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Sunday 29 September 2024 Saint Michael and All Angels

The Salvation of Satan?

Genesis 28:10-17, Revelation 12:7-12, John 1:47-51

By Bethany Austin
Anglican ordinand

Context: Eucharist with a congregation of 50, diverse in age and culture

Aim: to consider the surprising goodness of God


Today, on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we read one of the two passages in the Bible that mentions St. Michael and some angels. He is in heaven, at war with the dragon, and he fights with his angels. But this isn’t the feast of St. Michael and Some Angels, or St. Michael and His Angels. It is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The dragon has his angels too. Are we celebrating those as well?

The reredos in our church has six archangels, which is an unusual number of archangels. There are two angels named in the Bible: Michael and Gabriel. To get a third angel, we look in the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit and find Raphael. For a fourth, we can consult the apocryphal book of Esdras to find Uriel. To make five, we add the mysterious Tamadael, who is an angel to discuss another time, but for many, the most surprising of our six archangels is Samael: aka Satan.


If the surprising presence of Satan in the art of our church is troubling for you, then you are in very good company. For most Christian thinkers throughout history, Satan is the very personification of evil, one whose total destruction will be seen in the coming of the kingdom. For some others though, notably including St. Gregory of Nyssa, Satan not only can be saved, nor only will be, but must be.

For Gregory of Nyssa, the fact that Satan will be saved is a corollary of God’s perfect goodness. Roughly, he argues that Genesis tells us that God saw that everything created was good, and to say that anything cannot be redeemed is to say that, in the end, God’s goodness is not sufficient.

The mechanism for the salvation of Satan proposed by St. Gregory uses the analogy of a baited fishhook. In it, Satan’s chief aim is to devour humans in his deathly stomach. Christ’s perfect humanity is the bait which Satan, as with a ravenous fish, gulps down along with the fishhook of his divinity. This divinity shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, and thus the deathly evil of Satan is overcome, and he is reeled back to God, the divine angler of angels.

Perhaps we can understand some of this from Christ’s words to Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew) in today’s gospel reading. Christ identifies himself with the ladder seen by Jacob at Beth-El and says that the angels of God will be seen ascending and descending on him. Is this image of Christ the ladder the same as St. Gregory’s image of Christ the fishing tackle? Are Satan and his angels among those angels of God, ascending and descending on the son of man, or is their direction purely the descending of their casting down by St. Michael?

So we have two possibilities: the mainstream position of Satan’s ultimate destruction, and Gregory of Nyssa’s possibility of salvation. It may seem like a lofty academic argument for theologians with too much time on their hands. We may as well be engaging in other classic Michaelmas arguments of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’, or ‘can angels fly and if so do they have wings?’

The stakes of this question are properly fundamental and important to each of us though. The question at the heart of this is: ‘How good is God’s goodness?’ and the answer, as always, seems to be in Jesus. It is a mysterious question, as all questions worth asking are, and thus doesn’t require or even allow a straightforward answer. More important than finding an answer, or even than seeking one, is asking the question with a readiness to be surprised.

This Michaelmas, I encourage you to open yourself up to being surprised by God. The goodness of God is always surprising, as Samael behind the altar would attest. If the goodness of God is even hidden in Satan, how much more so is it hidden in your own life? The only guarantee is that when you see it, it will surprise you.

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