How Did Lucifer Fall?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips March 10, 2002

Tonight's question for the Question Box is, "How did Lucifer, that is, the devil, turn to evil?" A related question is, "How are we to understand the nature of good and evil?"

This question prompts me to make some categorical comments, because this is the kind of question that does not find a complete answer in Scripture. The goal of theology is to think God's own thoughts after him. God is not obliged to tell us everything, and when he doesn't we may have to accept limitations in our knowledge. The Bible's own guideline in these matters is found in Deuteronomy 29:29. There, Moses said, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." There are secret things that are not for us, but what God has revealed is for us to use for godly instruction. Calvin used this to create a wise maxim, "Where God has made an end of teaching, let us make an end of learning."

The reason we might ask about Lucifer's fall is that the Bible gives us information about it, but not very much information. Therefore, the place to start is with Biblical affirmations and denials that bear on the question. For instance, we can affirm that God is not the direct, or efficient, cause of evil. 1 John 1:5 says, "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." Furthermore, Scripture explicitly says that God made everything good. Genesis 1:31 says at the conclusion of creation: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." Third, the devil and his fallen angels are represented in Scripture as having chosen evil voluntarily. This is the basis of their judgment and ultimate punishment. The verbs describing the devil's actions are active and not passive; evil is something that he did and not some-thing that happened to him. From that, we can say that Satan, or Lucifer, was created by God good but mutable (that is, changeable), that he turned to evil by his own choice and is himself responsible.

That provides brackets to our thoughts that help keep us from error; at a minimum, our thinking must not violate those biblical statements. In thinking further, our goal is to avoid speculation that might lead us into sin, while making the most of godly and edifying reasoning. In this regard, I think the best treatment of these matters is found in Book XII of St. Augustine's City of God. Let me present at least the high points of his argument.

Augustine begins by arguing that good and evil are not two different things. God himself is the ultimate Good, the Author of all good and the creator of all things which all were good because being immutable God created all things in conformity with his own nature. Goodness, Augustine says, is ultimate because goodness is simply adherence to God. What we call evil is simply a failure to adhere to God. He argues by analogy that "when we say blindness is a defect of the eyes, we imply that it is the very nature of the eyes to see… So, too, when we say it is a failure in an angel not to attain union with God, we openly proclaim that they were meant by nature to be one with God" (XII.1). Evil, he argues, is not a thing but rather a defect from God's good creation. Evil is a lesser idea than good; a defect in comparison to perfection. Likewise, evil cannot exist on it own; a defect presumes and requires a perfection. While there are absolutely good things—such as God and the unfallen angels—nothing is absolutely evil. There are good things in Satan's nature that are a result of God's good creation, but they are corrupted by his defect of evil.

Nothing is evil by nature but only by choice. Thus "God is never to be blamed for any defects . . . but should ever be praised for all the perfection we see in the natures he has made" (XII. 5). What, then, is the cause of an evil will? Augustine says there is no cause outside itself, by definition. "An evil will is the efficient cause of a bad action, but there is no efficient cause of an evil will" (XII. 6). Evil happens, he says, not because there was something evil to be chosen, but because a choice was itself evil. What is an evil choice? It is the choice of a lower good over a higher good. In Lucifer's case, that was the choice of his own glory—a good thing—over the glory of God—a higher good thing. Being mutable, Lucifer made choices that could cause defects to his good nature; having chosen evilly he fell into sin. Augustine says, "How can a good thing be the efficient cause of an evil will? . . . When the will, abandoning what is above it, turns itself to something lower, it becomes evil because the very turning itself and not the thing to which it turns is evil" (XII.6). He gives the example of two men who look upon a woman's beauty, one of whom turns to lust and the other of whom reveres her beauty in a pure way. Her beauty did not cause the lust, but the turning to lust is what was evil. Evil is made possible by a mutable nature, for in making choices we are capable of choosing sinfully and thus entering into evil.

That is about as far as Augustine gets in this matter. He compares the matter to the difficulty of trying to see darkness or hear silence. We know they are there, but our eyes were given us to see light not darkness, and our ears to hear sound not silence.
What do we want to take from this? We always want to receive biblical instruction in terms of what the Bible itself is trying to teach us. In this case, the Bible does not speak of the devil to provoke us into metaphysical speculation, but to be warned about the dangers of his temptations, of the reality of the devil and the fallen angels who wage spiritual warfare against us.

We are reminded as well that our chief end is God's glory. That is what is good. We recall that like the original creatures in their unfallen natures we are mutable and required to make choices. We, however, are not unfallen; our natures bear the defects of their previous sinful choices. We ought therefore, to diligently seek the grace God offers, to humbly turn to God for instruction at every turn, and to pray for the working of God's Spirit in us, that we might both know and more importantly do the will of God, which is the good thing for which we were created by him.

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