Angels: Fallen Edition

Having written a lengthy post on angels, I now turn to the other end of the spectrum.  Demons, in one sense, are no different from angels–they are merely evil angels, or fallen angels, in traditional terminology.  Still, they are worth looking at separately, as the scriptural basis for traditional teachings on demons is somewhat different from–and murkier–than that on angels.

“Demon”, to start off with, is from daimōn (δαίμων), which in Classical Greek merely means what we’d refer to as a “spirit” or a minor deity.  There was no moral status implied–daimones could be good, bad, or indifferent.  Some were even thought to be tutelary spirits–what we’d call “guardian angels”.  The daimonion–“little daimōn” or “daimōn-like thing” of Socrates is an example of the latter.

Later on, many Christian theologians came to consider all pre-Christian pagan deities to be evil spirits masquerading as gods or benevolent beings.  Thus, daimōn came to connote not just a spirit or divinity, but an evil spirit or divinity–hence the modern meaning of “demon”.  As we will see later, Christian theology eventually equated demons with fallen angels.  We will get to that in a bit, though.

The Old Testament–at least the version accepted by Jews and Protestants–is written in Hebrew, with the exception of a few brief passages in Aramaic.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Greek-derived word “demon” never appears in it.  There are some references to beings that seem demonic or quasi-demonic.  Such references, though, are often puzzling and obscure.

First is the enigmatic narrative in Genesis, chapter 6, verses1-4:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,

That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. (King James Version, my emphasis)

“Sons of God”–bənēy ha-Ĕlōhîm (בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) in Hebrew–is tossed out with no explanation.  Presumably it is intended to refer to angelic or divine beings that are construed as children of God in some sense.  Presumably also they can mate with human women, producing human-angel hybrids–the “giants” in verse four.  The Hebrew word so translated is “Nephilim” (נְּפִלִ֞ים), the meaning of which is obscure.  It may be related to the Hebrew root meaning “to fall”, and hence imply “fallen ones” or “those who cause others to fall”; but other etymologies have been suggested.

Later Jewish thought posited beings called “Watchers”* (Aramaic עִירִין–ʿiyrin).  These seem to be some sort of angel or divine being under God.  They are referred to in Daniel, chapter four, in which King Nebuchadnezzar is described as having a vision of “a watcher, a holy one” (verse 23).  Once more, the term is used without comment, so we are left hanging as to just what a “Watcher” is.

In later, non-canonical Jewish though, the idea of the Watchers was elaborated considerably.  Note this passage, from the apocryphal First Book of Enoch, chapter 6 (courtesy of here, R. H. Charles translation), which is an expansion of the Genesis text above:

1 And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto 2 them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men 3 and beget us children.’ And Semjaza, who was their leader, said unto them: ‘I fear ye will not 4 indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations 5 not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’ Then sware they all together and bound themselves 6 by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn 7 and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And these are the names of their leaders: Samlazaz, their leader, Araklba, Rameel, Kokablel, Tamlel, Ramlel, Danel, Ezeqeel, Baraqijal, 8 Asael, Armaros, Batarel, Ananel, Zaq1el, Samsapeel, Satarel, Turel, Jomjael, Sariel. These are their chiefs of tens.

So the “children of the heaven” are explicitly identified as “angels” and even given names!  From this point, the narrative describes how these angels beget children with human women and foment all kinds of corruption among humanity, teaching them various techniques of violence and warfare.  In chapter 9, the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel complain to God about all this.  In chapter 10, God responds, ordering the angels to bind those who have corrupted humanity and cast them into “the valleys of the earth”–in short, to cast them out of Heaven.  This chapter also explicitly identifies these fallen angels as Watchers in verses 7 and 8, my emphasis:

And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons.

There you have, in summary, the earliest narrative of a rebellion or conflict in Heaven, in which some angels were cast out by the loyal angels, implicitly led by Michael.  These “fallen” angels are not referred to as “demons” or “devils”, but their activities are definitely not described as angelic.  In any case, some scholars believe that the concept of the Watchers may have been behind the passage in Genesis 6.  It’s difficult to say, however–parts of Genesis probably go back to the 10th Century BC or further, and the book was probably in the form we have it by the 7th or 6th Century BC.  The earliest book of Enoch is no earlier than the 3rd Century BC, and the later books of Enoch much later, as late as the 3rd Century AD.  Thus, it’s hard to tell if the ideas made explicit in Enoch were present in Jewish thought at the time of the composition of Genesis, though unstated, or if Enoch is a mythological elaboration of earlier texts that were thought to be obscure.  Probably the most one could say is that the idea of quasi-demonic fallen angels was in the air in ancient Jewish thought, but never explicit in canonical scripture, and impossible to pin down in terms of dates.

Something a bit more concrete than the Watchers appears in 1 Samuel 18:10 (KJV, my emphasis):

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied in the midst of the house: and David played with his hand, as at other times: and there was a javelin in Saul’s hand.

In the Hebrew, this is rûaħ Ĕlōhîm rāʿāh (רוּחַ֩ אֱלֹהִ֨ים רָעָ֤ה), where rûaħ is the standard word for “spirit” or “breath” and rāʿāh is from the root rāʿ, “bad”, “evil”, or, secondarily, “disagreeable” or “distressing”.  Thus, rûaħ rāʿāh seems to be straightforwardly “evil spirit”, which is what we mean when we say “demon”.  But there is also the “from God” (Ĕlōhîm) part–we are to understand that this is not a demon being–well, demonic–but a spirit sent at God’s command to torment Saul.

That in itself could be fodder for numerous posts.  Suffice it to say that the earliest Jewish thought lacks the dualism of later Christian thought.  The Jews, at least before the Babylonian Captivity, had no problem attributing both good and bad things to God.  Note Isaiah 45:7, KJV:  “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”  Thus, for the authors of 1 Samuel, there was no problem at all in thinking that God might send a spirit to torture a king no longer in His favor.  Thus, at least from the perspective of the original audience for 1 Samuel, Saul’s “evil spirit” cannot be construed as a demon in our sense of the word.

Beyond that, it’s slim pickings in the Old Testament.  The term shedim appears in Psalm 106 and Deuteronomy 32:17, and se’irim appears in Leviticus 17:7.  Both contexts involve child sacrifice, and the terms may refer to pagan deities.  Lilith appears in Isaiah 34:14.  In other contexts in Jewish folklore, “lilith” as a common noun is construed as a type of night demon, borrowed from the Babylonian lilitu.  As a proper noun, Lilith is said in extra-Biblical lore to be Adam’s first wife, whom he rejected, resulting in the creation of Eve.  In Isaiah, though, translators are divided.  “Lilith” occurs in a list of unclean animals, and may be referring to some actual or mythological creature instead of a demon.

Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6, and Isaiah 8:19 and 19:3 condemn what the King James Version calls “them that have familiar spirits”.  Other translations have “spiritists” or “necromancers”.  Thus, it is unclear if what is being referenced is demons, pagan gods, or the spirits of the dead.  Thus, it seems there is no clear category of beings that we might call “demons” in the Hebrew Old Testament.

By this time, some of you might be echoing Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, saying, “Ah, but what about SATAN??!!”  Well, “satan” is definitely in the Old Testament, but thereby hangs a complicated tale….

“Satan” comes from the Hebrew śāṭān (שָּׂטָן), which simply means “accuser” or “adversary”, from a root meaning “to obstruct” or “oppose”.  As with “accuser” or “adversary”, “satan” can be a common or proper noun.  In Numbers 22:22, for example, the angel of the LORD blocks the path of Balaam, and is described as standing in the road “as a satan against him”.  In other words, the angel is opposing him.

In other places, “satan”–sometimes with the definite article prefix ha-, meaning “the”, and sometimes without–is definitely a spirit or angel of some sort other than an “angel of the LORD”.  The most famous occurrence is in the prologue to the Book of Job, in which Satan (with the definite article, thus, literally, “the adversary”) comes into God’s presence when the “sons of God” are presenting themselves before Him.  Satan says he’s been wandering the Earth, and God speaks admiringly of His servant Job.  Satan immediately claims that Job isn’t really upright, but just good because he’s been blessed.  God gives Satan permission to successively destroy Job’s possessions, kill his children, and smite him with boils.  The rest of the book follows, a magnificent meditation on the nature of evil.

Here, as well as in Zechariah 3:1-2 and Psalm 109:6, Satan does not seem to be portrayed as the principle of evil, the Prince of Darkness.  Rather, the being seems to be either a sort of Trickster figure, not unlike the Norse god Loki, or a sort of prosecuting attorney who tests people at God’s command to see if they really measure up.  The scene in Zechariah, where the High Priest Joshua is seen in a vision as being on trial before God, with Satan accusing him, brings this out particularly well.

Interestingly, 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 are parallel passages in which David, after being forbidden to take a census of Israel, does so anyway, resulting in God wrathfully slaying 70,000 Israelites in a plague.  In the former (and older) passage, David is incited to take a census by God Himself–after God had forbidden David to do just that!  In the latter passage, the author, apparently embarrassed over God’s questionable behavior, has Satan–or a satan, or an adversary–inciting David.

The point is that in all these passages, “Satan” seems to be either a being sent by God to inflict punishment and chaos, much as He sent the unnamed “evil spirit” to King Saul, or a rather nasty prankster.  In no case is he portrayed as transcendent evil, or the origin of evil.  He’s not a nice guy, admittedly–1 Samuel 2:21 refers to the sons of the High Priest Eli as “sons of Belial”, the only time that a demonic personal name seems to be used in the Hebrew Old Testament, although “Belial” may be a synonym for “Satan”–but he still seems to be working for God.

But what about the Fall of Lucifer, you say?  Well, let’s sketch the traditional “origin story” of the Devil, and then see how it’s not actually in the Bible.

The story is this:  In the beginning, God created the Heavenly Host, the angels of all ranks.  This may have been before the creation of the material cosmos (different versions vary).  In any case, the highest. greatest, most powerful, and most beautiful of the angels was Lucifer, whose name means “Light Bearer”.  Despite his majesty, Lucifer fell prey to the worst of sins–pride.  Not content with being greatest of the angels, he aspired to divinity–he wanted to usurp the power of God Almighty.  Thus, Lucifer gathered an army of such angels as he could persuade to his side–the tradition is that he tempted a third of the Heavenly Host–and rose up against God.

Michael, the Great Prince and Captain of the Heavenly Host led the loyal angels into battle against Lucifer and his legions.  The battle was decisive–Lucifer was defeated and he and his minions were cast out of Heaven, falling into Hell, in which they would experience eternal punishment.  Never one to give up, Lucifer–now renamed “Satan”, the Adversary, or the Devil, the Slanderer–continues until the end of time to make war against God by producing evil in the world and tempting human beings, desiring them to end up in Hell. His first act of temptation, in fact, was to tempt Eve to eat the Apple of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, resulting in Original Sin and the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In the end, though, Satan and his fallen angels–now known as demons or devils–will be defeated once and for all, a new heaven and a new earth will be manifested, and everyone and thing (except for the damned) will live happily ever after forever.  The end.

OK–none of that is in the Bible, at least not as presented.  As noted above, nothing in the Old Testament portrays Satan as a former archangel or fallen angel of any kind, nor as an ultimate principle of evil.  Nothing in the text of Genesis indicates the serpent who tempts Eve as being anything other than a serpent.  “Lucifer”, a Latin word, nowhere appears in the Hebrew Old Testament, but is an artifact of translation.  Isaiah 14 contains a long passage taunting the hated King of Babylon and predicting the fall of his kingdom.  Verses 3-4 set the stage (KJV):

And it shall come to pass in the day that the Lord shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve,

That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!

The proverb (“taunt” in some translations) continues until, in verses 11-15, we have the famous passage (my emphasis):

Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.

12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

13 For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:

14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.

15 Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.

Now this sounds familiar; but it’s not as it seems.  As the preceding and following parts of Isaiah 14 clearly indicate, the figure here is not the Devil, but the King of Babylon.  “Lucifer, son of the morning” is a translation of Hêlêl ben Šāḥar (הֵילֵל בֶּן-שָׁחַר), which means “bright” or “shining one, son of the morning”.  This was understood by the translators of the Septuagint as the morning star, what we’d call Venus, and the word Heōsphoros (Ἑωσφόρος), “Dawn Bringer”, the usual Greek word for the morning star, was used.  The Latin translation used “lucifer”–“light bearer”–the ordinary Classical Latin word for the morning star.

Thus, the King of Babylon is being sarcastically addressed as the Morning Star, as an ironic counterpoint to his fate–to be “brought down to hell”.  Of course, “hell” here translates the Hebrew šeʾôl, usually transliterated as Sheol, which merely means the land of the dead, or the grave, much like the Homeric version of Hades.  The thrust of Isaiah 14, then, is not to tell how Lucifer wanted to exalt himself above God but was cast out of Heaven, but is rather a long and poetic curse against the King of Babylon.

So how, then, do we end up with the Prince of Darkness and his minions?

As I noted in the previous post on angels, the Jews, while under Persian domination in the 6th Century BC, are thought to have come into contact with Persian Zoroastrianism.  Zoroastrianism, unlike earlier forms of Judaism, was an extremely dualistic faith.  In brief, Zoroastrianism teaches that the world and all good in it was created by the supreme and supremely good God Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”, Ormazd in later Persian).  Ahura Mazda is assisted by lesser spirits of His creation, the ahurasamesha spentas, and yazatas, which are more or less equivalent to different levels of angels.  Opposing Ahura Mazda is Angra Mainyu (“chaotic mind” or “evil spirit”, Ahriman in later Persian).  Angra Mainyu is the source of all evil in the world, and is assisted by his minions, the daevas (demons).  Man, having free will, must choose between Good and Evil.  In the end, a Saoshyant–literally “bringer of benefit”, or more loosely, “savior”–will be miraculously born of the prophet Zoroaster’s preserved seed, and will lead the final battle of Good vs. Evil.  Good will prevail, Evil will be permanently defeated, the blessed will join Ahura Mazda in Paradise, and the evil will be either consigned to eternal perdition with Angra Mainyu, or destroyed outright.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Change the names, and you have pretty much a capsule summary of Christian doctrine!  It has long been speculated that much of the familiar angelology and demonology of post-Biblical Judaism, and by extension Christianity and Islam, were borrowed from Zoroastrianism.  The exact details are debated; but this seems somewhat plausible.  For any Christian except an adherent of sola scriptura, this should not be troubling–if God chose to pass revelation to the Jews and their successors via the Persians, He can do that, right?

In any case, it is certainly true that later Jewish writings are much more explicit about angels and demons.  The Deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, absent from the Jewish and Protestant Old Testaments, but present in the Jewish Septuagint and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox versions of the Old Testament, is a good example.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Tobit marks the first scriptural appearance of an angel as we use that term–a spirit, sent from God on missions to humanity, which can appear in human form as needed, and which is an individual being.  The angel in this case is Raphael.  There is also an explicit demon of the type with which we’re familiar.  In Tobit 3:8, reference is made to Asmodeus, who is described as a ponēron daimonion–“evil demon” or “evil spirit”.

Thus, the vague notions of the Old Testament seem to have solidified more or less into the traditional beliefs we associate with angels and demons during the intertestamental period.  By the time of the New Testament, angels as we know them are taken for granted (Gabriel is mentioned by name in Luke 1:26 and Michael in Jude 1:9 and Revelation 12:7-9).  In the Gospels, demons (daimonia) and “unclean spirits” (pneumata akatharta) are frequently mentioned and taken for granted as demons in the modern sense.  “Satan” is used as a proper noun several times, indicating Satan as we know him–the archenemy of God who tempts the human race (although no backstory for him is given).  In one place, “satan” is still used in the older sense, when in Matthew 16:23, Jesus says to Peter, “Get thee behind me, satan!”  Here, Jesus seems to be using the term in its older sense of “adversary” or “one who obstructs”, the idea being that Peter is trying to impede Jesus’ mission.  On the whole, though, “Satan” in the New Testament is used in the manner familiar to us now.

Synonymous with “satan” is the New Testament use of “devil”, from the Greek diabolos (δῐᾰ́βολος), “slanderer”.  This had been used in the Septuagint at times to translate “satan”.  In the New Testament, “the Devil” is used interchangeably with “satan” (similarly, in later Christian usage, “devil” as a common noun came to be a synonym for “demon” or “fallen angel”).  By the time of the New Testament, the traditional Christian views on angels, devils, and Satan were more or less as they are now.

Some refinement occurred over time.  I haven’t referenced Revelation, chapter 12 yet, so let’s look at verses 1-9, KJV, my emphasis:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

Reading this, one sees clearly both the weirdness of the Book of Revelation, and the raw materials out of which the Lucifer mythos was constructed.  There is an explicit description of “war in heaven” and a battle led by the Archangel Michael against the dragon, who is identified in verse 9 as “the Devil” and “Satan”.  The reference to the dragon sweeping a third of the stars from the sky with his tail is often taken allegorically to mean taking a third of the angels with him (though of course this goes beyond what the text actually says).  This material, combined with the quotation from Isaiah 14 above, with just a dash of the Watcher mythos, gives the basis of the traditional story of the fall of Lucifer and his minions.

Of course, it’s questionable that the passage actually means that.  The “woman clothed with the sun” seems to represent Mary (with some reference to the Daughter of Zion as well) and the dragon awaiting the birth seems to reference his clash with Christ.  Obviously there was not actually a seven-headed, ten-horned red dragon hanging around outside the stable in Bethlehem!  Given this, it’s hard to know what to make of the war in heaven, which seems to be describing not an event at the beginning of time, as tradition has it, but something either happening at the time the book was written, or to happen in the future.

Interpreting Revelation is opening a can of worms, and untold volumes have been written on that fascinating, frustrating, and mysterious book.  All I’ll say here is that exegetes have given many possible interpretations of this passage, and without a priori assumptions, it neither supports nor negates the traditional mythos of Lucifer/Satan.

So, at this point having written nearly 4200 words on demons, what do I think?

As I said in my earlier post, I never took angels to be metaphors, but individual beings.  I also never doubted the existence of God or angels despite my evolving religious and philosophical views.  There was a time in my early 20’s, though, when I dismissed belief in a literal Devil or devils/demons.  It seemed to me that they were metaphors for evil, and that a good God would not create such nasties, nor let the run amok.

Later on, I realized how logically inconsistent that was.  God has created material, corporeal beings–us–who are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and all gradations in between.  God Himself is spirit, so there’s no logical reason He couldn’t or wouldn’t have created spirit beings.  Given the existence of such spirit beings, why should the be any different than humans in the morality?  Why couldn’t some of them be bad, even evil?  Why would God let this happen?  Well, that gets into theodicy, which is not the topic here; but then again, why would God allow Hitler?  I think an answer can be given to that, but it’s not my point.  My point is that if God creates corporeal creatures whom He allows to use their free will to be horrible and nasty, there’s no logical reason that the same wouldn’t be true of incorporeal beings.  I realized that I accepted angels and rejected devils because I liked the former and disliked the latter.  Which is a pretty stupid philosophical position to hold.

Thus, I now follow the traditional Christian teaching that the angels, the demons, and Old Scratch himself are indeed real, personal beings that have actual existence and that can interact, for good or ill, with humans and the material world.  In fact, as I’ve said in the past, I attribute much of the glaring imperfections and natural evils of the material world not to God, but to demonic activity.  Elaborating on that is for another day, though.

As to the War in Heaven/Lucifer mythos, I’m basically agnostic.  All the Church teaches officially is that angels exist, that the Devil and his demons were once angels, and that they fell through their freely chosen disobedience.  To my knowledge, none of the other ancient Churches (Orthodox, Oriental, Church of the East) nor any Church Councils have taught as binding anything beyond that.  The traditional stories are interesting and fodder for much great literature (Paradise Lost for just one example); but theologically, they are not binding.  We simply have no way of knowing the specifics; and that’s OK.

Thus, while I am aware that it cannot be derived from Scripture (which, for reasons I explained in the post on angels, is not a problem for me), I’m basically in agreement with the traditional Christian teachings on the existence and activities of angels, demons, and the Devil, without going beyond those rather minimalistic teachings.  That said, I’d leave with C. S. Lewis’s dictum in his classic The Screwtape Letters:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany



*Tangentially, it’s worth mentioning that in the Greek translations of the books of Enoch, “Watcher” is translated as egrēgoroi (ἐγρήγοροι), a term later used in the Western magical tradition to refer to a thoughtform, a being with some characteristics of an angel or demon, but not quite the same thing.  The Slavic translations of Enoch used the term “Grigori”.

Posted on 22/01/2019, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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