19 May 2008

Angelology 101

by Phil Johnson

Few biblical topics have provoked more wild speculation and fruitless debate than angels. Scripture doesn't begin to answer all our questions about the subject. But there's a lot more information about angels in the Bible than you might think. (As a matter of fact, the Old and New Testaments combined speak of angels more than 250 times.) And it's important that we understand the biblical doctrine of angels correctly, especially in an age like ours, when so much popular superstition surrounds and obscures the truth about these glorious creatures.
(This article was originally published last year in Tabletalk Magazine.)

ow many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The question is raised nowadays only to caricature people who like to indulge in useless squabbling over theological fine points.

But some theologians in the middle ages were seriously intrigued by that question—and many other interesting enigmas like it: Do angels, being spiritual creatures, occupy any space at all? If not, how can they be in one specific place, and by what means do they move from one location to another? Can they be in more than one place at a time? What caused some of them to sin? Did those who sinned fall together, or individually? Which was the greater company—those who sinned, or those who remained holy? And what about guardian angels? Do elect humans have just one, or more than one, guardian angel assigned to them? Does an angel's guardianship begin at the Christian's conception, birth, or baptism?

Prior to the Reformation, practically every imaginable question about angels was a subject of debate at one point or another. Nineteenth-century Baptist theologian Augustus Strong pointed out that in medieval theology, "even the excrements of angels were subjects of discussion, for if there was 'angels' food' (Ps. 78:25), and if angels ate (Gen. 18:8), it was argued that we must take the logical consequences."

If medieval doctrine seemed obsessed with mysterious fine points about angelology, the focus of twentieth-century theology swung about as far as possible to the opposite extreme. Liberal and neo-orthodox theologians generally took the approach of the Sadducees, who claimed "that there are neither angels nor spirits" (Acts 23:8, NIV). Of course, Reformed and evangelical writers rejected that kind of skepticism and formally affirmed the existence of the spirit world. But they nevertheless produced very few published works dealing in depth with the biblical data about angels.

Someone might point out that for the past twenty-five years or so (owing mainly to a handful of fiction writers who captured the evangelical market), demons have loomed large in the popular evangelical consciousness. But sensationalized novels about demonic activity don't constitute authentic theological discourse. And considered as a whole, it seems fair to say that the body of serious Reformed and evangelical writing over the past century has shown a remarkable apathy about angelology.

Compare, for example, Strong's Systematic Theology (1886 1st ed.) with almost any of its mid-twentieth-century counterparts. Strong devoted 21 thickset pages to the heading "Good and Evil Angels." But some of the most important conservative systematic theologies of the past half-century have essentially omitted the subject altogether.

Robert Duncan Culver's Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Christian Focus, 2005) takes careful notice of that trend and aims to help reverse it. Culver devotes a large chapter to the study of angels. He begins by noting that "the publishing lists are well supplied by books on demons, witches, Satan, and other real, or imagined personnel of the dark side of the unseen world, but only a very few currently on the subject of God's messengers, the angels" (p. 164). Culver rightly proposes that evangelicals would do well to study the subject anew, especially in light of the world's current fascination with the angelic realm.

It's a valid and important point. Ironically, while interest in demonic activity has been on the rise among Christians, angels have become an extremely popular topic once again among non-Christians.

The rising tide of New Age spirituality, spurred by a profound backlash against sterile secular rationalism, has awakened a widespread curiosity about angels and the spirit-world. Several movies, an extremely popular prime-time television series, and countless books have been devoted to the subject. About an hour's drive from my office is a New-Age establishment that bills itself as "the world's largest Angel store." The shelves there are well-stocked with paintings, statuettes, and new-age books ostensibly teaching people how to communicate with angels. They also have a large selection of gewgaws called "shelf angels"—porcelain figurines designed to sit on the edge of a shelf—mostly winged women and cherubic toddlers sporting diminutive angel-wings of their own.

So just as modernity led to a diminished interest in angels, postmodernity has resurrected a superstitious belief in them. This presents Christians with a unique opportunity to shed biblical light on a spiritual topic the world is currently showing interest in learning about.

Of course, it is by no means possible in one short article to make up for the egregious deficiency of a century of evangelical apathy on this topic, but perhaps we can make a helpful start by highlighting some of the key biblical truths and answering some of the popular misconceptions about angels. Here's an outline that represents a very small first step:

Angels are spiritual creatures. Scripture speaks of the angels' creation only in passing. They are not explicitly mentioned in Genesis 1, so the precise timing of their creation is uncertain. Job 38:7 seems to speak of the angels' worshiping when God laid the foundations of the earth, so their creation could well have occurred at the very start of day one in the six-day time frame.

Nevertheless, Scripture plainly teaches that angels are creatures, and not eternal beings of some kind. God "alone has immortality" (1 Timothy 6:16). And Psalm 148:1-5 is a summons for the angels, along with the rest of creation, to worship. It says, "Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created" (v. 5). Colossians 1:15-17 also indicates that the angels were created by Christ and therefore are subordinate to Him.

They are spirit-beings (Psalm 104:4; Hebrews 1:7, 14) and therefore incorporeal as to their nature, but they are capable at times of assuming at least the appearance (if not the actual albeit temporary form) of bodily organisms (Genesis 19:1-14; John 20:12). They can do this so perfectly that they are easily mistaken for humans (Ezekiel 9:2; Hebrews 13:2). But because we know that "a spirit does not have flesh and bones" (Luke 24:39), we ought to understand that these occasional visible manifestations of angels are an accommodation to the limitations of human perception, and not a lesson about what angels are truly and essentially like.

Angels are personal and moral beings. Angels are always portrayed with personal attributes, including intelligence, volition, and a moral nature. Their wisdom and power are vastly superior to our human abilities (2 Samuel 14:20; Psalm 103:20), but their knowledge is by no means exhaustive (there are "things into which angels long to look"—1 Peter 1:12; as well as facts they do not know—Matthew 24:36).

Proof that angels are moral agents, capable of sin and righteousness, is evident from the fact that some did sin (2 Peter 2:4). Jude 6 suggests that they did this by exceeding their legitimate authority and abandoning "their proper dwelling." Apparently this was an organized rebellion, led by Satan. The apostle John's vision in Revelation 12:1-9 seems to refer Satan's original fall, suggesting perhaps that as many as a third of the angels followed him in his rebellion, and that is why they were cast down.

The angels who did not sin are referred to as "holy angels" (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26).

The angels are a mighty multitude. Without giving any hint as to their actual number, Scripture makes it clear that the angelic host is a vast and imposing army. The expression "host of heaven," often used to signify the angels (Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Chronicles 18:18; Luke 2:13), suggests an innumerable throng (cf. Jeremiah 33:22).

The angels were apparently created all at once, yet individually. They are never portrayed as a race descended from a common ancestor (Luke 20:34-36). Humans are called "sons of men," but angels are never called "sons of angels." As a matter of fact, Jesus emphatically said that angels do not marry (Matthew 22:30). As to gender, they are always referred to with masculine pronouns—but since they have no feminine counterparts and are spiritual beings who do not procreate, it would seem that they cannot meaningfully be categorized as either male or female.

But they are nonetheless organized in ranks and legions similar to a massive army. Again, the expression "host of heaven" evokes the idea of an armed company. Jesus said on the night of His betrayal that he could have instantly summoned "more than twelve legions of angels" to fight on His behalf (Matthew 26:53).

The orders of angels are not fully enumerated or explained by the Bible. But the angelic host includes at least one archangel, the seraphim, and the cherubim. The archangel, Michael, is named in Daniel 10:13, 26; Jude 9; and Revelation 12:7. He seems to be the highest of all angelic creatures. Only one other holy angel, Gabriel, is explicitly named (Daniel 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19, 26). Some think he is therefore similar in rank to Gabriel, but Scripture doesn't actually designate Gabriel as an archangel.

The seraphim are mentioned only in the heavenly vision recounted in Isaiah 6:2-6, where the prophet describes them as glorious and imposing figures who stand before God's throne and praise Him constantly, guarding the holiness of His throne.

The cherubim, far from the chubby-faced childlike figures often pictured in popular art, seem to represent the power and majesty of the angelic host. They were positioned as guards by the entrance of Eden (Genesis 3:24). They were also the symbolic guardians of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 37:6). And they formed a living chariot of fire on which the Lord would ride (2 Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:10; cf. Ezekiel 10:1-22). They are always described as fearsome and awe-inspiring creatures.

Other Angelic beings are called thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers (Colossians 1:16). Similar terms are applied even to the fallen angels (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15). But the precise number and arrangement of the heavenly host is one of the many questions about angels that are left unanswered for us in Scripture.

Angels are God's unseen ministers. One of the most interesting questions of all about angels has to do with their unseen service on behalf of believers. Scripture portrays angels as caretakers of God's providence on our behalf—"ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation" (Hebrews 1:14). In Matthew 18:10, Jesus (speaking of His own tender care for little children) said, "I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven"—suggesting that specific angels have guardianship of specific individuals. And Hebrews 13:2 says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Very little further explanation of the angels' service to humans is given. Many are tempted to inquire into the matter in search of specifics Scripture doesn't reveal.

But we are expressly forbidden to do that. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever." When it comes to the subject of angels, we would do well to keep reminding ourselves of those boundaries on each side of the narrow road. It will keep us from falling into the sort of superstition that dominated medieval angelology, and it will also steer us away from the apathy and rationalism that has marred modern theological thought.
Phil's signature


Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Phil,

The Greek word 'angelos' in the New Testament should be translated all the way, as 'messenger', which is what it actually means.

Most of the time, there is no need to posit the idea that they are unseen, inhuman spiritual forces. They are usually just people (though that is pretty special, really!), and most New Testament passages make a lot more sense if understood this way.

I don't deny the reality of spiritual beings that are not human, I just think by our mistranslation of 'angelos' as 'angels' we are often seeing these unseen beings ;-) in the New Testament, where there are none.

Hanani Hindsfeet said...

Hi Phil,

Thoughtful and interesting post.
I have in past times also found it amazing that their is so little knowledge of the angelic, despite there being a fair amount of detail given in Scripture.

I note with regard to Michael as the archangel and the many attempts to categorise and arrange spiritual beings hierarchically made by men. Some would place seraphim at the top, followed by cherubim and place archangel's' just above "regular" angels (forcing them to come up with theories about Michael and the devil). Other lists would place cherubim highest and so forth. But it is interesting you point out that Michael is uniquely mentioned in this manner, while of course Gabriel is the only other named angel in Scripture(unless you count Abaddon of the bottomless pit in Revelation).

It is a shame that misunderstandings of God's servant-creatures are being proliferated by the new age movement. That being said it is also worth remembering that whether we believe in angelic appearances and messages today in the good sense, we nevertheless wrestle against the darker variety in spiritual warfare, rather than flesh and blood - as the apostlic teaching informs us.

Lee Shelton said...

"They are spirit-beings (Psalm 104:4; Hebrews 1:7, 14) and therefore incorporeal as to their nature ..."

This fact alone is enough to dispel the nonsensical theory that Genesis 6:4 is referring to angels producing children with human women, but there are many Christians who insist otherwise. We should note that the whenever scripture speaks of angels assuming a physical appearance, it was in the capacity of doing the Lord's work.

Fred Butler said...

You mean to tell me angels don't look like long-haired, muscle bound American Gladiators?

Mike Westfall said...

> You mean to tell me angels don't
> look like long-haired, muscle bound
> American Gladiators?

Not just long hair, but long, blonde hair!

Alice said...

A good book on this topic (in my opinion) is "Angels: Elect and Evil" by Dr. C. Fred Dickason. (He taught a course by the same name when I was at Moody Bible Institute.)

Trinian said...

It was helpful for me to reference Ephesians 3:10 when I was having trouble seeing why everyone kept using Colossians 1:16 to talk about angels. Bugged me for the longest time until it finally bugged me enough to do the legwork.

Also, a small amount of Greek can be a big stumbling block. God's messengers and servants are rather different then ours. I'm sure I saw that referenced in a blog somewhere... can't put my finger on it though...

Anonymous said...

Helpful post. One thing I'd add for those who aren't Christians is, as created by Christ, angels are below Christ (see Hebrews 1).

Moreover, they were heavily involved in the initiative of salvation through Christ and fully support it.

So if you like angels and you're not a Christian, do what they want you to do. Trust in him!

Thanks again

The Seeking Disciple said...

Interesting post in light of the claims by some out there to have their own personal angels and have given them names such as Emma, Healing Revival, and even Angel of the Lord. Todd Bentley, from the Lakeland revival, claims to have the angel Emma and claims that most angels are 6'4 with large muscles.

How important, however, that we remain committed to what the Bible teaches on angels and not mere speculation or fantasy.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

In response to Alice's comment about Dr. Dickason's book (Angels: Elect and Evil): I happen to have a copy of the book on hand (on loan to me eons ago by a good friend). I'm still not done reading it, and certain parts I've read [see my comment on Ch. 20 below] I don't quite agree with, but it is still interesting read nonetheless, IMHO.

Dickason divides the book into 2 parts: Part I (angels) and Part II (Satan and demons). Chapter 20 may prove to be controversial for some because it talks about demon possession, and in regard to Christians specifically Dickason holds the view that "[having] the Spirit's presence and [being] the Saviour's property do not shut out the possibility of a genuine believer being possessed" (p. 189). I don't necessarily think that demon possession of unbelievers has ended for all time, but I disagree with Dickason's views on Christians' being possessed because "he who is in [us] is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 Jn 4:4). Since the copy of the book I am reading was published in 1975, I don't know if Dickason has since changed his view on this.

~Mark said...

Thanks for a good post Phil! I came close to (but never did) discounting the existence of "guardian" angels because the only people whom I heard discuss them were Word of Faith types.

I couldn't discount the idea because of the presence of the Scripture you quoted, but because of the sources discussing it I couldn't relax into the idea either.

So, since the Scriptures aren't completely descriptive of the concept, I placed it in the "maybe" column and practiced the difficult phrase "I don't know" and thought it might be one of those things I won't know until glory.

Trinian said...

in regard to Christians specifically Dickason holds the view that "[having] the Spirit's presence and [being] the Saviour's property do not shut out the possibility of a genuine believer being possessed" (p. 189).

Yikes. I'm curious, what does the book site as evidence for this? It seems to me that one has to be able to bind the strong man before freely plundering his house - and when that strong man is authentically God, what possible power (or principality, or angel) could manage that?

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

And considered as a whole, it seems fair to say that the body of serious Reformed and evangelical writing over the past century has shown a remarkable apathy about angelology.

Very interesting article. Billy Graham said essentially the same thing in his 1975 book "Angels: God's secret agents."

And I always like to ask people who poke fun at the medieval argument about how many angels fit on the head of a pin whether they really know what the discussion was about (i.e. whether angelic beings have extension in space at all.) Nobody ever has - but then it's more fun to make fun of things you don't understand than try to understand them.

Jim Crigler said...

It's appropriate that you post this here now, because Tabletalk is doing an excursion into the subject of angels this week.

Brian Roden said...

I know a missionary to the islands of the South Pacific who has a personal story of angelic intervention. He didn't see the angels himself.

He was driving his 4WD vehicle down the jungle road, going to visit a new village and ask the chief for permission to come speak to the people, when he came to a one-lane wooden bridge crossing a small river. When he was almost across, a small native boy suddenly walked onto the bridge coming the other direction. There wasn't enough space to brake and stop before reaching the boy, and he quickly determined it was better for him to die going off the bridge than to run over the boy. After all, the missionary was ready for eternity, and this boy most likely wasn't, as the gospel was just arriving in this area.

He steered hard to one side and started off the side of the bridge. After a moment, he found himself and his jeep on the bank of the river. The roof over the passenger area next to him was crushed in. He had to leave the vehicle, as it was not drivable.

A couple of days later, the native pastor of the church at the base town they were working from went to the village near the wreck to start recovernig the vehicle. When he was talking to one of the villagers who had seen the whole thing happen, the villager asked why the missionary swerved to miss the boy. The pastor explained that every life mattered to God, and therefore to His followers as well. This alone amazed the villager, as they saw children as replaceable.

Then the villager said he saw my missionary friend walk away from the accident, but wanted to know about the other two men in the jeep. The pastor was puzzled. "The missionary was traveling alone that day." The villager replied, "No, there were two men in the vehicle with him. One was sitting in the front seat next to the missionary, and the other was riging on the back. When the truck went off the bridge, the man in the front held his hand up against the roof over the driver's head. The man on the back jumped into the river and pushed the truck back upright. But then I didn't see them with the missionary when we left the truck."

Because a missionary was willing to risk death rather than run over a child, and God sent two of his messengers to protect him, and let the natives see those angels, the chief of that village welcomed the missionary and his message, and there is now a Christian church there.

Matthew Celestine said...

If angelic bodies are only appearances and not real, then how can we be sure that the body of the risen Christ was real and not just an appearance?

If angels are merely spirits who appear human, why would the disiples not think that the risen Christ was a spirit who appeared to have flesh and bone?

Trinian said...

If angels are merely spirits who appear human, why would the disiples not think that the risen Christ was a spirit who appeared to have flesh and bone?

... but the disciples did think the risen Lord was a spirit. Why should we believe otherwise? Because He said so, and demonstrated so. Luke 24:36-42; or am I missing some hidden sarcasm or something in your question?

Matthew Celestine said...

I agree. Christ had risen.

However, our Lord would seem to be claiming in Luke 24:39 that on the basis that He appears to have flesh and bone, it can be concluded that He is not a bodiless spirit.

If the Bible speaks of creatures that appear to have bodies (be flesh and bone) yet are really bodiless spirits (as Phil claims), does that not defeat our Lord's logic?

Daniel said...

Good article. Thanks! I haven't read anything exclusively on the subject of angels since graduating from the Liberty Bible Institute in 1998. We used Dr. Harold Wilmington's 'Guide to the Bible', and I remember discussing this subject in the 'Doctrine of Angels.'

In regards to lee shelton's observation of Gen 6:4, I read on page 782, under the Doctrine of Angels, the following:

C. The sin of the bound angels. It has already been observed that one-third of heaven's angels joined Lucifer in his rebellion against God. These, of course, are the fallen angels of the Bible. Someday they will be judged by God and thrown into Gehenna hell. But why have some of their number suffered imprisonment already? Many Bible students believe the answer to this question is found in Genesis 6:1,2,4:

"And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born onto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all they chose...There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renoun."

It appears that there is much controversy over these verses and their meaning. The two views he (Wilmington) presents are:

a. The sons of God refer to individuals belonging to the line of Seth. The daughters of men were unsaved, belonging to the line of Cain.

b. The sons of God were wicked and fallen angelic beings of some kind that had immoral relations with the daughters of men.

The reference to giants in the article (like Goliath) also is very interesting reading.

Thought this might give an angle to consider where the Gen 6:4 reference is concerned.

Great site! Thanks for allowing me to give input...

Trinian said...

If the Bible speaks of creatures that appear to have bodies (be flesh and bone) yet are really bodiless spirits (as Phil claims), does that not defeat our Lord's logic?

If the Bible speaks of two distinctly different entities, one which has a real flesh and bone body that men can mistake for a spirit, and one which has a spirit body that men can mistake for flesh and bone, where does it become illogical?

Matthew Celestine said...

Trinian, I believe that it is a mistake to view angels as incorpereal.

Why not apply our Lord's logic in Luke 24:39 to the nature of angels?

Our Lord claims:

1. I appear (according to the senses of sight and touch) to have flesh and bone.
2. A bodiless spirit does not have flesh and bone.
3. Therefore I am not a bodiless spirit.

If we apply this to angels:

1. Angels appear (according to sight and touch) to have flesh and bone.
2. A bodiless spirit does not have flesh and bone.
3. Therefore angels are not bodiless spirits.

Trinian said...

On the one hand...
Christ's body did not simply appear to be corporeal, He verbally verified that it was so and demonstrated that it was so. Though angels can appear to have physical bodies (and at other times they do not appear in that manner), not only do we not have clear verification for that, but we have several citations (listed in Phil's post) that clearly say that angels are spirit creatures.

Now, on the other hand, the interesting part (to me, at least) that Phil did not deal with is that these spirits interact on a very physical level with the corporeal creation (and usually dramatically so). This is not to say that the angels themselves are corporeal, because of the Scriptural evidence Phil provided, but it is a very interesting point of discussion about the nature of God's different creations.

Matthew Celestine said...

Trinian, I actually think the evidence that Phil gave for angels being incorporeal is pretty insignificant.

In fact, he only uses one argument; that the word spirit is applied to angels.

Now clearly in Luke 24:39, our Lord contrasts Himself to a spirit of a bodiless nature, but that does not mean He had angels in mind as a way of contrast.

The Bible assigns many meanings to the word 'spirit' or pneuma.

In fact in Acts 23:8, the words angel and spirit are distinguished- 'neither angel nor spirit'. Whatever kind of spirit is meant here, it is not angels.

1 Corinthians 15:45
"So also it is written, "The first MAN, Adam, BECAMEA LIVING SOUL ." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit."

Here we the word spirit is applied to our Lord Himself.

If the fact that angels are called spirits makes them bodiless, we must say that our Lord Jesus is a bodiless spirit.

I think we should conclude that angels are corporeal beings.

Every Blessing in Christ


Anonymous said...

"If angels are merely spirits who appear human, why would the disiples not think that the risen Christ was a spirit who appeared to have flesh and bone?"

Ummm...they did. That's why he had them touch him.

How many angel stories are there where the angle said "touch me".

Big difference Matthew, angels are described as living spirits, not as humans raised from the dead. Jesus was a human raised from the dead. There is no comparison.

Anonymous said...

"Todd Bentley, from the Lakeland revival, claims to have the angel Emma and claims that most angels are 6'4 with large muscles. "

LOL!! I guess Shaq's got nothing to fear from Angels...

GUNNY said...

I've always found it ironic that some of the people most infatuated by angels (particular that run in the 90s) ... (a) think of angels and babies with curly hair, diapers, and wings, and (b) ask God to send them some angels to help them.

I always thought, "If that's your conception of an angel, how much help do you expect?"

I also found it odd that people who had all these encounters with angels found them to be rather pleasant and comforting.

The angels I see in the Bible are typically having to say, "Don't be afraid."