I’ve written about angels before, in different contexts. Here I want to address the most basic question about angels, to wit: Do they exist? My answer, not to leave you in suspense, is “yes”, but it will require a bit of unpacking to get there.
Part of the reason I write this is that a periodic interlocutor on another blog I frequent habitually argues that “angels” are to be understood not as separate beings, but rather as manifestations or perhaps appendages of God. An “angel of the LORD”* is no more an individual entity than my hand or foot is. I disagree with this, but there is some ground for this assertion.
“Angel”, from the Latin angelus, derives from the Greek angelos (ἄγγελος), which simply means “messenger”. Angelos is in turn a translation of the Hebrew mal’ākh (מַלְאָךְ), which once more means simply “messenger”. The “messenger” so specified may be Divine or human. In fact, the last book of the Protestant Old Testament (Catholic arrangements of the Old Testament vary, because of the Deuterocanonical books) is named “Malachi”, after its author. “Malachi”, however, is not actually a name–it simply means “my messenger”, where “malach” is an alternate spelling of “mal’ākh“, and “i” is the Hebrew possessive suffix meaning “my”. Thus, the name means “my messenger”, making “Malachi” in effect a pen name of an otherwise unknown person.
Thus the expression “angel of the LORD” is ambiguous. Technically, the author of Malachi was an “angel of the LORD”, since the “my” to whom “my messenger” refers is God, and Malachi is His angel–i.e. messenger. In general, though, the phrase indicates someone–or something–which is not human. The question is, if not human, then what?
This is harder to answer than it seems at first, since in many places in the Old Testament, especially in the earlier parts, the distinction between an entity referred to as an “angel” and God Himself is often unclear. Consider the following passage from Genesis 16:7-10 and 13-14, where Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, has fled into the desert after being banished by Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Sarai), New International Version (NIV), my emphasis:
7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. 9 Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
13 She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
In the first part of the narrative it is “an angel of the LORD” that speaks to Hagar. When Hagar speaks near the end, though, she says it is the LORD who has spoken to her, full stop.
Something similar happens in Judges 13:2-23 (still quoting from the NIV). Manoah and his wife are childless. In verse 3, an “angel of the LORD” appears to Manoah’s wife and predicts she will give birth to the hero Samson. In verse 6, the wife (who is never named!), in recounting this to Manoah, says, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name.” (my emphasis) Later on, in verses 15-22, the following exchange occurs (my emphasis):
15 Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, “We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you.”
16 The angel of the LORD replied, “Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the LORD.” (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the LORD.)
17 Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the LORD, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?”
18 He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.” 19 Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the LORD. And the LORD did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20 As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21 When the angel of the LORD did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD.
22 “We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!”
This passage is fascinating in that the ambiguity is maximal. Instead of the vague narrative in Genesis that we’ve seen, the “angel” is explicitly described as humanoid, as a “man”. It seems to be a standard-issue angel in the sense that we think of the term–a being, human in appearance (or capable of taking on human appearance), sent by God to deliver a message. However, toward the end of the narrative, it gets muddier. The “angel” refuses food, and suggests an offering to the LORD. When directly asked his name, the “angel” refuses, saying that his name is beyond understanding. When the sacrifice to the LORD is made, the “angel” merges into the flame, as if metaphorically receiving it. Finally, in response to this, Manoah’s wife cries out that they have seen God, with no qualification.
Another example of this ambiguity is in Genesis 18, the story of the three angelic visitors to Abraham.
So what the heck is an “angel”? In passages such as the ones cited, it could be argued that “angel of the LORD” signifies some kind of physical or visual manifestation of God Himself, which may take physical or humanoid form. In this context, “angel” would seem to be used as a way of indicating a manifestation of the presence of God, as opposed to God in His true, transcendent form, i.e. a manifestation that can be safely experienced by humans. “Angel” thus distances the phenomenon slightly from God in His true essence, while still indicating God Himself, and not a subordinate being. In short, the “angel” is as much a part or extension of God as a hand is of a human, as noted above.
Still, there is ambiguity. In the Genesis 18 account, there are three “men” that come to visit Abraham. One of them walks further along with Abraham and is later seemingly referred to as “the LORD” without qualification (Genesis 18:16-22), whereas the other two turn off towards Sodom, where they later meet Lot. (Genesis 19) So are we talking about God and two lesser beings? Or three manifestations of God? Or what? Some Jewish scholars teach that the “three men” (the word “angel”, interestingly, is at no point used in this narrative) were the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Christian tradition has speculated that the three were actually the Three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While interesting, neither of these hypotheses is supported by the actual text, nor is it likely that the original audience for which Genesis was written would have construed it this way.
As the Old Testament progresses, angels are presented more and more as distinct, autonomous beings separate from (though servants of) God. In the opening of the Book of Job, the angels–referred to as “sons of God”–are depicted “presenting themselves before God”. In short, they are a sort of Divine Council, and thus unambiguously separate beings. In the book of Daniel, the prophet has visions of a being he calls “Gabriel” (chapters 8 and 9), and of another being “Michael” (chapters 10 and 12), referred to as the “great prince”. Neither being is referred to as a mal’ākh–angel–but both have been traditionally understood as such in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. The transformation of angels from manifestations of God to autonomous beings that even have names is complete.
Parallel to this development in Judaism, its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, have, in most of their varied forms, accepted angels as separate beings from the very beginning. Individuals and a few minor modernist groups might disagree–but they are in the minority.
So what are we to make of all this?
It has been pointed out many times that the books of the Old Testament that refer to angels as separate beings are very late, mostly of post-Exilic authorship. By this time, the Jews had spent a considerable period under Persian domination. It has been hypothesized that Jewish thought was influenced by the religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism, and that the idea of angels as beings subordinate to God was influenced by the Zoroastrian yazatas. While this is intriguing, there is (and probably never will be) any way of demonstrating it one way or another. Thus, we once more face the question of just what the angels are.
I submit that the exactly wrong way to go about this is to try to find out what the Bible “really” means in writing about angels. First of all, such an approach veers dangerously close to sola scriptura–the doctrine that the Bible alone is all that is necessary for faith, and that that no exterior sources are needed in interpreting it. As I’ve discussed before at considerable length, this is not a viable method of interpretation. You can’t just go by “what the Bible says” when what the Bible says is all too often confusing, obscure, and outright contradictory.
A non-angelic example is life after death. It is very clear from the earlier parts of the old Testament–see Psalm 30:19, Psalm 115:17-18, and Isaiah 38:18 for just a few examples–that the earliest Jews had no concept of an afterlife or resurrection. Later passages (such as Ezekiel 37:12-14, and Daniel 12:1-3) imply a restoration of life after death. Finally, in post-Biblical times, standard Jewish belief has explicitly affirmed a resurrection of the dead (see number 13 of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith).
To decide which of these positions is “right” generally results only in projection. A modernist who thinks that we need to be concerned with how we live this life and that notions of resurrection and afterlife are but fanciful notions of “pie in the sky when you die” might well prefer the notion of death as being final. They would argue that Judaism emphasizes the here-and-now, and puts the weight on how you live the life you’ve got, not on what may or may not happen after death. Many Jewish writers explicitly say this, in fact, and sometimes even condemn Christianity for being too “other-worldly”.
On the other hand, a traditionalist, or even a non-traditionalist who holds that the greatest mystery and tragedy of human life is death may be unwilling to brush off an afterlife so easily. She may ask, “Is this all there is? With nothing after death, is our life here even meaningful?” Such a one might prefer the later parts of the Bible and the interpretations of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim scholars who argued for the reality of life after death, albeit in post-Biblical times.
It boils down to this: If you don’t like the idea of an afterlife, you’re going to privilege the verses that indicate there is none; and if you like the idea of something after death, you’re going to privilege different verses. Neither approach tells us–or can tell us–which view is actually correct.
In fact, Judaism, like all human religions, developed over time–over more than four thousand years–and changed, sometimes enormously, sometimes in contradictory ways, throughout. Attempts by moderns to find the “real” or “original” Judaism–or for that matter, Christianity, Islam, or any other religion–are doomed to failure. Is “pure” Judaism the vague tribal henotheism of Abraham? Or the cultic religion of the nomadic Israelites under Moses? Or the sacrificial, Temple-based religion of the Israelite Kingdom? Or Second-Temple Judaism? Or Rabbinical Judaism, which is the ancestor of most modern forms of Judaism? Or Karaite Judaism? Or Samaritanism? Pick your poison, but partisans of each will tell you with equal vehemence why it is correct and all the others are wrong.
The same thing is true of attempts by Christian sects to emulate the Primitive Church–i.e. the Church of New Testament times. Islamic attempts to go back to the faith of the Rightly Guided Caliphs are similar. All such attempts are of course futile. They all share two errors. The first is the assumption that we can know what the “correct” form of Judaism or Christianity or Islam was like. We can know some things about such early forms, but much less than we’d like. Even what we know is subject to interpretation. For example, some Christian churches don’t use instrumental music in services because the New Testament doesn’t say anything about musical instruments accompanying hymns. However, to use the old saying, is absence of evidence evidence of absence? Maybe they did use musical instruments and no one thought to explicitly say so.
Such thinking tends towards sola scriptura, as noted above, and tends to discredit extra-scriptural traditions a priori. It also doesn’t make allowance for difficult passages that are often hotly debated by scholars. For example, does Leviticus 19:27 mean you can’t shave at all, or that you can’t trim your beard if you do have one, or what? Does 1 Timothy 3:2 mean that polygamy is allowed, but not for bishops? Or does it mean a bishop must be married as opposed to unmarried? Or is “husband of one wife” an idiom for “faithfully married”? Examples could be multiplied, quite a bit, in fact. In any case, such verses often hang on what was intended by the author; and this boils down to reading the minds of the dead, since there is no way other than that of knowing just what the authors did mean. There seems to be a dearth of necromancers involved in scriptural interpretation, so we can dismiss that at least!
The way I see it, it boils down to “who do you trust”–or more precisely, “what commitments do you make”. If a person who is not a Jew or a Christian reads the Old Testament–or the New Testament, for that matter–she may make of it whatever she wishes. If she believes in angels, an afterlife, or any such thing, it will be on the basis of something other than the Bible, so it doesn’t really matter to her how the Bible is to be interpreted with regard to angels or anything else. For a Jew or Christian, it’s a matter of what commitment one makes.
Some make a commitment to a particular tradition that claims to be able to authoritatively interpret Scripture. Orthodox Judaism–and to a lesser extent, Conservative and Reform Judaism–claims to interpret the Written Torah (and more broadly, the Old Testament as a whole) in an authoritative and binding manner, via the Oral Torah (the Talmud and the ongoing refinements and rulings on it). The Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as the Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East, in different ways, claim to interpret both Old and New Testaments via the Holy Tradition or the Magisterium–different terms for the ongoing tradition of the Church, based on teachings of the Apostles, Church Fathers, Popes, Councils, Patriarchs, and other sources, written and oral. Most Protestant churches claim that only the Bible is authoritative, but different denominations differ as to the extent to which extra-Biblical sources and methods may be used to aid interpretation.
Thus, if one commits to Orthodox Judaism or one of the historic ancient Christian churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental, or Church of the East), by this commitment one accepts their teaching. It’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that, of course–not all matters are definitively settled even in these churches, and there is a varying place for individual conscience. Still, in general, the interpretations of these churches are in a sense “pre-formulated”. In short, a Catholic theologian might say, “Yes, based solely on the Bible, one couldn’t tell if angels are meant to be manifestations of God or individual beings; but Tradition holds them to be individual beings, so that is our understanding of how the Bible is to be interpreted, so that angels are separate beings is official teaching.”
One might, on the other hand, commit to a conservative church that teaches sola scriptura and that believes angels to be individual beings. Such a church is not really reaching that conclusion based on sola scriptura, since for reasons I’ve been elaborating, you can’t do that even in principle. What they’re really doing is accepting the Christian tradition of angels as individual beings, not manifestations of God. If you want to do that, then whatever floats your boat. Just be aware that you’re still using a tradition. Just as in the old cliché “a choice not to choose is still a choice”, a tradition that you have no tradition but that some things are true, anyway, is a tradition nonetheless.
If one holds absolutely to a sola scriptura stance, then taking this to its logical conclusion ends in saying in effect that no one, no matter how learned, and no church or institution can tell me how to interpret the Bible. This is tantamount to saying that the Bible means what I think it means, full stop. Quite a few people do this without being aware that they’re doing it. They don’t realize that they’re making unspoken assumptions about the meaning of a difficult text, or relying on an extra-Biblical tradition that they don’t realize is an extra-Biblical, and so on.
There are some who do this and are aware of what they’re doing, though–that is, they believe that only the Lord/Holy Spirit/Inner Light or whatever has any ultimate authority. No worldly source, be it a church, a scholar, however erudite, a pastor, or anyone or anything else, can tell me what to believe. It’s me and my Bible, illumined by God; end of story.
It is, as they say, a free country, and anyone who wishes to take that perspective is totally free to do so. Such a person may be a wonderful and upstanding person, far holier and closer to God than I’ll ever be in this life. That said, I, or anyone else, is totally free not to take such a person’s theology of Scripture seriously in the least. History is chock full of people who have read the Bible by the Spirit or the Inner Light, or personal revelation, what have you; and such people notably disagree with each other on pretty much everything. As Blake said, “Both read the Bible day and night/But thou read’st black where I read white.” Such a person may at times have valid–even profound–insights. However, such golden insights are all too often mixed in with the dross of absurdity, usually with much higher ratios of the latter.
Of course, such a person will often respond to one who accepts an existing tradition along the lines of, “Hey, at least I’m an independent thinker! I don’t need no stinking Pope or council or church or authority to tell me how to read the Bible! I’m not kowtowing to authority or taking in predigested, preformulated pablum like you are! I’m no company man!”
There are some legitimate points buried in such a diatribe. One shouldn’t uncritically buy into any religion, philosophy, interpretive method, or even scientific theory without due inspection and a healthy sense of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”). Prudence, after all, is a cardinal virtue. On the other hand, there is the old saying, “No need to reinvent the wheel.” It is not a failure to think for oneself or to abdicate intellectual responsibility to assume that maybe, just maybe, an expert in a field might know more about that field that I do. That doesn’t make that person automatically right; but it does mean that in the process of investigating an issue, I ought, initially, at least, to give at least a bit more weight to the authority than to my own opinion. It really boils down to navigating between the Scylla of argumentum ad auctoritatem–“argument to authority”, i.e., it’s true because the authority says so, which is of course a logical fallacy–on the one hand, and on the other, the Charybdis of “I don’t need no steeenking authority to tell me what’s right!” There’s no formal name that I know of for the latter, which is also obviously a fallacy, but I guess you could call it argumentum ad meipsum–argument to myself!
This latter is a very characteristically American stance, though it may appear elsewhere. As I’ve noted before, some people make this argument without realizing it, and I can have some sympathy for that. As to those who explicitly know that this is how they’re arguing, while I can admire the totally unalloyed arrogance and self-confidence involved, I don’t take their actual stances with the least bit of seriousness. More precisely, I hold their dicta to the same standards I would anything else–does it make sense? Is there evidence for it? Is it congruent with what I already know to be true? And so forth.
An idiosyncratic, individual vision like this can be interesting at times. Certainly, the worldview of William Blake, while nearly hallucinatory and sometimes incoherent, is nevertheless fascinating, powerful, and often moving. Then again, few people are on the level of a Blake. More common are the type of things you get in the writings of Ellen G. White or Mary Baker Eddy, for example. Harold Bloom, in his wonderful The American Religion, writes that both of these worthies, while to his mind creative and entertaining, are almost perfectly unreadable.
In any case, what I tend to find the most objectionable is the magpie approach. This is what you often have, especially with auto-didacts, who will loudly proclaim that no one can tell them what to believe or how to interpret Scripture, but who are perfectly fine with plucking exegetical tidbits from whatever tradition they come across. “Ooh, that Jewish interpretation looks neat! Wow, what a cool thing that Russian Orthodox writer said! Hey, I think this verse means XYZ!” You get the picture; and said picture is a hodgepodge with no internal consistency, no rhyme or reason, nothing to compel the intellectual assent of anyone besides the intellectual magpie who stuck the pretty, shiny objects together into a heap in the first place.
So in the end, we “pays our money and takes our chances”. We commit to a tradition, or we read the Scriptures by ourselves, or whatever. My general stance is that whatever you decide, own it. If you buy into a “name brand”–Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, etc.–say, “Yeah, I’ve committed to it, it seems more plausible to me, and that doesn’t mean I’m just following the crowd–here’s why I think it’s more plausible.” If you do your own thing, admit it; but don’t get all high and mighty about your intellectual independence. “Intellectual independence” and “being correct” are not automatically synonymous, after all. And if you put together an interpretive patchwork of what seems plausible to you, more power to you; but don’t expect anyone else to see it that way.
So we’ve drifted a bit afield from the purported topic of this post, that is, angels. My own beliefs? In a nutshell: Growing up in a nominal but non-practicing Protestant background, I took the existence of God, angels, the Devil, and devils for granted. As a kid, I shared the common (and mistaken) view of angels as the glorified and bewinged souls of the departed. As I grew older, I discarded the angel-after-you-die fallacy. My ideas on angels were unfocused and vague until my 20’s, when I read more theology and philosophy. I never lost a belief in God (though my ideas about Him changed) nor in angels (though I didn’t give them much thought). At one point, probably in my very late teens and early twenties, I did decide that the Devil in particular and demons in general were myths, symbols of evil.
As to the Prince of Darkness and his minions, I changed my ideas about them yet again; but I’ll save that for an upcoming post. After reading Mortimer Adler’s The Angels and Us, I came to a better understanding of the traditional understanding of angels in Christian theology. I also came to understand, from other things I read, the way that early Jewish depictions of angels were ambiguous as to their individuality. I never had had any particular reason, even when I did not belong to any organized religion, to doubt the existence of angels as separate beings. Reading about early Jewish views of angels gave me no reason to change my mind.
I guess on one level, a world without angels and other spirits is just less interesting. Such a world would be less full of wonder, more “dead” than our own. Second, all human cultures throughout history have consistently believed in non-human intelligences–what we might call “spirits” or “angels” or “demons”–and this indicates to me either a universal delusion or a universal truth. Given that I believe in the existence of an infinite spirit being–God–why not believe in finite spirit beings–angels? If I’m already in for a pound, why not be in for a penny, too?
Finally, as long-time readers may be aware, I am a Catholic, and thus accept the Catholic Tradition and Magisterium. The Tradition is that angels are not just manifestations of God, but separate spirit beings; and I accept that tradition. Even if I didn’t, for the reasons I’ve described above, I’d still incline towards angels as separate being; but the Tradition add weight to my other considerations.
So, for all these reasons, I believe that the angels are indeed spiritual intelligences that exist and furthermore, that can be petitioned in prayer and that may even (on rare occasions) interact with us. Everyone’s mileage on these propositions may vary, of course, and that is both to be expected and totally fine. I think my view is most plausible; but then again, I would, wouldn’t I?
Part of the series “Religious Mischellany“
*I follow the tradition of spelling “LORD” in all-caps where it is not merely a translation of the Hebrew adon or ba’al, both of which mean “lord” or “master”, but a translation of the Divine Name YHWH ( יהוה), sometimes transcribed as “Yahweh” or, less correctly, as “Jehovah”. Thus, “angel of the LORD” is equivalent to “angel of YHWH”. Strictly, the format is a capital “L” with the remaining letters in capitals of a smaller font; but alas, I don’t have control of font size within a paragraph, so we’ll leave it as it is.