The eternal damnation of unrepentant sinners has long been the cause of no small amount of anguish among both Christians and unbelievers. Some may wonder how a loving God could allow people to suffer eternal punishment. Others may worry that they have not done enough to bring the good news to friends and strangers alike.
But who has ever shown any concern for what happens to the fallen angels, the demons, who also suffer eternal torment?
We should care about the fate of demons—not out of concern for the demons themselves, but because their lack of salvation casts our own redemption in a new light.
Like us, the demons sinned and experienced a fall. Like us, demons are self-aware, have minds, and possess a will—the ability to choose between good and evil. This makes demons rational beings like us.
But we were offered a chance at redemption while demons were not. Why is this so?
This question certainly pressed upon some of the early Church Fathers. A few even made statements that have been historically interpreted as expressing support for a belief in the salvation of demons. Most famous is Origen who wrote this in his commentary on John:
The Savior, then, is the first and the last, not that He is not what lies between, but the extremities are named to show that He became all things. Consider, however, whether the last is man, or the things said to be under the earth, of which are the demons, all of them or some.
This statement is backed up in another text where Origen states that Christ came to redeem ‘every rational being.’ Other Fathers pondered the fate of the devil and demons as well, even if they reached different conclusions. For example, St. Augustine, in the City of God, addresses such questions as whether the bodiless demons could be burned in the everlasting fires of hell and whether the devil would be in hell for all of eternity. (The answer in both cases yes.)
So why there is no salvation for the demons?
The answer hinges on the differences between their sin—and ours—and the unique character of Christ’s redemptive work.
Like humans, spirits—angelic or demonic—are understood to have a free will, according to St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the topic in the Summa Theologica. Yet, even though it is free, the will of a demon or an angel nonetheless differs from ours in at least one major respect. For humans, our will is ‘moveable’—in other words we have the ability to change our minds and move from one thing to its opposite, say from faith to unbelief.
But it is not so with the spirits, Aquinas writes. Once they have made their choice, it can’t be undone:
So it is customary to say that man’s free-will is flexible to the opposite both before and after choice; but the angel’s free-will is flexible [to] either opposite before the choice, but not after. Therefore the good angels who adhered to justice, were confirmed therein; whereas the wicked ones, sinning, are obstinate in sin.
This difference is rooted in our differing natures. We humans, according to Aquinas, reach the perfection by ‘change and movement.’ In other words, we come to reach ‘perfection in the knowledge of the truth’ by advancing in steps, from one discovery to another, Aquinas writes. This should sound familiar to all of us: all of us have to journey by faith to God, whether it’s the lifelong doubter who finally finds faith on his deathbed, or the cradle Catholic who has been nurtured in his or her faith since infancy and never stops growing. Scripture confirms that in this life we will never stop learning and growing in our faith: on this earth, our vision of God will always be through a ‘glass darkly’ as St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians.
Heavenly creatures, on the other hand, by their very nature already have their ‘last perfection,’ according to Aquinas. In other words, there’s no more room for them to grow and develop beyond where they are. While we have a ‘longer way’ to beatitude, the angels could grasp it almost immediately from the moment they are created, Aquinas says. Again, this makes sense: after all, they started out in heaven.
Now we can begin to understand on a deeper level why demons are damned without any offer of redemption: we can infer from what Aquinas says that they were more spiritually advanced than we were—therefore, it stands to reason that their fall from grace was not only that much worse but also irreversible.
Origen’s views on the origins of demons and their possible salvation were roundly condemned as heresy in the Second Council of Constantinople, held in 553 AD. The seventh canon condemning his views hints at a second explanation for the lack of demonic redemption, warning that this position becomes a backdoor denial of the Incarnation:
If anyone shall say that Christ … had different bodies and different names, became all to all, an Angel among Angels, a Power among Powers, has clothed himself in the different classes of reasonable beings with a form corresponding to that class, and finally has taken flesh and blood like ours and is become man for men; and does not profess that God the Word humbled himself and became man: let him be anathema.
In other words, the false belief in demonic salvation stretches and twists the truth of the Incarnation to unrecognizable extremes. The teaching that God became man in order to save men, by definition, it seems, precludes the salvation of the demons. Thus, the question of the salvation of demons is ultimately connected to the far broader mysteries of the Incarnation and man’s role in the order of creation, as a being ‘made in the image of God.’
All this is more than merely an exercise in curiosity—it gives us a deeper and richer understanding of our own sin and how God saves us from it. In fact, this is exactly the context in which the New Testament writers raised the question of demonic salvation.
In the Epistle to James, second chapter, we are warned against faith without works—a faith that does not respond to God with love—by comparison to the demons, who certainly have knowledge of God. “You believe that God is one,” the epistle states. “You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.” St. Peter too, is his second epistle, uses the example of the demons who have no salvation to assure his readers that God “knows how to rescue the devout from trial and to keep the unrighteous under punishment.”
So let the damnation of the demons be both a cause for renewed hope in our own salvation, knowing that our story is different from theirs, and also a cautionary tale in how far one can fall from grace.