As Dante journeys to the center of Hell, he learns why it is so cold. The devil is trapped in the pits of hell in a pool of ice that is constantly cooled by the flapping of his wings. In other words, he would be free to rise to God if only he would stop trying to raise himself. Dante is smuggling theology into his literary masterpiece in order to tell us how some of the angels fell and why they will always remain that way.
First of all, how can we possibly know what happened before the creation of mankind (i.e. no human witnesses) and about which there is no explicit divine revelation? We know that they were tested prior to the creation of mankind (Gn 1:4), some angels fell, but the majority of them of them remained faithful (Rev 12:4), that after they failed their testing they were thrown down to the earth (Rev 12:9) and that their ultimate destination is hell (Mt 25:41). There are also few Magisterial pronouncements (see CCC 391-395) on the fallen angels, none of which speak of how they fell only that, as the Fourth Lateran Council declared, “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.” With only these few theological data points in hand, what can we say?
Why Specualtive Theology Matters
As a preliminary aside, many people will simply throw up their hands and say we cannot know anything more. To speculate, in their minds, in theology is dangerous. But when we allow revelation and the Church to set the boundaries, speculative theology can be an extremely fruitful exercise. In fact I would say contemplating such questions (which is really all that speculation is) actually serves the purpose of moving what might seem to be abstract theological truths into the practical realm. It helps us to see more fully the implications of our beliefs and show us how they actually relate to our Christian lives here and now. It also helps strengthen our faith because it reveals the inner connectedness of all that we believe and how, even though many beliefs could not be known by reason, once they are known, just how reasonable they are. As Clement of Alexandria once said, those who have “received these things [revelation] fortified by reason, can never lose them.”
With that said, let us begin with the declaration of the Fourth Lateran Council given above, namely that angels were created by God and insofar as they are created by God and reflect His beauty and wisdom are good. Yet through a free decision of their own, they became morally wicked. Reflecting on this, we see the first practical question emerge regarding the nature of reality. In order to avoid falling into a dualistic understanding of reality—one in which good is equally pitted against evil—we must be able to explain angelic sin.
How Angels were Created
Like any artist, God created in order to reveal something of Himself. In His plan, all of creation exists in a natural hierarchy. The higher up the ladder of being, the more the creature naturally images God. At the top of the ladder, sit the angels and man. Angels are pure spirits incapable of making errors in the natural order. All of their knowledge is given to them by God directly at their creation (we call this infused knowledge) and thus they are a rule unto themselves in the natural realm. They exist in a natural hierarchy of power. The highest of these angels has been always understood to be Lucifer, who was after his fall to become Satan or the devil.
We encounter here what might be an objection—the impeccability of the angels. If the angels are incapable of making an error, then how could 1/3 them make such a grievous error of turning away from God? I was careful to add a key modifier that many people overlook. The angels are impeccable in the natural realm. Like man, because angels are rational creatures, they have the natural capacity to live a supernatural life. Like man prior to his fall, they were created in a state of grace that “activates” this natural capacity. In other words, to truly be like God, they must receive the life of God directly from Him. Otherwise they will merely remain His image.
What this means practically speaking is that they didn’t fall from “heaven” in the sense we might think. We tend to think of Heaven as the place where the Blessed see God face to face. Prior to their test, the angels were not in Heaven, but instead in some place of testing. Properly speaking we might say they fell from the heavens in that their fall brought them from outside the material realm into it.
The angels in the supernatural realm are no longer a rule unto themselves. They must now submit to the higher rule of God. It is only in this supernatural state that they are vulnerable to error. Thus we find that they are tested and not in some superficial way.
This distinction between the natural and the supernatural state is very important. Understanding this distinction puts the faith vs works controversy to rest. No natural act can get us to heaven. It is only supernatural acts, namely those good acts that we do animated by sanctifying grace, which activate our “heaven capacity.” So many fail to make this distinction and spend time thinking it is either faith or good works that will get you to heaven. But it is supernatural works that get us to heaven.
The First Sin
With this distinction in place we see that the supernatural state or the “order of grace” as it is called is a great equalizer. It puts everyone on a level playing field regardless of their natural endowment. Instead it depends upon God’s gracious dispensation. We find that it is often those who have the greatest natural endowment of gifts that has the hardest time accepting this. And now we are able to see the sin of Lucifer. Because he was the one who had the highest natural endowment, he preferred to remain in his singular position as God’s greatest creature rather than associate with the “common folk” who were elevated (maybe even to a place higher to him) by God.
This is why the Church has insisted that the first sin was pride. As Abbot Vonier, summarizing Aquinas’ teaching says, it is clearly a sin of pride in the sense that it is a love of one’s own proper excellency in opposition to another’s. For the prideful to admit the other’s excellence would end the singularity of one’s own excellence. In other words, Satan’s sin consisted in the steady refusal of Satan to enter into communion with other beings because he sees it as a loss of his own excellence. It shows also why his will remains fixed on his decision. He is not under the delusion that he will somehow become God, he already knows that. Instead he really wants to be utterly unique like God.
There are two practical implications that follow from what we have said. First, that in the fall of the angels there is nothing like concupiscence. St. Thomas says the fallen spirits did not lose either their intellectual privileges or suffer a weakening of their will. Their place in the universe remains unchanged and thus their natural capacities far exceed anything we can do. These are our enemies, not so much because they hate us, but because they hate the grace of God and in jealousy (always the second sin) they seek to prevent man from possessing or keeping God’s grace. We must never forget their innate power and realize the devil and his minions should not be treated lightly. We must do all that we can to protect ourselves from their attacks, but ultimately our protection and power rests only in putting on “the full armor of God.”
Second, it helps us to more clearly see the motives behind our own sin. We tend to look upon the fall of the angles with some disbelief. How could a creature as smart as Lucifer make such a totally insane decision? That question is quickly put away when we realize we are no different when we choose to sin. We know it is insane and yet we do it anyway. This is because sin is not a matter of knowledge but of the choice of the will. We cannot know God as He is in this period of testing. The only way to draw near to Him is through love. The commandment is to love the Lord, not to learn about the Lord. This is not to poo-poo learning the Faith, but to constantly be on guard that our knowledge is leading to more reasons to love God and not merely know more about Him. The former leads to true love, the latter to pride.