In keeping with the theme of the last post….
COINCIDENCE??!! I think NOT!!!
In all seriousness, I think there is a logic here, but of a more subtle sort. I touched on just the barest aspects of this similarity (though without mentioning angels) back here. Today I want to go into greater detail on this topic, and in a slightly different direction. In all seriousness, I think there are some striking similarities, and that’s what we’re going to look at.
I’ve written about angels before, so I will just give a brief rundown of the characteristics traditionally attributed to angels in the Western (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) tradition (though I will emphasize the Christian, since the Christian theology of angels is the one with which I’m most familiar):
- Angels are immortal by nature. Not only do they not die, they cannot die nor be killed or destroyed in any way (except by God, who could annihilate anything if He so wished).
- Angels are pure spirit, or pure mind (which is another way of saying the same thing). They thus lack bodies and are not composed of matter in any way (but see here and here for dissenting views). As a corollary to this, angels do not need to eat, drink, or breathe. The general interpretation is that they refuse to do these things (see Judges 13:15-16) or that when they appear to do so (see Tobit 12:17-19), it is an illusion.
- Angels are not all-knowing (omniscient)–only God is–but what they do know they know perfectly and without confusion. This is because, not having bodies, they are not subject to the frailties inherent in brains and physiological phenomena, and also because they know directly through the ideas (in the Platonic sense) infused into them at their creation by God. Thus angels are, as noted above, more intelligent than humans and less prone (if at all) to error.*
- Angels are not usually asserted to be able to read human minds; but since they are more intelligent and understand human behavior perfectly, they can often infer what a human is thinking. They can telepathically send suggestions to humans, though, thus being able to send thoughts, though they can’t receive them.
- Angels can travel instantaneously anywhere in the cosmos. This is symbolically represented as “flying”, but being immaterial, angels do not fly, walk, or move in any way we understand. They just pop up wherever they want to be.
- Angels are immensely more powerful than humans. Though they are not made of matter, they are capable of interacting with matter. They are thus able to perform acts (technically referred to in theology as “preternatural” acts) that are far beyond what humans can do, and which appear to humans to be miraculous.
That summarizes the properties of angels. Let us now move on to aliens.
Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons. Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all. Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.
In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:
Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.
Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.
Having written a lengthy post on angels, I now turn to the other end of the spectrum. Demons, in one sense, are no different from angels–they are merely evil angels, or fallen angels, in traditional terminology. Still, they are worth looking at separately, as the scriptural basis for traditional teachings on demons is somewhat different from–and murkier–than that on angels.
“Demon”, to start off with, is from daimōn (δαίμων), which in Classical Greek merely means what we’d refer to as a “spirit” or a minor deity. There was no moral status implied–daimones could be good, bad, or indifferent. Some were even thought to be tutelary spirits–what we’d call “guardian angels”. The daimonion–“little daimōn” or “daimōn-like thing” of Socrates is an example of the latter.
Later on, many Christian theologians came to consider all pre-Christian pagan deities to be evil spirits masquerading as gods or benevolent beings. Thus, daimōn came to connote not just a spirit or divinity, but an evil spirit or divinity–hence the modern meaning of “demon”. As we will see later, Christian theology eventually equated demons with fallen angels. We will get to that in a bit, though.
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.