Do angels exist? Many today are denying that fact. The Church in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (DS 800) defined:
"God from the beginning of time, made both kinds of creatures, spiritual and bodily, out of nothing, that is angelic and worldly."But some persons can be remarkably rigid: they say that this definition teaches infallibly only that God made everything -- to add that that includes spiritual and bodily creatures is not part of the definition. Even if we grant that, the existence of angels is part of a major teaching, and does call for assent of our minds. However, in addition, Vatican II taught in Lumen Gentium (12) that if the whole Church, authorities and people, have ever believed something, that is accepted it as revealed, that belief is infallible. There can be no doubt that the Church for centuries has believed in the existence of angels.
How then can it happen that some doubt or deny their existence? Some merely do not care what the Church teaches, and even say on many things that it teaches the opposite of what it really teaches.
But others point to problems about angels in earlier parts of Scripture. The usual Hebrew word which we translate as angel is malach, messenger of God. The Greek word for messenger is angelos, hence our word angel. However at times other expressions are used, and we merely gather from the whole picture that God is employing some other non-human but intelligent being as His agent or messenger.
So, what we need to do now, is to explore these problems.
We begin with asking the help of the Church. In Dei Verbum 1 1 taught:
"Since then, everything that the inspired authors assert is asserted by the Holy Spirit, for this reason, the Scriptures are to be confessed as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error, that truth which God for our salvation willed to have consigned to the sacred writings."
We [highlighted] that word assert. If someone asks: Are there errors in Scripture? We reply: No, if you look at just what the sacred writer asserts.
We need to keep this in mind constantly in dealing with scriptural passages on angels.
What does that word assert mean? To illustrate, let us think of a modern historical novel about the Civil War. Being natives of this culture, we know how to take it. We expect the main line to be history, and we expect that the background descriptions will fit the period, e.g., there may be steam trains and telegraphs, but no planes or TV. But there are other things in such a novel that are not asserted. We may find word for word discussions between important persons; we may find a bit of romance going on between some of the lesser characters. Now the writer does not assert that these fill-ins are historical. Nor do we charge him with ignorance of deception for writing them. That is the way one writes an historical novel, that is the way one should understand it.
We have just seen a pattern of writing, which is called a genre. We have many such patterns or genres in English, each with its own rules for how it is to be understood. We inherited most of our patterns from Greece and Rome. So as long as we read things in that large culture stream, our instinctive adjustments work well: we know how to take things -- we know as it were what are the rules for each genre.
But suppose we move into a very different culture, ancient Semitic. May we, should we expect they will write the way modern Americans write? Of course not. The very thought is silly. Yet many today in the United States and elsewhere act that way. There are Open Bible Churches, which think anyone just off the street can understand everything, and get it right. They came to think this way because Luther wanted to use Scripture as a club to hit the Church. Of course, he had to claim Scripture is clear at least on the main things. Really, he got it wrong on many of the main things, on justification by faith. 2 Peter 3.16 had warned that in St. Paul's Epistles, and other Scriptures too, there are many things hard to understand.
One special source of the problem is found in chapter 6 of Judges, the incident of an angel appearing to Gedeon. If we read it carefully, we find at times the text says that the angel of the Lord spoke to Gedeon. But at other times we read "I," meaning God Himself. Not strangely, many have asked: Is that expression "the angel of the Lord," just a literary variety, so that it really means God Himself is speaking in all instances?
If we had nothing clearer than that passage we might be left uncertain.
However, as we turn to other scriptural incidents, we see gradually that the sacred writer certainly did mean to assert that there was some being other than God present.
For example, a messenger of the Lord came to Hagar, Sara's maid, whom Sara had cruelly sent into the desert (Gen 16). The angel rescued her. Now of course God Himself could have appeared, but it is more in line with His wisdom to use created angels to do things when they will serve just as well. Similarly, He uses us to do things He Himself could do directly, such as preaching to the people, or offering sacrifice, or hearing confessions: but for Him to work so directly would be miraculous. For us to do these various things is not a miracle. So He will use the extraordinary, miracles, where needed, but not where not needed.
We might draw a parallel. In the Patristic age there was a tendency to think that Christ consisted of a human body, but that He had no human soul -- could not the Divine Word perform all the functions of a soul? Of course He could. But the Church rejected that idea, and insistently taught that Christ did have a fully rational human soul, including mind and will. In fact the Church has accepted what Isaiah 11 tells us, that |He also had the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and was even guided by this means. Again, the Divine Word, His Divinity could have carried on all these things. But the Father prefers that His humanity be complete, and will a full complement of powers and aids.
In this light we see again that it is to be expected that God would use spiritual beings many times instead of just doing things Himself.
Another incident: Abraham in Genesis 18 had three visitors. In verse 1 we read that God Himself appeared to Abraham. But soon there were three. After eating, two of them went on separately, while one, seemingly God Himself, stayed with Abraham. It is clear that one of the visitors was God, but the other two seem to have been angels. The only other possibility would be that each of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity appeared in human form. Very unlikely at this period when the Trinity was completely unknown.
After God told Abraham He meant to destroy Sodom, as we know, Abraham appealed repeatedly to spare the city. Finally, God would have spared it for ten just men: but they were not found.
Before the actual destruction of Sodom, two angels come to visit Lot in Sodom (Genesis 19). If it were just a paraphrase for God Himself, there would not be two angels (malachim). At first the wicked men of Sodom wanted to have homosexual relations with them, but the angels struck them with blindness. In passing, we note that God did not destroy Sodom for lack of hospitality -- to want to abuse guests in that way was not right. And the Jewish Intertestamental literature makes quite clear that the ancient Jews knew God destroyed Sodom for homosexuality.
Still later in (Genesis 22), when Abraham has 99 years old, God ordered him to kill his son Isaac in sacrifice. This was a great trial of faith for Abraham. God has previously told Abraham that he, Abraham, would be the father of a great nation through Isaac. Now God told Abraham to kill Isaac. Abraham might reasonably have said to God: I recall you told me I would be the Father of a great nation through my son Isaac. Now you tell me to kill him. I will gladly do either one. Which do you want? But Abraham asked no questions, he simply got going, his faith holding on in the dark, as it were -- we mean he held on when it seemed impossible to hold to God's will. He came right up to the point where he was about to plunge the knife into Isaac. But then the angel of the Lord stopped him (Genesis 22.11-18).
During the departure of the Jews from Egypt, God promised, in Exodus 22.20: "Behold, I am sending my angel before you, to prepare your way before you."
The oldest mention of what seems to be angels is in Genesis 3.24. God stationed cherubim at the entrance to paradise to keep Adam and Eve out. Cherubim are also mentioned in Ezekiel 28, 14 and 16. Golden images of cherubim were on top of the ancient ark of the covenant. They were figures with outspread wings. Were there really such beings? No doubt the sacred writer meant to assert that they were, though the use of wings was just a way of saying in art that they could fly.
Now we find images of cherubim in ancient Near Eastern art going back to the 9th century B.C. On either side of the throne of King Hiram of Byblos there were figures of animal shape, with wings. The word cherub maybe the same as the Mesopotamian word karibu, meaning intercessors.
Therefore, at once we need to ask: Did the Jews get their notion of angels from these pagan sources? It is not impossible that they got the idea for images of them from pagan sources. But that is not the same as saying they got the belief in the existence of such beings from Mesopotamia. The idea that they might have taken the idea of images of some kind from pagan lands is not impossible to think. Pope John Paul II, in his conferences on Genesis, said that he thought that the first three chapters of Genesis were basically an ancient story, either made up or taken over by the writer of Genesis. The Pope meant that the genre of Genesis 1-3 could include the use of an ancient story to bring out some things that were really true and historical. He might have taken such a story from Mesopotamia. The chief things to be conveyed by the means of such a story would be chiefly these: God made all things. In some special way He made the first humans. He gave them some sort of command -- we would not be certain if it was about a fruit tree or if that tree was part of the stage dressing, as it were. Whatever the command, they violated it, and so fell from favor or grace. Since Adam and Eve lost, or rather, threw away, God's favor or grace, they did not have that favor/grace to pass on to their children. Hence children arrive in the world without the grace He intended they should have: that is the sense in which we say there are in original sin.
But in saying this, the Pope did not mean that the story in Genesis was mere fiction. No, it was a means -- different from what we use -- of bringing out some things that are historically real.
So we could admit -- we are not certain -- that the ancient Jews did get some ideas for images and stories from other lands. But we still ask: what did they mean to assert -- we are following up on Dei Verbum 1 1. It is clear they meant to assert that Adam and Eve did violate God's command and that they fell from favor/grace. Did they also assert that in some way God barred them from the earthly paradise? Clearly yes. Did He station some special kinds of beings there to keep them out? He did intend to keep them out, whether or not He made use of such a help.
We move ahead to a mysterious passage, Genesis 6.1-4. There we read that the "sons of God" saw the daughters of men, became amorous, had children. The children were the Nephilim, which some translate as giants.
Were the sons of God angels? Some of the early Fathers of the Church seem to have thought so. Thus St. Justin Martyr, around 150 A.D. in his Second Apology 2.5 wrote: "The angels transgressed this arrangement and were caught by love of women and begot children who are those that are called demons." St. Justin clearly did not know about the principles of literary genre. In fact, those principles were not known until our own century. So he could make a mistake like this. He clearly thought angels have bodies. But he had company. St. Fulgentius seems to have thought angels have bodies. St. Augustine was uncertain. So was St. Bernard. Much later, the great Dominican theologian Cajetan in one place said angels have "a subtle body unknown to our senses," though elsewhere he seems to think they are pure spirits. (Others rule out bodies: Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, Theodoret, St. Gregory the Great.)
The notion that angels have bodies was also, for St. Justin, influenced by the idea that they had food. In his Dialogue with Trypho 57: "It is clear to us that they eat in the heavens, even though it is not by food like that which we use. For about manna... the Scriptures said that men ate angels' food.
Again, the lack of knowledge about genres led to these mistakes.
We still must ask: What really is the genre of that mysterious passage in Genesis 6? We need to look at the larger picture. The sacred writer wanted to show the steady decline of the human race until it became so wicked as to call for the deluge. As in the case of the creation account, where he used a story that may have been already in circulation, he found this strange tale. He did not assert that it was historical -- but it did serve well his purpose of painting the steady decline of the human race before the flood.
In the great vision given to Isaiah the prophet in which he was appointed a prophet, Isaiah saw God seated on a high throne, with the train of His garment filling the temple. He saw Seraphim too, each had six wings. They used two wings to veil their faces, two to cover their feet, two to hover in the air.
There is more than one problem here. First, God is a Spirit, and Spirits do not need robes, certainly not one that would fill the temple. Further, Isaiah thought he saw God. But in Exodus 33:18-23 Moses asked to see God, but God refused, saying it was not possible. He said He would hide Moses in a cleft in the rock, and shield him with His hand, so that when God passed, He might see Him only from behind.
The answer to this first problem is that Scripture often uses anthropomorphisms, speaks of God as though He had mere human traits. Thus in Genesis 18.20-21 God told Abraham that the outcry against Sodom was so great that He meant to go down and see if it was true. Now God does not need to go down, nor did He fail to know the truth about Sodom. But this was a human way of speaking. Similarly, Genesis 11.5 says that God came down to see the tower of Babel. And before that, in Genesis 6.6, before the deluge, God regretted He had made the human race. Of course, God does not regret: He cannot change at all. So all these things are ways of trying to convey spiritual realities to us, realities not completely within our grasp. Hence the vision Isaiah saws was clearly a case of anthromorphism.
So, what should we think of the Seraphim Isaiah saw, with six wings each. Of course angels do not have wings -- though it was only later on in the patristic age that this became clear, as we indicated above. What are Seraphim? They are mentioned only in this one passage. Although the singular of a word that seems similar is found in Numbers 21.8, which speaks of saraph serpents, which were poisonous, and bit the people so that they died, until God gave a remedy through Moses, a bronze serpent on a pole -- clearly a prefiguration of Christ on the cross. The word sarap itself see, to mean, fiery, burning ones.
Therefore does this passage in Isaiah contain real angels? Since the whole is anthropomorphic, we do not know. The purpose of the passage is clear without our knowing. The seraphim did nothing but say: Holy, holy holy. that word, a favorite title for God in Isaiah, refers to the fact that God's Holiness loves all that is morally right -- in contrast to the gods of Mesopotomia, Greece and Rome, who were thought to be amoral, i.e., acting as if there were no such a thing as morality at all. we gather what the meaning of Holiness is from Isaiah 5.15-16: "Man is bowed down, and men are brought low, but the Lord of Hosts will be exalted in right judgment, and God, the Holy One, will show himself holy by moral rightness". In Ezekiel 28.22: "Thus says the Lord God. Behold, I am against you, O Sidon, I will be glorified in your midst and they shall know that I am the Lord when I inflict punishments on her, and I shall show myself holy in her," that is, by righting the moral order, which was put out of line by sin. Hence the Hebrew word naqam, so often used in Isaiah and other Scriptures (and often mistranslated as vengeance), means the action by the supreme authority to put things right when they are out of line. So Isaiah often calls for naqam which does not mean vengeance -- an act of hatred, which is morally wrong -- but he is calling for God's Holiness to put things right.
Such then was the purposes of the anthropomorphic vision Isaiah saw.
The word satan comes first in Numbers 22.22. which speaks of an angel of the Lord who was sent to oppose Balaam, who was on his way to curse Israel. The word for oppose was satan. Now we can easily suppose it was an angel who was sent to block Balaam. But it is quite interesting to notice the word satan. At that time it had not yet taken on the meaning of an evil spirit. It begins to approach that meaning in Job 1.6. The Book of Job, except for a prose introduction and prose conclusion, is largely high-flown poetry, and must be read with that in mind -- for that is a major genre in which fanciful expressions are rather usual.
In that early occurrence of the word, satan seems to be a servant of God, who goes over the earth to check on things for God, and then reports. He was an opponent of Job as the story unfolds. (In Zech 4.10 we see beings with the function of checking for God; similarly, in Persia, the king had "the eyes and ears" of the king, to check and report to him). It is only later that satan comes to mean an evil spirit. In Zech 3.1-2 the satan stands near Joshua the High Priest to accuse him. And in 1 Chronicles 21.1 the word satan seems to have become a proper name, and so seems to be an evil spirit. In Wisdom 2.24, a later book, perhaps first century B.C., we read of diabolos, the Greek equivalent to satan, the accuser. The notion will be developed much more fully in the New Testament, as we shall see later on.
Some commentators today wish to say that the later development in Hebrew thought on angels and evil spirits was influenced or even brought about by contacts with the thought of the Near East.
It is especially, though not exclusively, after the return from the Exile that we find developments, more in the Intertestamental literature than in Scripture itself. Here are some of them: angels are in control of natural phenomena, of the four seasons, and of death -- as we said above, it is quite reasonable to think that God instead of doing things directly Himself, would make use of the agency of created spirits, angels.
They are also considered, not strangely, as intercessors, to bring our prayers to God. In this connection the belief grows that they are guardians of men, both individually and collectively.
They also form a hierarchy, headed by Seven Archangels. Even their names begin to be used, e.g., Raphael in the book of Tobit.
It is especially in the development of the concept that there are evil spirits that some have proposed influence from Iran. We make two comments:
First, there is a vast difference between Scripture and Iranian concepts. In Iran there are powers independent of God, who are hostile, such as Ahriman versus Ahura-mazda. Scripture never thinks of evil spirits as competitors with God. They are subject to Him, and can do things only with His permission.
Secondly, it is not impossible that the development of the thought of the Jews was aided by contacts with the Near East. There is a parallel situation: It seems that for many centuries the Jews thought of man as a unitary being, i.e., composed of only one part, a body, which was given the breath of life. This has led some commentators to think they did not know of survival after death. But that thought is clearly erroneous, for we know the Jews also held tenaciously to a belief in necromancy, divination by the dead, which of course implies the survival of the dead. Three times in the Old Testament we find laws forbidding necromancy, so strongly rooted it was: Lev 19.31; 20.6; Dt 8.11. But around the time of the great persecution by Antiochus IV of Syria, around 170 B.C. they did come to see that we have two components, body and soul. God providentially brought this about by two things: 1) contact with Greek thought, which did know of two parts, even though the Greek concept was not the same as our concept of body and soul; 2) The terrible deaths of the Maccabean martyrs, e.g., in 2 Mac chapter 7. Before that, since they seem not to have known of reward and punishment in the next life -- even though they did know of a next life -- they tended to think, as in Psalm 72, that somehow God would make things right before death. But the hideous deaths of those martyrs forced an agonizing reappraisal.
So then just as these processes, under the guidance of Divine Providence, were a means of the revelation of future retribution and a clearer notion of survival, so also the contacts with Iranian thought could have stimulated the Jews to develop their ideas on angels and evil spirits.
The book of Tobit involves a long intervention by an archangel Raphael. Tobit has been taken into exile from his home in the tribal area of Naphthali in the time of Shalmaneser of Assyria. He is most diligent in acts of charity, even though doing so puts his very life in danger, One day after burying the dead against the order of the king, he sat down by a wall. Dung from birds fell into his eyes, making him blind. Doctors tried to help him, in vain. His wife went to work for pay weaving cloth. One day her employer gave her a bonus, a goat. But when Tobit heard the animal bleating he ordered her to give it back, in case it might have been stolen. She ridiculed him, and in sorrow he prayed for death. Meanwhile a daughter of Raguel who was a kinsman, was having severe trial. a demon Asmodeus, murdered seven husbands of hers on their wedding night. She too prayed to die. But God heard her prayers, and those of Tobit, and sent the Archangel Raphael. For Tobit recalled he had deposited a large sum of money with Gabael at Rages in Media. Tobit sent his son Tobiah to get the money back. While he was wondering who would guide him there and protect him, Raphael the archangel in human appearance came. He said he was Azariah, son of Hananiah the elder, a kinsman. So Tobiah went to collect the money. On the way, a huge fish leaped out of the water and tried to eat his foot. But the angel told him how to take it, and to save its gall, liver and heart for medicinal purposes. When they were close to Ecbatana, Raphael told Tobiah he should marry Sarah. Tobiah had heard of the seven husbands murdered by Asmodeus, but Raphael told him to put the liver and heart of the great fish on embers, and the demon would be chased away. The demon fled into Upper Egypt, and there Raphael bound him hand and foot and returned to Tobiah's place. Soon after that, the money was recovered, and Tobiah and his new wife returned to Tobiah's father. He smeared the gall of the fish on his father's eyes, and he regained his sight. Then they wanted to pay the Archangel, still not knowing who or what he was. But he revealed himself as Raphael, one of the seven who stand before God. Then Raphael ascended to God, and Tobit and his family praised God at length.
What is the genre of this charming book? It is a special case. First, we notice that there are problems with the supposed historical setting. Scholars are divided on how to understand it, most scholars, Catholic and Protestant, think that means the genre was snot straight history, but a pattern called edifying narrative.
In that genre, we find edifying stories, which were never meant to be straight history. For example, there are some early medieval lives of Irish Saints. They are so filled with miracles that if anything were done without a miracle it would be remarkable. For example, St. Brendan had a floating monastery. One day he came to an island with strange looking birds. One came over and said: When the angels fell, some gave full consent and became devils. Others gave partial consent, and became birds. Some are birds. That is theological nonsense. Also, Brendan one day saw a man out in the ocean hanging on a crag of a rock sticking up. He came over, and found it was Judas. In the Gospel Jesus said that if someone gives a cup of cold water in His name he cannot lose his reward. Judas gave it, and so could not lose his reward. So he gets every weekend out of hell, hanging on that crag. Again more nonsense.
Would any Irishman even with several shots of whiskey take these things as literal history? Hardly. But they got a lift out of them. The relation of these stories to real lives of saints is much like the relation of science fiction to real science.
Most scholars think the story of Tobit is of that nature. In 1.21 we read that Ahiqar was the son of Anael, brother of Tobit. But as far as we know Ahiqar was a fictional character, the center of another edifying narrative known outside of the book of Tobit. Further 1.15 says that Sennacherib of Assyria was the son of Shalmaneser -- but he was really the son of Sargon. Even more serious is the fact that the Archangel Raphael, who took Tobiah to collect his father's money, said in 5.13: "I am Azariah son of Hananiah the elder." That was a plain and simple lie. Now angels do not lie. So we have another very strong indication that the genre is edifying narrative, within which such things can readily be found. Again we read that a demon Asmodeus, has already killed seven husbands of Sarah, whom Tobiah marries. Now God does permit devils to do mischief. We do not think He permits them to murder people.
Therefore, though we do believe in angels, we think this charming story was to edify the Jews. So we cannot use it to prove the existence of an archangel named Raphael.
Still more fascinating are portions of the book of Daniel. Early, in chapter 6, Daniel is thrown into a den of lions for refusing to worship the king's idol. But an angel closed the mouths of the lions. The king on seeing him safe, gladly accepted him back, and threw those who had accused him to the lions, who promptly ate them all.
Actually, there are clearly two different genres in Daniel, one of which is most likely the same edifying narrative, we have just spoken of. In the story of the three men in the fiery furnace, at 3.49, an angel rescues the men in the furnace. In chapter 6 at 22 and angel rescues Daniel himself from the lions' den. Beyond this, the word angel is not mentioned, yet an angel is spoken of much in other ways. In the mysterious vision of the son of man (7.13-14) who was presented to the Ancient of Days. Daniel asks one of those present, presumably an angel, what the vision meant. Again in 8.15 Daniel sees "a manlike figure" before him, while a voice cries out: "Gabriel, explain the vision to this man." This seems of course to be the Archangel Gabriel. In 9.21 Gabriel tells him that there will be 70 weeks of years until sin will end. The Fathers of the Church commonly took this to refer to Christ. Many today think it refers instead to the time of the persecution by Antiochus of Syria. Actually, though many things in it do fit the time of Antiochus, and do not accord well with Christ, yet it is likely that we have a multiple fulfillment prophecy here. In chapter 10 Daniel again sees a man dressed in linen with a golden belt. He explains that "the prince of the kingdom of Persia, blocked his way for 21 days, until Michael, one of the chief princes, came to his help. The interpreting angel explains a long prophecy, which does seem to refer to the wars after the death of Alexander the Great. Daniel is told, at the start of chapter 12, that at a time of great distress, Michael, the great prince, the guardian of his people will come. Many of those who sleep in the dust will arise. But Daniel is told to keep the message secret until the end time, when the wise will understand it.
What is the genre of Daniel? Clearly there are two. One seems to be the edifying narrative pattern, which we saw in Tobit. The other is apocalyptic, a genre is one in which the writer presents (we did not say asserts) marvelous visions, containing bizarre, highly colored images, and secret things. This genre was special to the ancient Hebrews. Its first full blown appearance is probably that in Daniel.
Only by understanding that the bizarre visions are apocalyptic can we understand the true message. For as we noted, in that section, Gabriel must fight against the prince Persia, seemingly an evil being, with the help of Michael, the great prince.
Of course we must not take at face value the image of angels of different nations fighting each other. The power of the Archangels wold not need warfare, but could overcome all else by a mere word.
We mentioned earlier the belief of some scholars that we might see influence of Near Eastern especially Iranian thought in some of these narratives. Just as in Genesis the inspired writer made use of stories which he may have taken from elsewhere, to convey his message about real events, so too in this area of Daniel it is not impossible to believe that the inspired writer also made uses of stories from Iran.
Could it be that in Iran or other pagan nations, evil spirits really did appear to people. Definitely yes. They are intent on harming us, and although they are fallen and so evil spirits, yet the possess great natural powers that are merely natural to them, far greater than our human powers. So they could operate directly on our internal or external senses, such as eyes and ears. St. Paul in 2 Cor 11.14 says that satan "transforms himself into an angel of light." This is not always by way of an apparition, though it can be. Sometimes satan merely distorts things that are evil, putting a good face on them to deceive human beings. Today he is doing that a great deal with his distortions of love. St. Anthony of Egypt told of many encounters with evil spirits who appeared to him. St. Francis de Sales was once called to a convent here a sister seemed to see Our Lord appearing. He even multiplied bread for the poor one time -- for she was assigned to distribute food at the gate. St. Francis decided it was satan, for the sister was becoming proud. To make her so, satan took on the appearance of Jesus Himself!
One more special case ought to be mentioned. In Malachi 3.1. God says: "Behold, I am sending my messenger before me, to prepare the way before me. Suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to the temple, the messenger of the covenant whom you desire." Here the Hebrew uses the word malach twice. As we know, it usually means angel. But yet in this verse God says that He Himself will come, after His messenger first comes. From 4.5 we learn that the advance messenger is to be Elijah. Jesus in Mt 17.10-13 says that in a sense John the Baptist was Elijah -- thereby hinting that He Himself was God.
What do we gather from our exploration of all these passages? It is entirely clear that there are angels, and that some in the Old Testament period did have appearances of angels. But we see also that in some other genres, namely, the edifying narrative, and the apocalyptic, we may or may not have reports of a true apparition of an angel.
When we turn to the New Testament, things become clearer. Already in Luke chapter 1 an angel appears to Zechariah in the Temple. It is to announce the birth of John the Baptist. Later in the same chapter, Gabriel is send to the Virgin Mary to ask her to consent to be the Mother of the Messiah.
At this point we take note of the fact that many scholars refuse to see an apparition of an angel in the annunciation passage. They also are inclined to say that her virginal conception was only a theologoumenon. That word means something that is not to be taken at what seems to be the natural sense: it merely stands for something else. So they say that she was not physically a virgin, that such a statement is only a way of speaking of her holiness.
There are many other places in the New Testament where scholars like to write things off as theologoumena.
What are we to say in reply? Our chief resource is the interpretation of the Church, which sees the infancy Gospels -- that is chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew and Luke -- as historical.
First of all, Pope Paul VI in an Allocution of Dec. 18, 1966 (Insegnamenti de Paolo VI, 4.678-79, Vatican Press, 1956) complained that some "try to diminish the historical value of the Gospels themselves, especially those that refer to the birth of Jesus and His infancy. We mention this devaluation briefly so that you may know how to defend with study and faith the consoling certainty that these pages are not inventions of people's fancy, but that they speak the truth.... The authority of the Council has not pronounced differently on this: The sacred authors wrote...always in such a way that they reported on Jesus with sincerity and truth' (Constitution on Divine Revelation #12).
Pope John Paul II in a General Audience of Jan 28, 1988 said:
"To identify the source of the infancy narrative, one must go back to St. Luke's remark: 'Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. ' ...Mary who 'kept these things in her heart'... could bear witness, after Christ's death and resurrection, in regard to what concerned herself and her role as Mother, precisely in the apostolic period when the new Testament texts were being written and when the early Christian tradition had its origin."
Yes, Vatican II showed beyond any doubt that it considered these passages as historical. We can see from the way that Council spoke about Genesis 3.15 and Isaiah 7.14 that it intended to be entirely precise. Of those texts it said (Lumen Gentium 55):
"These primeval documents, as they are read in the Church, and are understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring before us the picture of the Mother of the Redeemer. She in this light is already prophetically foreshadowed in the promise given to our first parents... of victory over the serpent (cf. Genesis 3.15... cf. Isaiah 7.14). We notice that the Council used double cfs. to avoid stating flatly that he original writers of these two passages saw in them what the Church now sees. It spoke of gradual revelation reached with later and full revelation; it added a cautionary cf. before the references. But then, after such meticulous care, when we come to the passage on the annunciation, in Lumen Gentium 56, there is no hedging at all, that "the Father of Mercies willed that the acceptance by the planned-for Mother should come before the incarnation.... And so Mary... by consenting to the divine word became the Mother of Jesus, and embracing the salvific will of God with full heart, held back by no sin, totally dedicated herself to the Person and work of her Son."
So the genre of the annunciation passage is fully historical, she did enter into dialogue with the angel, even through the angel, with God Himself.
The archangel first told her that her Son would be Son of God. This would not be clear, for any devout Jew could be called a son of God. But when Gabriel said that He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, all was clear. It would be clear not only to one full of grace, but to even ordinary Jews, for only the Messiah would reign forever.
Then there would begin to come into her mind all the ancient prophecies about the Messiah, including Isaiah 9.5-6 which called Him God the mighty, and Isaiah 53, which described His terrible sufferings to come. When she told the Archangel: "Be it done to me according to your word, she was accepting all of this.
Similarly thanks to Vatican II -- as well as older documents -- we know that the words about her virginity are not merely a theologoumenon, but are physical. Lumen Gentium 57 says that her union with her Son was visible "when the Mother of God showed her first born, who did not diminish but consecrated her virginal integrity, to the shepherds and the magi." We note the word integrity, which is definitely a physical word, not a theologoumenon.
So we should also take at face value the song of the angels at the time of His birth at Bethlehem. And we believe it when an angel is sent to Joseph, once, to tell him that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and later, to tell him to take the child and His Mother and flee into Egypt.
During the long period of the hidden life, something like thirty years, there is no mention of any angel at all. His life then was so ordinary in appearance that when He finally did begin to manifest His powers, his fellow townsmen found it hard to accept -- a case of envy it seems.
We do not envy someone with whom we have no need to compete, e.g., a high school athlete does not envy an Olympic champion. But when one who seems to be one of us becomes surpassing, then there can be a temptation.
At the start of His public life Jesus is tempted by a fallen angel. First the devil suggests to Him to turn stones into bread. Now He did need food then, and He had that power. The reason He treated it as a temptation was that in obedience to the Father, He had "emptied Himself" as Philippians 2.7 tells us, that is, had agreed not to use His divine power for His own sake, but only for the sake of the sick. Again, when the devil took Him to the peak of the Temple, and told Him to throw himself down, for the Psalm said that angels would take care of Him, He knew the genre of that Psalm, it was a poetic way of speaking of God's protection. It did not mean that just anyone on any occasion should or could tempt God by asking a miracle when none was needed. For example, if someone has appendicitis, he doesn't just pray; he calls for a surgeon.
Did the evil one physically transport Jesus to the peak of the temple? It would be within the power of a fallen angel, for angels, good and bad, as we said, have great powers beyond what humans have. On the other hand, the devil may have merely caused Him to seem to see such a vision, for angels as we said can work directly on the interior or exterior senses of a human being.
What then of the next words saying that the evil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and said He could have them if He would bow down to satan? There is no place anywhere where one could see all the kingdoms of the world from one place. So this must have been a vision caused by directly operating on His senses.
The devil at that point claimed, in Luke 4.6, that he had power over all kingdoms. He of course has no power superior to God's power, who by His divine Providence does guide the course of history. Yet satan does use his very considerable power to interfere in human affairs.
Many times in His discourses Jesus referred to angels. Most significantly He said that before the end, He would send His angels to reap and separate the good from the evil; at the end the Son of Man would come with His angels. In this of course he was recalling the great vision of Daniel 7 of which we spoke earlier.
In the parable of the poor man Lazarus and the rich man, after death the soul of Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. So after death angels are apt to be ministers of God to convey souls to Him.
Many times in the Gospels Jesus is reported to have cast out devils. Some claim today it was merely a case of epilepsy, whose symptoms may be similar. But even if some cases may have been epilepsy, yet epilepsy cannot be cured by a mere command. Jesus did cure the sufferers by a word. So we gather that at least in some cases the evil spirits may have been in a person.
When we say in we must remember that a spirit does not take up place. We mean it is as if satan were inside the body of another, and took over the controls and operated them. However satan cannot move the will of another. Only God can do that.
There is also obsession, in which it is as it were the devil is not within, but outside the person, affecting him in various ways. There are also cases on poltergeists. A Jesuit investigator, Herbert Thurston, investigated numerous alleged cases of such things. He discarded most of the cases as insufficiently proved. Yet some remained. Since the spirit in question did not yield to exorcism, he concluded it was not evil spirits. Nor was it the souls of the dead, for God would not permit that sort of things. so he said there must be another kind of spirit, of which Scripture does not speak. He called them poltergeists. They are in general mischievous, but do no considerable harm other than perhaps breaking dishes etc.
Possession and the other things just mentioned can happen only by God's permission. God permits such things to purify a soul, to prove the existence and malice of the devils, to show the power of the sacramentals and of the exorcisms of the Church.
Cases of possession are in general rare. They seem to happen more readily in pagan lands, where the influence of Christianity has not yet been brought to the people.
The Roman Ritual gives signs of possession: Speaking in strange languages or understanding a strange language. Making known things that are hidden or distant. Physical strength beyond the power of the person.
In Matthew 18.10 the Apostles, were asking Jesus who was the greatest. They probably were each wanting to be the greatest. Jesus took a little child, stood him in the midst, and said: Unless you become like little children, you will not get into the kingdom at all. He means that children know that the love and care they get is not something they have earned: they get it because the parents are good, not because they are good (although they could earn punishment). Similarly, when we get into our Father's house, we have not earned it: we get a ticket to it, sanctifying race, but we get that ticket for free, without earning it.
But then Jesus added that people not to despise the little ones, for "their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven."
So we gather that there are guardian angels, and not only for children, but for all. Is there a separate angel for each human? It seems likely, though we cannot be certain of it from Scripture. The power of angels is so great that one could easily care for more than one soul. Since the angels do see the vision of God in heaven, in that vision they can see all that they need or wish to see: hence they can see everything that concerns those for whom they are to care. Evil spirits, being fallen angels, retain their very great natural powers. But the guardian angels have at least a match for that power. Hence that protection is very suitable, to counteract the power of the evil spirits. How far the evil spirits can go of course depends on how much a given person gives himself into their power by sin.
In Matthew 12.43-45 Jesus says that when an evil spirit goes out of a man, the spirit wanders through "desert places" seeking rise, but finds none. So he goes back to his "house," the man he had possessed, but finds it all cleaned up. Then he goes out and get seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and together they go in. And the last state of that man is worse than the first.
One unfortunate commentator seems to have forgotten a most basic principle, the use of literary genres when he says that Jesus harbored a superstition, thinking that devils live in desert places. We wish he had noticed the next line in the Gospel: "So also it will be with this wicked generation." From those words we see that this is a sort of parable. It is most elementary to know that we do not take everything in a parable as being true at what seems to be face value. The reason is: Jesus came to break the power of satan over the Jews. They reject Him, and so fall back worse than before.
The same commentator makes a similarly dull mistake when he also charges St. Paul with superstition, for speaking, in Ephesians 2.2 of "the prince of the air." So, the commentator said, Paul believed evil spirits dwell in the upper air.
In Ephesians, and still more clearly in Colossians, St. Paul was working to protect his people against dangerous errors that were rampant. It is not entirely clear whether the errors in question were an early form of Gnosticism, or were from Jewish apocalyptic speculation. The Gnostics, thought God had produced first one pair of aeons, male and female. Then that pair produced another, and so on down the line. But each pair was less perfect. So then even without the help of Murphy's law, we can see something would go bad. It did. One pair became evil, were thrown out of the pleroma, the whole assembly of the aeons, and they made the world and our race.
Of course that is prime time nonsense. Only God could create a world and us. And spirits are not male and female. But as we gather from many things, including that strange word pleroma, St. Paul is using the language of His opponents in working against them. He did that in the Ephesians 2.2 we have just looked at. He did much more in Colossians.
In Colossians he began by insisting the Christ is sufficient and more. His opponents seem to have said that in addition to Christ, we must also worship some sort of spirit powers. Early in the first chapter, at 15-20, we find a beautiful passage saying Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creatures, in Him everything was created, both things that we can see and things that we cannot see, such as thrones, dominations, principalities and powers. St. Paul's opponents were saying that it is not enough to worship Christ. Besides worshiping Christ, we must also worship these thrones, dominations, principalities and powers. But in 2.18 Paul says: "Do not let anyone rob you of your prize calling for humiliation and worship of angels." The prize is, of course, their total reliance on Christ. Those in error would take away that prize, and want them to worship angels. The angels of course, are the thrones, dominations, principalities and powers.
When one first reads these lines he might think St. Paul is speaking of nine choirs of angels. But if we read carefully, we find in 2.15 that God "disarmed the principalities and powers, making a public show of them, triumphing over them in Him" that is, in Christ. So we gather that the principalities and powers and others are not at all beings to be worshipped along with Christ. The Father has taken away their power through Christ, who has overcome them by His cross. So it is finally clear: if these principalities and powers really exist, they are not good angels, they are evil spirits.
Since Paul is talking the language of his opponents to counter them, we cannot be sure he means that such principalities really exist. But if they do, they are overcome by the cross of Christ. So, we have no need to worship them. To do that would be to lower ourselves, and to lose our prize.
How then did we ever get the idea of nine choirs of angels? Around the year 500 some Christian who called himself Dionysius the Areopagite made a mistake. First of all, that name was just a pen name. St. Paul had converted a man of that name centuries before in Athens. But, unfortunately, it was common practice in those centuries to use as pen names, the names of famous persons. So this Dionysius, or whatever was his name, said just that. He wrote treatises on the celestial hierarchy. Not paying attention to the context in St. Paul -- a sad mistake that was still to run for centuries, and is not altogether gone even now -- he thought Paul here was speaking of choirs of angels. To those the names here he added others from other writings, and hence arrived at nine.
There may indeed by nine choirs of angels. But if so, we must not appeal to St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians. He is talking about something that is the opposite of choirs of angels.
We hear it said, there are two things that are certain: death and taxes. But after reading St. Paul first Thessalonians 4.13-18 we find that we can cross out one of the two. Only taxes are certain.
The Thessalonians thought the return of Jesus was very near. Some were saying, in effect: Would it not be too bad if I would die before He comes, for then the others would get to see Him before I would. Paul's answer was this: Do not be upset brothers, for first, "the Lord Himself with a command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God will come down from the sky, and then those who are dead in Christ will be raised up first. Then we the living, who are left... will be taken with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."
If one read these words carefully we can see the implication that those who are still alive when He returns will never die at all. Yes, it is true that death is universal, but general principles leave room for exceptions, and we find one here.
But we are concerned now with the description: "He will come out of the sky with a command, with the voice of an archangel and with a trumpet."
How are we to take this? This is a bit of apocalyptic genre -- of which we spoke in commenting on the Old Testament appearances of angels. It contains a truth, but the language is very strong, and must be cut down much to get the sober fact. So while it is true that Our Lord could do those things just as they are written, yet in view of the genre, all we can be sure of is that He will come, and that the dead will rise first. In other words, we are not sure that an archangel will really visibly appear and a trumpet will blow.
Just incidentally, there is no reason here to think there will be a rapture. Some fundamentalists, who ignore genre, say there will be. They notice that in this passage we will be taken in the air, while at the Last judgment, all will take place on the earth. Hence, they say, there must be two separate events.
Not so, for the last Judgment scene is also apocalyptic. We can be sure, since there is no place on the earth where the Judge could be seated and have all humans of all centuries before Him. We wonder if there would be standing room on the globe. We know, then, that there will be a Judgment. Its purpose it to manifest to all how just have been all the judgments of God. But He can manifest that by an interior locution, that is, by as it were touching the brains of humans, in a touch that can convey any amount of information He wishes to convey.
But now we should turn to the book that has the very name Apocalypse, unless some people wishing to ape Protestants want to call it revelation -- really, the two names mean the same, for apocalypsis in Greek means revelation.
There is a basic problem at the start. All agree that the genre is apocalyptic, and that is obvious. But some think it contains prophecies about the end times; others say it is merely a book of consolation, with no prophecies. However it seems likely that there are prophecies, and we should examine them, and since angels are involved at so many places, we will attempt an outline, which of course is conjectural.
At the start of that book Jesus appears and gives to John letters to the Seven Churches -- they are rally seven principal places in the west end of Asia Minor. The letters are to be given to the angels of the churches.
So we ask: Do not the angels know what goes on in those churches? Of course they do. But again, this is apocalyptic. So we wonder if angels are really meant here. More likely it means the Bishops of those Churches.
After that, in chapter 4, John describes a vision of the heavenly liturgy. God is seated on a throne with a rainbow around Him. About the throne are 24 thrones for 24 elders with golden crowns. Then from the throne come lightnings and voices and thunders. Around the throne are seven lamps that burn before the throne. And also about the throne there is a sea of glass and four living creatures, full of eyes front and back. The first animal looks like a lion, the second like an ox, the third like a man, and the fourth like a flying eagle. These living creatures have six wings each, and eyes all over, front and back.
We recognize at once that these are the same Seraphim that Isaiah the prophet saw in his inaugural vision, which he tells of in chapter 6. The Seraphim in the Apocalypse sing day and night, Holy, Holy Holy. And whenever they do it -- which is all the time -- the 24 elders get off their thrones, take off their crowns, and prostrate themselves before God. So really, the elders never do get to sit on their thrones.
Some have foolishly called this the heavenly liturgy. As if heaven consisted entirely of such a scene. But we must remember that this is apocalyptic. And so we probably should take the seraphim with six wings each and eyes all over them, are merely symbols.
After a scene of the slain a Lamb opening the sealed book, we read of the breaking of the first six seals. When the first is broken, one of the four creatures calls out: "Come forward." Then a white horse and rider who has a crown and a bow come forth. And there are three other horses and riders too.
After the fifth seal we see the souls of martyrs under the altar. Most translations say they are asking God to "avenge" their blood. But that would be evil, to desire vengeance. The translations are poor. The Hebrew word in the mind of the author of Apocalypse must be Hebrew naqam, that is the act of the supreme authority to put everything right. So they are really calling for the rebalance of the objective order, a thing that God Himself wills.
After the 5th seal there is a violent earthquake, and the sun turns black and the moon red, and the stars fall out of the sky. If we have read Isaiah 13.9-10 and 34.4, and also Ezekiel 32.7-8 we will know that all this is simply apocalyptic language. Isaiah used such words for the fall of Babylon, at which the sun did not change at all.
After this scene, we read of still more angels, and especially, starting in chapter 8, there are seven angels with trumpets. When the angels blow on the trumpets, many natural disasters happen.
Because of the apocalyptic genre it is difficult to be sure what the sober content is that the inspired writer meant to convey. Most likely he is telling of various upheavals that come before the final Day of the Lord, the Day on which the Lord will exercise naqam, will set everything right once and for all.
Could it be that God will use the agency of angels to bring about those terrifying things? Perfectly possible. As we have already seen, He can and does prefer to work things through angels which He also could have produced by His own direct action.
In chapter 10 an angel gives John a scroll to eat. Such a thing happened also in the inaugural vision of Ezekiel in chapter 3, in which he was given his commission as a prophet. Now to eat a scroll such as we could make today would be quite a feat even with a lot of taco sauce. The scrolls they had then were of animals hides -- still more difficult. But again the symbolism conveyed a solid truth: Ezekiel was being filled with the words and attitude of God, so that after that he could confidently proclaim on occasion: "Thus says the Lord."
Then John is told to measure the temple except the outer court. This measurement may suggest God will preserve the faithful remnant at the end. In Luke 18.8 we read: "When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on the earth?"
In that outer court, not to be measured, there are two olive trees and two lampstands, who are really two witnesses. These are not angels, but beyond that we cannot be sure what they are.
When the temple was opened, John saw a vision of the woman clothed with the sun. Pope John Paul II spoke of this image as being Our Lady standing for the Church. The dragon who tries to devour her Son is of course a fallen angel, Satan. His war against her offspring probably means his war against the Church.
Then war breaks out in heaven, with Michael the Archangel leading the fight against the dragon. Would an Archangel really have a struggle against satan. Of course not, for the Archangel has the power of God. Yet in a sense there could be war, namely the struggle of God's people against the wiles of satan, in which they are aided by angels. Satan was hurled down to earth and his minions with him.
After that in chapter 13 two beasts come up out of the sea, perhaps standing for the Antichrist and for the headquarters of the forces of evil. Others, rejecting the idea of prophecy, would see the beast as evil rulers of the first century who persecuted the Christians.
Then after a vision of the Lamb and those who followed Him to heaven, and the fall of Babylon, center of evil, we find a description of the seven last plagues, each administered by seven angels who poured out the seven bowls of God's wrath upon the earth, causing many terrible things.
In chapter 16 we meet with Armageddon. Really, the name means Mountain of Megiddo, scene of so many ancient battles. It need not mean a physical battle near the end, it can stand for the final decisive rout of the forces of evil. At length the fall of Babylon, center of evil is pictured.
A great vision then appears in chapter 20. An angel comes down from the sky with the key of the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon, and chained him for a thousand years, and hurled him into the abyss. After the 1000 years the dragon is to be loosed for a short time.
Now of course a physical chain could not restrain the chief devil, yet an angel seems to be God's agent in restricting the power of satan for 1000 years. Since in the following part of that chapter, the period of 1000 years seems to stand for all the time from the ascension of Christ until His return at the end, the 1000 years could stand for most of human history after the victory of the Redeemer over the power of death by His death. John tells of a first resurrection, and a period of 1000 years during which the just reign with Christ on earth, and then a second resurrection.
St. Augustine proposed this interpretation: the fist resurrection is rising from sin; the reign of the just does not mean a millennium -- though many of the Fathers of the Church thought so -- but the fact that the just will not be slaves to sin, but will be masters of themselves, and in that sense will reign. The second resurrection would be the physical one at the end of time.
What of the loosing of Satan for a short time? If as we surmised, the power of Christ did not permit Satan to use all his wiles for most of history after the death of Christ, yet there will come a time of the Antichrist. That word in Scripture is sometimes singular, sometimes plural. We recognize easily a Hebrew pattern here: an individual standing for and in a way embodying a group. We saw it probably in chapter 12, in which the woman was Our Lady standing for the Church.
So there is to be a chief Antichrist, but before him, many lesser antichrists. In Matthew 24 Jesus said: "Many will come in my name, saying I am the Christ."
But it seems at the end Satan's power will be released for just a short while. The Apocalypse seems to indicate three and a half years. That looks like a symbolic number, half of seven. But it does seem to mean only a short period. St. Louis de Montfort foretold that there would be the greatest saints near the end, perhaps during this short period, in those who conquer the full force of satan.
Finally comes the grand vision of the new heaven the new Jerusalem, the final Church, coming down out of the sky. One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls led John to the top of a mountain to see this grand sight.
Then He who sat on the throne said: "See, I make all things new". He will wipe away tears from every eye. There will be no more death or mourning.
The city had twelve gates, each with an angel stationed at it.
Finally an angel showed John the river of live-giving water coming from the throne of God and the Lamb. This is like the great vision described in Ezekiel 47.12, which, taken superficially seems to foretell a rebuilding of the physical temple in Jerusalem, complete with animal sacrifices. Of course that was not to be taken in a simplistic way. Rather, since often in the Old Testament physical images were used to stand for spiritual realities, so it is with the vision of Ezekiel 40-4.
In an epilogue the angel told John: "These words are dependable and true. The Lord has sent His angel to show what must come soon." In Scriptural language of course, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. All time is as nothing to the eye of God, for whom there is no past at all, and no future: all things are simply present to Him, so that creation, which we say is past, is present, and these things, which we say are future, are all part of that one all embracing present, which the angels revealed to John in beautiful imagery.
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