While treated as synonymous with “sweet” in today’s common speech, the term “angelic” actually describes beings that are far more amazing than any of their various depictions (each of which is related to particular angelic qualities – none of them complete). When angels appeared to men in the Bible, the reaction was often one of amazement and terror – sometimes the experience was so overwhelming people believed they were seeing God (Rev. 22:8-9)! For many Christians, angels are something of an uncomfortable enigma, and the tendency is to lean toward either neglect (considering angelic activity limited to the heavens), or obsession (usually on the demonic side). Confusion regarding angels is understandable. The Bible asserts their existence and some of their activities, but offers little in the way of detail. Therefore, much commentary on angels is based on theological reflection. Given that this is the case, we can do no better than to consult the “Angelic Doctor” himself – Thomas Aquinas – and see what he has to say on the subject. Below is my summary of some of Aquinas’s thoughts supplemented with details from other traditional Christian sources.
What Is An Angel?
Angels are pure spirit beings. Angels, therefore, cannot die, break apart, or be substantially changed, for these actions all require matter. Being pure spirit also means that each angel is the only one of its kind – each angel is essentially different from every other angel.
Are Angels Creatures?
Yes, angels are beings made by God and they only exist as God sustains them. Thus, angels are creatures (natural rather than supernatural). They have not always existed, and they can go out of existence (but not naturally – only if God ceased to sustain their existence). Angels were probably created at the same time as the rest of the universe because they are part of the universe, and creation would be incomplete until all that God willed to exist was created.
Why Did God Create Angels?
Ultimately, it was to make the universe better. Existing things are reflective of God who is pure existence, and so the more stuff there is in the universe, the better it is because it more is like God who is perfectly good. Not only is there a lot of stuff, there is a whole spectrum of stuff in a series of gradations. Each grade represents God’s goodness in some way. Physical things are in categories like mineral (material existence without growth, reproduction, or self-motion), vegetable (material existence with growth and reproduction, but not self-motion), and animal (material existence with growth, reproduction, and self-motion). Humanity is made up of all these physical things plus an intellectual soul which is spirit – thus they better reflect God than a rock or a tree or a badger. The next closest thing to God (who is purely immaterial) would be completely immaterial beings – pure spirits. These are generically called “angels,” but each is actually unique. These angels range across a myriad of degrees “filling in” as much of the universe as finite creation can, and thus making the universe a better reflection of the infinity of God.
Do Humans Turn Into Angels When They Die?
No, angels are always angels and humans are always humans. An angel is a substantially different being than a human. For a human to “become” an angel would be tantamount to annihilating the human and making a new thing entirely. However, by God’s grace human beings can achieve a degree of glory equal to the angels in their orders, but human beings will always be human.
Do Angels Have Bodies?
Angels do not have physical bodies. Humans and animals need bodies united with a spiritual soul for their intellectual activities (understanding and willing) because they come to know things through their senses. But the mind, being spiritual, actually requires nothing bodily to work. Angels are personal beings with minds, but they do not learn about reality by sensing it (see below). Angels can, however, manipulate matter. So when angels take human form it is for the benefit of human beings who require matter for their senses to operate. But this matter is not a live body – it is merely an instrument controlled by an angel.
Can Angels Move?
Motion is keyed to material reality. Pure spirits only have “location” in the sense that they operate on matter “here and not there.” An angel is “in” a place by exercising its powers on the material in that physical location. If the angel does so, and then acts om matter somewhere else, it can be said to have “moved” – but only analogically.
Are Angels in Time?
Yes and No. Time is the mind’s measure of change, and change involves impermanence of various kinds. God is uncreated and does not change – he is eternal. Humans are created beings who change, and so are not eternal. Angels are created beings who do not change in their essential being but are related to changing things (e.g., they can also act in one place to affect change and after that place act in another place), and they are changeable in some non-essential ways (e.g., they can be informed, they can do one thing, stop, and do another). Because angels are partially unchanging and partially changing, their duration is said to be measured by aeviternity – the mean between eternity and time. Aeviternity differs from time because time has “before” and “after”; aeviternity in itself has no “before” and “after” but can be put in relation to them. Eternity has neither “before” nor “after,” nor is it related to change. Therefore angels are not in time, but can be related to things in it.
What Do Angels Know?
Angels know as much as God informs them. Lacking bodily senses, angels do not learn the way humans do. Rather, God gives the angels their knowledge of things. The the extent of this knowledge is not the same in all the angels – each receives what is necessary for its purpose. Angelic knowledge is all possessed at once, so they do not require discursive thinking. An angel’s mind is like a mirror – everything it knows is simply there. Angels do understand discursive thinking though (they know how we reason through things). because of all of this, angelic thought contains no falsehood or error.
How do Angels Communicate?
Angels communicate their knowledge to one another, but not with sounds or words – they communicate directly from spirit to spirit. Because angels are without time or location, distance does not impede their communication. Angels can limit their communication to any number of minds they wish: to one other angel, or several, or all.
Do Angels Have Free Will?
Yes – on a thomistic understanding. Where there is intellectual knowledge of good, there is a tendency to attain it (will). In a world of finite goods, the intellect can be steered toward one or another, but because angels see God (the ultimate good), they cannot choose a lesser good and thus cannot sin. Further, lacking bodies, angels are not susceptible to fleshly appetites. Thus, an angel exercises free will more perfectly than man does.
How Did Angels Fall?
Although the angels were created in heaven, they were not created in possession of the beatific vision of God. Some chose, in their first act, to love God, and thus instantly possessed it. Other angels, however, chose to rebel. Lacking bodies, they could not be enticed by fleshly sins, but only to the kinds of sins a purely spiritual being can fall into: pride and envy. According to various scriptural sources (e.g., Isa. 14; Ezk. 28; Lk. 10:18; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 12:3-9), the pride and envy of a powerful angel were at the root of the rebellion. This angel (variously referred to as Lucifer*, Satan, or The Devil) desired to be like almighty God rather than accept the position God gave him. He rejected the grace God gave him at his creation and rebelled – forever cutting himself off from the beatific vision of God.
Being one of the chief angels (perhaps the highest), Satan influenced other angels to rebel as he had. There was a war in heaven, with Satan and his devils opposed by the angelic army of God led by Michael the Archangel (whose name was their battle cry: “Who is like God?“). Satan and his demons were cast out of heaven, and left to roam the earth. The choice of a pure spirit is necessarily final and unchanging, so these fallen angels remain unrepentant and determined in their evil. Wherever they are they endure the pains of hell, and in their anger and hatred, the fallen angels (demons) battle against man’s salvation.
*NOTE: the term “lucifer” is not used as a proper name in the Bible, rather it refers to the “morning star” and may indicate Satan’s original position in heaven as analogous with that of the the king of Babylon (Isa. 14).
What Are Demons?
Demons are fallen angels – the angels who rebelled against God after they were created. These angels that sinned are often said to have “become” demons, but they did not actually turn into a different kind of being. That is, fallen angels are still angels. Demons neither gained nor lost any of the knowledge or abilities they were created with.
Can Angels Affect the Physical World?
Although pure spirits, angels can affect the physical world. Just as an immaterial soul can affect the matter to which it is joined, angels can influence matter to various degrees. Some have thought that nothing occurs without the agency of invisible creatures. Angels can directly control the local movement of physical objects, but they can neither create nor transform physical objects by their own power. They can move or change matter, but they cannot create form nothing, or substantially change what something is: “The fact is, a created spirit has no power of its own to induce any form upon corporeal matter otherwise than by setting some body into local motion. This much is in the power of a created spirit, to make a body obey it to the extent of moving locally. So by moving a body locally an angel can employ natural agents to the production of certain effects.” Angels also cannot work miracles. Angels can do amazing things – things far beyond the power of humans, but only acts of God are true miracles.
Can Angels Affect Humans?
Angels can affect humans (even humans can affect humans, and angels are superior beings). Angels especially act upon human intellects – they can inform humans, strengthen their understanding, and make them aware of sensible truths. Angels cannot act directly upon the human will (God alone can do this), however they can (again, like humans) influence the will. Unlike humans, angels can directly stir up images in the human imagination to arouse sense appetites and passions. Angels can also affect matter and so affect human senses.
Can Demons Make People Sin?
Demons cannot make people sin, because sin requires an act of free will and angels (good and bad) cannot act directly on the human will. Instead, demons can tempt people to sin. God permits this temptation, as all temptation can be avoided and thus become a test – an opportunity and benefit to people.
Do People Have Guardian Angels?
In opposition to the demons, angels are assigned to each human being by God (cf. Ps. 91:11; Mt. 18:10). Humans are guarded by these angels, and helped toward the good. These guardians belong to the lowest order of heavenly spirits: the order of Angels proper. Guardian angels never fail or forsakes their assignment, but this does not mean nothing bad ever happens to their charges. In God’s wisdom, sometimes people must suffer for their good, and such would not be prevented by the guardian angel. neither will a guardian angel stop a person from exercising their free will – even to sin. Each human being has his guardian angel from the moment of his birth, and this angel remains with the person until death. In heaven each person will have an angel to reign with him, but no guardian is needed. (In hell, each man will have a fallen angel to punish him.)
Can Angels Read People’s Minds?
Angels cannot read people’s minds directly. God alone knows the thoughts of hearts and affections of wills directly (1 Cor. 2:11). Angels only know according to how God informs them – they cannot even properly see our bodies much less our invisible souls, and and they have no special ability to perceive the soul’s thoughts or desires. Our thoughts can be known (in a limited fashion) by their effects, of course. Even humans can know the thoughts of others simply by knowing what they are doing, and sometimes less obvious thoughts are revealed by subtle gestures or facial expressions. Angels are able to do the same thing only with far greater skill (having much more knowledge than humans of such things than any human). So they can “read” humans very well even though they cannot simply read their minds.
What Do Angels Do?
All good angels are ministers of God. Depending on the angels’ classification (see below), they are assigned different tasks. Some angels remain in God’s presence at all times and assist before the throne of God. Others are “sent out” to affect God’s purposes among his creatures (that is, God has an angel apply its powers to a creature – angels do not actually move. See above.). It seems that, of the nine orders of angels, only lower five orders are sent in this manner (see below).
How Are Angels Classified?
All the heavenly spirits are generically called “angels,” but technically each angel is its own species – each is a different “thing” and thus its own classification. We do not have knowledge of these details, however – so a higher-level classification of these beings is general and somewhat speculative. The following classification is based on biblical terminology (e.g., Mt. 22:30; Isa. 6:2; Gen. 3:24; Col. 1:16; Eph. 1:21, 3:10; Jude 1:9) and was common to many ancient theologians. There seem to be three hierarchies according to the grades of angelic knowledge, with three orders in each hierarchy (upper, middle, and lower) – in all, nine orders of angels.
- The highest hierarchy includes the orders of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones.
- The middle hierarchy includes the orders of Dominions, Virtues, and Powers.
- The lowest hierarchy includes Principalities, Archangels, and Angels (this last order is a title identified by a capital “A”, as opposed to the term “angel” referring to any heavenly spirit).
The highest order perceive the plan of the providential order in the ultimate end itself, which is the divine goodness. Seraphim, meaning the “ardent” or “burning” ones, because the intensity of love and their fervent desire to lead lower beings to God. They serve before God’s throne and continuously shout praises to him. According to Isaiah, they have six wings: two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet, and two with which to fly.
The second order of angels know the plan of providence – they are called Cherubim which means “fullness of knowledge.” (NOTE: English usage has blurred the distinction between “cherubs” and “Putti” – the cute little winged babies often used in “angelic” art). According to Ezekiel, the Cherubim have four faces: a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. They have four wings covered with eyes, a lion’s body, and ox’s feet. It was Cherubim who were set to guard the way to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and are seen at the throne of God. Aquinas thought Satan was a fallen Cherub.
The third order of angels know the divine judgments. They are called Thrones because to show this judiciary power – living symbols of God’s justice and authority. Daniel and Ezekiel say they appear as wheels-within-a-wheel and are covered with hundreds of eyes.
The middle order (aka Dominations or Lordships) begins with the fourth order of angels whose function is to bring order and to prescribe actions to the lower angels and also human nations. Occasionally these Dominions make themselves physically visible – appearing as glorious humans with a pair of wings (the most popular representation of angels).
The fifth order of angels (aka Strongholds) execute the divine works which are done outside the order of nature, such as seeing that the cosmos remains in order. Hence they are known as “the powers of the heavens” (Luke 21:26).
The sixth order of angels are the Powers (aka Authorities) who safeguard the universal order of providence by opposing any contrary forces.
The seventh order of angels are the Principalities (aka Rulers). These angels deal with the arrangement of kingdoms and the instruction of those who occupy the position of leadership. They are said to inspire humans in art and science.
The eighth order of angels are the Archangels which are more involved with particular persons whose lives have great affect on others regardless of their social position. The word “angel” actually means “messenger,” and thus it is Archangels who communicate the most important facets of God’s plan to individual humans. Archangels are also said to be the guardian angels of nations and countries, though (e.g. Michael is traditionally seen as the protector of Israel). Some think, therefore, that just as there is a distinction between the generic term for these heavenly spirits (“angel”) and the title of their lowest order (“Angel”), there is also a distinction between the highest of the angels (“Arch-angel”) and the order higher than that of Angel (“Arch-Angel”). “Archangel,” therefore, may actually designate the 8th from 9th order messengers in some cases (i.e., they are “Archangels,” not “Archseraphim” or “Archvirtues”), but in others be the title of the very highest of all the angels of any order.
NOTE: Only Michael is called an archangel in both the Old and New Testaments, and the term is never used in the plural. This leads some to believe he is the only proper Archangel. However, the angel Gabriel has traditionally been considered an archangel due to his communicative role in the Old Testament. Further, the archangel Raphael appears in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit, where he says he is “one of the seven who stand before the Lord.” This may refer to the seven spirits of God that stand before his throne the book of Revelation. Another named archangel named Uriel is found in one of the Esdras books in the Orthodox Slavonic Bible where he unveils seven prophecies to the prophet Ezra. Thus, many think the number of Archangels is seven (the other three are named Selaphiel, Jegudiel, and Raguel in the Eastern Orthodox tradition).
The ninth order of angels are the Angels. These are also messengers, but not of messages with the farthest-reaching importance. These are the guardians of mankind, and also their teachers.
There is no additional order of “Demon” among the angelic ranks, because demons are just fallen angels. There is, however, order among the demons because some are subject to others. Since all demons are actually fallen angels, it stands to reason that the orders of demons are nothing more than the orders held by these fallen angels at their creation. This idea has led to some creative demonic classifications, but none are authoritative.
Although they remain limited beings, and thus are not even comparable to the power and glory of God almighty, angels are amazing creatures that far surpass human abilities. Therefore they should neither be worshiped nor slandered (Jude 1:9). They are to be respected as beings of a higher order than humanity, and trusted to do the work God sends them to do. We should thank God for our guardians, and can even request their aid as we fight against the powers of darkness that seek to destroy us.
O God, who dost establish the ministry of angels and men in a wonderful order, graciously grant that Thy holy angels, who ever serve Thee in heaven, may also protect our lives on earth.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.