Editors’ note: 

Much of this discussion as been adapted from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 298-313.

Ross B., from San Antonio, Texas, asks:

Where have we gotten our theology about Satan, angels, and demons? It seems like many beliefs about Satan aren’t clearly defined in the Bible yet are held by many.

Both the Old and New Testaments provide divine revelation about angels, Satan, and demons, so the earliest Christians developed their understanding of these spiritual beings from Scripture. Additionally, in their curiosity to know more about these creatures, these Christians also engaged in significant speculation about their nature, attributes, powers, identities, and functions. For example, Cyprian proposed a key reason for the fall of Satan: “When he saw human beings made in the image of God, he broke forth into jealousy and malevolent envy” and thus rebelled against God (Cyprian, Treatise 10.4. ANF 5.492). Keenly aware of the ongoing spiritual battle between angels and demons, the early church also speculated that every human being has a guardian angel who protects them from the onslaughts of evil beings (e.g., Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 13.5. ANF 10.478; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5.14. ANF 2.466).

More theological guesswork followed. Augustine conjectured that the angels were created when God spoke light into existence (Gen. 1:3): “The light is the holy community of the angels who are spiritually radiant with the illumination of the truth. The opposing darkness is the toxic pollution of the spiritual condition of those angels who are turned away from the light of righteousness” (Augustine, The City of God, 11.19. NPNF1 2.215). Augustine also speculated that the number of fallen angels will be replaced by an equal number of believing human beings. He envisioned a restoration of the harmony that existed in the created realm before sin entered into both the spiritual world and the physical world. Those replacing Satan and the demons would not be redeemed angelic beings but redeemed human beings. Full restoration with perfect harmony will then be realized in the universe (Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, 29. NPNF1 3.247).

Beyond Scripture

The greatest contribution to the early church’s doctrine of angels was made by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. (Based on the account of the conversion of Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, through the preaching of the apostle Paul [Acts 17:34], the church believed the writings attributed to a so-called Dionysius the Areopagite to be the works of this disciple of Paul. As a result, great authority was placed on them. It was not until the Renaissance that it was proved that the writings were actually penned by someone in the 6th century.) He offered an elaborate description of angelic beings, imagining them to be “superior” to human beings and nearer to God because of their “generous communion with the Deity” and their “total intelligence” (Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy, 4.2). Dionysius did not hesitate to describe in great detail the hierarchy that exists among the angels (Ibid., 6.2). Taking nine biblical terms—-thrones, cherubim, seraphim, authorities, dominions, powers, angels, archangels, and principalities—-that refer to members of the heavenly realm, Dionysius offered fanciful descriptions of each of these nine orders (Ibid., 7.1ff.). But he went far beyond what Scripture affirms about these titles and their functions.

Because of the influence of the theological works of Augustine and the authority that became attached to the writings of Dionysius, they exerted an ill-founded yet significant influence over key leaders of the church in the following centuries. Anselm echoed Augustine’s idea that the number of fallen angels had to be replaced by an equal number of redeemed human beings. He began with the idea of a perfect number of rational beings, by which he meant both angels and humans. From this starting point, Anselm reasoned to his replacement idea: because the fallen angels “must have been of that number, either their number was inevitably to be made up, or the number of rational beings will remain smaller than was foreseen previously in that perfect number—-and that is impossible. Beyond doubt, they have to be replaced. It is necessary, therefore, that their number should be made up from the human race, because there is no other race from which it can be made complete” (Anselm, Why God Became Man, 1.16). Thus, if 1.43 million angels fell with Satan, 1.43 million human beings must be saved!

Furthermore, John of Damascus, in his treatment of angels, relied heavily on Dionysius for his hierarchical classification (John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 2.3). Thomas Aquinas dedicated a significant amount of space to a discussion of that hierarchical order among the angels. Relying heavily on Dionysius and John of Damascus, along with several biblical passages (Eph. 1:20-21; Col. 1:16), Aquinas constructed a “map” of the spiritual realm. He positioned the many diverse spiritual beings (as found in Scripture) in an elaborate three-tiered hierarchy with detailed “job descriptions” to identify and distinguish them all (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 1, q. 108, art. 6). But he went far beyond Scripture in his speculation. Aquinas also promoted the idea of guardian angels (Ibid., q. 113, art. 2, 4) and envisioned a future in which redeemed human beings would be angels (Ibid., 1. 108, art. 8).

Neglect and Contempt

Moving closer to our time, the modern period was characterized by two important developments regarding the doctrine of angels, Satan, and demons. First, the more liberal elements within Christianity, displaying a bias against supernatural matters, treated the doctrine with benign neglect at best and with outright contempt at worst. For example, Friedrich Schleiermacher regarded the doctrine of angels as a childish belief (Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 43.1) and criticized the doctrine of the Devil as being “so unstable that we cannot expect anyone to be convinced of its truth” (Ibid., 44). Similarly, David Strauss applauded the advancement in modern thinking that liberated humanity from its superstitious ideas about angels: “If the modern idea of God and conception of the world are right, there cannot possibly be beings of this kind” (David F. Strauss, Die Christiche Glaubenslehre, 1.670-71). In a second important development, the more conservative elements of Christianity, reacting to these liberal tendencies, relegated the doctrine to the periphery of Christian beliefs. For example, out of the nearly 100 articles published as The Fundamentals of the Christian faith, only one addressed this topic, and it was dedicated to the doctrine of Satan (Jessie Penn-Lewis, “Satan and His Kingdom” in The Fundamentals, vol. 4, 183-98). But neither outright dismissal of angels and demons, nor relegating them to the margins of the Christian faith, does justice to biblical teaching about these creatures.

Karl Barth, more than anyone else, was responsible for this resurgence in attention. Barth saw the need to steer clear of two extremes: the modern tendency to dismiss the doctrine completely, and the historical tendency to engage in rampant speculation (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3, 369). In a discussion reminiscent of Barth’s, C. S. Lewis warned about the two extremes of error to be avoided when considering demons: “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 9). If the former error typified the modern period as a whole, the latter more recently surfaced in our contemporary age as seen in the film The Exorcist (1975, 2000), the very successful Touched by an Angel television program (1994-2003), the nearly constant appearance of books dedicated to the topic of angels on The New York Times bestseller list, and in Christian literature, the staggering popularity of Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (Crossway, 1986) and Piercing the Darkness (Crossway, 1988). These latter presentations of angels, Satan, and demons are fanciful construals of these spiritual beings that capture the imagination of biblically illiterate people and offer much speculation rather than solid portraits derived from the Word of God.