Can Satan Repent?

Dear Catholic Exchange:

Satan's fall is described as permanent and eternal. Why is this? Is it possible for Satan to repent and seek God's forgiveness? Is it necessary in some grand plan for Satan to be eternally evil? Surely God would not forsake any of his creatures, even Satan. God's mercy is unbounded.

Similarly, those in Hell could have a change of heart and surely would beg forgiveness. Why would God not accept a true contrition from the damned?

Jim Kingsepp

Staten Island, NY

Dear Mr. Kingsepp,

Peace in Christ!

It is clear that the Church affirms while echoing the testimony of the Scriptures that hell is an everlasting punishment both for demons and for those who die in a state of mortal sin (Catechism no. 1034-1035; Mt 5:22, 10:28, 13:42, 25:41, Mk 9:43-48). That it is impossible for God’s forgiveness to extend to the damned soul or fallen angels is an article of faith. Why this should be the case is a speculative question.

With respect to angels, St. Thomas saw that these celestial beings know and will differently than men. A man must learn and reason constantly through interactions with reality that he encounters solely by the response of his senses. A man is limited in what he can know naturally by what he has experienced directly or based upon his own reasoning from the data of lived experience. An angel does not experience reality this way because he is not dependent upon senses — having no body. But since angels must have some power of knowing greater than man, their natural knowledge of things is infused in their intellect at the moment of their creation. Thus, at least at the natural level, an angel is created with a full knowledge of every fact relevant to the perfection of his nature. Some angels are indeed smarter than others but even the stupidest angel is smarter than the smartest man. Angels furthermore do not need to reason things out from first principles the way men do. An angel has an immediate intuitive grasp of everything he needs to know and all of its logical implications; he has no need to figure things out as men do through experience and reasoning.

These different ways of knowing between angels and men relate immediately to the different ways in which angels and men can will things. Man makes decisions based on what he knows. Sin is possible in part because man’s intellect becomes darkened. His intellect comes to see lesser goods as greater than God who is the greatest good. Adam’s sin consisted in preferring to eat the fruit (a lower good) to obeying the command of God (his highest good). But man can turn away from sin when he realizes the error of his way. Conversion and change of heart and recognizing the truth of God are always possible with divine grace. Angels by contrast have intellects that are fixed in what they know. Angels therefore cannot change their mind based on experience or new information. What this means is that when angels rebelled against God this was done freely but with full grasp of every relevant fact related to the consequences of that decision. In short, they knew exactly what they were doing and what the results of the action would be. For this reason, it is not in the nature of their will to change their mind after the fact — their mind is made up for all eternity. This for St. Thomas is why angels are not redeemable but men are.

The angels who choose against God once can never change their mind. Men who die in a state of mortal sin become irrevocably turned away from God in much the same manner. The result is that the fall for angels is analogous to death in men for at that time the basic direction of the will, be it for or against God, is unchangeable. Why this is the case for men is perhaps a bit less clear than in the case of angels but the answer really lies in the nature of human freedom and divine grace and wisdom. Just as man is endowed with the possibility with God’s grace of directing his will toward God in an eternal manner so also it would be only fitting if the consequences of rebellion against God be eternal as well. The damned according to St. Thomas do repent of their sin — not that they are sorry for the sin itself but for the consequences of it. But this is not the sort of repentance that can invoke God’s mercy. True conversion from sin and toward God requires the assistance of divine grace and God providentially withholds such grace from the damned forever as a punishment for their rejection of Him. The damned are excluded from life with God because they culpably rejected it by an act of the will. They effectively spit on the hand of God that was outstretched to rescue them. Just as with the angels, God respects the free choice of free beings by allowing the consequences of such decisions to carry into eternity. The fact that decisions for or against God in this world have everlasting implications is in the end a mystery of faith though not a mystery that is unreasonable or illogical.

Pete Brown

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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