 12:7). Besides this, it will permit us to clarify the true faith of the Church against those who pervert it by exaggerating the importance of the devil, or by denying or minimizing his malevolent power.

The preceding catecheses on the angels have prepared us to understand the truth which Sacred Scripture has revealed and which the Tradition of the Church has handed on about Satan, that is, the fallen angel, the wicked spirit, who is also called the devil or demon.

This "fall" has the character of the rejection of God with the consequent state of "damnation." It consists in the free choice of those created spirits who have radically and irrevocably rejected God and his kingdom, usurping his sovereign rights and attempting to subvert the economy of salvation and the order of the entire creation. We find a reflection of this attitude in the words addressed by the tempter to our first parents: "You will become like God" or "like gods" (cf. Gen 3:5). Thus the evil spirit tried to transplant into humanity the attitude of rivalry, insubordination and opposition to God, which has, as it were, become the motivation of Satan's existence.

In the Old Testament, the narrative of the fall of man as related in the Book of Genesis contains a reference to the attitude of antagonism which Satan wishes to communicate to man in order to lead him to sin (Gen 3:5). In the Book of Job too, we read that Satan seeks to generate rebellion in the person who is suffering (cf. Job 1:11; 2:5-7). In the Book of Wisdom (cf. Wis 2:24), Satan is presented as the artisan of death, which has entered human history along with sin.

In the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Church taught that the devil (or Satan) and the other demons "were created good by God but have become evil by their own will." We read in the Letter of Jude: "The angels who did not keep their own dignity, but left their own dwelling, are kept by the Lord in eternal chains in the darkness, for the judgment of the great day" (Jude 6). Similarly, in the Second Letter of Peter, we hear of "angels who have sinned" and whom God "did not spare, but...cast in the gloomy abysses of hell, reserving them for the judgment" (2 Pet 2:4). It is clear that if God "does not forgive" the sin of the angels, this is because they remain in their sin. They are eternally "in the chains" of the choice that they made at the beginning, rejecting God, against the truth of the supreme and definitive Good that is God himself. It is in this sense that St. John wrote that "the devil has been a sinner from the beginning..." (1 Jn 3:8). And he has been a murderer "from the beginning," and "has not persevered in the truth, because there is no truth in him" (Jn 8:44).

1.  Satan—cosmic liar and murderer

These texts help us to understand the nature and the dimension of the sin of Satan. It consists in the denial of the truth about God, as he is known by the light of the intellect and revelation as infinite Good, subsistent Love and Holiness. The sin was all the greater, in that the spiritual perfection and the epistemological acuteness of the angelic intellect, with its freedom and closeness to God, were greater. When, by an act of his own free will, he rejected the truth that he knew about God, Satan became the cosmic "liar and the father of lies" (Jn 8:44). For this reason he lives in radical and irreversible denial of God, and seeks to impose on creation—on the other beings created in the image of God, and in particular on people—his own tragic "lie about the good" that is God. In the Book of Genesis, we find a precise description of this lie a falsification of the truth about God, which Satan (under the form of a serpent) tried to transmit to the first representatives of the human race—God is jealous of his own prerogatives and therefore wants to impose limitations on man (cf. Gen 3:5). Satan invites the man to free himself from the impositions of this yoke, by making himself, "like God."

In this condition of existential falsehood, Satan—according to St. John—also becomes a "murderer." That is, he is one who destroys the supernatural life which God had made to dwell from the beginning in him and in the creatures made "in the likeness of God"—the other pure spirits and men. Satan wishes to destroy life lived in accordance with the truth, life in the fullness of good, the supernatural life of grace and love. The author of the Book of Wisdom wrote: "Death has entered the world through the envy of the devil, and those who belong to him experience it" (Wis 2:24). Jesus Christ warned in the Gospel: "Fear rather him who has the power to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna" (Mt 10:28).

As the result of the sin of our first parents, this fallen angel has acquired dominion over man to a certain extent. This is the doctrine that has been constantly professed and proclaimed by the Church, and which the Council of Trent confirmed in its treatise on original sin (cf. DS 1511). It finds a dramatic expression in the liturgy of baptism, when the catechumen is asked to renounce the devil and all his empty promises.

In Sacred Scripture we find various indications of this influence on man and on the dispositions of his spirit (and of his body). In the Bible, Satan is called "the prince of this world" (cf. Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and even "the god of this world" (2 Cor 4:4). We find many other names that describe his nefarious relationship with the human race: "Beelzebul" or "Belial," "unclean spirit," "tempter," "evil one" and even "Antichrist" (1 Jn 4:3). He is compared to a "lion" (1 Pet 5:8), to a "dragon" (in Revelation) and to a "serpent" (Gen 3). Very frequently, he is designated by the name "devil," from the Greek diaballein (hence diabolos). This means to "cause destruction, to divide, to calumniate, to deceive." In truth, all this takes place from the beginning through the working of the evil spirit who is presented by Sacred Scripture as a person, while it is declared that he is not alone. "There are many of us," as the devils cried out to Jesus in the region of the Gerasenes (Mk 5:9); and Jesus, speaking of the future judgment, spoke of "the devil and his angels" (cf. Mt 25:41).

According to Sacred Scripture, and especially the New Testament, the dominion and the influence of Satan and of the other evil spirits embraces the entire world. We may think of Christ's parable about the field (the world), about the good seed and the bad seed that the devil sows in the midst of the wheat, seeking to snatch away from hearts the good that has been "sown" in them (cf. Mt 13:38-39). We may think of the numerous exhortations to vigilance (cf. Mt 26:41; 1 Pet 5:8), to prayer and fasting (cf. Mt 17:21). We may think of the strong statement made by the Lord: "This kind of demon cannot be cast out by any other means than prayer" (Mk 9:29). The action of Satan consists primarily in tempting people to evil, by influencing their imaginations and higher faculties, to turn them away from the law of God. Satan even tempted Jesus (cf. Lk 4:3-13), in the extreme attempt to thwart what is demanded by the economy of salvation, as this has been pre-ordained by God.

It is possible that in certain cases the evil spirit goes so far as to exercise his influence not only on material things, but even on the human body, so that one can speak of "diabolical possession" (cf. Mk 5:2-9). It is not always easy to discern the preternatural factor operative in these cases, and the Church does not lightly support the tendency to attribute many things to the direct action of the devil. But in principle it cannot be denied that Satan can go to this extreme manifestation of his superiority in his will to harm and lead to evil.

To conclude, we must add that the impressive words of the apostle John, "The whole world lies under the power of the evil one" (1 Jn 5:19), allude also to the presence of Satan in the history of humanity. This presence becomes all the more acute when man and society depart from God. The influence of the evil spirit can conceal itself in a more profound and effective way. It is in his "interests" to make himself unknown. Satan has the skill in the world to induce people to deny his existence in the name of rationalism and of every other system of thought which seeks all possible means to avoid recognizing his activity. But this does not signify the elimination of man's free will and responsibility, and even less the frustration of the saving action of Christ. It is, rather, a case of a conflict between the dark powers of evil and the powers of redemption. The words that Jesus addressed to Peter at the beginning of the Passion are eloquent in this context: "Simon, behold, Satan has sought to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail" (Lk 22:31).

This helps us to understand why Jesus, in the prayer that he taught us, the "Our Father," terminated it almost brusquely, unlike so many other prayers of his era, by reminding us of our condition as people exposed to the snares of evil and of the evil one. Appealing to the Father with the Spirit of Jesus and invoking his kingdom, the Christian cries with the power of faith: let us not succumb to temptation, free us from evil, from the evil one. O Lord, let us not fall into the infidelity to which we are seduced by the one who has been unfaithful from the beginning.