The Fall of Satan

Several theories exist to detail the origin and fall of Satan.[1] The one chosen here is that which I take to best agree with the testimony of the early church since Scripture has nearly nothing to say about it. Taking that position may cause some readers to not wholly agree with the conclusions given here. However, this essay, as with the whole work, seeks to understand the matter as the most ancient audience would have, and because of this paradigm, we’ll delve into pseudepigraphical as well as apocryphal (deuteron-canonical) literature. For the sake of the reader, allow me a bit of levity to explain what these two bodies of writing are so that the less-informed reader isn’t lost.

The Apocrypha (“hidden”) is a group of Jewish writings dating from 300 BC to AD 100. Orthodox Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical despite these books being included with Scripture. In the earliest codices (“books”) of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the fourth and fifth centuries AD, the Apocrypha is included, however. This may not necessarily mean that the Apocrypha was Scripture to the ancient church because when the Greek Old Testament was first produced in the third to second centuries BC, it was not included.[2] Moreover, these books do not appear in the earliest canonical lists of the Old Testament,[3] and when Jerome produced the Latin Bible in the late fourth-century, he didn’t include them. They were, however, translated into Latin and added after Jerome’s death.

The Apocrypha wasn’t added as Scripture until the Council of Trent in 1546, and at this time, they were declared to be “Divine Scripture” by the Catholic Church. At the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672) they were declared to be “genuine parts of Scripture.” During this time, one might notice from the dates, the Protestant Reformation was underway and had been for some time. The Protestants adopted the same Old Testament canon that the Jews held and to which we hold today, and this likely was one reason these councils made their declarations.

Nevertheless, the New Testament writers demonstrate a familiarity with and usage of Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, and 2 Maccabees.[4] One may safely say that though these works weren’t considered Scripture, they were useful. Where we might identify at what point knowledge is divinely inspired and useful is a discussion worth having on its own, because Paul cited from pagan writings in his discourse in Athens and in writing to Titus. While Christians today think only of the sixty-six books of the Bible as worthy of the church’s attention, the early Christians were as well read in other writings that they used alongside Scripture as anything.

Not only does Scripture show a familiarity with the apocryphal, but it also demonstrates a knowledge of pseudepigraphical works— writings falsely ascribed to someone. The belief was that 1 Enoch came from the biblical Enoch we read about in Genesis 4:17–5:24. The “Son of Man” used of Christ in the Gospels as a divine title is interpreted as speaking of a divine character from how 1 Enoch employed the term of the divine messianic figure. Jude also cited this book (Jude 1:14–15), and when we read in Jude that the archangel Michael contended with Satan over the body of Moses, Jude had taken this story from The Assumption of Moses.

Pseudepigraphy was not intended to deceive the reader. It was often given the name of a well-known person within the community of faith to honor the one whose name it bore. Sometimes, it was falsely named to show that the writer had been inspired by the name-bearer of the document. The only thing falsely attributed was the name of the work, but the content of the work often clarified subjects that were unclear, such as the one we study here in this work.

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Regarding Satan’s origin and fall, first, from the Scriptures, Isaiah 14:12–15 has been interpreted from early centuries as a tale of the devil’s rebellion. From this passage, we comprehend why Satan is often referred to as “Lucifer” despite Isaiah stating that he wrote of the king of Babylon. In the first-half of the third century, Origen, while acknowledging that the context of Isaiah’s passage referred to the Babylonian king, stated that no human being is ever said to have fallen from heaven as Isaiah recorded (On First Principles 4.3.9). From this and other points, Origen suggested that the person under discussion could not have been exclusively the king of Babylon. This person was Satan, and Origen linked Isaiah’s “fallen from heaven” reference to what Christ had said in Luke’s Gospel, “Behold, I see Satan fallen from heaven like lightning” (Luke 10:18).[5] In Isaiah’s passage, Origen saw a deeper meaning than the original context of the verses, which early Christians were often given to doing (e.g. Matthew’s Gospel). The allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures is seen in Origen and other early Christian writers, and one can also note that it didn’t originate with Christian interpreters but is also seen in the writings of the Jewish philosopher, Philo (ca. 25 BC–AD 50).

The devil, while evil, was just like all other created beings whether celestial or carnal. He was capable of good only because the created beings such as angels and man had the ability to choose to do well, but Satan hadn’t. He had freedom of will, but would not recognize good and virtue, but chose evil. Origen wrote that Satan had once walked in God’s paradise between the cherubim. Therefore, once upon a time, he suggests, Satan was good (On First Principles 1.8.3).[6] Origen wrote that he had “adduced from the prophets” this truth. Given his reference to the garden (“Paradise”) and to cherubim, Origen had in mind Ezekiel 28:11–15 (cf. On First Principles 1.5.4). We must also hold that since Origen saw a greater truth in Isaiah’s passage that he’d also have used the same hermeneutic in the Ezekiel passage.

The verse in Ezekiel was also a passage that early church theologians held to be descriptive of Satan’s fall.[7] Writing in the mid-fourth-century, Cyril of Jerusalem read Ezekiel’s passage demonstrated that Satan was once an archangel[8] based on the description of the figure Ezekiel gave. Though an archangel, he became “Satan” by becoming God’s adversary—Satan meaning “adversary” (Cat. Lect. 2.4). Toward the close of the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan employed the Ezekiel passage to communicate Satan’s origin as being in Eden, God’s garden. Despite Ezekiel clearly speaking about the king of Tyre, Ambrose believed that the king of Tyre stood for the devil (On Paradise 2.9). Before the first quarter of the fifth century, Jerome and Augustine also saw Satan in Ezekiel’s verses.[9]

When a more modern hermeneutic is used, such as the historical-critical method, examining both Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s verses would utterly dismiss the ancient Christian interpretation held of these two passages as speaking about Satan. Nevertheless, the ancient church saw in these verses a greater truth than the immediate context, and that was that Satan was once sinless but gave himself over to vanity and pride. From these two prophets and the interpretations assigned to their passages, Satan was a) an archangel, b) blameless, c) in Eden from creation, and d) eventually rebelled.

The name Lucifer literally means “day star,” and the Scriptures demonstrate that stars were often communicated to have been angels in certain contexts (Job 38:7; Revelation 12:3–4). Satan’s station was exalted and high, but he relinquished it when he sinned. Isaiah and Ezekiel, through an ancient church perspective, inform us that he did, in fact, fall and was cast from heaven. We might be prone to think that his only sin here given these two prophets’ descriptions was pride. However, there is more to the story, and we understand what birthed his pride.

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The earliest source with a clue to Satan’s fall is not so much Isaiah or Ezekiel. What I’ve presented above are interpretations of those two passages that only go back as early as Tertullian, around AD 200 or so. However, the interpretations of the satanic Isaiah and Ezekiel passages only go back that far despite the actual writings themselves occurring much earlier by some 700–900 years. Actual, explicit references to Satan’s fall derive from apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings.

Written in the first century BC, the Wisdom of Solomon is an apocryphal work the early church found rather useful as a foundation for Christian theology. In this work, we read that God created man in His own image—an image defined in this work as one of immortality and eternity. However, death came into the world because the devil envied man, and the angels aligned with the devil tempt humanity as a consequence (Wisd. Sol. 2.23–24). Why precisely did Satan envy man? The answer to this question was given in the writing, The Life of Adam and Eve.

Written in the first century AD, Life of Adam and Eve details the first humans’ life after being cast from Eden until their deaths. In this work, Satan spoke to Adam and told him that when God created humanity in His image and likeness, Michael the archangel beckoned him and all other angels to worship humanity since they bore the very image and likeness of God. It wasn’t that man was to be worshiped, but the image of God in man was if that makes sense. Satan resisted worshipping Adam. He didn’t want to worship him because Adam was inferior and younger than Satan in the creation order and ranking. If anything, Satan believed Adam should worship him since he had existed before man was created. As other angels heard Satan’s reasoning, they joined him and refused to worship the image and likeness of God represented in humanity. It’s at this point that Satan said that he’d set his seat above the stars of heaven and would be like God—verbiage reminiscent of Isaiah’s passage. At this point, God banished Satan and his followers, other rebellious angels, from heaven and they were cast to earth. So we read of this contention,

And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Revelation 12:7–9)

This may very well line up with what Christ had told His seventy disciples after they returned from their mission, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). The story goes on, and Satan says that because of being cast from God’s presence, he decided to entrap Eve. He had caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden just as he had been driven from his glory in heaven (Adam and Eve 13–16). The early church taught this as the origin and fall of Satan as well.[10]

While pride is often cited as the devil’s sin, we must conclude that the source of his pride was that he believed himself to have been better than humanity. His sense of pride led him to rebel and attempt to usurp the highness of God for himself. This made sense when John wrote that the devil has sinned from the beginning (1 John 3:8). We might assume that John’s “beginning” was meant to be understood as our creation and not so much the Devils. Since our beginning, he sinned, and pride is the trap into which he fell and that we ought also to be careful to avoid. Paul wrote to Timothy that a bishop ought not to be a novice lest with pride he falls into the same condemnation as the devil (1 Timothy 3:6). Therefore, pride over our having been created in the image and likeness of God and the esteem it brought to the hosts of heaven led the devil to be who we know him to be. Since he no longer enjoyed the glory of his angelic status, he turned next to his mission of pursuing humanity to destroy us as well.

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Now downcast from heaven, Satan appears as a serpent to Eve. We mustn’t think of this serpent as a snake as we know it. This particular serpent, as a consequence of beguiling Eve, was cursed to go on its belly and eat the dust (Genesis 3:14) which leads us to believe that beforehand the serpent was capable of being upright, maybe even possessing legs. In the Ancient Near East, serpents were often representative of royalty or divinity, sometimes the two being inseparable. They also were viewed then as creatures of wisdom (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3).

What’s also possible is that the sort of serpent that Satan appeared as may have been an angelic creature.[11] Linguistically, the Hebrew term translated in Genesis 3:1 as “serpent” and in Isaiah 6:1 as Seraphim—angelic creatures in God’s heavenly court—are synonymous (cf. Numbers 21:6–9; Isaiah 14:29; 30:6).[12] We read the Christian belief that Satan would transform himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and this may very well be what he did to deceive humanity.[13] Whatever he did, and however he appeared, this serpent is identified by early Christian teaching as Satan, the devil (Revelation 12:9). However, he didn’t work alone. No, he had help, the help of his own angels.


[1] See chapter two of Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

[2] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 200.

[3] Josephus, Contra Apion 1.8; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14.

[4] Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 87.

[5] On First Principles 1.5.5; cf. Augustine, Explanations of the Psalms 39.18; Christian Instruction 3.37. See, also, the discussion in Jon Carman, “The Falling Star and the Rising Son: Luke 10:17–24 and Second Temple ‘Satan’ Traditions,” Stone-Campbell Journal 17, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 221–31.

[6] Irenaeus also held that Satan was a fallen angel and once good (On Apostolic Preaching 16–17).

[7] The earliest citation linking the Ezekiel passage to Satan’s fall is from Tertullian who flourished around AD 200 (Against Marcion 2.10).

[8] Gregory the Great agrees that the angel under discussion here is an archangel (Gospel Homilies 34).

[9] Jerome, Homilies on Psalms 14; Augustine, City of God 11.15. Augustine’s passage here includes Isaiah’s mentioned above, and he also gave the point that the devil once existed without sin until he rebelled against God.

[10] Irenaeus, On Apostolic Preaching 16; Cyprian of Carthage, Treatises 10.

[11] Miller, Lifted By Angels, 30–31.

[12] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 789.

[13] Cf. Augustine, City of God 2.26; 19.9.

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