A Brief Primer on the Devil

I have written a fair amount on the angelology of St. Thomas Aquinas. But I haven’t yet delved much into demonology, though Aquinas has quite a bit to say about that subject in the Summa Theologiae (I, Q. 63-64). Fortunately, Aquinas asked many questions that come to my mind, and maybe yours, too. So, herewith, a few of them, with possible answers:

Q: Devils, as pure spirits, don’t make choices like humans: For example, “Oh, if only I knew what the consequences would be!” The angels had the initial choice of siding with God, or not. They had a clear understanding of what they were doing, and what the results would be if they rejected God, including the punishments. How could they be so stupid?

The intellects of pure spirits are not discursive, like ours; in other words, they do not think logically – starting with certain premises, figuring out connections or implications, and coming to conclusions. For us, even the conclusions can be ignored, out of laziness, or conflicting interests; regrets may come later, as bad consequences appear.

We can imagine souls in Purgatory regretting actions they took in life, or souls in Hell cursing themselves and all the conditions or persons that put them on the wrong road. But this could never take place with the devils.  They can literally only blame themselves, since they foresaw as clear as day all the future consequences of their choices.

So, then, why did they reject God, and the rewards and love He offered? The tradition has it that Satan himself, the leader of the angels, was like a god, with powers and intelligence that we can barely fathom. When Satan took Jesus to the top of the mountain (Matt. 4:8) and showed him all the riches and grandeurs of the world, and claimed that everything was under his power and could be bestowed on Jesus, Jesus did not contradict him. Satan before his fall was probably the closest thing to divinity. But this was also his downfall. Could a primeval “son of God” (Job 1:5, 2:1) with such majestic and all-encompassing powers accept subjugation to God – even the God who had created him? How could such a great being accept such subservience and humiliation? How could St. Michael’s cry, “Who is like God?” penetrate such overbearing pride? And if Satan and his followers were also given information about the coming creation of humans, how could they resist the possibility of setting up their own kingdom down below, being followed and even worshiped for the benefits and powers they could supply?


Q: Punishments in Hell are described for us humans as everlasting fire and bodily torments. But devils don’t have bodies, so are the punishments they face less fearsome? What kind of punishments do they face?

            It would be a mistake to think that “spiritual” punishments could be more tolerable than the corporeal fire and torments that human denizens of Hell will receive. By analogy, we can conceive of proud individuals seething in anger or jealousy at their successful opponents, losing sleep and health in search for retaliation, even committing murder or suicide because of the emotional “fires” that burned relentlessly within their psyches. Yes, the evil angels are seething in hatred for God and for the embodied beings that God’s Son decided to come to earth for, and ransom and bestow infinite blessings on.

They grit their teeth, so to speak, at the continual restrictions that are placed on their evil designs. Their successes in bringing down “inferior” human creatures would be about the only respite from the fires of hatred that consume them. Special wrath would arise over the heights to which one “inferior” woman, Mary the mother of Jesus, was raised – and was even predicted to crush the head of Satan himself. But as Aquinas says, the worst punishments of Hell could be postponed, possibly for aeons, while the devils are allowed to look for companions in the “darksome atmosphere” of the world before being cast down below.

Q: Do devils enjoy some kind of advantage in tempting humans? Can really smart humans avoid their tricks and deceits?

            In our battles against evil powers, what greater advantage could these enemies have than the knowledge – acquired over millennia from their observations of humankind – of just exactly what strategies will be most effective for lulling humans into grave sins ? For although the demons may not be completely sure whether so-and-so who died is in heaven or purgatory, they do know for sure who has been condemned to Hell, and – most important – exactly what sort of sins brought them there. They have a wealth of experience, and are able to recognize with some probability what sort of temptations will be most likely to entice and trap this or that person with this or that psychological weaknesses or strengths. Like the Intelligence networks of major nations of our world, this knowledge of tactics and vulnerabilities is an indispensable advantage for ultimate success.

Q: We hear it said that the greatest trick of devils is convincing people that they don’t exist. Is this true? Certainly, in the modern age fewer humans believe in the existence of devils than in ancient times. Maybe this is their trump card.

            Certainly, camouflage of all sorts is an important ingredient in all warfare. But with devils, we must not forget one important caution: Their downfall in the beginning was overbearing pride. Can a creature who has towering excellence and the pride to go with it resist, now and then, in manifesting his powers – whether in exorcisms, preternatural manifestations, even bona fide miracles? They can take on the visage of “angels of light.” But they have to be careful; mistakes can reveal their true identity to those who have developed spiritual discernment.

Still, it’s wise not to trust overmuch in our own powers in such warfare. Prayer (especially to St. Michael the Archangel), fasting, almsgiving, and humble trust in God are our best weapons.


*Image: St. Michael Vanquishing Satan by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), 1518 [Louvre, Paris]

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.