On Angels: Part 1: An Overview

Angels aren’t spoken of enough. According to Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. We’re given a relatively complete list of the things God made on earth, but there’s no mention of what He made in heaven.  Angels show up in the Bible a few times in visions or as the Lord’s messengers or what have you, and in the Mass they’re given a few mentions, but still, they’re not spoken of much.

Frankly, a lot of people don’t know much about angels and what they do know isn’t often correct. Angels aren’t cute little baby heads with wings attached, or winged adults with harps and long hair, or human beings who have made it to heaven. But it does no good to give a list of what something is not. We need to know what the angel IS. So then, what is an angel?

Perhaps the best definition of angel is “a created and finite spirit, separate from humans, that will never die”. Now don’t let the deceptive simpleness of that definition fool you, because there’s a lot of meaning in it. So we’ll take it piece by piece.

A) A Created and Finite Spirit

You mustn’t think of a spirit as an outline of a person’s body where nothing is filled in. Spirits are entirely nonphysical. They occupy no space, have no weight, measurements, they make no sound detectible by the ears, and they can’t be seen or felt. But once again, it does no good to have only a list of what something is not. So for more definitions, a spirit is “a nonphysical but truly existing entity that has two main abilities, under which all actions are categorized: knowledge and love” (personal definition). We humans are spiritual beings, but we are not spirits. That’s an important thing that distinguishes us from angels. Angels are spirits, while we only have spirits. Spirituality is only part of our being (since we have bodies as well), while with angels being a spirit occupies the totality of their existence. God is the same way–although the Son became man and so now it can technically be said that God has a body, it is still the case that in and of Himself, God is purely a spirit, and the physicality of a human nature is not something He inherently would possess.

Despite the fact that both God the Trinity and the angels are purely spirits, we need to remember that angels are created by God and are finite. They’re created, so they depend upon their Creator for existence and owe their existence to Him. They’re finite, which is to say, they’re limited. They don’t know all things like God does–though they know much more than humans–and they can’t do all things like God can–though they can do much more than humans.

B) Separate From Humans

I’m sure you’ve heard people say, after the death of a loved one, “There’s another angel in heaven”. As well-meaning as such a person is, it needs to be stated that angels are not humans, nor can humans ever become angels. The two creatures are entirely separate. There are similarities (we both have intellect and will), but angels will never be the same as a human anymore than a horse will be the same as a turkey.

C) They Will Never Die

Death is a bodily property, defined as the separation of the soul (the soul being the nonphysical life-principle) from the body. Angels, pure spirits, don’t have bodies and so cannot die. They live forever. And bear in mind that the spirits of humans will also live forever, because death does not mean “annihilation”. It’s simply the time when body and soul separate. Spirits are destined to exist forever after they’ve been created, angelic or human.

Now for the interesting stuff…

Emotionless and Forever Unrepentant

Angels are by nature greater than humans. Not as if God loves them more, but rather, they are more powerful than we are. Now angels are put into different groups, each group progressively becoming greater than the previous one. Yet even the lowest angel is quite a bit greater than a human. Why is that? It has to do partly with their being purely spirits. You see, angels don’t have passions or desires which influence their actions. Those are specific to bodily creatures, being dictated by hormones or whatever else. So you could say angels are emotionless.

But you want to be sure you get what’s that means. To say angels are emotionless does not mean they’re cold or devoid of any sort of liveliness. Think for a minute. Passions, emotions, or whatever you want to call them are constantly fluctuating. One minute you’ll like something, the next minute you won’t. One minute you’ll want to do good, the next minute you’ll be drawn to something bad. Yet in spite of all these emotions you KNOW right from wrong. To be emotionless, as with angels, is simply to not be encumbered by the constant change of feelings. You would know something to be right or wrong and act in accordance with that knowledge, without having to worry about the bias that feelings bring with them. God, too, is without emotions. He simply loves infinitely all the time, unchanged by feeling.

Now then, there’s something that makes the lack of emotions in angels quite fascinating. Whereas we humans are continually tempted to sin because of our constantly fluctuating passions that cloud our moral vision, the angels were tempted once: at the beginning of their creation. Those who surpassed the temptation have never been tempted since, living forever in Heaven with God, and those who sinned will never be forgiven, living forever apart from God in Hell. It’s not that God lacks mercy toward the angels who sinned. If it were possible for them to repent, God would forgive them. But the angels who sinned, commonly called demons, knew without any uncertainty what they were doing when they made the choice to sin. There were no external circumstances, pressures, or feelings that would let them turn back afterward and say, “Wait, I wouldn’t have done that if I had known what would happen”. And indeed, their choice was further sealed because they knew they couldn’t be forgiven, and so they are entirely guilty in the truest sense.

Inferior to God Yet Superior to Man

Everything that is not God is inferior to God, so it goes without saying that angels are less than God. Indeed, they’re infinitely less than God, because the infinite and the finite are forever apart. Even though they’re finite, however, angels are quite a bit greater than humans. The fact of their superiority over humans is evident in the first place from the Scriptures. For example, in Revelation 19:10 and 22:9, John is so struck by the glory of an angel that he tries to give him adoration (for which he is rebuked and is told to adore God). Then it’s directly stated in 2 Peter 2:11 that angels are “greater in strength and power” than men.

Also, if we look at the implications of Revelation 7:1-4, Job 1:12, and Our Lord’s temptation by Satan (remember, Satan is a fallen angel), it seems that angels have some degree of power over the physical world. Revelation 7:1-4 says that the angels have power stop wind from blowing anywhere on the earth and to harm the earth; in Job 1:12, God gives Satan power over all of Job’s belongings; and finally, during the temptation of Our Lord, Satan says he has the power to give the Lord all the kingdoms of the world. The power of angels over man is implied yet further in Ephesians 6:12, where Paul calls fallen angels the “hostile rulers of the world of this darkness”.

Finally, Catechism says they are “surpassing in perfection all visible creatures” (paragraph 330).

There Isn’t Really a “Nature of Angels”

While it can be said that there is a human nature (i.e., something about humanity that makes all humans the same) and that that there is a Divine Nature (something that makes God uniquely God), there is not an “angelic nature”. Indeed, each angel is his own species, if you will. The word “angel” is not referring to what the being is (as is the case with man and God), but rather, it refers only to the role of the creature. Thus, to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 329 (which in turn is quoting St. Augustine):

‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’.

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Now, I know this is a terrible closing of this post, but there’s a lot more I ought to say on the subject, which will need to be said tomorrow in a second post. Right now I’m tired, and besides, I doubt you could focus well if I kept going. In the next post I hope to go more into the evil angels and their sin. But for now, goodnight and God bless you.

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