Kept With Eternal Chains: When Angels Desert

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the first half of Chapter 8: Kept With Eternal Chains: When Angels Desert.

Previously: What Is the Sin of Sodom?


and He has kept, with eternal chains in darkness for the judgment of the great day, angels who did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling. (Jude 6)

 In a scene from the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof, a Jewish peasant named Tevye, living in prerevolutionary Russia, mulls over the prospect of his daughter, Tzeitel, marrying an impoverished tailor, Motel. He watches the starry-eyed young couple from a distance, alternately scratches his neck and strokes his beard, and says to himself:

“He is beginning to talk like a man. On the other hand, what kind of a match would that be, with a poor tailor? On the other hand, he’s an honest, hard worker. But on the other hand, he has absolutely nothing. On the other hand, things could never get worse for him; they could only be better.”

“On the other hand” is Tevye’s way of expressing his uncertainty about the outcome of his daughter’s romance. Verbally, he weighs the evidence for and against his beloved Tzeitel’s happiness.

As we explore Jude 6, we may need a little of Tevye’s humble uncertainty about what lies before us, because the author’s reference to a particular class of angels has left biblical scholars scratching their necks (or more likely their heads) and stroking their beards for centuries. At the same time, Jude’s story of fallen angels offers an opportunity to hone our apologist’s skills in dealing with difficult passages of Scripture.

 Who are these angels?

The identity of the “angels who did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling” is a matter of much debate. While many views have emerged over the centuries, two seem to be most popular – and both views are tied, at least in part, to Gen. 6:1-4, and to a lesser extent the apocryphal Book of Enoch.

It should be noted that Jude is calling his readers to remember what they already have learned: lessons from the past with respect to God’s judgment on the Israelites, the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, and certain fallen angels (vv. 5-7). So, Jude offers few details, but we may rest assured that his audience is familiar with the texts from the Torah and, perhaps, the Apocrypha.

Let’s begin with the text in Genesis 6: “When mankind began to multiply on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were beautiful, and they took any they chose as wives for themselves. And the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt. Their days will be 120 years.’ The Nephilim [perhaps ‘fallen ones’ or ‘giants;’ the meaning here is uncertain] were on the earth both in those days and afterwards, when the sons of God came to the daughters of man, who bore children to them. They were the powerful men of old, the famous men” (vv. 1-4).

Cohabitating angels

 One popular interpretation of Jude’s reference to angels ties directly to Gen. 6:1-4, where the “sons of God” are identified as rebellious angels who cohabitate with the “daughters of man,” producing a race of giants God destroys in the great flood. Proponents of this view generally note the following:

(1) Jewish tradition links together the sin of angels in Gen. 6:1-4, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the judgment of the wilderness generation. For example, the Testament of Naphtali 3:4-5 designates the angels of Genesis 6 as “Watchers” who have “departed nature’s order” and thus are cursed with the flood. Jubilees teaches that the Watchers sinned sexually with the daughters of men (Jub. 4:22). And the Book of Enoch offers an extensive depiction of these evil angels fornicating with women (1 Enoch 10:11).

(2) Based on Jude 14-15, where the author references a prophecy of Enoch, we may conclude that Jude is familiar with 1 Enoch and is influenced by it. The book details the angels’ sexual sin and punishment. For example, the angel Raphael is ordered to “‘Bind Azaz’el hand and foot (and) throw him into the darkness!’ And he made a hole in the desert which was in Duda’el and cast him there; he threw on top of him rugged and sharp rocks. And he covered his face in order that he may not see light; and in order that he may be sent into the fire on the great day of judgment.”

(3) Jude draws a parallel between the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah and the rebellion of deserting angels. Verse 7 begins, “In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah … committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions” (emphasis added). Therefore, it seems clear that sexual sin is prominent in both instances.

Angels breaking rank

Proponents of the second popular view contend that the angels’ sin is one of breaking rank, not cohabitating with women. Instead of being content with the dignity assigned them under their Creator (Jesus), they aspire to higher ranks and thus rebel, meddling directly in human affairs. Supporters of this position posit the following:

(1) If Jude is referring to Gen. 6:1-4, he is not accusing angels of sexual sin. In fact, he may not have this passage in mind at all. Warren Wiersbe summarizes, “The simplest explanation of Genesis 6 is that the godly line of Seth (‘the sons of God’) began to mingle with the ungodly line of Cain, and this broke down the walls of separation, resulting in compromise and eventually degrading sin.”

(2) Angels are a different class of creature than human beings. They are greater in power and intelligence, but they lack physical bodies. In the Old Testament, angels sometimes appear in human form (see Genesis 18-19), but there is no evidence they actually take on flesh and blood.

(3) Angels do not have sexual intercourse. Jesus makes this clear in His rebuttal of the Sadducees’ arguments against the resurrection (Matt. 22:30). While angels appear anatomically as men on the earth, and even partake of food, there is no biblical evidence that God created them with the ability to reproduce.

(4) God sent the flood because of man’s wickedness, not angelic mischief. “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever … When the Lord saw that man’s wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:3, 5-6).

(5) The phrase, “In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah …” (Jude 7), does not necessarily mean the angels sinned in the same way (sexually) as the citizens of Lot’s city. Another way to understand this phrase is that God’s judgment of rebellious angels is the same sort of judgment He brings to bear on Sodom and Gomorrah.

(6) Therefore, it makes more sense to conclude that the angels to which Jude refers are guilty of leaving their heavenly dwelling, despising the limits of their assigned authority, and engaging in wicked, but non-sexual, activities with humans created in the image of God. For breaking rank, they are kept with eternal chains in darkness.

There you have it: two sides of the debate over the identity of the angels who “deserted their proper dwelling” (v. 6). Which of these two positions better matches the biblical narrative? When we get to the Application at the end of the chapter, we’ll explore some ways to approach this debate.

Another alternative?

But before moving on, let’s go back to Gen. 6:1-4. Let’s assume that Jude is referring to this passage from the Torah (it seems a more familiar reference to his readers than 1 Enoch but doesn’t rule it out). And let’s consider the possibility that the “sons of God” are neither angels engaging directly in sexual relations with women, nor the godly line of Seth.

A third option has much to commend it. What if, by “sons of God,” Moses is referring to demons who possess powerful earthly rulers determined to engage in widespread mischief? Wouldn’t this fit well with Jude’s lessons from history – the unbelieving Israelites, and the wicked men of Sodom and Gomorrah – not to mention the context of Genesis 6?

Perhaps Jude is describing angels who violate their assigned sphere of authority and thus incur divine punishment, just as the false teachers in Jude’s day are attracting divine retribution. In other words, what if Jude is not suggesting that the sin of these fallen angels is fornicating with women (although 1 Enoch reports such behavior)? Rather, what if the angels are determined to transcend their lofty rank as angelic beings, thus rejecting their created position in much the same way the Sodomites rejected the natural distinctions between men and women?

Allen Ross, in his commentary on Genesis, describes the sons of God in Gen. 6:1-4 “probably … [as] powerful rulers who were controlled (indwelt) by fallen angels. It may be that fallen angels left their habitation and inhabited bodies of human despot warriors, the mighty ones of the earth.” After all, the phrase “sons of God” almost without exception in the Old Testament refers to angelic beings, not people. It’s not until we get to the New Testament that followers of Jesus are depicted as adopted children of God – a term denoting relationship, not deity.

Ross goes on to point out that great kings of the earth have “princes” ruling behind them, and these princes are demons (Ezek. 28:11-19; Dan. 10:13). It is no surprise, then, to find in the literature of surrounding nations that kings often are described as divine, half-divine, or demigods. Pagans revered these great leaders, and many mythological traditions describe them as the offspring of gods themselves. Writes Ross, “Thus for the pagans, gods had their origin in copulation between gods and humans. Any superhuman individual in a myth or other mythological or actual giant would suggest divine origin to the pagans.”

So, this passage, rather than confirming sexual relations between fallen angels and humans, refutes these pagan beliefs with divine truth. The “sons of God” are demons who indwell and control mighty men of earth. These demon-possessed men marry as many women as they please to satisfy their baser instincts, perhaps introducing the practice of harems. But in the end, these “powerful men of old … famous men” are flesh, and they die as all men do. “When God judges the world – as He was about to – no giant, no deity, no human has any power against Him. God simply allots one’s days and brings his end.”

In the final analysis, Gen. 6:1-4 and Jude may be common references to the first recorded instance of demon possession, resulting in a special place of punishment for the angels who “deserted their proper dwelling.”

Gen. 6:1-4 and Jude 6 are difficult passages of Scripture. Godly men and women wrestle with their meaning and come to different conclusions. It’s wise to approach these verses with humility, thus averting dogmatism. Even better, let’s make sure we grasp Jude’s primary point in sharing this story: God judges not only wicked people, but rebellious angels as well.

Next: Principles of Biblical Interpretation