I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven.
What happens in the cosmos in time is a mirror and a consequence of what is known timelessly in heaven, where God’s knowledge comprehends all times and all ages, what was and is and is to come, and the providential biography of every creature from the sparrow to the saints. In the Book of Revelation, after the great commissioning vision of Christ, the first and last, who died but ever lives (1:12–16); and after the message to the seven Churches (2:1–3:22), God opens for the Prophet John a door in heaven: “Come up hither and I will show you the things which much be done hereafter” (4:1). What John will be shown is not a chronology but the pattern of time. John’s vision is story-like in that it has a beginning in God, a peripety or turning point in the Incarnation, and a magnificent ending in the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ its center, creation restored.
The beginning is the great vision of God the Blessed Trinity, the Lamb standing as having been slain, surrounded by the brilliant rainbow light of the One, with the fire of the seven-fold Spirit proceeding, while four great six-winged creatures ceaselessly sing “Holy. Holy, holy, Lord God Almighty who was, who is, and who is to come” as the elders offer their crowns to the Lamb with the words, “Worthy is the lamb to receive honor and power and glory” (4:2–11). Before the Lamb lays the scroll that is history, bound with seven seals which only the Lamb is worthy to unloose (5:5). As the seven seals are opened the mythic pattern of the world after the fall of men and angels is announced by the four living creatures, who proclaim the four horsemen of earthly domination, warfare, famine, and death, while the martyrs, the elect of Israel and the Gentiles and nature itself are protected from God’s just wrath, and the consummation of chapters 21–22 is anticipated. “Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, till we sign the servants of our God in their foreheads” (7:3).
God then reveals to John the pattern of what is to come through the image of the seven trumpets, the sounding of the first six announcing God’s judgement on fallen nature and an unrepentant world. And finally the seventh angel sounds his trumpet, and there are great voices in heaven saying, “The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our lord and His Christ and He shall reign for ever and ever” (11:15). Judgement and reward have come. The heavenly temple is opened and the ark of the covenant is seen (11:19). “And the veil of the Temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom” (Matthew 27:51).
Revelation 11:15, is the great turning point in the pattern of times. The judgment of the earth and its perfect fulfillment are accomplished not through a victorious army but with the birth of male child to the woman clothed with the sun, whose crown is twelve stars and who rules over the moon. The great red dragon knowing that the birth of this child is the end of his kingdom, awaits in anticipation so he may devour the child. But the son, who is born to rule the nations with a rod of iron, is taken up to the throne of God, the woman is taken on eagles’ wings to a place prepared by God for her in the wilderness, the wilderness being the place in which God is present to His people. Then warfare breaks out in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels.
The angels in the glorious variety of their nine choirs are God’s first-created, like every creature created in Christ in the beginning, perfect and good and free. While the greater angels, Seraphim and Cherubim, praise God ceaselessly, there is the widespread patristic belief that the two lowest choirs, Archangels and Angels, exercise agency over nature in its complexity and offer intercession and aid to humankind (Matthew 18:10). The unsettled character of at least part of the angelic order is intimated in the Hebrew Scriptures. Blessed John Henry Newman speculated that the Old Testament, and the Fathers, taught the existence among the angelic host of unstable spirits who violated the daughters of men and inspired nations such as Persia to warfare and domination (Genesis 6:1–4, Daniel 10:13–14). And if creation is governed through the angels, it follows that when angels fall the nature that they govern falls with them. The rebellious angels at the fall of creation are principles of disorder, the agents of the chaos, darkness, and formlessness over which the Spirit hovers in Genesis 1:3–5, principles of disorder, not yet fixed in malice.
Whatever the details of that story might be—and it is not our story—we meet these angels of historically indeterminate loyalty in John’s vision, forced to decision by the birth of the son of the woman who is Israel, the Church, and the Mother of God, she of whom the Savior is born. As in the Book of Job, Satan and his angels are there in the heavenly court until the birth of the child, when war breaks out in heaven, when Satan and his angels are cast down upon the earth (Job 1:6). There may be angels who are capricious and wayward, crafty, violators of God’s order, but the Hebrew Scriptures know no race of malevolent demons dedicated to the destruction of souls.
When God became man, when it became clear that God’s purpose would be fulfilled in a thing of flesh, there could no longer be ambiguity or indecision among the angels. Michael defends the woman; the heavens are cleaned; the great dragon, the old serpent, who is called the devil, is cast out upon earth and his angels with him. And a loud voice is heard in heaven saying: “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ because the accuser is cast forth,” who accused God’s elect and day and night (12:10).
We know this accuser. It is he who even as he lies to mankind, encouraging rebellion, accuses those he has deceived before God. He was there in the Garden, “God deceives you; eat the fruit, you will not die” (Genesis 3:4). He was there in the heavenly court, ready with the suggestion that Job’s obedience was nothing more than self-interest (Job 1:11). But after the turning point represented by the birth of the child, he is cast down on the earth with his angels, to be the fallen spirits, the demons who know who Jesus is, who believe and tremble but who cannot love and serve (James 2:19).
Christ, in whom all things subsist, who is the beginning and the end, knows the great story as it happens everlastingly and as it happens in time. That part of the Gospel of Luke that begins with chapter nine is the beginning of the apostolic mission to the world: “Calling together the disciples He gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases…. And going out, they went about preaching the Gospel and healing the sick.” The seventy-two return saying “Lord, the devils also are subject to us in your name.” Jesus gives the reason for their power: Satan has been defeated in heaven: “I saw Satan falling from heaven like lightning.” The heavens are cleansed: “Therefore rejoice you heavens and you who dwell therein” (12:12). The battle is now on earth. Satan and his angels have come down upon earth full of great wrath, for he knows his time is short. But the demons have their time; thus their complaint that Jesus afflicts them “before the time” (Matthew 8:29). Jesus defeated Satan in the wilderness, but the demons will not be cast into hell until the last day. Meanwhile the battle is not against flesh and blood but against “principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world’s darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Ephesians 6:12).
It is the folly of this world upon which Satan, defeated and enraged, has been cast down and over which Satan has influence so great that John the Evangelist, using ‘world’ or ‘cosmos’ to describe not the created order but the man and nature infected by rebellion, will say: “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one”(I John 5:19) and again, “All that is in the world is not of the Father” (I John 2:16); it is the folly of this world to believe that the pain and disorder that breaks out upon mankind can be assuaged by reason, learning, prudence, and good government. Absent the unfailing attempt to secure these good things there is no cure, but the evil runs deeper, and the best attempts to set things right suffer from a fatal misdiagnosis so that the well-intended instruments of God-ignoring reason turn destructive in the hands of those who use them. The evil that besets the human race and its affairs is not merely human but supernatural, not a mistake to be corrected or an ignorance that learning can amend, but a great rebellion whose captain is the brightest and best of the angels. Satan has come down upon the earth. And so, sees the Prophet John, begins on earth the regime of deceit, the worship of beast, the creature of the dragon who has power over every tribe and nation, the worship of the beast’s image, and the government of the creature who looks like the Lamb but whose words are the words of the dragon (13:1–18).
God’s elect are not left undefended. Newman, to cite him again, pointed out that in the face of the evil that pervades the world, if God wished to save mankind a great supernatural power would be required, the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. When Christ came, when the heavens were cleansed by His Incarnation and His sacrifice, when the angels chose their paths, the good stabilized in perfect love and obedience, the fallen fixed in malice, then the Church was given the Gospel, the sacraments, and His Holy Spirit. “He who is in you,” says John, “is greater that He who is in the world.”
The apostolic mission and it alone has power over demons, the power to heal, the power to forgive. The prophet John knows that the Lamb will stand on Mount Zion calling the elect to Himself (14:1–7); he knows that Christ the knight will lead the saints to victory (19:11–16). But until that time, until the city of man, beloved by the kings and merchants and ship-owners to the neglect of God, by its apostasy the dwelling-place of demons (18:2), is overthrown (18:4–24), until the last battle is won over the beast, the war that broke out in heaven when the Son was born, won in heaven, will continue on earth.
“Satan, who seduces the whole world…was cast into the earth and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9).
“And He said to them, ‘I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven’” (Luke 10:18).