When and Why Does Satan Fall in Luke 10:18?

The Miltonian myth of Satan as an angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of Heaven in primordial times has no real grounding in the Bible, and yet it is the origin story that many—if not most—Christians regard as canonical. In the Old Testament, Satan operates as an obedient member of God’s heavenly court even as he roams the earth testing God’s followers. In Jubilees, he is the leader of the evil spirits who remain after the flood, permitted by God to tempt humans. Early Christianity incorporates Satan into a Middle Platonist matrix, imagining him to be the prince of the corrupt angels or demons who control the earth and lowest heavens. It is only the tradition we find in an apocryphal text, The Life of Adam and Eve, that moves Satan’s expulsion back to Eden and explains why it happened.

In discussions of whether the Edenic version has a biblical basis, people inevitably bring up a certain verse in Luke:

I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. (Luke 10:18b)

Taken without more context, it’s easy to see why this verse can be interpreted as confirming some version of Satan’s primordial expulsion. But is that what the verse is really talking about? Let’s take a closer look.

The Context of Luke 10:18

The tenth chapter of Luke describes the sending out of seventy (or seventy-two) apostles by Jesus to preach and heal the sick in various cities in advance of Jesus’ arrival. This narrative has no parallel in the other Gospels, although some distinctive phrases and sentences appear elsewhere in Matthew¹, and the non-original longer ending of Mark copies some of it.

In verse 17, the apostles return and report to Jesus, “In your name even the demons submit to us!” Presumably, this means that their attempts at healing have been a success. It is in response to hearing this report that Jesus makes his statement about the fall of Satan. It is offered as an explanation for the newfound success the apostles have had. With that context in mind, let’s look at verse 18 more closely.

James Tissot, He Sent them out Two by Two, 1886-1896, Brooklyn Museum
James Tissot, He Sent them out Two by Two, 1886-1896 (Brooklyn Museum)

Luke 10:18 and Its Grammatical Ambiguities

The Greek text and a typical translation are as follows:

εἶπεν δὲ αὐτοῖς· Ἐθεώρουν τὸν Σατανᾶν ὡς ἀστραπὴν ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ πεσόντα.
And he said to them: I beheld Satan fall like lightning from heaven.

There are two ambiguities to be aware of. First, do the words “from heaven” apply to Satan or to the lightning? The usual interpretation is that Satan fell from heaven like lightning, but an equally valid alternative is that Satan fell the way lightning falls from heaven (i.e., suddenly and irreversibly).² (Cf. Fitzmyer, 860.) This might allow Satan’s fall to be understood more metaphorically—as a defeat or loss of control—rather than spatially.

The second is that the main verb etheōroun can have the same form in the first person singular and third person plural. The identical verb form occurs in Mark 3:11, where it refers to unclean spirits.

καὶ τὰ πνεύματα τὰ ἀκάθαρτα, ὅταν αὐτὸν ἐθεώρουν, προσέπιπτον αὐτῷ….
When the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him.

It is possible that the wording of Luke 10:18 means not “I [Jesus] watched” but rather “they [the demons] watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” which works quite well as an explanation for why the demons submitted to the apostles. (See Hills 25ff.)

In other words, it is possible to interpret the whole statement as meaning something like “the demons saw their leader dethroned, and they now submit to apostles who invoke the name of Jesus” (Hills 25). However, the traditional interpretation still works fine for the rest of this analysis.

When Did Satan Fall?

Some interpreters assume that Jesus is speaking as a witness to the primordial fall of Satan, but it is very unlikely that this is correct. Joseph Fitzmyer, in his highly regarded commentary, flatly rejects this possibility, and similarly rules out any connection with the primeval narrative in Genesis:

Certainly to be excluded is the meaning of it as a vision of the preexistent Jesus, since his preexistence is not something that Luke reckons with in his Gospel….

The fall has nothing to do with Gen 6:1-4, even though later rabbinic tradition often thought of the fall of Satan as connected with that passage, probably in an effort to explain the strange Nephilim, “fallen ones” … which appear there. (Fitzmyer 862) 

Fitzmyer also dismisses the possibility of an eschatological vision like we find in Revelation. I agree that these interpretations make little sense within the narrative. What would such a vision have to do with the seventy apostles completing a successful mission trip?

Fitzmyer thinks the verse describes a vision of Satan being deposed from his role as heavenly prosecutor at a time “not stated”, but I find this answer somewhat unsatisfactory and generally inconsistent with how early Christians seem to have understood Satan. The answer should make sense in its narrative context, and it should be consistent with an event that Luke’s earthly Jesus (or the demons) could have observed. Furthermore, nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus report on a vision he has seen (Bultmann 108).

One possibility is that the mission of the seventy apostles itself brings about the fall of Satan. This is the interpretation proposed by Hills, who writes, “The fall of Satan is accomplished as the missionaries’ exorcistic power is exercised; and the source of this power…is Jesus himself (9.1; 10.19).” (Hills, 34) In other words, by authorizing his followers to preach, exorcise, and heal in his name, Jesus has ended Satan’s hold on the world. Jesus’ instruction to the seventy to preach that the kingdom of God is now at hand (10:9) — an element lacking in the previous chapter when Jesus and the Twelve carried out their own healings and exorcisms — reinforces the understanding that a significant shift is underway (cf. Barker 221).

Alternately, 10:18 might be a reference back to the temptation in chapter 4, when Jesus defeated the Devil’s attempts to thwart his mission.³ However, Hills points out that departing from Jesus “until an opportune time” (4:13) does not really fit the metaphor of falling from heaven (Hills, 35). 

It is probably significant that this triumph over Satan and the demons happens with the mission of the seventy. The seventy, of course, represent the seventy nations of the world. Their authorization by Jesus to preach and perform miracles — which was previously restricted to the Twelve (i.e., the Jews) — heralds a watershed moment in Luke’s narrative, representing the transition of God’s kingdom from Israel to the Gentiles. This is a theme Luke has explored elsewhere in his Gospel.

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles, 1886-1896, Brooklyn Museum
James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles, 1886-1896 (Brooklyn Museum)

Satan’s Fall and Realized Eschatology

According to some exegetes, Luke “presents the ministry of Jesus as ‘realized eschatology’” (Dodd 35). For example, in chapter 11, in Luke’s version of the Beelzebul pericope, Jesus says:

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Luke 11:20)

Similar sentiments permeate Luke’s parables. This means that for Luke, the eschaton and salvation of the righteous is not a future event that believers must continue to wait for, but a transition that has already occurred (or begun to occur) with the arrival of Jesus and his dominion over the demons. Fitzmyer, though reluctant to fully commit to this view, acknowledges this theme: “There is a sense in which one has to admit that even for Luke the kingdom has arrived in Jesus’ preaching (and activity).” (Fitzmyer, 922).

This brings up an interesting connection with Mark. As I pointed out in a recent article, Luke had a tendency of taking ideas and phrasing from Mark and transferring them into new settings. In this case, the prepositional phrase “from heaven” appears only once in Mark — in chapter 13, the Markan apocalypse that describes the downfall of the demonic powers in heaven.

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon, will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:24-25)

Luke’s parallel in chapter 21 omits some key elements, including the phrase “from heaven”:

And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves. (Luke 21:25)

Luke hasn’t actually gotten rid of the phrase “from heaven” and the downfall of the demonic powers. Rather, he’s moved them to 10:18 and the mission of the seventy. In other words, the victory that takes place at the future eschaton in Mark becomes an event fulfilled during the ministry of Jesus in Luke.

Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Another reason Luke 10:18 is frequently misunderstood might be due to the modern conception of heaven as a single realm of bliss where God, the angels, and the saints reside. In early Christianity, however, heaven had multiple levels, with corrupt angels and demons inhabiting the lower levels. Satan was thought to rule the lowest heavenly realm,⁴ where the struggle between the demons and the righteous was waged (Lockett 156). That is the heaven from which Satan is dethroned in Luke — not the highest heaven where God and the archangels reside.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would make the following observations about Luke 10:18.

  • Satan’s “fall from heaven” is not a reference to the myth of Satan as a rebellious angel expelled from heaven in primordial times, nor does it describe a vision of a future expulsion from heaven.
  • It does describe the dethronement of Satan — his loss of dominion over the lowest heavenly realm and the demons.
  • This fall takes place during the ministry of Jesus — and probably when he grants his authority to the seventy apostles. The statement is made by Jesus to explain why the apostles were able to successfully command the demons.
  • There’s no way to be certain whether the verse describes what Jesus saw or what the demons saw. The former is the traditional interpretation, but the latter makes somewhat better sense of the narrative.
  • For Luke, this event replaces the falling of the stars from heaven and the future downfall of demonic powers in Mark.

Footnotes

  1.  I am in the minority of people who believe Matthew knew and borrowed from Luke. For a more detailed explanation, you can read some of my articles on the Synoptic Problem.
  2.  This example uses the earliest known Greek text. There is significant variation in word order among manuscripts, suggesting that copyists weren’t sure which interpretation was correct.
  3.  Hills points out that the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies connects the fall of Satan with the forty-day temptation of Jesus (in 11.35.5). See Hills, 35, n. 1.
  4.  The lowest heaven generally includes the sky (air) up to the moon in ancient Hellenistic thought.

Works Cited

5 thoughts on “When and Why Does Satan Fall in Luke 10:18?

  1. The authors of the NT recast the OT scriptures as entirely prophetic of the life and times of Jesus, the Messiah. So it is not an aberration for Jesus to allude to the words of Isaiah addressed to “the King of Babylon” as pertaining to the Satan:

    [Isaiah 14:9-19 NASB20] (9) “Sheol below is excited about you, to meet you when you come; It stirs the spirits of the dead for you, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. (10) “They will all respond and say to you, ‘Even you have become weak as we, You have become like us. (11) ‘Your pride [and] the music of your harps Have been brought down to Sheol; Maggots are spread out [as your bed] beneath you And worms are your covering.’ (12) “How you have fallen from heaven, You star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who defeated the nations! (13) “But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, And I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. (14) ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ (15) “Nevertheless you will be brought down to Sheol, To the recesses of the pit. (16) “Those who see you will stare at you, They will closely examine you, [saying,] ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, Who shook kingdoms, (17) Who made the world like a wilderness And overthrew its cities, Who did not allow his prisoners to [go] home?’ (18) “All the kings of the nations lie in glory, Each in his own tomb. (19) “But you have been hurled out of your tomb Like a rejected branch, Clothed with those killed who have been pierced with a sword, Who go down to the stones of the pit Like a trampled corpse.

    That’s how the NT works. Everything is the OT is a veiled foretelling of the Messiah and his times and everything in the NT is an unveiling of that veiled foretelling, in the life and times of Jesus.

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  2. Good article. The idea that the demons saw the eviction of their leader is intriguing.

    The lightning saying works much better in conjunction with other Jesus-sayings relating to his exorcisms than any primordial fall-from-heaven narrative. It seems that the significance of God’s action on Jesus’ behalf to incapacitate the demons comes in 10:20—“your names stand written in heaven.” What do you make of that? Generic heavenly salvation or something else?

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    • The lightning saying works much better in conjunction with other Jesus-sayings relating to his exorcisms than any primordial fall-from-heaven narrative.

      One thing I didn’t point out is that Luke also uses lightning as a metaphor for the revealing of the Son of Man in 17:24, shortly after the statement that the kingdom of God is already among the people and not something whose coming can be observed.

      “your names stand written in heaven.” What do you make of that? Generic heavenly salvation or something else?

      I haven’t really thought much about this, although the “book of life” is a topic I’d like to cover. Fitzmyer (p. 863) says this is an allusion to the Old Testament idea of a registry of God’s people drawn from examples of ancient cities that recorded their citizens. So it’s not an allusion to the afterlife so much as a statement that the seventy have earned their citizenship in God’s kingdom. (The registry, of course, is in heaven.)

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      • I’d agree and maybe go further than citizenship: these succesful exorcisms foreshadow that the seventy will be men of high standing in the kingdom. As they commanded demons, so they will command powers in the kingdom (Rev 21:14, Luke 19:17).

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  3. “To fall like lightning” is a strange way of implying being weakened as opposed to being defeated; like saying a boxer fell down like a sack of potatoes but got up after 2 counts.

    This can’t refer to something in the past. Otherwise, why bring it up in response to the recent success of the apostles? Therefore, it’s probably “this generation shall not pass” type of optimistic writing by the author.

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