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published: 3/17/04
updated: 3/9/05

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A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels


angel statue in a Belgian church
Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
--Hebrews 1:14, NIV

Angels and Demons in Christianity

According to a March 2004 Gallup poll, belief in spiritual beings is on the rise, at least in America. In 1994, 72% of Americans said they believed in angels; in 2004, 78% indicated belief in angels. Belief in the devil has risen even more dramatically, increasing from 55% in 1990 to 70% in 2004. {1}

Other English-speaking countries are more skeptical, however. In November 2004, a Gallup poll showed that 56% of Canadians and 36% of Britons believe in angels and only 37% of Canadians and 29% of Britons believe in the devil. {2}

Angels in Christianity

Belief in angels is common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and the concept of angelic beings is very similar in all three faiths: they are spiritual beings who were created by God before the world was created. Their role is to glorify God, minister to God, and, especially, act as God's messengers to humans in matters of great importance (such as the announcement to Mary in Christianity and the revelation of the Qur'an in Islam). They are also helpers and guardians of the faithful.

In the New Testament angels appear frequently as the ministers of God and the agents of revelation (E.g. Matt. 1:20 (to Joseph), 4:11. (to Jesus), Luke 1:26 (to Mary), Acts 12:7 (to Peter)); and Jesus speaks of angels as fulfilling such functions (E.g. Mark 8:38, 13:27), implying in one saying that they neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). Naturally angels are most prominent in Revelation.

The New Testament takes little interest in the idea of the angelic hierarchy, but there are traces of the doctrine. The distinction of good and bad angels is recognized; there are names: Gabriel (Luke 1:19), the evil angels Abaddon or Apollyon (Rev. 9:11), Beelzebub (Mark 3:22) and Satan (Mark 1:13); ranks are implied: archangels (Michael, Jude 9), principalities and powers (Rom. 8:38; Col. 2:10), thrones and dominions (Col 1:16). Angels occur in groups of four or seven (Rev 7:1). In Rev. 1-3 we meet with the "Angels" of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. These are probably guardian angels, standing to the churches in the same relation that the "princes" in Daniel stand to the nations; practically the "angels" are personifications of the churches. A less likely view is that the "angels" are the human representatives of the churches, the bishops or chief presbyters. There seems, however, no parallel to such a use of "angel", and it is doubtful whether the monarchical government of churches was fully developed when the Apocalypse was written.

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the traditional role of messenger to inform her that her child would be the Messiah, and other angels were present to herald his birth. An angel appeared at Jesus' tomb, frightened the Roman guards, rolled away the stone from the tomb, and later told the myrrh-bearing women of Jesus' resurrection. Two angels witnessed Jesus' ascent into Heaven and prophesied his return. When Peter was imprisoned, an angel put his guards to sleep, released him from his chains, and led him out of the prison. Angels fill a number of different roles in the book of Revelation. Among other things, they are seen gathered around the Throne of God singing the thrice-holy hymn.

An interpretation of the angels in the gospels is that angels are simply humans carrying a divine message. Indeed, the term angel frequently appears to describe not beings of power, but simply announcers of events.

Angels are frequently depicted as human in appearance, though many theologians have argued that they have no physical existence. (Hence the frequently recounted tale of Scholastics arguing about how many angels could fit on a pinhead; if angels possess physical bodies, the answer is "a finite number", if they do not, the answer is "an infinite number".) Seraphim are often depicted as six wings radiating from a center — either concealing a body, or without a body. Starting with the end of the 4th century, angels were depicted with wings, presumably to give an easy explanation for them travelling to and from heaven. Scholastic theologians teach that angels are able to reason instantly, and to move instantly. They also teach that angels are intermediaries to some forces that would otherwise be natural forces of the universe, such as the rotation of planets and the motion of stars. Angels possess the beatific vision, or the unencumbered understanding of God (the essence of the pleasure of heaven). Furthermore, there are more angels then there are anything else in the universe (although when first written this would have probably not included atoms since atomic structure was not known).

Religious thought about the angels during the middle ages was much influenced by the theory of the angelic hierarchy set forth in the De Hierarchia Celesti, written in the 5th century in the name of Dionysius the Areopagite and passing for his. The creeds and confessions do not formulate any authoritative doctrine of angels; and modern rationalism has tended to deny the existence of such beings, or to regard the subject as one on which we can have no certain knowledge. The principle of continuity, however, seems to require the existence of beings intermediate between man and God.

Some Christian traditions hold that angels are organized into three major Hierarchies which are subdivided into orders Choirs, and list as many as ten orders of angels. This is particularly clear in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an unknown 5th century author whose work The Celestial Hierarchy gives the names that have become part of tradition: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. In this hierarchy, the Cherubim and Seraphim are typically closest to God, while the Angels and Archangels are most active in human affairs. Many of these names come from verses in the bible which would appear at first to be referencing a literal thing, although retroactively suggesting that they really mention angels can also make sense in the context. For example the verse in Paul "our struggle is not with earthly things but with principalities and powers" (meaning according to most theologians the fallen angels of those choirs, used as an example of all the fallen angels).

Some Christian traditions also hold that angels play a variety of specific roles in the lives of believers. For instance, each Christian may be assigned a guardian angel at their baptism (although never defined by the Catholic or Orthodox churches, nevertheless it is personally held by many church members and most theologians). Each consecrated altar has at least one angel always present offering up prayers, and a number of angels join the congregation when they meet to pray. In the story of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, in which 40 Christian Roman soldiers were made to stand naked on a frozen lake in the snow until they renounced their faith, angels were seen descending from Heaven placing the crowns of martyrs on their heads.

Certain Christian traditions, especially the Reformed tradition within Protestantism hold that references to the "Angel of the Lord" are references to pre-Incarnation appearances of Jesus.

Some medieval Christian philosophers were influenced by the views of Maimonides, and accepted his view of angels. Today, these views of angels are still technically acceptable within many mainstream Christian denominations. However, for all practical purposes most Christian lay people know little or nothing of these views, and do not accept them.

In many informal folk beliefs among Christians concerning the afterlife, the souls of the virtuous dead ascend into Heaven to be converted into angels. However, this belief is not supported by scripture. {3}

Devils and Demons in Christianity

In Christian (and Jewish and Islamic) belief, angels were created good but were endowed with free will just as humans are. Some of them rebelled against God, were banished from heaven, and became demons. The English word "demon" derives from the Greek daimon, which originally referred to any spirit but came to be associated with only evil spirits. In Christian teaching, the leader of the rebellious angels was Satan, who has became humanity's chief adversary. He is identified with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve in Genesis.

The Greek word daemon (δαίμων), appears in the works of Plato and many other ancient authors without the evil connotations apparent in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek originals of the New Testament. The medieval and neo-medieval conception of a "demon" in Western Civilization derives from the popular culture of Late (Roman) Antiquity.

In New Testament times, daemon has a number of meanings, all related to the idea of a spirit that inhabited a place, or that accompanied a person. Whether a daemon was benevolent or malevolent, the Greek word most meant something different from the later medieval notions of 'demon', and scholars debate the time in which first century usage by Jews and Christians in its original Greek sense became transformed to the later medieval sense.

There is a description in the Book of Revelation 12:7-17 of a battle between God's army and Satan's followers, and their subsequent expulsion from Heaven to earth to persecute humans -- although this event seems to be foretold as taking place in the future. In Luke 10:18 it is mentioned that a power granted by Jesus to control demons made Satan "fall like lightning from heaven."

Saint Augustine's reading of Plotinus, in City of God (ch. 11) is ambiguous as to whether daemons had become 'demonized' by the early 5th century:

"He (Plotinus) also states that the blessed are called in Greek eudaimones, because they are good souls, that is to say, good demons, confirming his opinion that the souls of men are demons." (City of God, ch. 11.—Of the Opinion of the Platonists, that the Souls of Men Become Demons When Disembodied)

If Augustine meant 'demons' in the later, medieval sense, the passage would savor of rhetorical casuistry that is not characteristic of him.

In any case, the Catholic Church unequivocally teaches that angels and demons are real personal beings, not just symbolic devices of literature and myth (see Fr. John Corapi's article). The Catholic Church has a cadre of exorcists which perform many exorcisms each year, even now in 2004. The exorcists of the Catholic Church teach that demons attack humans continually and that Christ came to deliver us from Satan's evil rule by power in this fashion. According to the Catholic Church, demonically afflicted persons can be effectively healed and protected either by the formal rite of exorcism, authorized to be performed only by bishops and those they designate, or by prayers of deliverance which any Christian can offer for themselves or others.

In contemporary religion, the skeptical observer can judge how closely a belief in demons parallels the degree of authoritarianism of the sect in question. On the other hand, logicians and believers have deftly observed that where God truly is, one may legitimately expect to find both truth and authority as well as his enemies, the fallen angels.

Building upon the few references to daemons in the New Testement, especially the visionary poetry of the Apocalypse of John, Christian writers of apocrypha from the 2nd century onwards created a more complicated tapestry of beliefs about "demons" that was independent of Christian scripture.

According to Christian mythology, When God created angels, he offered them the same choice he was to offer humanity: follow, or be cast apart from him. Some angels chose not to follow God, instead choosing the path of evil. One of these angels desired to be as powerful as God, and seduced a host of his companions to follow him against their ruler, to become himself the new sovereign. This rebellious angel was named Satan (lit. "adversary").

According to popular tradition, the fall of Satan is portrayed in Ezekiel 28:12-19 and Isaiah 14:12-14 -- although both passages explicitly refer to earthly kings, not to Satan or any demonic entity. Christian mythology builds upon later Jewish traditions that Satan and his host declared war with God, but God's army, commanded by the archangel Michael (archangel), defeated the rebels. Their defeat was never in question, since God is by nature omnipotent, but Michael was given the honor of victory in the natural order. God then cast his enemies from Heaven to the abyss of the earth, into a newly created prison called Hell (allusions to such a pit are made in the Book of Revelation, as pits of sulphur and fire) where all his enemies should be sentenced to an eternal existence of pain and misery. This pain is not all physical; for their crimes, these angels, now called demons, would be deprived of the sight of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9), this being the worst possible punishment.

An indefinite time later, when God created the earth and humans, Satan and the other demons were allowed to tempt humans or induce them to sin by other means. The first time Satan did this was in the earthly paradise or Garden of Eden to tempt Eve, who subsequently drew her husband Adam into her crime. Upon their failure, as part of the punishment, the permission granted to Satan and his demons to tempt the first humans away from their Creator will now last until the end of this world for all people.

According to Christian demonology demons will be eternally punished and never reconciled with God, as it is mentioned in the Bible. Other theories alleging the reconciliation of Satan, the fallen angels, the souls of the dead that were condemned to Hell, and God are not part of Christian demonology or literal scripture but the theory of the Unification Church. Origen, Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa mentioned this possibility before it was generally accepted that the fallen state is eternal.

In contemporary Christianity, demons are generally considered to be angels who fell from grace by rebelling against God. However, this view, championed by Origen, Augustine and John Chrysostom, arose during the 6th century. Prior to that time, the primary sin of fallen angels was considered to be that of mating with mortal women, giving rise to a race of half-human giants known as the Nephilim.

There are still others who say that the sin of the angels was pride and disobedience. It seems quite certain that these were the sins that caused Satan's downfall (Ezek. 28). If this be the true view then we are to understand the words, "estate" or "principality" in Deuteronomy 32:8 and Jude 6 ("And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.") as indicating that instead of being satisfied with the dignity once for all assigned to them under the Son of God, they aspired higher. {4}

Sources

  1. "Eternal Destinations: Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell." Gallup Poll News Service, May 25, 2004.
  2. "Divine Subjects: Canadians Believe, Britons Skeptical." Gallup Poll News Service, November 16, 2004.
  3. "Angels." Wikipedia. 2005.
  4. "Demons." Wikipedia. 2005.
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