Lucifer and the Problem of Evil

Lucifer going to Earth to bring about evil

The Story of Lucifer

In the beginning, God created the angels, and none was more beloved to Him than Lucifer. He was Venus, that morning star that shone brighter than any other. He was the light bringer, and the light he shed made everything beautiful. God was most pleased with his creation.

But children grow up. Vassals long for power and property of their own. So it was with this shining star, though he was a favorite. Maybe the problem was that God had favorites at all. The golden child can be most cruel. Charismatic, intelligent, successful, but also lustful, devious, manipulative, and most importantly, full of pride, Lucifer wanted what God had, and he gathered a host of disaffected angels who rallied behind him.

Who knows what motivated them? They may have wanted more than God offered them. Maybe they didn’t want to be controlled by a benevolent parent, anymore. They probably thought they deserved to own the universe. And why not? Princes depose their fathers. Children become more glorious and powerful than their parents. Sometimes our progeny outshine us. It’s the order of things for one generation to die out so the next can rule.

But a god does not die, so a god’s children must be eternally subservient. If Lucifer chafed under such a system, it’s understandable. Still, no matter how much Lucifer wanted supremacy, a god is too perfect to be overwhelmed, so the rebellious angel fell from the sky, his star-fire igniting the flames of Hell.

Lucifer, the Morning Star

Or so the story goes. The pieces of this Christian mythology come from a multitude of sources. There’s the Book of Revelation, where the “dragon” is defeated by the Archangel Michael:

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Revelation 12:7-9

There is a devil, you see, and that devil leads the forces of evil in a war against heaven. But there is no Lucifer. Not yet.

The story of this satanic angel was embellished by such 6th-century theologians as Augustine and Gregory the Great. An anonymous author, writing around 1,000 CE, penned a poem called “Genesis A” that describes how the angels were created, how Satan rose up in defiance, and how he and his fellow rebels were defeated by the brave and loyal angelic ones.

Then Dante wrote the Inferno, and Milton, Paradise Lost, and Lucifer was born, emblazoned like a star on the American imagination.

The King of Babylon

But where did this devil’s name come from? It’s not in Revelation, nor in any other canonical text. There is a text, however, often quoted to prove Lucifer’s existence. It comes from the book of Isaiah, and it has nothing to do with any devil, Lucifer or not.

The prophet is speaking of the Babylonian king who held the Jews captive for at least forty years. Once, he was a grand and powerful adversary, but he himself was eventually overthrown by the Persian emperor, Cyrus. This enemy of the Hebrew people was “brought down to the grave” (Isaiah 14:11).

About this king, Isaiah continues:

How you have fallen from heaven,

morning star, son of the dawn!

You have been cast down to the earth,

you who once laid low the nations!

You said in your heart,

“I will ascend to the heavens;

I will raise my throne

above the stars of God . . .”

But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,

to the depths of the pit.

Isaiah 14:12-13, 15 NIV
Lucifer going to Earth to bring about evil
“Satan on His Way to Bring about the Fall of Man,” by Gustave Doré

The Pride Before the Fall

So here we have it. If we ignore the poem’s previous verses, we can imagine that this creature Isaiah is talking about, this child of the dawn, could be an angel so filled with pride he cannot help but reach for heaven himself. When we get lost in our pride, what happens?

We fall, like the Babylonian king who fell into Hell.

Because we fear loss and death, we cling to what we have, and we often lust for more. We want more power, more wealth, more belongings, more adoration. In the pride that makes us think we deserve everything we have, we can turn us cruel and vindictive. If we have the strength and privilege to hold onto what we have, we can do despicable things. When that happens, we may wake up one day to discover we are trapped in a living hell.

So what makes us think that Isaiah’s poetry is about a divine being turning bad, rather than our all-too-human nature and the righteous wrath of God for those who fall prey to it? Where did this popular name for the devil come from?

The American Anti-Hero

The term “lucifer” is a Latin word for Venus or “light bringer.” It was used in the King James translation of the Bible because the Hebrew word in the Book of Isaiah—הֵילֵל—means “shining one” or “morning star.” [1] Dante and Milton fleshed out our understanding of this Lucifer. Milton in particular gave him form, purpose, and a tragic history. From both of these tales, we discover how our unfortunate desires can lure us away from being the light we were born to be. The satan serves as a metaphor for our own nature, revealing something of who we are and what we’re capable of doing.

It’s convenient, then, if we make the devil into a literal thing. By inventing a scapegoat for our inner pain and rage, a despicable creature who can be punished for all the bad thoughts and longings we ourselves feel, we get to pretend they don’t exist.

Having a demonic force to blame is also convenient because, that way, God gets to be all good, and good gets to be uncomplicated.

In his article about Milton’s Lucifer, Edward Simon points out that we, in the United States, have turned the fallen angel into an icon. He is a model for the charming and heartless villain-heroes of American movies and television who, like Isaiah’s King of Babylon, have a pride as magnificent as their brilliance. Their inflated belief in their superiority reveals itself in our American exceptionalism, our rugged individualism, our love of power, and our fascination with violence.

As Simon puts it, Lucifer—like the independent American male—“celebrates power for power’s sake.” Then, when his supremacy is threatened, he becomes cruel. He acts out the evil that lies, unacknowledged, in his heart. [2]

What Is Evil?

But what is evil? Maybe it’s an emptiness within us, a coldness in the center of our souls. Does evil skulk within our mind like an enemy scout, tempting us with those seven deadly sins of lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath, and, of course, pride? You could say evil is a tendency toward cruelty and corruption, but it can also be badness through-and-through, like the evil one who takes pleasure in nothing except the pain of others.

It’s easy to think of evil this way, because then we know it can’t be us. Evil resides outside of us.

That’s the nice thing about devils. We don’t have to own them. We can be good, and Lucifer can be bad. By creating a Satan, we can more easily pretend we are nearly divine. When we feel besieged by evil thoughts or impulses, we can blame something other than our own heart. How helpful, then, that Milton gave us Lucifer to hate. He holds all the evil within ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. Yet, the degree to which we refuse to accept responsibility for our feelings, thoughts, and actions, is the degree to which we will do evil.

If we believe strongly enough that we are pure, we will feel no compunction when we hurt someone. If we are good, then everything we do is good. Like pride, our righteousness can blind us to the truth. Evil can so twist our spirits that we will rationalize our acts of violence, calling them god-sanctioned justice. Secure in the belief that we are the anointed ones, we find it acceptable to manipulate the crowd, sow fear, lie, cheat, steal, and win at all costs. True evil is the refusal to accept that we can ever be wrong.

Evil Outside Us

Simon makes a chilling comparison between Milton’s description of this angelic “confidence man” and the American self-made man, the rugged individualist who sets out to take over the West, to make the world his own. He quotes D.H. Lawrence who, in his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, wrote, “The American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never melted.”

Sounds a lot like evil, and we, in the United States, find it fascinating. We even admire it. To us, it isn’t evil if it’s for a “good cause.” Maybe we’re spreading God’s word, or destroying the enemy, or asserting our dominance because we know we deserve to be in control. Our certainty makes us cruel. But we can’t see it, because who, after all, would choose to believe they were of Lucifer rather than of God? And the evil person knows that we can only be one or the other. Good and bad are never one.

So God becomes the being set apart, the wrathful Lord opposed to Satan. We need Lucifer, therefore, to blame for our misery. It is as if God split off part of Herself, the way we split our evil from our consciousness. This splitting leads, as we saw, to greater evil.

In our modern day, with our Humanist sensibilities, we want to empathize with those who do evil, seek the story behind their perfidy, feel their ache, analyze their trauma, even feel sorry for them. After all, how pitiable they are, for by destroying everything they touch, they also destroy themselves.

Evil Is Not Beautiful

But evil is not tender, nor sad, nor beautiful. No matter its guise, whether fair of face with a winsome smile, or clothed in the form of dragons and slobbering demons, whether it shows itself as a colorful rainbow, or touches us as softly as a blessing, evil is a lie. Evil pretends to be one thing, but is something else. Lucifer has a charming face, but so do narcissists and sociopaths who use their charisma to capture and control. They are as sinister as the void. Their charm is as hollow as the empty grave.

We like to think evil doesn’t really exist. Perhaps that’s why we try to understand the pain of the evil one, sympathize with her plight. Surely monsters don’t exist, so the evil one must just be a wounded child.

There’s truth in this. Infants are not born bullies, even if their parents do sometimes feel controlled by their cries. Something has to happen to us before we lose the heart that makes us humane. The ironic thing is, however, that if we do lose our heart, we won’t know it. At least, we won’t accept it. Instead, we will transfer our wrathful and murderous urges onto a mythical creature named Lucifer, or, if we don’t believe in God, then onto the “other,” the humans who get in our way, who don’t deserve the good things of life.

To Speak of Sin

The strong often tyrannize the powerless. As a country, we condone this, even relish it, because we cannot accept our own evil. If we are ever to be redeemed, we must acknowledge that Lucifer is not the only evil one. We must be willing to speak of sin, to call some things wrong, to acknowledge that the person we think a hero is sometimes a villain. Then we must stand up to the ones who would destroy the world’s grace. If we continue to externalize evil, though, we will fail. If we start by uncovering the demon who hides in the shadows of our own psyche, then perhaps we will see the evil in others without feeling the need to destroy them.

It’s not easy, knowing when to stand up against tyranny and when to empower the brutalized to stand up for themselves. Even harder is knowing how. At least if we know our own demons, we know we can make mistakes. Then we will take time to consider how to respond. It may be better to make a mistake sometimes, than to do nothing. After all, there isn’t one right answer, nor one wrong one.

Maybe the story of Lucifer can help us. The core sin he showed was pride. He acted not for the welfare of the world, nor for the good of the whole, but because he thought he should be in charge. Not only did he want power for power’s sake, but he thought his vision for the universe was better than God’s.

In the mind of some, his vision was better. Think of all those anti-heroes who save the world with their anger and mayhem because they see rot where no one else does. Maybe Lucifer was as smart as he was shiny.

Finding Redemption

Yet if we start believing that God is a tyrant who needs to be deposed, where will it end? We can’t always tell right from wrong. We fool ourselves. That’s why it’s important to pause when we feel outrage and righteousness. Then we can explore our thoughts and motivations, try to discern our goals. Do we want glory and prominence? Are we trying to find approval from our peers? Or are we trying to serve some god of love and grace, to follow a calling for peace and unity, to be the light we were born to be?

Evil is a disease of the heart and spirit. As such, it can only be healed with a love bigger than Lucifer’s cruelty. Maybe that means only God can make things right on earth, though our human love may be wider than we think.

Either way, we can start. We can accept that Lucifer is us, both the morning star and the demon. We can stop looking for devils in the world and face the evil that we do. This takes humility. It takes owning the dark and mysterious urges we feel toward pride and self-preservation. It takes honest examination to understand the ways we project our fear onto others and make enemies of them.

At the same time, to heal our soul wounds and build a world of peace and compassion, we must call on those angels of our better nature. Through them, we might find the path toward redemption. We might teach our demons how to love. Then, we might be able to bring others along with us. One day, perhaps, the world, too, will be redeemed, and Lucifer will be able to go home and become the light once again.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. “Lucifer,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucifer, accessed February 25, 2022.
  2. Simon, Edward, “What’s So ‘American’ About John Milton’s Lucifer?,” The Atlantic, March 16, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/whats-so-american-about-john-miltons-lucifer/519624/, accessed February 25, 2022.

Print by Gustave Doré, in the public domain

Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.