There has recently surfaced a somewhat popular interest in angels. It may be a passing thing, perhaps related to the interest in the extraterrestrial as portrayed in the movies or on television or to the search for the transcendental. Whatever the explanation, it seems not to be a theological inquiry about the nature of angels and their benevolent action toward us humans.
At the same time there seems to be currently little or no realization that there are bad angels who have a definite influence in our lives. These angelic creatures—devils or demons or evil spirits—are headed by Satan, referred to in Christian writings as the chief enemy of God, the tempter of our first parents and of Jesus Christ himself. Nevertheless, there are many references in our language, as in others, to the devil, such as “What the devil!”, “The devil you say!”, “The devil with you!”, and “You’re a devil!” In the history of religions there always has been an awareness of the existence of evil spirits and of their power over man.
In Judeo-Christian culture the devil has always been a definite element. The Old Testament and especially the New Testament writings attest that the devil or Satan exists and has a role in the life of man on earth (1 Chr. 21:1, Job 1, 2, Wis. 2:24, Matt. 4:1, 5, 8, 11, Mark 1:13, John 6:70, Acts 5:3, Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 5:5, 7:5, 1 Tim. 3:6, Heb. 2:14, Rev. 2:9, plus dozens of other verses).
In the ceremony of initiation in the primitive Church, Satan was renounced. The Catholic Church moreover has clear teaching on the fallen angels as part of our faith. As all angelic beings, they were created by God as fully spiritual creatures, magnificently endowed in their nature. The devil and the other demons were created by God good according to their nature, but they made themselves evil by their own doing (Lateran IV, DS 800).
The devil, and the other angels who associated themselves with him, gave in to pride; they desired to exalt themselves above their created condition, to be completely independent and to make themselves divine. The angel sinned by seeking his own good from his own free will, insubordinately to the rule of the divine will (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [ST] I:63:1:4). Beatitude, which could not be obtained except with the help of God’s grace, the devils wished to gain by their own efforts (ST I:63:3). It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the 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” (CCC 393).
Having by their own free will lost their destiny, the devils were forever barred from the vision of God and condemned into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41).
The devils committed another sin which befitted their fallen state, the abiding sin of envy, whereby the fallen angel grieved over man’s good and also over the divine excellence (ST I:63:3). This explains the tempting of our first parents. As for man, his sin was at the prompting of the devil (Lateran IV, DS 800).
What is meant by tempting? It is, “properly speaking, to make a trial of something. We make trial of something in order to know something about it: Hence the immediate end of each tempter is knowledge. . . . But sometimes another end, either good or bad, is sought to be acquired through that knowledge. . . . The devil, however, always tempts in order to hurt by urging man to sin. In this sense it is said to be his proper office to tempt” (ST I:114:2).
The manner in which the devil tempted our first parents is instructive of his insidious malice. “The temptation which comes from the enemy takes the form of a suggestion. . . . Now a suggestion cannot be made to everybody in the same way: It must arise from those things toward which each one has an inclination. Consequently the devil does not straight away tempt the spiritua l man to grave sins, but begins with lighter sins, so as gradually to lead him to those of greater magnitude. . . . Thus, too, did the devil set about the temptation of the first man. For at first he enticed his mind to consent to eating of the forbidden fruit, saying [Gen. 3:1] ‘Why has God commanded you that you should not eat of every tree in paradise?’ Secondly, to vainglory by saying [Gen. 3:1], ‘Your eyes shall be opened.’ Thirdly, he led the temptation to the extreme height of pride, saying, ‘You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.'” (ST III:41:4).
In the case of our first parents the devil could not tempt or influence them from the inside. They were enjoying a state of innocence involving the control of their lower faculties, which in this pure state were under the autocratic control of their higher powers. Moreover, they were favored by God with extra powers to enhance their natural state.
“A suggestion whereby the devil suggests something to man spiritually shows the devil to have more power against man than outward suggestion has, since by an inward suggestion, at least, a man’s imagination is changed by the devil, whereas by an outward suggestion a change is wrought merely on an outward creature. Now the devil had a minimum of power against man before sin, wherefore he was unable to tempt him by inward suggestion, but only by outward suggestion” (ST II-II:165:2:2).
As a result of that first and original sin, human nature was tainted and would remain so until in one way or another it was given a healing from outside human nature itself, namely from God. Original sin brought man into the orbit of the devil’s power, as he had intended.
Man “offending God by his sin, he drew upon himself the wrath and indignation of God and consequently death which God had threatened him and together with death captivity in the power of him who henceforth ‘has the power of death’ (Heb. 2:14), i.e. the devil. . . . It is necessary to admit that all men had lost innocence in the sin of Adam. . . . So completely were they slaves of sin [cf. Rom. 6:20] and under the power of the devil and of death” (Trent, DS 1511, 1521).
Thus the devil’s influence over man is clearly stronger and more pervasive since, unlike our first parents, we enter life separated from God and without the full control of our lower self. This diabolic influence was more destructive before the Passion and death of the Messiah.
“There are three things to consider regarding the power which the devil exercised over men previous to Christ’s Passion. The first is on man’s part, who by his sin deserved to be delivered over to the devil’s power and was overcome by his tempting. Another point is on God’s part, whom man had offended by sinning and who with justice left man under the devil’s power. The third is on the devil’s part, who out of his most wicked will hindered him from securing his salvation” (ST III:49:2).
How then does the devil exercise his influence over us in order to lead us into sin and thus endanger our salvation? The Church, in expressing its apostolic faith, has taught the existence and power of the devil, but the number of demons or their precise sin or the extent of their power have been left to theological inquiry.
In this area the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, already referred to, is instructive. He, the Common Doctor of the Church, is reknowned for his extensive treatment of both the good angels and the fallen angels. The following inquiry into this devil-man relationship shall rely principally upon his understanding.
First of all, the devil can influence us from outside, that is, externally. Whatever change nature produces or has within itself to produce, the demons can perform by employing these natural elements. Thus they can move bodies around and assume the appearance of bodies (ST I:114:4:2). They also can influence us through bad companions, through persons of unsound doctrine or teachings, by the use of the media of communications.
On the o ther hand, demons cannot work miracles as such, since this belongs solely to God as something done outside the order of created nature. They can perform what appears to be miraculous in that it exceeds human power and experience.
“Thus demons can work miracles, that is, things which rouse man’s astonishment by reason of their being beyond his power and outside his sphere of knowledge. For even a man doing what is beyond the power and knowledge of another leads him to marvel at what he has done, so that in a way he seems to that man to have worked a miracle. It is to be noted, however, that although these works of the demons which appear marvelous to us are not real miracles, they are sometimes nevertheless something real. Thus the magicians of Pharaoh by the demons’ power produced real serpents and frogs” (ST I:114:4).
It is principally internally where the devil seeks to exert his influence and to lead man more subtly into sin. This he does by insidious suggestions trying to dispose our will. He can work on the imagination with images and even on the bodily senses. But the devil cannot force the will, which remains man’s ultimate citadel of freedom of control and of his independence and responsibility (Thomas Aquinas, De Malo 16:11).
The devil must use all of the superiority of his natural powers to locate and to penetrate the weaknesses in each individual’s defenses. He uses the same approach as with our first parents. “In every kind of sin we find the same order as in the first temptation. For, according to Augustine . . . it begins with the concupiscence of sin in the sensuality, signified by the serpent; extends to the lower reason by pleasure, signified by the woman; and reaches the higher reason by consent in the sin, signified by the man. . . .
“Hence the devil, in tempting man, made use of a two-fold incentive to sin: one on the part of the intellect by promising the divine life through the acquisition of knowledge which man naturally desires to have, the other on the part of the sense. This he did by having recourse to those sensible things which are more akin to man, partly by tempting the man through the woman who was akin to him in the same species; partly by tempting the woman through the serpent, who was akin to them in the same genus; partly by suggesting to them to eat of the forbidden fruit, which was akin to them in the proximate genus” (De Malo, 16:11). The devil’s tactical adaptation to the individual’s temperament, character, tastes, attitudes, prejudices, and spiritual-mindedness is indicative of his superior shrewdness.
How does the devil acquire his insight into what our weaknesses are? He can know the thoughts of our hearts “in one way as they are seen in themselves, as a man knows his own thoughts, in another way through some bodily signs. This is especially manifest when a man is led to some passion from interior thoughts, which, if it had been vehement, even in exterior appearance has some indication through which it can be detected from the more gross, ‘as the fearful pale, but the shamed redden,’ as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states in IV Ethics; but even if the passion is lighter it can be detected by discriminating physicians through a change of the heart which is perceived by the pulse. Exterior and interior bodily signs of this type the demons can know much more than any man at all, and thus it is certain that demons can know according to the aforesaid manner the thoughts of men” (De Malo 16:8).
But man is still free to will and to think, and thus “although a demon knows some causes of thoughts, still he does not know all, because he does not know the motion of the will” (De Malo 16:8:8). Yet each man has his own propensity or inclination to evil. “The demons know what happens outwardly among men, but the inward disposition of man God alone knows, who is the weigher of spirits (Prov. 16:2). It is this disposition that makes man more prone to one vice than to another; h ence the devil tempts in order to explore this inward disposition of man, so that he may tempt him to that vice to which he is more prone.
“Although a demon cannot change the will, yet . . . he can change the interior powers of men in a certain degree, by which powers, though the will cannot be changed by force, it can nevertheless be inclined” (ST I:114:2:2-3). “In [fallen] man there is a natural inclination to that which befits the carnal sense contrary to the good of reason” (De Malo 16:2). Thus one who, for example, is hot-tempered or covetous is said to have a natural inclination to evil.
Moreover, the devil can work on the senses of man, influence his imagination with attractive images, leading to sinful choice. “As they can change bodies locally, so the demons can transmute certain motions or impressions left in the body by the senses, not only of those sleeping but also of those awake . . . so that some things appear as if at that time the sensitive principle was being changed by those exterior things” (De Malo 16:11).
The devil is no respecter of persons; he is not reluctant to try his wiles on anyone. He tempted Christ himself early in our Lord’s public life. Christ deliberately allowed this activity of the devil as part of his saving message.
“Christ wished to be tempted, first that he might strengthen us against temptation. . . . Secondly, that we might be warned so that no one, however holy, may think himself safe or free from temptation. Wherefore also he wished to be tempted after his baptism. . . . Thirdly, in order to give us an example: to teach us, to wit, how to overcome the temptations of the devil. . . . Fourthly, in order to fill us with confidence in his mercy. Hence it is written [Heb. 4:15], ‘We have not a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities. but one tempted in all things as we are without sin'” (ST III:41:1, CCC 538-540, 550).
The demons did not know for sure that Christ was the Son of God, but from the human weaknesses they perceived, such as hunger, they wished to tempt him. “Now temptation which comes from an enemy can be without sin, because it comes about by merely outward suggestion. But temptation which comes from the flesh cannot be without sin, because such a temptation is caused by pleasure or concupiscence. . . . Hence Christ wished to be tempted by an enemy, but not by the flesh” (ST III:41:1:3).
“This same order did he observe in tempting Christ. At first he tempted him to that which men desire, however spiritual they may be-namely, the support of the corporeal nature by food. Secondly, he advanced to that matter in which spiritual men are sometimes found wanting, inasmuch as they do certain things for show, which pertains to vainglory. Thirdly, he led the temptation to that which no spiritual men, but only carnal men, have a part-namely, to desire worldly riches and fame to the extent of holding God in contempt. And so in the first two temptations he said: ‘If thou be the Son of God,’ but not in the third, which is inapplicable to spiritual men, who are sons of God by adoption, whereas it does apply to the two preceding temptations. Christ resisted these temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing his power” (ST III:41:4).
We usually make reference to “the devil,” indicating by the term the leader of these creatures, although it may also include the numberless army of demons. How many there are is unknown to us except for the little glimpse in the incident of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:30). To Christ’s question as to the name of the unclean spirit the answer forthcoming was “Legion” “because the demons who had entered him were many.” When the demons act together “the concord of the demons, whereby some obey others, does not arise from mutual friendships, but from their common wickedness whereby they hate men and fight against God’s justice. It belongs to wicked men to be joined to and subject to o thers whom they see to be stronger in order to carry out their own wickedness” (ST I:109:2:2). How they are imitated by our modern gangs and mafiosi!
It should not be concluded that the devil is at the root cause of every one of our sins “because one thing can be the cause of another in two ways: directly and indirectly. Indirectly as, when an agent is the cause of a disposition to a certain effect, it is said to be the occasional and indirect cause of that effect; for instance, we might say that he who dries the wood is the cause of the wood burning.
“In this way we must admit that the devil is the cause of all our sins, because he it was who instigated the first man to sin, from whose sin there resulted a proneness to sin in the whole human race. . . . But a thing is said to be the direct cause of something when its action tends directly thereto. In this way the devil is not the cause of every sin, for not all sins are committed at the instigation of the devil, but some are due to the free will and the corruption of the flesh.
“As Origen says . . . even if there were no devil, men would have the desire for food and love and suchlike pleasures, with regard to which many disorders may arise unless those desires be curbed by reason, especially if we presuppose the corruption of our natures. Now it is in the power of the free will to curb this appetite and keep it in order. Consequently there is no need for all sins to be due to the instigation of the devil. But those sins which are due thereto man perpetrates ‘through being deceived by the same blandishments as were our first parents,’ as Isidore says. . . .
“When man commits sin without being thereto instigated by the devil, he nevertheless becomes a child of the devil thereby, insofar as he imitates him who was the first to sin. . . . Man can of his own accord fall into sin, but he cannot advance in merit without the divine assistance, which is borne to man by the ministry of the angels. For this reason the angels take part in all our good works, whereas not all our sins are due to the devil’s instigation. Nevertheless there is no kind of sin which is not sometimes due to the demon’s suggestion” (ST I:109:2:2).
“God is the universal principle of all inward movements of man, but that the human will be determined to an evil counsel is directly due to the human will and to the devil as persuading or offering the object of the appetite” (ST I-II:80:1:3). “The demons incite man to all such things which seem to be venial that he may become used to them so as to lead him to mortal sin” (ST I-II:89:4:3).
If we should be successful in resisting or overcoming the temptation of the devil, it does not guarantee that he will not try again at another time. Christ, who was tempted in the desert three times, rebuffed the devil each time. “When the devil had finished all the tempting he left him, to await another opportunity” (Luke 4:13) At the time of the Savior’s Passion, the devil “seemed in this later assault to tempt Christ to dejection and hatred of his neighbor, just as in the desert he had tempted him to gluttonous pleasure and idolatrous contempt of God” (ST III:41:3:3).
The most consoling.aspect of our relationship in this life with our adversary is the advantages we possess to become victorious over him. There is the assistance of the good angels and, foremost, the effect of the Passion of Christ. “Now has judgment come upon this world, now will this world’s prince be driven out, and I-once I am lifted up from earth-will draw all men to myself” (John 12:31). “The prince of this world has been condemned” (John 16:11).
By Christ’s Passion the devil was deprived of his power over men, a power that he exercised previous to the Passion. The reason he possessed this power was due both to man’s original sin of submitting to the temptation of the devil, the enemy of man’s salvation, and to the punishment of God’s justice. But, “by Christ’s Passion man w as delivered from the devil’s power insofar as the Passion is the cause of the forgiveness of sins . . . freed us from the devil’s power inasmuch as it reconciled us with God . . . delivered us from the devil inasmuch as in Christ’s Passion he exceeded the limit of power assigned to him by God by conspiring to bring about Christ’s death, who, being sinless, did not deserve to die” (ST III:49:2).
Thus, the more we associate with Christ’s Passion, the more we strive to be responsive to the fruits of the Passion, namely the graces flowing from the Savior, the stronger we are going to be to withstand and to overcome the wiles of the devil. “In order that the conditions of the fight not be unequal, there is as regards man the promised recompense, to be gained principally through the grace of God, secondarily through the guardianship of the angels” (ST I:114:1:2).
We must not draw from this reflection upon the influence of the devil that our responsibility for our sins is lessened because of the devil’s activity upon us. It is not so. We, by reason of the remnants of original sin, have abiding tendencies to sin; we are quite capable of sinning on our own.
“The assault of the flesh and the world would suffice for the exercise of human weakness, but it does not suffice for the demon’s malice, which makes use of both the above in assailing men. But by divine ordinance this tends to the glory of the elect” (ST I:114:1:3). Yet, “when man commits sin without being thereto instigated by the devil, he nevertheless becomes a child of the devil thereby insofar as he imitates him who was the first to sin” (ST I:114:3:2).
As already noted, the devil is always ready to make provocative suggestions to us, to work on our prejudices, our sexual weaknesses, our temperamental flaws, our developed habits of sinfulness of some type or degree, to weaken or destroy our vocation as spouse or religious or cleric, even attempting to turn our virtues against us. Nevertheless, our free will and therefore our responsibility and thus culpability remain more or less in each instance.
A question remains why God allows the devil-that angel who himself first sinned against God and is doomed to eternal punishment to tempt man to sin-to roam the earth in search of others to join him in his rebellion. This is a mystery as much as the existence of sin is a mystery, the mystery of iniquity. By his sin the devil lost nothing of his native or natural capabilities, especially his free will. Although by his sin he is no longer capable of turning back to God, yet for God’s purposes he is still free, as he was with our first parents, to influence inferior creatures. Thus “it belongs to the domain of the divine majesty, to whom the demons are subject, that God should employ them to whatever purpose he wills” (ST II-II:96:2:3).
This mystery of God’s Providence we can only strive to fathom. “God’s wisdom ‘orders all things well’ [Wis. 8:1] inasmuch as his providence appoints to each one that which is befitting according to its nature. . . . It is the condition attached to human nature that the creature can be helped or impeded by another. Wherefore it was fitting that God should allow man in the state of innocence to be tempted by evil angels and should cause him to be helped by good angels. By a special favor of grace it was granted to him that no creature outside himself could harm him against his own will, whereby he was able to resist the temptation of the demon” (ST II-II:165:1).
“Just as God knew that man through being tempted would fall into sin, so too he knew that man was able by his free will to resist the tempter. The condition attached to man’s nature required that he should be left to his own will, according to Ecclesiastes [Sirach 15:14], ‘When God in the beginning created man, he made him subject to his own free will'” (ST II-II:165:1:2, CCC 395, 412).
In whatever struggle there may be at any time with the devil’s temptations, we, especially the bapti zed, have the power to withstand and overcome; failure is ours, but success is not without the grace of God, because “the help of the Holy Spirit, who is the author of the perfect deed, is more powerful than the assault of the devil” (ST III:41:2:2).
Thus, the free will, which man has received from his Creator, God respects, and the devil is barred from this innermost sanctuary without divine permission. “It is said that he [the devil] can use the soul of a wise man as he wills, inasmuch as sometimes, God permitting, he impedes the use of reason in a man, as is clear in the possessed” (De Malo 16:12).
God also uses the temptations of the devil to try our fidelity to his commands, our responsiveness and adherence to his will-“for the Lord, your God, is testing you to learn whether you really love him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:14)-and also in his justice to punish us for our sins. “The devil is said to have such power over men not as though he were able to injure them without God’s sanction, but because he was justly permitted to injure men who by tempting he had induced to give consent” (ST III:49:2:1, CCC 395).
“Two things may be considered in the assault of the demons-the assault itself and the ordering thereof. The assault itself is due to the malice of the demons, who through envy endeavor to hinder man’s progress and through pride to usurp a semblance of divine power by deputing certain ministers to assail man’s salvation, as the angels of God in their various offices minister to man’s salvation. But the ordering of the assault is from God, who knows how to make orderly use of evil by ordering it to good” (ST I:114:1).
“The wicked angels assail men in two ways. First by instigating them to sin, and thus they are not sent by God to assail us, but are sometimes permitted to do so according to God’s just judgments. But sometimes their assault is a punishment to man, and thus they are sent by God. . . . Punishment is referred to God as its first author. Nevertheless, the demons who are sent to punish do so with an intention other than that for which they are sent, for they punish from hatred or envy, whereas they are sent by God on account of his justice” (ST I:114:1:1).
At the same time we should not take comfort from an idea that, having overcome what was a temptation of the devil, he will not return again in another guise. The lives of the saints refute this. Moreover, “it is written [Luke 4:13], ‘When the devil had finished all the tempting he left him [Christ], to await another opportunity.’ There are two reasons for this. One is on the part of God’s clemency, for as Chrysostom says, ‘The devil does not tempt man for just as long as he likes, but for as long as God allows; although he allows him to tempt for a short time, he orders him off on account of our weakness.’ The other reason is taken from the astuteness of the devil. As to this Ambrose says [on Luke 4:13], ‘The devil is afraid of persisting because he shrinks from frequent defeat.’ That the devil does nevertheless sometimes return to the assault is apparent from [Matt. 12:44], ‘I will go back where I came from'” (ST I:114:5).
In his native astuteness the devil can return with another plausible suggestion or even a truth to continue his deception. “The teaching of the demons, with which they instruct their prophets, contains some truth whereby it is rendered acceptable. The intellect is led astray to falsehood by the semblance of truth, even as the will is seduced by the semblance of goodness. Wherefore Chrysostom says ‘the devil is allowed sometimes to speak true things in order that his unwanted truthfulness may gain credit for his lie'” (ST II-II:172:6). Thus the devil never reveals his true intentions but veils his deigns under various guises.
The devil’s activity is not restricted to individuals; in his own way he is able to infiltrate human institutions and movements and cults. In our own day one of his g reat victories is to bring about in practice the denial of the existence or the influence of the demons or at least an ignoring of the same. For those who by faith know better, the consequences can be imagined. Are the perils affecting our society and individuals-secularism, materialism, racism, discrimination, sexual immorality, family disintegration, the loss of basic values, economic injustice and imperialism-the product solely of man’s loss of moral and spiritual control, or are they also abetted, if not instigated, by the activity of the Evil One?
Thus there is a reality of which people do not like to speak today-the power of evil, the power of the devil. “Although no period of history has known such a massive number of external manifestations of evil as our century, an astounding blindness exists on this topic. Here the Council speaks clearly: ‘A hard struggle against the powers of darkness runs through the entire history of mankind, a struggle that began already at the beginning of the world and, according to the words of the Lord (Matt. 24:13, 13:24-30, 36-43), will endure until the last day. The individual man, drawn into this struggle, must continuously struggle to take his decision in favor of the good, and it is only with great effort, with the help of God’s grace, that he can contain his own inner unity.’ . . .
“The Christian knows that the decisive struggle is not a class struggle nor a struggle for existence, but the continuous struggle against the power of evil, against the force of pride, of arrogance, of hatred, through which ‘the prince of this world’ (John 12:31) builds up his kingdom and his lordship and which are the ultimate source of all injustice and evil. The Gospel speaks here with an unsurpassable clarity. The victory over the power of evil can be won only through sacrifice and renunciation. No one can be spared from suffering or from death, which sets a boundary to all our striving.
“If we become aware once more that we are given a short time in which to fight this struggle, and if we never forget that we are to find and to take the path to eternal life in this brief span of our life, but also can fail to take this path or lose it, then we shall ‘make the best use of the time’ (Eph. 5:16), knowing how serious time is, and we shall ‘live sober, righteous and pious lives in the present world’ (Titus 2:12)” (Christoph Schönborn, O.P., “The Hope of Heaven, the Hope of Earth,” First Things [April 1995], 37-38).
The prudent individual who, in living his life is responsive to the teaching of his Christian faith, will take to heart the warning of Peter to his contemporaries and to every generation: “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world. The God of all grace, who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet. 5:8-10).