The Trouble with Angels

Those critics who are hostile to the truth of the Scriptures usually have difficulty with the frequency of angels in the Infancy Narrative (as well as in the events of the Resurrection and the Ascension). Not only the frequency, but the appearance of any angel is for them a sign of imaginative composition on the part of the evangelists despite the fact that a man like St. Paul, for instance, is certainly not writing fiction and treats the angels as realities among other real things (e.g., 1 Cor 4:9; 2 Thes 1:7). Hence a few words on angels might help an ordinary reader here.

What must be accepted first of all is that there is no way in which unaided reason can arrive with certainty at the existence of angels, good and fallen. They are known primarily from revelation via the Scriptures and Tradition, as interpreted by the sacred Magisterium, which the man or woman of faith accepts as revelation from God himself. Concerning experiences outside the Scriptures, we have credible people who relate experiences of angels (the saints for instance). However, in the category of experience the fallen angels or devils seem to produce more observable and verifiable effects than good angels (in the authentic phenomena of diabolical infestation, obsession or possession).

Having created angels for the same general reasons he created man, God wanted us to be helped by their superior powers and also to know about them, as they know about us. The process of getting to know about angels was very long, and the attempts of the ancients to describe them sometimes borrowed the words of the pagans around them, the only terms (we must not forget) that they knew.

Thus there is reference to certain heavenly beings who are called “sons of God” (Job 1:6; Ps 29:1/28:1; 89:6. In the last two references the literal wording is “sons of the gods”). Their great likeness to God (being pure spirits, invisible, of great power, and not needing food) could easily cause the early Hebrews to adopt the name used by the pagans. Even we really do not have a proper name for them derived from the Greek form “angel” meaning “messenger,” although not all are sent as messengers by any means.

In the Old Testament the idea of angels became clearer by the refining process of development of doctrine and by more accurate accounts of visits by angels. In the beginning, however, there was sometimes a confusion between God himself and the angels, although not as often as alleged. It is always true that when an angel delivers a message from God, it is really God who is the ultimate speaker. For instance, God hears the crying of the son of Hagar. In the desert an “angel of the Lord” speaks to Hagar, but she later calls his name as “Thou are a God of seeing” and says, “Have I really seen and remained alive?” (Gn 16:10-11) Yet in a later incident, the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, it is God who first speaks to Abraham (22:1-2) and at the end (22:15) it is an angel who repeats a message from God. We may well suppose that the same is true of Jacob in Gn 31:11-13 except that the angel is not carefully recorded as saying, “the Lord says” in v. 13 as he did above to Abraham in 22:15.

On the other hand, we cannot force on God a rule that he must always do the speaking or that an angel must always do it. This is also true of the burning bush (Ex 3:2-5) except that the angel does not speak but merely is causing the non-consuming fire in the bush. God then speaks to Moses from the bush. A more difficult example of this is the angel who spoke in Judges 2:1-4 but uses the first person as if he were God. The more reasonable understanding of this is that the angel was speaking in God’s name, and the people certainly understood it that way. Although they wept, there was no fear of being struck dead as was their belief if they saw God. The ancient Israelites understood the difference, as is also evident from the account of the birth of Samson in the same book (Jdg 13:2-21).

The same may be true of the angel of God who spoke to Jacob in a dream (Gn 31:11-13) but we have no evidence for it. Jacob is recounting this experience to Rachel and Leah, and has the angel say, “I am the God of Bethel,” that is, God who had spoken to him at Bethel (ibid. 28:13-17). However the early hearers and readers must have understood. There must have been some way to keep the confusion from being permanent and thus leading to a polytheism based on the Scriptures.

Angels in the New Testament

So we have the existence of angels on the word of God as expressed in the Scriptures of both Testaments. There is no chance of evading the fact that the sacred writers, and their immediate readers, understood them as real beings and wanted us to have the same conviction also: angels aid in Peter’s release from prison, for instance (Acts 12:7-11). They are not subjective imaginings or deliberate inventions (we are not dealing with that kind of writer). Nor are they relics of a primitive polytheism, but are objective beings who are difficult to comprehend simply because they are so different from us — even as God is (much more) incomprehensible for the same reasons.

Thus they are invisible of their very nature. They do not feel heat or cold. They have great beauty in a way we cannot easily understand. We cannot go to see one on exhibition in a museum or a zoo, or summon one as one would a servant or a friend. When they appear, it is usually in an adopted human form, but they do not have biological needs nor are they subject to the laws of nature, such as gravitation for instance. And yet without any material source of energy (muscles, etc.) they are able to exercise power over nature both as to blessings or punishment. They are highly intelligent beings and in no way subject to the mistakes and bumbling that come from us. All this and more can be inferred from Scripture itself, even though the Hebrew and Christian mind does not dwell on their abstract nature.

They come into the Scriptures primarily as God’s messengers and we ought not be shocked into incredulity if God sometimes uses them as that. And it must also be reasonably admitted that, given important events such as the Son of God becoming man, we ought to expect more messages from angels than is usual otherwise in the Scriptures.

In these messages, however, the angels of the Infancy Narratives have the temerity to quote Scripture, such as Mal 3:1-3. This again is alleged as a sign of free composition on the part of the evangelist. But reasonably: why cannot an angel quote Scripture? Since God put prophecies in the Scriptures for the comfort and expectation of His people, why cannot the angel in delivering His message use the same words? Granted the sending of angels, why must they avoid any Scriptural reference in order to be credible?

In the Scriptures every alleged experience of an angel is to be accepted as true unless the context is clearly one of parable or similar composition, and then to be judged according to criteria based primarily on faith and on reasonable deduction based on analogy of faith. For instance, when Isaiah relates the account of his commission as a prophet, angels are part of the account, as worshiping or praising God and as performing a task involved in the mission of the prophet (Is 6). We must accept their existence and activity or be faced with the alternatives that Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets, was deluded or that he loses credibility by fanciful and self-serving embellishment.

The most important testimony for angels comes from Jesus himself. He often refers to them in His teaching, as for instance the ministering angels following the temptations in the desert (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:14-15; Mk 1:13), when He explains a parable (Mt 13:39,49), urges respect for children (ib. 18:10), and warns about the last day (Mk 13:32) and final judgment (Lk 9:26). There are many more.

This is not to say that we must believe everyone in our time who says that an angel has spoken to him or her. The danger in defending the actuality of messages from God is that people of excessive imagination will sometimes see and hear what is not there, or that even normal people will be deluded by the devil, a fallen angel. And, as if a man whose farm has been blessed by God should now give more attention to the farm and less to God, so we must avoid being led away from God by one way or another, even by authentic experiences.

The admonition of St. Paul is “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold to what is good” (1 Thes 5:19; see also 1 Jn 4:1). Understanding this, it still is true that if God were to send a heavenly messenger or other supernatural indication, which is exceedingly rare, we must follow it, as Mary did.

As to the visions, as well as dreams of the Infancy Narratives, their authenticity rests ultimately and theologically on God as inspiring the writer and keeping him from error. Objectively our certainty in regard to the supernatural events rests on a trust in God whose truth and goodness will not allow these sources of His revelation to be polluted by self-deception or by fraud. By historical reasoning alone, all the evidence points toward Mary as the primary source for Luke’s account. And from what we know about her, if she says there was an angel present, we should feel compelled to believe her.

FATHER HOFFMAN, O.P., was ordained a priest in the Dominican Order in June 1941. He taught physics, mathematics and moral theology and finished a four-volume work on the spiritual life in 1981. He was noted for his defense of the Church and the papacy. He died in 1981. FATHER COLE, O.P., is a member of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. As a professor there, he teaches courses in spiritual, moral and dogmatic theology.