What are angels?
A time once was when Christians could reliably answer this question, but that was long ago. Christian knowledge of angels is declining and has been doing so for roughly 200 years. In this confusion, many Protestants have invented strange interpretations of angels, and they pass off their falsehoods as Christian doctrine. Meanwhile, various neo-pagan movements have coopted Christian angels and begun producing strange mythologies surrounding them. Christian understanding of angels is diminished in both cases. Therefore, I have written this article in order to remedy the general ignorance Christians have of their own faith.
Angels are immaterial beings which God created. They are closer to God than man, and they possess perfect knowledge of the domain which God has allotted. Angels are immortal and reside in aeviternity. The ultimate fate of angels was decided before creation during the events of Lucifer’s rebellion.
Angels are an important topic in theology and philosophy because the represent high standards which men may strive to achieve. Therefore, because they aid us in our understanding of what we should aspire to, angels, even if they do not exist, are a valuable topic for consideration. To ignore angels and what they represent is to discard a vision which, when believed in earnest, motivates man to overcome himself and move toward his ideal existence.
The Common Image of Angels & Religious Symbolism
When people think of angels, they often imagine them as winged humanoids with brilliant white bodies. This view exists because of the long history of religious symbolism and painting which has molded the public view of benevolent spirits. This symbolism is the offspring of Jewish and Christians theology, and the aspects of an angel express different elements of their being as understood by these two faiths.
For example, angels are depicted as humanoid in order to show that they are persons which possess a high degree intelligence. The wings of an angel indicate its importance as an emissary between men and God in heaven. Meanwhile, the aura which is often seen encircling an angel reminds the viewer that the figure in question is a spiritual being and that the material bdy is an inaccurate representation.
An angel’s light may also serve as a reminder that the idea of an angel itself illuminates other important topics, e.g., God, matter, being, and time, because of the angel’s peculiar placement in cosmology.
The Reason Why Angels Matter
Angels matter even if they do not exist. The idea of an angel exists, and the idea provides a foundation for thought experiments which produce conclusions about important topics such as those mentioned above. A secular understanding of angels is important as well because it allows one to think of what a utopian world might look like, because the society of such a place would necessarily be angelic. The questions concerning an angel’s character and its interactions with others are useful for developing ethical systems.
Angels and Ontology
Men are material and angels are not. However, an angel embodies a standard of being greater than man. Therefore, if men desired to become more angelic, then they would need to aspire to something immaterial. However, this aspiration requires one to believe that something immaterial exists; they will not try to attain a goal if the goal is not believed to exist. Therefore, in order for a utopian society to exist, its members would need to be angels, and men can only become as such when they believe that their material being may be raised to the standard of immaterial angels.
The Source of Angels in the Western Tradition
Angels enter the history of western thought in the Old and New Testaments. They do not appear within Greek or Roman mythologies. Some people may say that angels do appear within the pagan world, and they will try to support this claim by pointing to beings similar to angels which appear within ancient myths and then pretending that the similarity proves sameness. It does not.
Angels began to enter western thought with the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, who devoted many tractates of his City of God to the discussion of angelic society and being. A few Jewish writers had introduced the idea of angels in the years before St. Augustine, but their additions were of a small scope.
The Enlightenment and Angels
In the years that followed Martin Luther’s reformation, several novel interpretations of angels arose. These early Protestants, rejecting the foundations which they had inherited, began revising their understanding of angelic nature in ways that the various interpreters found more suitable. One revision of particular importance is that advanced by Thomas Hobbes who, adhering to the standards put forth by the Church of England, concluded that angels must have a material being. In Hobbesian thought, angels serve merely as messengers between God and men while lacking any significant traits of their own.
Much of the Hobbesian view o fangels was drawn from what he saw as a contradiction in the way that previous writers had described angels. Angels had traditionally been conceptualized as bounded beings with forms, yet they were also supposed to be immaterial. So an immaterial being was said to have form, and Hobbes rejected this claim by asserting that if a bounded form exists, then some material must be contained within the boundaries.
Later, John Locke would advance a view nearly opposite that of Hobbes by asserting that spiritual forms need not follow the same rules which constrain the mundane. He goes on to write that the human understanding of immaterial being is so poor that attempts to conclusively prove or disprove its existence are futile. Locke uses this view to justify the possibility of angels, and he later argues for their likely existence by asserting that if God exists, and if humans exist, then a hierarchy of beings is liable to exist between them. Angels occupy this intermediate state.
Francis Bacon, one of the founders of empiricsm, also briefly wrote about angels in his work, the Novum Organum.
“…it is only for God, and perhaps for angels and intelligences at once to recognize forms affirmatively at the first glance of contemplation.”
So Francis Bacon, a founder of empiricism, affirmed his belief in God, entertained the possibility of angels, and described their manner of learning.
The Death of Angels
Interest in the idea of angels began to collapse in the 18th century, and angels did not exist in pre-Christian Europe, so angels angels were of general interest in western civilization for roughly 1,300 years.
However, comparisons can be drawn between angels and other beings in order to produce a continuity between them. The early Christian writers often did so, likening pagan gods to demons and thereby drawing them into Christian cosmology, in order to create connections between the fledgling faith and the world in which it was forming. The Christian reframing of prior systems generally eased the conversion process.
The ability for the pagan systems to be reframed according to Christian cosmology arose due to an underlying belief which pagans and Christians shared. They shared a belief in gradations of being. Both systems acknowledge the presence of humans, things lower than humans, things greater than humans, and something at the top.
The Pagans and Celestial Souls
A few ancient thinkers postulated beings which can be thought of as the pre-Christian version of angels. Noteworthy contributors to the pagan understanding include Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.
Plotinus describes his notion of pure intelligences in The Enneads. Here, he argues for the existence of immaterial beings which are the embodiment of certain types of knowledge. Plotinus’ intelligences lack form, motivation, and power while they consist only of knowledge. Aristotle argues that the universe is governed by celestial movers which were responsible for the initial movement of things and that govern the movements of bodies such as the planets and stars. Meanwhile, Plato extends the Aristotlean view and holds that the celestial movers are in fact the souls of the bodies which they move.
The pagan notion that planets and other celestial things were both alive and ensouled was entertained by Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, but it began to fall out of favor when Johannes Kepler began his inquiries into extraplanetary motion and concluded that such bodies could move without being alive.
From Philosophy to Christian Theology
The Greek philosophers postulated the existence of pure intelligences, which were their version of angels. Later, Christians introduced the theology of angels into western thought, and the preexisting theories of intelligences were discarded.
This shift began slowly with the works of St. Augustine and concluded with Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which contains an entire treatise on the subject of angels and their relationships with various beings. The influence of Thomism on Catholicism permanently altered the way that western academics thought about pure intelligences.
The greatest change which Thomism brought to the understanding of angels was in their defining feature. The theory that an angel was the embodiment fo an intelligence was replaced by one which held that the angel’s defining feature was its immateriality. The Christian angel still possessed complete intelligence about its domain, but the intelligence was only a byproduct. These angels, being immaterial, are immune to the corrupting effects which the Fall of Man had on the material world and, consequently, the character of angels is unchanging.
The Christian angel is immortal. However, it is not eternal. Angels are created by God, so they have a beginning, although they need not have an end. Moreover, the presence of the snake in the Garden of Eden demonstrates that angels existed at the time of man, yet they are not mentioned among those things which God created in the Genesis Creation account. Therefore, angels are considered to have been created before the universe, predating Genesis, and they existed in a state peculiar to themselves called aeviternity.
The view that angels existed before the universe while, at the same time, not existing eternally alongside God produces a strange conundrum concerning their place. If angels are not with God, and if they are not in the universe, then where are they? The answer Aquinas advanced is that an angel does not posses a corporeal body, and it appears as pure action. Therefore, when an angel is said to appear, it does not appear as a body but, instead, its appearance is known through what it does. Aquinas builds upon his theory with the assertion that aeviternity contains dimensions with which we are unfamiliar. The angels which exist there cannot occupy the same place, because then they would become one and not many, but if an angel is an action, then it completely causes something, and an event which is completely caused by an act cannot have multiple causes. Moreover, angels, being immaterial, may travel from one place to another without crossing the space between.
Ranks of Angels in Christianity
God has created multiple angels. Therefore, they must possess unique qualities. If each angel was identical, then their creation would include redundancy. So angels possess powers unique unto themselves, and these differences in power produce inequalities among the angels. These inequalities then lead to ranks and gradations among the angelic beings, and the existence of seraphim, cherubim, and archangels is proven from these premises.
The premises which prove that angels must possess a hierarchy does not necessarily prove the existence of nine ranks of angels, but nine is the traditionally accepted number among Christian theologians, and it has been enshrined in public knowledge by the influence of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Ranks of the Angels
Angels are described as circles of love and light in Dante’s Paradisio. Here, the protagonist encounters a group of angels and describes them as nine concentric rings of light (halos). After seeing them, Beatrice (Dante’s departed lover who had ascended into heaven) explains that the angels of the outermost rings are those furthest form God, while those closest are most similar to Him.
The nine ranks of the angels described here are as follows:
- Seraphim, the first of the exalted
- Cherubim, the second of the exalted
- Thrones of the Divine Aspect, which terminate the first triad
- Dominions, Virtues, and Powers form the second triad. These sing the glory of God.
- Principalities and Archangels are the penultimate two ranks.
- Angelic Sports form the last rank.
The Knowledge of Angels and the Knowledge of Man
Important distinctions between angels and men can be drawn, and they provide insight on the latter’s own insufficiencies.
The first concerns the difference between he knowledge of angels and that of men. Angels exist outside of time and, therefore, do not reason. Humans think via sequences; they begin with premises and arrive at conclusions following from them. This thought process requires time and cannot occur immediately.
Angels are unaffected by time, so their knowledge does not arise due to a thought process. Nor do they learn, because learning is a process as well. Instead, each angel possesses knowledge of some domain, and its knowledge of that domain contains all which can be known through pure reason using the premises which had been supplied to the angel by God. This knowledge is produced immediately, and it arises as a consequence of angelic being. Angels are made of something which contains knowledge, or else they cannot know anything. Moreover, what they know, they know perfectly. This knowledge differs form that of God because God’s knowledge is perfect across all domains and self-sufficient, whereas angels are masters only of those domains which God has allotted to them.
This distinction between human reason and angelic intuition implies that those things which a human intrinsically knows are of greater importance than what it produces by reasoning.
The Bodies of Angels and the Bodies of Men
Angels lack bodies, so they are not subject to the conflict between reason and feeling which men must endure. Angels are pure act containing knowledge and they direct themselves entirely and earnestly when they act, whereas man is normally pulled in many directions by his passions and imperfect knowledge.
Angels contain perfect knowledge of their domain and they act according to it. Some angels are given knowledge of modesty, and others are not. those which are given modesty are able to immediately recognize that the fragment of perfection within them is instilled by the act of God. However, those angels which are not created with modesty lack knowledge of it, because they are unable to learn in aeviternity, and they remain ignorant of God’s influence within them. Angels of the latter group are demons, and they inherit the traits of angels while lacking their modesty.
A society of angels lacks laws, because angels, possessing perfect knowledge of their relationship to God, are without the need for rules. They act wholly according to His will. In this sense, the society of angels may be described as anarchical.
Lucifer and the Fallen Angels
The sin of Lucifer and his host is that of disobedience. The demons were angels which lacked the modesty required to submit before the Almighty.
Of the fallen host, Satan in particular is singled out for his leadership among them. Pride is his sin, and Satan expressed it by his desire to be like God. This desire, in and of itself, is not a sin, because it recognizes the magnificence of the Creator, but it becomes a sin when one desires this becoming without the assistance of God. By acting to obtain godhood of his own accord, Satan rejected God of his own volition and thereby placed himself in Hell.
The Original Sin and Lucifer
Satan was the snake in the Garden of Eden. By his efforts, man deviated form God, and evil was brought into the world. The course of human history has since been a struggle between various forms of evil and their attempts to draw man away from God. So it may be said that Satan and the lesser demons are inextricably linked with the fate of mankind. The history of man and the devil begins with the inception of sin on Earth, and it culminates in the Final Judgment, when the righteous will be raised to join the ranks of angels in Heaven, where they will take the places vacated by the demons.
Angels & Demons
Some people portray Satan as the opposite of God, and they envision that the angels battle with demons. This is antithetical to Christianity, and the name of this heresy is Manichaeanism.
The Christian position on the relative strengths of the higher beings places Satan under God, because the Christian god is the capacity for existence, so if Satan exists, then he may only do so through the power of God. God, however, is perfect and does not need His creations.
The comparison between angels and demons should remind us of one critical point: A demon is an angel that went bad. People often use the word angelic to describe certain wondrous people and things, but they do so loosely and often without regard to the great harm that an angelic person could do if they turned. Moreover, a person who is thought to be an angel may turn in secret, in which case a demon then masquerades as an angel, and those who first elevated him for the good they saw will suddenly become the unwitting servants of a monstrous master. In this way, evil masquerades as good and uses the gullible as tools.
Demons in Secular Times
Christians believe that demons exist and can possess people. Demonic possession leads humans to exhibit symptoms which secular people attempt to explain. These secular explanations for demonic possession often take the form of mental illnesses. Moreover, subtle signs of demonic activity may not be seen as madness, but they show themselves in antisocial behaviors. Secular moralists search for excuses, usually environmental factors, which can be used to explain perceived moral faults.
The Future Of Angels
The skepticism of the modern age has quashed debate about the existence and nature angels in most circles. Much of the disregard for angels is driven by contempt for Christians, and a small amount is driven by acceptance of empirical observation, which cannot identify immaterial beings. Little objection to the existence of angels is driven by philosophy or theology.
However, even if angels do not exist, the idea of angels is still worth maintaining because ot provides us with insight on what man is, how man ought to be, and the methods by which he might close the gap. So the death of this idea is a harrowing sign of man’s collapsing moral standards, because when an angel is discarded, so too is the ideal it embodied.
And, of course, if angels are real, then demons are too. And a demon would adore a society filled with people who no longer believe in angels and demons. The demon may hide and act more easily therein. So the loss of thought about angels and their being is accompanied by the loss of demons and theirs. Therefore, all peoples, Christians, atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and others would do well to retain the knowledge of angels and their characteristics. Because even if angels do not exist, demons certainly do, and I’m sure the reader can think of more than a few demonic humans.
Questions and Answers About Angels
The following list contains ten common questions concerning angels and brief answers drawn from the same sources described above.
Do Angels Exist?
Angels may exist. Their existence cannot be empirically proven. An angel is immaterial, so material methods cannot be used to measure their being. If angels do not exist, then the idea of an angel still has merit for some thought experiments.
Do Angels Have Wings?
Angels do not have wings. Angels are often depicted having wings, but this is only symbolic. Angels do not possess material bodies of any sort, so artists and writers exercise creative freedoms when they show angels with wings. If angels fly, then they do so without wings.
Can Angels Sin?
Angels can no longer sin. To sin is to move away from God, and all angels which might have done so partook in Lucifer’s rebellion before the events described in Genesis. An angel that sins is a demon, and angels sin because they lack modesty and appreciation for God.
Are Angels Prophets?
Angels are not prophets. A prophet is a person who receives divine insight and then shares it with a people. Angels are the messengers who deliver this insight, but they are not its recipients. God has already given angels their insight, and they descend when needed.
Is An Angel A Person?
An angel is a person, although angels are not human. Angels possess unique knowledge and will, and the action of one angel differs from that of another. Angels were created before the events of Genesis, and they occupy their own plane called aeviternity.
Are Angels Human?
Angels are not human. Angels do not become human, and humans do not become angels. An angel is a being between man and God, and angels are both immaterial and immortal. Each angel possesses some aspect of divine knowledge in its entirety and understands through intuition and not via reason.
Was Jesus An Angel?
Jesus is not an angel, nor was He ever. Jesus is coeternal with the Father, and angels are beings created by God. To say that Jesus is an angel is a form of the heresy of Arianism. Many Hebrews believed Jesus to be an angel, so Paul wrote the Book of Hebrews to address this falsehood.
Can An Angel Die?
An angel is immortal and cannot die. This is true for demons as well. Both exist outside of time in a state called aeviternity. neither possesses a material body which can be killed. Angelic immortality is a consequence of an angel’s timeless and immaterial state.
Will Angels Be Judged?
Angels will not be judged. They have already been judged. Angels exist outside of time, and their ultimate fate was predetermined before the creation of the universe. Those angels which lacked modesty became demons, and they exist in a state of hell. The others exist in a state of heaven.
Are Angels Demons?
Angels are not demons. Demons a re angels which turned away from God. Angels have retained their proper relationship with God and remain angels for this reason. Angels can no longer become demons, and demons cannot become angels. All demons arose during Lucifer’s rebellion.