What's the story on angels?

Recently, we had a discussion in these pages on the reality of the devil and demons. It is therefore only fitting that we also talk about their unfallen relations: angels.

Calling angels “relations” of devils is a bit of a misnomer — and for a curious reason. Angels are, like devils, created, noncorporeal spirits: intelligences that possess will, power and an ability (in the providence of God) to affect the created order and to communicate messages (as, for instance, Gabriel brought the news of the Incarnation to Mary). Unlike devils, angels have not rebelled against God and therefore enjoy the perfect bliss proper to their natures.

But here’s the thing: They are created neither to die nor to beget children. They are not sexual beings at all. This means, as St. Thomas pointed out, that each angel (and therefore each devil) is his own species.

We call them angels (angelos in Greek means “messenger”) because to us their function primarily has been to act as messengers of divine revelation. We are like children who know the postman because he brings us the mail, but we know little of the rest of his rich and varied existence. For, of course, revelation concerns itself only with what is necessary for our salvation and not with everything.

Revelation — and especially the revelation given through Jesus Christ — tells us some important truths about angels. The first thing — and this is at radical odds with the trendy angels shown to us by pop culture — is that angels are not a) humans who died (so don’t believe Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) or b) all about us. The center of angelic existence is God the Blessed Trinity. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “They belong to him because they were created through and for him: ‘for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him’” (No. 331).

One of the fascinating (and overlooked) details in Scripture is that the variety of angelic creatures suggests that the “heavens” (that is to say, not “space” but “created dimensions that transcend this universe of time, space, matter and energy”) are best conceived as a multistory skyscraper rather than as an undifferentiated realm where “God and the angels” all dwell. Paul, for instance, speaks mysteriously of the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2) and “the heavenlies” (Eph 6:12). Likewise, the Book of Revelation speaks of “war in heaven” (12:1). And throughout Scripture we are told of cherubim, seraphim, archangels, angels, thrones, dominions, principalities and powers at work.

The funny thing is this: If you speak of “the heavenlies” in this way, you will often draw guffaws for your silly belief in superstition. But if you just change the language to stuff about “the multiverse” and multiple dimensions of being beyond our visible universe (an idea that means exactly the same thing), all of a sudden you are a deeply sophisticated thinker in the eyes of people who think Christianity absurd.

Many people are surprised to discover that the Church, far from fearing the discovery of nonhuman intelligence elsewhere in the universe (or the multiverse), has always affirmed the existence of such intelligent creatures. They are called angels. If we find intelligent corporeal creatures on other worlds, that will just add to the variety of intelligent nonhuman beings in the universe, not inaugurate our knowledge of it.

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Angels have existed since the beginning and are, by their nature, nobler than we. Yet paradoxically they are our servants in obedience to Christ. More than this, we who participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity by baptism are made immeasurably greater than them by grace. Angels wonder at this, but without the sin of envy because they are perfectly happy as they are.

Throughout salvation’s history, angels have played a role in the affairs of God and man. We see them at crucial junctures in both the Old and New Testaments.

The work of angels is largely mysterious. The liturgy reminds us that we are joining them in their eternal worship of God at every Mass. And we are urged to ask the help of our guardian angel to (in the children’s prayer) “light and guard, to rule and guide.” As the Catechism states: “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (No. 336).

Mark Shea writes from Washington.