Elder Paisios once fasted and prayed for two weeks for the eternal salvation of the devil. While praying he saw a dog’s head sticking his tongue out and mocking him. Paisios concluded from this incident that “God is ready to accept the demons provided they repent, but they themselves do not want their salvation.”
Met Kallistos Ware tells the story of a four hour car journey he once had with a Greek archbishop. Hoping to enjoy a long conversation on the topic, he asked the Archbishop, “If it is possible that the devil, who must surely be a very lonely and unhappy person, may eventually repent and be saved, why do we never pray for him?” The hierarch peremptorily responded, “Mind your own business.” End of discussion. Ware comments:
He was right. So far as we humans are concerned, the devil is always our adversary; we should not enter into any kind of negotiations with him, whether by praying for him or in other ways. His salvation is quite simply none of our business. But the devil has also his own relationship with God, as we learn from the prologue of the book of Job, when Satan makes his appearance in the heavenly court among the other “sons of God” (Job 1:6-2:7). We are, however, altogether ignorant of the precise nature of this relationship, and it is futile to pry into it. Yet, even though it is not for us to pray for the devil, we have no right to assume that he is totally and irrevocably excluded from the scope of God’s mercy. (“Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in The Inner Kingdom, pp. 202-203)
I am with Met Kallistos on this completely. We know nothing about the nature of angelic beings. God has not seen fit to speak to us of the salvation of Satan. God did not assume angelic nature and die on a cross for him and his fellow angels. Perhaps the saints and holy elders may safely pray for the salvation of Satan and his minions; but I know that I am not called to do so. I am too weak and sinful. Except for renouncing devils and praying for defense against them, they are truly none of my business. It is therefore with some reticence that I write this particular blog article. I’m not sure if this is spiritually dangerous territory, but it is certainly territory in which few of us are called to travel.
But one who did travel in this territory was St Isaac the Syrian. As we have already seen in this series, the fallen angels are as much the objects of God’s infinite love as are we human sinners. In Isaac’s judgment we cannot speak about the one without speaking about the other. God loves Satan and the demons, and he wills their salvation:
Nor are we able to say that the love of the Creator is diminished towards those rational beings who have become demons as a result of their demonic action, and is any less than the fulness of love which He has towards those who remain in the angelic state; or that it is less for sinners than for those who are justly named righteous. This is because the divine Nature is not affected by what happens and by opposition, nor does there spring up within it any causal stirring which takes its origin from creation, and which is not to be found with Him from eternity; not does He have a kind of love which originates as a result of events which take place in time.
Rather, everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect. For it was not with an adventitious love that He had, without any beginning, the stirring that initiated the establishment of the world. He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen.
And it is clear that He does not abandon them the moment they fall, and that demons will not remain in their demonic state, and sinners will not remain in their sins; rather, He is going to bring them to a single equal state of perfection in relationship to His own Being—in a state in which the holy angels are now, in perfection of love and a passionless mind. He is going to bring them into that excellency of will, where it will not be as though they were curbed and not [free], or having stirrings from the Opponent then; rather, they will be in a state of excelling knowledge, with a mind made mature in the stirrings which partake of the divine outpouring which the blessed Creator is preparing in His grace; they will be perfected in love for Him, with a perfect mind which is above any aberration in all its stirrings. (Second Part II.40.2-4)
I have quoted St Isaac at length because I want all to see that St Isaac does indeed prophesy the ultimate salvation of the demons. His argument is identical to the argument he has offered for the salvation of humanity: God’s love does not change; it is immutable and impassible. It is not affected by what happens within the creaturely realm. Even after one of his creatures, whether angelic or human, has separated himself from God through pride and disobedience, God continues to love him with the same love that he possessed before all the ages. And just as God made eternal provision to save the obstinately wicked through the mystery of Gehenna, so God has made eternal provision to ultimately restore Lucifer and the fallen angels to perfect love. How this is possible St Isaac does not tell us. But in a mystery the Lord will overcome the demonic resistance and restore the angels to himself.
Isaac even speculates that the fallen angels may be elevated to an even more brilliant noetic level than the unfallen angels:
Maybe they will be raised to a perfection even greater than that in which the angels now exist; for all are going to exist in a single love, a single purpose, a single will, and a single perfect state of knowledge; they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love, even if some divine dispensation [i.e., Gehenna] may in the meantime be effected for reasons known to God alone, lasting for a fixed period, decreed by Him in accordance with the will of His wisdom. (II.40.5]
Who can put limits on the power of the Father’s love? Who can fathom the wisdom of the Creator? Who can envision the wondrous reality of the Kingdom in which angels and humans will be united as a single choir in praise of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
We may wonder how Isaac can assert his opinion so confidently, given the testimony of the Book of Revelation: “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev 20:10). One reason he can be so confident is that this book was not included in the 7th century Syrian canon of the Bible, the Peshitta. Hence we can only speculate on how he might have interpreted the verse. But we have already noted in our blog series one aspect of the holy mystic’s interpretation of Holy Scripture: he does not remain at the surface level of meaning. The Scriptures are an icon of God. We cannot and must not simply state the “plain” meaning of the Bible; rather we must, in prayer and meditation, penetrate through the text to the spiritual truths and realities the words intend. Isaac was not a practitioner of the allegorical method that had been popularized by Origen; but like Origen he knew that the truth of Scripture could only be apprehended by moving through the biblical letter to God himself, or perhaps alternatively stated, by allowing God to reveal to the contemplative the deeper truths of Scripture.
Regardless how a critical-historical critic might exegete Rev 20:20, the verse cannot pose an insurmountable problem for St Isaac, for he reads the Bible through a hermeneutic of love, the very love that he found embodied in the crucified Christ and which he transformatively experienced in prayer and contemplation. It is this love that was foundational for him, as we have seen over and over again. The Syrian mystic invites us to read Scripture with him, to read it in love and through love. If we dare to do so, if we dare to embrace the hermeneutic of love, if we dare to follow Isaac on his journey into the divine, we may find God surprising us in ways we had never dreamed. We may even be given to see that God will most certainly find a way, a way beyond our conceiving, to convert Satan, overcome and redeem all evil, and achieve the consummation of the entire creation.
No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal Kingdom, which is prepared for all worlds. Because of that goodness of His nature by which He brought the universe into being and then bears, guides and provides for the worlds and all created things in His immeasurable compassion, He has devised the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven for the entire community of rational beings—even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising of all to the same level. And we say this in order that we too may concur with the magisterial teaching of Scripture. (II.40.7)
The God of love will consummate his creation in the trinitarian community of love. He has made provision for both demonic and human evil, which he foresaw before the ages. This is the deep truth of Holy Scripture. God’s love and grace will prove ultimately irresistible, even for Satan. As Waclaw Hryniewicz writes, commenting on St Isaac: “Sin and Gehenna will be ultimately abolished, although their end is a mystery surpassing human understanding. The final outcome of the history of the created world must correspond to the beauty of the beginning and to the goodness of God. If we suppose the truly eternal punishment of sinners and demons, this would mean that the creation of the world was an enormous failure and mistake. God is able to overcome, by His goodness and beauty, every evil, even the opposition of the devil himself” (“Universalism of Salvation,” in The Challenge of Hope, p. 85).
This matter is beyond me. It is none of my business. And yet perhaps it is. Devils are fellow creatures. They are beyond my comprehension and sympathy, much as sociopaths and psychopaths are beyond my comprehension and sympathy. All I know is that demons are dangerous and destructive. I have no love for them. I know they were responsible for the death of my son Aaron. Yet as alien as they are to my experience, as deeply as they have injured me and my family, they and I are bound to the one God by our very creation. And St Isaac teaches me that they are the objects of God’s love. And Jesus the Incarnate Son teaches me to pray for my enemies. And St Silouan teaches me that “He who does not love his enemies, does not have God’s grace.” Satan is my enemy—not only my enemy but the enemy of my family and friends and Church. I cannot pray for him, but perhaps I can be glad that St Isaac does. I must pray for a merciful heart.
And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God. (Ascetical Homilies I.71, p. 491)