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A Primordial Catastrophe
It’s hard to understand how beings, once full of light and strength, could reject their original purpose in God’s created order
Today, I delve into the intriguing topic of how some angels fell and became corrupted. This reflection forms the third installment in our ongoing series on navigating the experience of temptation in the Threefold Way. Stay tuned for the fourth installment, arriving in just two weeks.
The “principalities and powers,” the Christian tradition tells us, are a group of corrupted angels, known popularly as demons, highly rational spirits, diabolical forces.
St. Irenaeus, a leading Christian theologian of the 2nd century, believed that the creation of human beings triggered the angelic fall, that envy somehow found a way into their hearts.
The author of Hebrews tells us that angels were created to be serving spirits sent to help those who would inherit salvation (Heb 1:14). In other words, their purpose, their telos, was to flourish into powerful allies for our transformation into the loving likeness of God. But, like we said, a mutinous band rejected that:
Choosing to enslave, instead of serve. And in this way, inverted their telos: becoming the served ones, rather than the serving ones.
No one knows exactly how that happened, how they warped into their diabolical shape. It’s hard to understand how beings, once full of light and strength, could reject their original purpose in God’s created order.
On second thought, maybe it’s not.
Wasn’t their pattern, ours? Didn’t we both reject our telos: us choosing not to cultivate the likeness of God, and them choosing not to help? Didn’t we both experience a kind of falling away: theirs first, ours second?
Yes, we saw it in the heavens (Ezk 28:17-18), we saw it in the garden (Gen 3:5), and we see it in our own lives.
Rejecting your telos, it turns out, is always possible for rational creatures. It doesn’t matter if you’re a human being made in the image of God or an archangel wrapped in power and light.
Our races: the angelic and the human, are bound one to another in a kind of cosmic symmetry: human beings causing the angelic fall, and they causing ours.
The Truth Spoken by the Serpent
While we’re talking about falls, here’s something else that puzzled me about Adam and Eve in the garden:
If they were created perfect, why did they fall?
And this was another misconception I needed to purge.
Adam and Eve were not created perfect; they were created for perfection.
In other words, the first family came out of God’s hands more like an acorn, and less like an oak — meaning their lives were meant to sink deep into divine soil and grow heavenward.
They were pulsing with possibility.
We’ll say more about New Testament perfection in a future post, but for now, what I needed to recognize, was that the author of Genesis was not presenting me with a picture of a perfected world, but an infant one, a developing world, a world that was going somewhere.
The reason my misguided notion of Adam and Eve's original perfection was so unhelpful, was because it veiled the human telos from my eyes. If Adam and Eve were perfect, then they didn’t need to cultivate virtue.
Thankfully, I discovered this was wrong.
Even if Adam and Eve would’ve never sinned, they still would’ve had to cultivate virtue. They weren’t created with it, they were created for it.
As St. Irenaeus explained:
“Though created in a state of innocence and did not know good and evil, infant humanity had the natural capacity to grow into full maturity in God. “You shall be like God,” though spoken by the serpent, was indeed the promise of God – but to be actualized through obedience, not disobedience. The serpent offered a shortcut.”
Irenaeus was right, Adam and Eve were not created virtuous; they were created innocent — not mature, but immature, unripe, raw, under-developed.
Innocence is a wonderful thing, but it’s not a virtue.
It can be breathtaking in its openness and simplicity, but when you get to the center of it, it’s really just a nice form of ignorance. It’s living with very little knowledge, which is precisely what we need to flourish, especially the knowledge of goodness — which by nature has to include its absence — evil.
This is the rich symbolism buried within the garden story. The prohibition to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was God’s way of training the first family to choose wisely.
This was their resistance training.
Every time they passed the tree (centered in the garden) and refused it, they were making a choice, a choice that was shaping their habits, a choice that was chiseling their character, a choice that was actually — by degree — producing that knowledge within them.
Adam and Eve were right to want to become like God. This, after all, was their human telos, the truth spoken by the serpent. But they were wrong in the way they went about acquiring it. The serpent employed a typical temptation, promising to deliver what they truly want, but lying about how to actually get it — to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, he mixed a little truth with a lie and made it stronger.
Adam and Eve’s great miscalculation — and I think it’s the most enticing temptation — using the immediacy of the natural world to gain a supernatural end. The first family stumbled in the garden, not because of what the fruit was, but because of how they went about getting it.
Eve, and Adam with her, grabbed for what can only grow, reached for what only ripens.
By devouring the fruit, they rejected their purpose — everlasting cultivation — our divine likeness growing eternally stronger, brighter, clearer. They vetoed formation, the patient acquisition of virtue. The day-by-day life with God that enables it.
They tried taking in an instant what’s meant to be apportioned forever.
This is what the story of Adam and Eve tells us:
There are no shortcuts to acquiring the divine likeness. Only the full route will do. Only a long obedience in the same direction will develop it within us.
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