Genesis 6:1-4 describes an event I believe to be unique in all of history. God apparently allowed it to happen one time, and has prevented it from happening ever again. It isn't that God was surprised by this event–He can't be, because He knows everything. The best guess I can propose is that Satan attempted to use a bizarre strategy to interrupt God's plan to redeem us, and once God thwarted this attempt Satan has refrained from trying anything like it ever again. The best explanation is that God has drawn a line He does not allow Satan or his demons to cross.
The record of the event in Genesis is brief, but there are three other references to it, all in the New Testament. The purpose of this article is to help you understand what happened and to draw some lessons from this intriguing part of God's word.
Fallen angels (which are usually called "demons") took on human form, married human women, and produced bizarre offspring referred to in this passage as Nephilim (a Hebrew word meaning "fallen ones").
Genesis 6:1-4: Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
We will summarize the key elements which contribute to understanding this passage.
The Sons of God. We can be certain these are angels–obviously fallen angels, because they are involved in sin. The exact Hebrew phrase translated "sons of God" (bene ha elohim) occurs only three other times in the Old Testament, all in Job: Job 1:6, 2:1 and 38:7. Every commentator over all the centuries and every Hebrew scholar who has written on those passages all agree that in those places "sons of God" refers to angels. The exact equivalent in the Aramaic dialect of Hebrew occurs in Daniel 3:25, where it also refers to an angel. This is very strong evidence indeed: The sons of God are angelic beings.
But aren't angels sexless? (What a great question! Glad you asked.) Matthew 22:30 says "For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." This was the end of Jesus' answer to the absurd hypothetical question about a woman who had seven husbands (all brothers) and Jesus' enemies asked whose wife she would be in heaven. Jesus explained that in heaven there is no "marriage" in the sense of what we think of as normal marital relations. It was in that context He mentioned that holy angels in heaven do not marry.
It's a big jump from saying that holy angels do not marry to saying that a demon cannot marry. In many cases in the Bible, when God sent angels into the realm of men they were so human in appearance that they were mistaken for men. Two obvious examples are the two angels who accompanied the "angel of the Lord" to visit Abraham and Lot (Genesis 18-19) and the angel who was mistaken as the gardener at the tomb of Jesus (John 20:15). Beyond that, the Bible indicates that when angels visit the realm of mankind they are so “human” it's possible to entertain an angel without knowing it: Hebrews 13:2: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
All this means the “sons of God” were angels, though obviously fallen ones. Some believe they took on human form and cohabitated with women. Others believe they possessed wicked men, and their offspring were also demon-possessed. However it was accomplished, God’s word describes the sons of God as the ones who committed this sin. We must humbly admit that we cannot explain precisely how the sin was accomplished, but the Bible is clear that it happened.
The Nephilim. This word comes from a Hebrew verb meaning "to fall." It means "fallen ones," and describes these creatures as "fallen" in the sense of desperately wicked. While it's true that at that time just prior to the flood "the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually," (Genesis 6:5), the Nephilim are singled out for this description of excessive wickedness. The passage clearly implies that these were the offspring of the marriages between the sons of God and the daughters of men.
The only other time nephilim occurs in the Bible is in Numbers 13:33. That was when the unbelieving spies returned from Canaan and were afraid of the inhabitants of the land. They also said “we became like grasshoppers in our sight,” and what they said was described as “a bad report.” It was not God who said there were Nephilim in the land; it was the faithless spies, who may have exaggerated to justify their fear and unbelief, so they chose the word which would make their false report sound more plausible. Thus Genesis 6 is the only place where we are certain there were Nephilim.
As enigmatic as all this is, it's really the New Testament comments about this event that shed the most amazing light on it.
New Testament Passages
There are three passages about this sin in the New Testament.
1 Peter 3:19-20. . . . in which [spirit] also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept wait ing in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark.
This says that while Jesus was physically dead (Peter says "put to death in the flesh"), He was very much alive "in spirit" and He visited a spiritual "prison" where He "made a proclamation" to the spirits there. Just a few verses later Peter mentions that "angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him" (1 Peter 3:22), so we assume it was a victory proclamation made to demons who were imprisoned.
Because we know so little about the world of spirits, this sounds strange to us. But we know just enough to be able to piece this together. This is a good place to mention that this interpretation is the oldest known interpretation of Genesis 6 and of 1 Peter. It was well known among the Jews, and we know this interpretation was well circulated among the early Christians. There's nothing in the context to explain such an idea, but there's a good reason to believe that Peter's readers would know exactly what he meant by "spirits in prison who were disobedient during the days of Noah."
The Book of Enoch is a Jewish apocalyptic "book" (comparable to a "book" of the Bible) which was widely circulated and well-known to Jews of the first century. It is one of a collection of non-inspired Jewish writings known as the Pseudepigrapha.
Though it was not written by him, it contains some of the words of the man Enoch, who is mentioned in Genesis 5. There he is famous for being the father of Methuselah, the man who died the year the flood came. (Some of Enoch's words, preserved in the Book of Enoch, are quoted in Jude 14-15.) The Book of Enoch is not inspired, but it contains some truth. It uses the exact term "spirits in prison" to describe some demons who were locked up in a spiritual prison awaiting judgment, and it says these were the "sons of God" from Genesis 6. We know for sure that Peter's readers (at least the Jewish believers among them) were familiar with the book of Enoch, so it's safe to assume that when Peter uses "spirits in prison" he expected his readers to think of demons.
2 Peter 2:4-5. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;
The prison for spirits is given a specific name in this passage, "Tartarus." Peter gives another description of the demons he referred to in 1 Peter 3:19-20. The word "Tartarus" comes from mythology, along with a verb (the one used in 2 Peter 2:4) "Tartarize" which means to send someone to Tartarus. Most of our English translations loosely refer to Tartarus as "hell," but the word is more specific. “Cast them into hell” is how the English translators chose to translate the verb in this verse which means “sent them to Tartarus.”
Little is known about Tartarus. We assume it is a "compartment" or category within Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek). Sheol/Hades is a place of spirits of the dead (Luke 16:19-31) and it includes a place where God has imprisoned certain demons. You can safely assume it is not a nice place. (My mental image of it is a boiling sea of tartar sauce. Since I hate tartar sauce, that sounds like punishment to me!)
Two other things should be noted about this description: (1) It says these angels are "reserved for judgment" which implies they will never be released from this prison except for final judgment; (2) It specifies that their sin was associated with the time of Noah (which again connects it to Genesis 6).
Jude 6-7. And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
This is the only one of the three New Testament passages which deals with a specific sin of fallen angels that does not also mention the time of Noah. Nevertheless, we still believe it refers to the same group of angels and the same sin. One reason is that the concept of "eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day" matches what Peter said about "reserved for judgment." But there are other important reasons we believe this refers to the same sin.
Notice the comparison between the sin of the angels mentioned here and the sin of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah. It's called "gross immorality" and going after "strange flesh." "Gross immorality" is a translation of a word which implies unprecedented perversion–certainly a good description of the sin of Genesis 6:1-4. "Strange flesh" literally is "flesh of a different kind," which is an odd thought indeed until you contemplate an incident which made Sodom and Gomorrah infamous.
Genesis 19:1-11 records the visit of two angels (in thoroughly human form) to the home of Abraham's nephew Lot in the city of Sodom. The men of the city were so completely given over to homosexual lust that they sought Lot's visitors for the purpose of homosexual rape. In other words, even though they didn't realize it, they were pursuing "flesh of a different kind"–angels appearing as men. That's what the sin of the sons of God was, except the roles were reversed. Jude's point is that in both cases, the perpetrators of this "strangest sin of all time" will undergo eternal punishment.
The final bit of information we glean about this sin from Jude's comments confirms what we have already learned. Jude says those angels "did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode." Those terms describe leaving a realm intended for their existence and entering a realm not intended for them. They left the spirit realm of angels and entered the physical realm of mankind. For all eternity they will suffer for it (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 20:10).
There is another interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 which I believe is incorrect, but it's worth mentioning because some fine Bible scholars hold to it. Their interpretation is that the "sons of God" is the godly line of Seth, and their sin was intermarriage with "daughters of men" from the un godly line of Cain. There are several reasons why I disagree with that interpretation:
1. The other uses of "sons of God" all refer to angels.
2. God's assessment of the world at that time is that "the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." The only godly man around was Noah, and even he was not called a "son of God" for his godliness. "Sons of God" certainly couldn't describe a race of wicked people.
3. The angel view is the only one that accounts for the inclusion of the Nephilim in that context.
4. It's impossible for me to ignore the information given in the three New Testament passages relating to this sin. When you consider that the people of Peter and Jude's day were familiar with The Book of Enoch, which contained the "angel view" of Genesis 6 and that Peter and Jude offered no different explanation, it's hard to come to any other conclusion than that they (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) verified that the sons of God were a special group of demons.
I want to reiterate that some fine Bible teachers hold to this other view of the sin of the "sons of God." While I think they're wrong on this one minor point, I respect them and many of them are good friends. I wrote my master's thesis on The Identity and the Sin of the Angels in Jude 6-7 (it's a good cure for insomnia), and in the process I studied all these passages and the doctrine of angels and demons for hundreds of hours. Still the fact remains, you don't have to agree with me on this issue in order to get to heaven.
It would serve nothing more than intellectual curiosity for us to study all this without seeking to learn some lessons from the "Strangest Sin Of All Time." Here are a few important lessons and observations.
1. God is in control. No strategy of Satan has ever worked against God, and none ever will in the future. Satan tried to corrupt the human race before the flood, but God triumphed. He tried to wipe out Israel many times, but God has preserved His people so He can fulfill His every promise to them. Regardless of what happens in the affairs of men, and no matter what Satan may try, he is a defeated enemy. We await only the final defeat of Satan. (Read all about it in Revelation 20:1-10.)
2. Every sin is judged. There is no such thing as a "secret sin." God knows all, and He holds every angel and every man or woman in His creation accountable for their actions. I believe one reason for including this much information in His word about the strangest sin of all time is that God wants us to see how thorough is His judgment. Knowing the judgment of God is meant to drive us to the grace of God. Don't reject His grace, or you will get what you deserve for your own sins–the Lake of Fire.
3. Leave the world of spirits alone. God has revealed to us in His word "everything pertaining to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). He has told us a little about angels and demons, but there is much He has not revealed to us. Believers are told "fix [your] eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith" (Hebrews 12:2). Our attention should not be on the activities of angels, and certainly not on the activities of demons. Let God take care of the unseen world of spirits. Our job is to walk with Him in obedience to His word until we meet Him face to face. People who become preoccupied with angels and demons usually wind up wandering from sound doctrine.
4. This sin might explain a lot of mythology. Have you ever pondered where the ideas of gods entering the realm of men came from, as in the legends of Greek and Roman mythology? I have a theory about it, and it involves the Nephilim.
This is not a matter of something the Bible explicitly states, but it makes a lot of sense. Genesis 6:4 says “Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” My theory is that these demonized beings who lived just prior to the flood are the source of the legends which lie behind the mythological stories of “gods” visiting earth and interacting with humans. That is a very plausible explanation of the origin of stories of amazing super-human feats and god-like beings interacting with the human race. The phrase “mighty men who were of old, men of renown” is included in the text for a reason. My theory may explain why it was included in Genesis.
The eight people who survived the flood would have known about the sons of God and the Nephilim. As they passed on those stories to succeeding generations, the facts could have become twisted and the meanings embellished and changed. Unbelievers could wind up believing lies based on twisted versions of oral history, and Satan could use it to prop up false religions he has started through the ages. Don’t forget, all false religion is built upon “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).
It's only a theory, and I don't suppose it can ever be proven, but I think I'll keep it on my list of questions I hope to ask God some day when I stand before Him clothed in the righteousness of His son. But then I have a suspicion that when that moment comes, my little list of questions will probably seem pretty irrelevant. I sure hope you'll be there with me.
5. This is meant to drive you into the arms of Jesus Christ. The punch line of Genesis 6 is verse 8, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The punch line of 1 Peter 3 is verses 21-22, which tell you to come to God through Jesus Christ who is at the right hand of God after angels and demons were subjected to Him. The punch line of 2 Peter is verse 9, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly.” The punch line of Jude is verses 20-21, which say “building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.”
You haven’t committed “The Strangest Sin Of All Time,” but you have committed sin of many kinds on many occasions. Please make sure you are “in the love of God” in Jesus Christ, the one who died to pay the penalty for your sins so that you may have eternal life (Romans 6:23).