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The Fall of the Angels and Our Probation on Earth

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

If there is one lesson that we need to learn in life it is that our stay here on earth is a probation.  We commonly speak of the trials of life.  We should say that our life on earth is a trial.  It is a test.  It is God’s way of enabling us to prove our loyalty to Him.  That is what life, or we correctly say, is - a valley of tears.  It is an opportunity to prove our fidelity to the God from whom we came and the condition for our eternity with the God for whom we were made.  This then is the focus of our present meditation, mainly, that we are to learn from the angels, and like them, we too must prove our loyalty to the God who created us, in we wish to avoid the hell to which some angels were sent, and reach the heaven to which we aspire.


God first created intelligent beings, He has tested them all.  Beginning with the angels, He is now testing us.  First observation, the angels were not originally created in heaven, we speak using the words “the angels, some, fell from heaven,” but these words are not to be taken literally.  No one who actually ever reaches heaven will lose the celestial beatitude.  No less than we, the angels had to earn heaven.  They possess what we would call sanctifying grace. Like us after being baptized, they possessed the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  But remember these are virtues to be used, they are graces to be cooperated with.  The angels had to merit, or as defined in Latin, “earn,” they had to earn their eternal destiny.

What was the angels probation?  We don’t know exactly how the angels were tried.  However, it could only be on one of two conditions:  Obedience to the God who created them and love of the God by whom and for whom they were made.  And these two go together like condition and consequence.  But the angels were to love God only in the measure they obeyed Him.

There are some who say that the trial which the angel was to experience was foretold them was news of a lower creature than the angels, namely man, was to be assumed by the Second Person of the Trinity, and they would have to adore this lower creature – God become man.  St. Paul stresses the fact that God bypassed the angels and became man.  Some were willing to adore this God-man and others were not.

Another explanation of what was the angelic probation was that, as we know, no two angels originally created with the gifts of their angelic nature, some lower, some higher.  They were to love one another, be generous towards one another, practice acceptance of one another, in a word, they were to practice ‘angelic charity’.   We are not sure what concretely and specifically was the test of the angels, we only know that not all passed the test and remained faithful.

We continue.

Organized Disobedience

We do not commonly avert to the fact, but we should.  The fall of the angels was due to a leader among the angels, no less than the great Lucifer.  He had some join him in refusing to submit to God.  Then we have what is a very lengthy description of what happened as stated in the book of the apocalypse:

And a war broke out in Heaven and Michael with his angels attacked the dragon, the dragon fought back with his angels, but they were defeated and driven out of heaven.  The great dragon, the primeval serpent, known as the devil, or satan who had deceived all the world, was hurled down the earth and his angels were hurled down with him.  Then I heard a voice shout from the heavens, “Victory, power and empire forever has been won by our God and all the authority for his Christ.  Know the persecutor who accused our brothers, day and night before God has been brought down.  They have triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and through the witness of their martyrdom because even in the face of death they could not cling to life.  Let the heaven’s rejoice and all who live there.  But beware for you earth and sea, trouble is coming for the death devil is going down to you in a rage knowing his days are numbered. (Apocalypse 12:7-12)

Over the centuries, volumes have been written as a commentary on the last words of the book of the bible.  Notice what we heard, it was an organized effort on the part of those who were unfaithful to the God who created them.  It is a corresponding effort that was organized by the leader of the angels to remain faithful to the Lord.  How desperately we need to hear this – the incredible, the unheard of crimes on such a massive scale as never before known in the history of man – these evils have been organized, and behind it is the organized power of Lucifer and his demons. We are also told by Christ who revealed the book of the Apocalypse to John, that the devil though sent indeed to Hell, is active here on earth.

Let us have no doubt that reflection on the fall of the angels and the consequence, belongs to the heart of the spiritual life, and for our purpose the essence of a retreat.  St. Ignatius made sure that early in the Spiritual Exercises, those who make the retreat reflect on the fall of the angels. Why is it imperative that we believe in and reflect on the fall of the angels if we want to live a heroic Christian life in our day?  Why is the fall of the angels such a powerful lesson for all of us?

I have a series of reasons.  The angels sinned but they were not redeemed.  Over the centuries the Church’s great minds have reflected on the angels, having sinned were not redeemed. The best reason they can find is that because the angels were not repentant.  Why not?  Because unlike us, we have a reason, we have to think through and reach a conclusion.  Not so the angels, once some had made a choice to not obey God and submit to His will, they were unrepentant.  After willfully having sinned, they were naturally unrepentant.  We, thank God, can repent.   Unlike the angels, we can be forgiven, and hear it, at the heart of forgiveness on the part of God is repentance on our part.  No wonder St. Benedict, and this is of the essence of Benedictine spirituality, they take a vow of daily conversion.  They reflect on past sins, daily repent and grow in obtaining God’s mercy.

What is another lesson for us on the fall of the angels?  We can thank God for having become man and dying on the cross as man, in order that we might avoid punishment which the devils experienced when they fell.  From the first time I read the verses in Matthew’s 25th chapter, how can we forget “On the last day, the angels will call those back to their conscious bodily lives and then Christ as a supreme judge, will tell those on the right, I have prepared the kingdom for you from the foundation of the world, and those on his left, depart from me.”  Then the concluding verse: “The just will enter eternal happiness but the lost will join the devil in everlasting punishment.”  Thank God for His mercy in redeeming us.

What is another lesson?  The fall of the angels and its consequence teaches us that the fall of the angels are punished twice over.  They lost the title to God’s friendship, otherwise known as they incurred guilt.  How stupidly, how lyingly, our world speaks about guilt and do not understand it.  People are told by psychiatrist to get over their guilt feelings.  The essence of guilt is the loss of God’s grace.  And that is what the angels lost when they sinned, the friendship of God.  But there is a second consequence of sin, and that is suffering.  Because the angels sinned they incurred the penalty, the deep faith it takes to believe this, that a creature can offend God and can suffer eternally for having incurred the just punishment of an offended God.

What is the next lesson?  It applies to us personally.  We also have sinned.  Only God knows how deeply we have sinned.  How St. Ignatius tells us that when we are speaking with a group of people, to think that one in the group has at some time, some where, sinned mortally and that they deserve eternal punishment.  How we deserve the punishment which the disobedient angels received for having offended God’s majesty and how we too deserve the everlasting punishment.  We can be forgiven.  God has been so merciful to us.  How grateful we should be, grateful that we may be restored to God’s friendship and save ourselves from everlasting estrangement from our Creator.

This lesson is the meaning of suffering.  Over the years I have taught comparative religion.  I never tire of telling my students that there is only one religion in the world that teaches the meaning of suffering – suffering is the consequence of sin, suffering is real.  Why is it real?  Suffering is real cause sin is real.  How we like the angels, cannot only repent for our sins, but we can actually, hear it, we can become more holy because we have sinned.  God in His infinite wisdom and goodness could not have allowed us to sin unless He foresaw that we with the eyes of faith, could become more holy than if we had not sinned.

St. Paul could not be more clear. “Where sin has abounded there grace will more abound.”  But let’s be clear.  Where sin has abounded there grace will more abound – but grace is a gift, a privilege, an invitation.  This grace is a big blessing from God.  What is this great blessing?   The opportunity to love God more than we would have had we not realized how merciful he is to us.

What is the grace?  It is to never run away from your cross.  The cross is a grace providing us with the opportunity to not just atone for our past sins, but by embracing the cross we can become more holy than we could humanly have done if we had not sinned.  It is not just that having sinned we can therefore atone for our past misdeeds.  We can obtain expiation in God’s mercy for the sins of others.

What are we saying?  We are saying that as sinners we owe God the price of not only atoning for our past misdeeds but the privileged opportunity of expiating the sins of others.  Our suffering is a divinely granted opportunity to expiate the sins of other people: expiating the pride of others by our own practice of humility; expiating the anger of other people by our own patience; expiating the lust of others by our own chastity; expiating the greed of others by our own generosity; expiating the envy of others by our own selfless charity, expiating the sloth of others by our untiring labor; and expiating the gluttony of others in the most fed nation in the world by our practice of abstinence.

All of this is locked up in the lessons of the angels.  They sinned and were punished.  We have sinned and we have the privilege of not only expiating our own sins but the sins of others and we thus have the privilege of becoming more holy because we have sinned.

One more important observation, the reality of heaven.  How this mystery of our faith is being neglected, ignored, dare I say being ridiculed in our day.  How we need to ask our Lord to strengthen our own faith in heaven and in hell--it is a mystery.  Strengthen our faith, restore this faith in the minds of so many people who no longer believe in everlasting punishment who die unrepentant and estranged from God.

Certainly God is merciful, but how we need to remind ourselves and others, God is also just.  Where can we begin to thank God enough for the privilege He has given us who may have deserved everlasting punishment of hell, that we are able to not only repay some of our own debt to God for having sinned but that we can become closer to God, more generous, more virtuous because we have been spared, thank God, the fires of hell.

Love builds on gratitude.  If there is one gift of God for which we should be eternally grateful, it is that we sinners have been spared the punishment of hell.

Lord Jesus, we thank you for the lesson which the fall of the angels should teach us.  The lesson that sin is most displeasing to your divine majesty.  That suffering is a grace by which we can expiate our own sins and the sins of others.  That having sinned in the past, you want us to become more holy than we had ever been.  Lord have mercy on me a sinner.  We beg you dear Jesus, to give us the grace to die than to ever offend you by a single mortal sin.  Help us to learn from the fall of the bad angels.  Help us to follow the example of the good angels and remain obedient to your divine will so that, like them, we may join you in that everlasting happiness which is reserved for the angels and to human beings who use their free will to submit themselves to your divine will.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #2, Saturday 2/24/96, 2:30 PM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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