From Angels: A History
Now war arose in Heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the Earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in Heaven, saying, “Now the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. Rejoice then, O Heaven and you that dwell there! But woe to you, O Earth and sea, for the Devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:7-12)
This passage is from the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament. It paints a vivid picture of spiritual warfare between two forces, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The forces of light are the angels, but who are the forces of darkness? And where did they come from? The answer from this passage seems to be that the forces of darkness, led by the Devil, who is also called, “the Satan,” were originally good angels, but they rebelled and turned against God. The Archangel Michael, as military commander of the angelic army, drives the bad angels from Heaven. This is good news for Heaven but bad news for the Earth, as the bad angels now prowl the Earth trying to cause trouble for human beings. Nevertheless, the author of the book of revelation does not intend any equivalence between the Creator and the Devil. For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there is only one Creator, and the angels are creatures. If the Devil and his army are fallen angels, then the Devil also is a creature. This is shown by the fact that the Devil directly fights (and loses) against the Archangel Michael. There is no direct fight between God and the Devil.
These “fallen angels” are also called evil spirits, unclean spirits, or more simply demons. In the Greek world the word, daimon, was a positive word referring to supernatural creatures midway between gods and human beings. A daimon was someone’s spirit, genius, or inspiration. Aristotle called the state of perfect human happiness, eudaimonia – having a good daimon. This word is not far from the meaning of angel. However, the word daimon took on a very different and much darker meaning for Jews. This was colored by a clash between Judaism and Hellenistic (Greek) culture.
The background to this culture clash was the success of Alexander the Great in creating an empire stretching from Egypt to India. The Seleucid Empire lasted 300 years, and its influence lasted many centuries longer, in some ways to the present day. It caused Hellenistic ideas and the Greek language to spread throughout the ancient world. However, the relationship between Judaism and Hellenistic culture was not always happy. In 175 BCE Judea was under the control of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. He decided to enforce Hellenistic culture and to forbid the Jewish religion. This resulted in a vicious persecution, which was followed by a Jewish rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus. These events are the topic of the books of Maccabees, the first two of which are included in Roman Catholic Bibles. They are sometimes included in Protestant Bibles in the apocrypha.
In the context of the Maccabean revolt, the Greek word daimon became synonymous with evil spirits and with idolatry. The original positive meaning of the word “demon” was thus inverted, and this inversion was shaped by the experience of persecution in the name of religion. This is fitting, for just as a demon is an angel that has become vicious, so a persecuting religion is a religion that has become vicious. When religion goes bad, it can go very bad indeed. The demonic is the corruption of something that was once positive, powerful, and holy. Philip Pullman has sought to revive the old positive meaning of daemon. This attempt usefully reminds us that categories of thought can shift and should be subject to criticism. Nevertheless, it is useful to have a word for a malicious spirit, and this is sure to remain the ordinary meaning of the word “demon.”
Paul the apostle, in one of his letters, encourages Christians to Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the Heavenly places. Notice that Paul uses the language of warfare: “armor” and “contending” against “principalities” and “spiritual hosts [armies] of wickedness.” The Devil and his angels are an enemy army and Christians should expect to come under attack.
In the Middle Ages, Christians felt it was very important to be clear that demons had once been good angels and had fallen through their own free will. This was stated authoritatively at a council of the church: The Devil and the other demons were indeed created by God, good by nature, but they became bad through themselves; human beings, however, sinned at the suggestion of the Devil. (Creed of Lateran IV) Christians at that time wanted to make clear their belief that the world and everything in it was created by God and that, when it was created, it was very good. They rejected the idea that there were two gods: a good god and an equally powerful bad god who were constantly struggling against each other. For Christians the Devil is not a bad god but is a good creature that has gone off the rails and turned against his Creator.