Thursday, 8 March 2012

Question 64 - The Punishment of the Demons

Why this Question Matters.

After having discussed the fall of the bad angels, it would seem quite natural to ask what happens next. This final question in the so-called “Treatise on the Angels” deals with the condition of the fallen angels after the fall. Possibly the most important question asked here is whether the bad angels, having fallen, can repent; this is the subject of the second article.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Are the fallen angels, or demons, deprived of all knowledge of the truth? It seems clear that the demons must be cut off from at least some aspects of supernatural knowledge in their refusal of grace, but does their isolation from the truth extend further; perhaps even to their natural knowledge?

Aquinas distinguishes between two forms of cognition of the truth. On the one hand he identifies natural knowledge, on the other knowledge attributable to grace. He further distinguishes two sub-types of the latter: speculative knowledge that concerns divine things revealed to someone; and affective knowledge which produces love for God. Aquinas claims that of these three types of knowledge, the first is undiminished in the demons, the second is diminished, and the third is entirely absent.

The demons’ natural knowledge is not diminished because, being simple spiritual forms, to take something away from their nature in the way that we might have a foot removed is impossible without changing their nature. To change their nature would be to make them something they are not. The second type of cognition is a gift of grace, so that it is not surprising that it is at least diminished in the demons; but why is it not taken away entirely? God may reveal to them whatever He wishes to reveal for His purposes. Of the third type, which pertains to charity and to wisdom, no trace is left in the demons.

A2: Having turned away from God, as described in Ia.q63, is it possible for a demon to “change its mind” and to turn back to God, or is it obstinate in its evil? The objections suggest a number of powerful reasons that would support the idea that the demons can turn back to God after their fall. For example, freedom of choice would appear to be fundamental to creatures with a rational nature and to deny them the ability to turn back to God would appear to contradict this. Similarly, God’s mercy is infinite; therefore it is within His power to turn a demon back to Him.

Aquinas begins his reply by referring to Origen who argued in concurrence with the first objection that, because of their free wills, the demons could turn back to God. But having done this Aquinas immediately states that such a position is incompatible with the catholic faith and that one must firmly hold that the will of the good angels is confirmed in the good and that of the demons is obstinate in evil. The reason for this lies in the nature of the angels. As immaterial beings they do not have to go through a process of deciding something and they can never learn anything new as they immediately know all that they can naturally know. Even their supernatural knowledge is immediately assimilated. John of Damascus put it succinctly: the fall is to the angels as death is to humans. Humans are able to repent during their earthly life but once death comes, there is no repentance. For the angels, their one moment of decision is decisive.

To the argument from the freedom of the will, Aquinas answers that the nature of this freedom differs according to the nature of the intellectual creature. A human’s free will is flexible with respect to opposites both before and after the act of choice; the angel’s free will is only flexible with respect to opposites before the act of choice. This line of thought also explains why God’s mercy will not extend to the fallen angels. God’s mercy is applied to those who repent; but the demons are incapable of repentance.

A3: Passions such as fear, sorrow and joy cannot exist in the angels in the same way that they exist in us because they are passions that are proper to the sentient appetite. So if one asks whether the demons are sorrowful for their condition, one has to be careful to define what this might mean. If we take sorrow as an example, then it is possible to give it a transferred meaning that applies to any will, human or angelic. One simply identifies it with that resistance of the will to situations that exist (and which the will wishes did not exist) and vice versa. With this analogous meaning, it is quite proper to attribute sorrow to the demons. They are deprived of the beatitude that they desire and their evil will is frustrated by the good in many things.

A4: The phrasing of the title of the final article in this question may raise eyebrows: is the air the place of punishment for the demons? Indeed, the body of the question refers to the aer caliginosus (“misty air” or “dark atmosphere”). The sense of this strange phrase is to ask whether the punishment of the demons is restricted to hell or whether it extends to earth. The demons are hidden from us in the normal course of events, so presumably they inhabit the parts of earth’s atmosphere hidden from us.

Aquinas answers by claiming that the good of lower creatures is mediated by higher creatures and this can come about in two ways. In the first way people are induced towards the good by the good angels. In the second way they are induced towards the good by resistance to temptation from the bad angels. Therefore there must be some bad angels on hand to tempt us! This situation will endure up until the last judgement, when all the demons will be consigned to hell. Until then, some demons will be punished in hell; others will serve their time on earth.

In the reply to the third objection Aquinas mentions the opinion that the punishment of the demons may be postponed until the last judgement. The argument against this position is one of symmetry: the good angels are able to minister to us here on earth without any diminution of their heavenly glory. By symmetry, the demons must be able to tempt us on earth with no diminution of their punishment.

Handy Concepts

  • The fallen angels are not deprived of their natural knowledge, but some elements of their supernatural knowledge are diminished and some are extinguished altogether.
  • The fall of the bad angels and the glory of the good angels are both irrevocable.
  • Although passions cannot exist in angels (good or bad) one can meaningfully talk of the bad angels being sad about their condition.
  • The good angels minister to us here on earth; likewise the bad angels tempt us. Therefore the punishment of the demons is both here on earth and in hell before the last judgement.
  • In the fourth article Aquinas argues that divine providence is mediated through the angels. It appears unclear from the text whether he means that all of providence is mediated through the angels, but the implication from the Doctor Angelicus is there. Aquinas will return to this topic at the end of the first part of the summa in Ia.qq103-119 when he discusses the Divine governance of creatures.


  • Although Aquinas does not mention the temptation of Job in the first article, perhaps this is an example of what he was thinking about when he argues that God may reveal to the demons what He wishes for His purposes.

1 comment:

  1. The idea that angels cannot learn is interesting. Milton imagines the demons coming to realize that they misunderstood the nature of their decision to rebel. They do seem, in that sense, to be capable of thinking in a human way. Satan's reasons for not repenting are a mixture of despair and pride, in his version. Of course, there are two further points here: (1) Milton's monism surely creates a different angelology than would be true in Aquinas's and (2) Milton uses his angels for commentary on human nature. On the second point, it's therefore hard to know what he intended as doctrine on angels and what was satirical commentary on human foibles.