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The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Book of Revelation, which opens with the words, "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place", includes in those events a War in Heaven:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.[1]

Association with the motif of the Fall of Satan

Bible commentaries in general view this passage as an eschatological vision of the end of time or as a reference to spiritual warfare within the church, seeing it as "not (as in Milton's Paradise Lost) the story of the origin of Satan/Lucifer as an angel who rebelled against God in primeval times."[2]

The motif of the fall of Satan and his angels is found in Jewish and Christian angelology and Christian art, and the concept of fallen angels, angels who for their evil actions, in particular for directly rebelling against God, were degraded and condemned to a life of mischief or shame on earth or in a place of punishment is widespread.[3]

As a result of linking this motif with the cited passage of the Book of Revelation the casting of Satan down from heaven, which other versions of the motif present as an action of God himself, has become attributed to the Archangel Michael at the conclusion of a war between two groups of angels.

Fallen angels

Satan on his way to bring about the downfall of Adam. Gustave Doré's illustration for Paradise Lost by John Milton.[4]

The Judeo-Christian religions have stories about angelic beings cast down from heaven by God, often presenting the punishment as inflicted in particular on Satan. The name Lucifer, the Latin name (literally "Light-Bearer" or "Light-Bringer") for the morning star (the planet Venus in its morning appearances), is often given to Satan in these stories. The brilliancy of the morning star, which eclipses all other stars, but is not seen during the night, may be what gave rise to myths such as the Babylonian story of Ethana and Zu, who was led by his pride to strive for the highest seat among the star-gods on the northern mountain of the gods (an image present also in Ezekiel 28:14), but was hurled down by the supreme ruler of the Babylonian Olympus.[5] Stars were then regarded as living celestial beings,[6][5] and the Jewish Encyclopedia states that the myth concerning the morning star was transferred to Satan by the first century before the Christian era, citing in support of this view the Life of Adam and Eve and the Slavonic Book of Enoch 29:4, 31:4, where Satan-Sataniel is described as having been one of the archangels. Because he contrived "to make his throne higher than the clouds over the earth and resemble 'My power' on high", Satan-Sataniel was hurled down, with his angels, and since then he has been flying in the air continually above the abyss.[5] The picture of the morning star "fallen from heaven" and "cast down to the earth" appears in Isaiah 14:4-17, where it is used to describe the fate prophesied for the King of Babylon, who is described as aiming to rival God. This passage too has been applied to the fall of Satan, and it is on this basis that the name "Lucifer" (Morning Star) was given to him.

War in heaven

The Book of Revelation consists principally of eschatological visions.[7] Among its visions of things to come is one of "a great sign in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars",[8] and of "another sign in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems, whose tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth", and which unsuccessfully planned to devour the pregnant woman's child.[9] This is followed by:

"Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him."[1]

This image of a war in heaven at the end of time became added to the story of a fall of Satan at the beginning of time,[10] including not only Satan but other angels as well, in view of the phrase "the dragon and his angels".[11] The number of angels involved was taken to be a third of the total number because Revelation 12:4 speaks of the dragon's tail casting a third of the stars of heaven to the earth, before the start of the "war in heaven" Revelation 12:7.

Thus John Milton (1608-1674) vividly recounted in Paradise Lost a war in heaven following rebellion by Satan and other angels before the Fall of Man.[12]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) said in his sermon, Wisdom Displayed in Salvation, "Satan and his angels rebelled against God in heaven, and proudly presumed to try their strength with his. And when God, by his almighty power, overcame the strength of Satan, and sent him like lightning from heaven to hell with all his army; Satan still hoped to get the victory by subtilty"[13]

Frederick Holweck, commenting on the passage of the Book of Revelation cited above, wrote: "St. John speaks of the great conflict at the end of time, which reflects also the battle in heaven at the beginning of time." It adds that Michael's name "was the war-cry of the good angels in the battle fought in heaven against the enemy and his followers."[14]

R.N. Leonard Ashley says that, in 1273, Pope John XXI, then Bishop of Tusculum, estimated that the total number of angels who sided with Lucifer's revolt numbered 133,306,668, which would suggest that they were fighting against a force of 266,613,336 angels who remained loyal to God.[15]

Causes of Satan's rebellion

A number of catalysts have been proposed to explain the rebellion of Satan. All of them essentially stem from his pride, via various means. The possible means suggested include:

  • A refusal to bow down to mankind on the occasion of the Creation of Man as in the Armenian, Georgian and Latin versions of the Life of Adam and Eve[16] (and as is said of Iblis in the Qur'an).
  • A disagreement about God's plan of salvation (the view of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
  • A declaration by God that all were to be subject to his Son, the Messiah (as in John Milton's Paradise Lost)[17].
  • The culmination of a gradual distancing from God through use of free will (an idea of Origen).[18]

Similar motif outside Judeo-Christian faiths

The fall of superhuman beings punished for opposing gods is also found outside of the Abrahamic faiths. Homer's Iliad says Hephaestus was cast down from the heavenly threshold by Zeus and landed on the island of Lemnos nearly dead.[19] Hesiod 's Theogony recounts that the gods, after defeating the Titans, hurled them down to Tartarus (the Titanomachy) as far beneath the earth as earth is beneath the sky.[20]



Further reading

  • Christoph Auffarth, Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Hrsg.): The Fall of the Angels. Brill, Leiden 2004 (Themes in Biblical Narrative, 6), ISBN 90-04-12668-6.
  • Mareike Hartmann: Höllen-Szenarien. Eine Analyse des Höllenverständnisses verschiedener Epochen anhand von Höllendarstellungen. Lit, Münster 2005 (Ästhetik – Theologie – Liturgik, 32), ISBN 3-8258-7681-0.

External links

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