So, back to our question: is it possible, and is it likely, for a demon to be forgiven?
This question, of course, as I said in the last post, is akin to the question of whether a dead person can repent and be forgiven. The two cases have some similarities, and some differences. In both cases, I’d say, the response of God is the same: that his nature is always to have mercy, as the Prayer of Humble Access says, and that He would never turn anyone away who honestly seeks to repent and to change one’s life. I don’t believe that even death can mark an irreversible boundary beyond which the mercy of God no longer applies. One of the consistent themes in the writings of the mystics, in the patristic and medieval periods, was this: that the mercy of God extends, in some measure, even into the depths of Hell. These were not sappy universalists or fluffy-bunny, Kum-Ba-Ya hippies. These were people who claimed to have seen, with their own eyes, Heaven and Hell, and described Hell often in grisly, gory and scatological detail. Yet in one after another of the old visions of hell- which was a very common genre of literature in the medieval period- there are hints of God giving ‘refreshment’ to the souls in hell, of granting them a reprieve from their sufferings, and perhaps that’s a hint that His mercy extends even beyond the grave. We know that Christ descended into Hell on Holy Saturday, to preach to the dead, and if he did so once he could do so again. St. John says of heaven, the gates of that city shall never be closed by day, and there shall be no night there and if this is true of the dead so too it must be true of the demons. I believe that no soul- human, angelic, demonic, whatever- that truly seeks to love God, and one’s neighbour, will be denied salvation. And this is true not just now, but into eternity.
However, this leads us to another, quite different question. It may well be true that even a demon, if they should repent, would be allowed into heaven. But is it at all likely that the demons, whatever they are, will choose to repent? Forgiveness is a process with two steps, one dependent on God and one dependent on our own free will, and all the divine mercy conceivable could not help a soul that was truly unwilling to repent. And here, I think, the answer is likely to be negative. While it’s possible for any being to repent, for that’s the meaning of free will, it is, I think, very unlikely. The demons have been evil for so long, and have allowed evil to eat away the very core of their being, that it’s very unlikely that such a completely fallen being, given over to evil so totally, will ever have the total change of heart necessary for salvation.
I have no personal experience with demons, and God willing, I never will. We should all hope that we never get the kind of ‘empirical, testable, repeatable’ experience with demons that Lance mentioned in the other thread, because that would be extremely physically dangerous at best, and extremely spiritually dangerous at worst. Scripture and tradition, and the collected experience of many, many people- mystics, visionaries, religious leaders, and ordinary folks over something like twenty-five centuries- are unanimous that the devil, and all his legions, are very, very evil beings, evil to a degree that, in this world, we can’t even conceive of. But I think two of the best semi-contemporary explorations of the degree of evil that is present at the core of one of the infernal spirits, and of how difficult it would be for such a being ever to be saved, are explicitly fictional writings, from the middle of last century. They’re from two cherished books of mine, and from two of the relatively few books from the last century to deal explicitly with demons. (Norman Mailer’s ‘The Castle in the Forest’ is another one). One of these literary treatments is from C.S. Lewis’ book ‘Perelandra’, and the other is from James Blish’s pair of novellas from the 1960s and 1970s, entitled ‘Black Easter / The Day After Judgment’. I’ll talk about the second book, first.
‘Black Easter’ and its sequel are fairly little-known, but they’re very good books in spite of that. That being said, they are extremely grim and disturbing books to read, and one should be careful before picking them up. Not because of graphic sex or violence, but because the subject matter is extremely disturbing. Blish was himself an agnostic, but he was fascinated by Christianity, and he set out in this pair of books to explore what the world would be like if the demons not only existed, but if, in addition, what the black magicians had claimed was in fact true, and the demons could be reliably called up, summoned, and asked to do things on command. His conclusion was that it would pretty much s*ck. In spite of the elaborate, florid language and the flamboyant symbols and pageantry involved in the book, he makes it clear that there’s nothing romantic or transgressively alluring about magic. His vision of the demons is that they’re more or less as brutal, as grotesque, and as unattractive as Mafia contract killers, except infinitely more so: and what makes the book even more chilling is that he makes it clear that the hell that these demons create for themselves, unlike the hell on earth created by human criminals and tyrants, is eternal.
In one especially creepy passage, Blish describes the black magician, Theron Ware, summoning up a demon named Marchosias from hell at the bidding of his client, an American arms dealer. He asks the demon, rather casually, to tempt a scientist- who’s portrayed in the book as a good and devout person- into suicide, and then promises that as his reward he can feast on the scientist’s soul eternally. Not because the fellow has done anything wrong, but just as a test of his powers.
“That’s better,” Ware said. “Now I charge thee, by those Names I have named and on pain of those torments thou hast known, to regard the likeness and demesne of that mortal whose eidolon I hold in my mind, and that when I release thee, thou shalt straightaway go unto him, not making thyself known unto him, but revealing, as it were to come from his own intellectual soul, a vision and understanding of that great and ultimate Nothingness which lurks behind those signs he calls matter and energy, as thou wilt see it in his private forebodings, and that thou remainest with him and deepen his despair without remittal, until such time as he shall despise his soul for its endeavors, and destroy the life of his body.”
The casual and flippant way that the magician and the demon, Marchosias, converse about murder- and this is worse than murder, in that its consequences are purportedly eternal- reminds us, again, of what hell is like. There’s nothing romantic or alluring about it: it’s a place of unremitting hatred, treachery, and contempt for all that’s good, which Dante symbolizes in his horrible image of two rivals in the lake of ice, chewing each other’s flesh for ever. Blish, however, is doing something else here, as well. He has his magician mention, in an off-hand manner, that this particular demon ‘hopes to return to the Celestial hierarchy after twelve hundred years’, but that he would be deceived in that hope. But in spite of his supposed wish to repent and be forgiven, the demon gladly assents to the act of supernatural murder, without a second thought. Blish describes him as having a voice ‘lacking all resonance’, that sounded like hot ashes, and in these images of destruction, hollowness, and of something burnt down to its last embers, he gives us some idea of what Christian tradition has held that the demons are: beings of nearly total spite and hatred, in which billions of years of feeding on their own pride and self-regard has burnt away nearly every vestige of love, and nearly every place in which the grace of God could get a foothold. In the souls of the demons, it isn’t so much a branch that God could save from burning if he chose: it’s more a matter of the branch having burnt itself out, and of only the ashes being left.
C. S. Lewis describes the demon which possesses Weston, in his book ‘Perelandra’, in rather similar terms. In one powerful passage, his hero, Ransom, follows the demonically possessed Weston through the forest, tracing him by following a path of mutilated frogs (the demon, out of pure spite, enjoys mutilating and killing the frogs in this unfallen wilderness in which humans and animals are not yet at odds). He finds him, finally, and looks into his face, and the experience is so horrible that he faints. Lewis describes the possessed Weston- and through him, the demon- as having something curiously akin to innocence, in its face. It has passed so completely beyond the struggle between good and evil, has so completely and finally won the victory over whatever was good in its soul, that it can barely even conceive that there could be anything wrong in torturing the frogs. “It was beyond vice,” says Lewis, “as the Lady was beyond virtue.” Though it gazed through a human face, Ransom sees nothing human in it: it was as alien to a living human being as a corpse is alien. Here, too, we have a hint of what the demons are like: creatures in whom the very last vestige of love and friendship have been eradicated, by their own exercise of free will, and by billions of years of hatred and pride eating away the very foundations of the soul.
Can one conceive of such a being ever choosing to repent? It’s possible, and of course we can conceive of it. But is it likely? I’d have to say no. And here we come back to what that priest said in his homily on St. Michael’s Day. We perceive, said the priest, through our senses, and thus our perceptions are inevitably clouded. We know only dimly, and in our imperfect knowledge and sensations, we try to make decisions about what we want to do or be. But just as our flesh mediates our perceptions, so too it mediates our decisions, and it acts as a brake on our ability to truly be as good- or as evil- as we want to be. Think about the times our flesh and its impulses inhibits our ability to be as hard-working, as loving, as pure, as unselfish, as generous as we would want to be. Our hunger tempts us into buying a slice of pie instead of saving that money and giving it away; our sloth keeps us from working as hard as we should; our lusts tempt us into all manner of sins. But likewise, the fact that we have a body, and that our flesh is not totally obedient to our will, limits not only how good we can be, but how evil we can be as well. How often have we wanted to do something wrong, and some visceral sense of guilt or shame prevents us? How often have tiredness, or affection, or other physical passions interfered with our ability to keep set on a path to do something we know we shouldn’t? And in this sense, perhaps, one could conceive of our physical nature, which we do not share with angels or demons, as a blessing as well as a curse.
Angels and demons do not have bodies, and they don’t have the weight of the flesh limiting what they can do, and acting as a brake on what they can do with their souls. When they choose to do something, or to become something, they have no inertial effect of the flesh dragging them down. They can truly become as good, or as evil, as they choose (and they’ve had the entire lifetime of the universe to do it). When they want to be something, that they truly are. When Michael chose to be good, he truly chose that path, and carried it out, and nearly all vestige of temptation to evil was washed clean from his being: similarly, when the demons chose the path of evil, they got what they truly wanted, and virtually every tiny ledge in which divine grace and love could have found a foothold, was wiped clean away. When the angels choose something, unmediated by the senses, guided only by their innate wisdom and intuition, they truly choose it, with no hesitation: and when they set themselves on a path, with no inertial weight of the body slowing them down, they get to where they want to go. They can become what they truly seek: and this is both their reward and their punishment.
From the beginning of Christianity, Christians have debated with each other about the nature of the flesh. Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that we are embodied, carnal beings? I’d say that the example of the rebel angels shows that it’s both. The fact that we are carnal creatures keeps us from being as good as Michael, but it also keeps us, even at our worst, from being as terrible as the fallen angels, and keeps alive in us enough indecision, and enough instability, that we are never truly beyond choosing to repent. In some sense, the fact that we have flesh and a body, by acting as a brake on our will, protects us from the full consequence of our moral choices, and prevents us from truly destroying everything within us that might act, some day, as a spur to repentance. In this way, we are fortunate compared to the demons, for whom repentance, if it is a possibility, is surely much, much harder than it is be for us.
That’s my thought for the day, on the eventual destiny of the fallen angels, demons, infernal spirits, or whatever have you. And I will just close with a reminder that ultimately, it’s better to know about these beings intellectually, in the abstract, than experientially. The less we know about them experientially, the better, and may we all, for the rest of our lives, be spared from having to actually interact with supernatural and personal evil. As the U. S. Government likes to say, most of the reality of the infernal kingdom is revealed to us (by tradition, scripture, and mystical experience) strictly on a need to know basis, and for most of us, most of the time, anything beyond the very basic (“Demons exist. Stay away from them”) is stuff we simply don’t need to know.