Of Faith and Angels
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
“Would you tell me a story?” The request is familiar. My son loves stories. What I enjoy most about telling them to Gregory is watching his eyes light up as he hears something he never heard of before. He is just beginning to learn of the wonder of God’s creation and of the depth of his own imagination. Through hearing new stories he comes to ponder things in heaven and on earth that he has never even dreamt of before. I admire his pure sense of wonder.
This sense of wonder, so natural to a child, is all too often lost by adulthood. Painful experiences lead many to beome skeptical and lose their childlike sense of wonder as they mature. Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 18:3) As Christians, we are each called to recapture that childlike ability to believe the fantastic, and to keep our minds and hearts open to all possibilities. For the things of heaven are not readily accepted in this world. Here, the heavenly creation is often considered to be merely a fairy tale created by man for man’s comfort.
Christianity is a religion based upon revelation. From God speaking from a burning bush to him rising victorious over death, the history of Christianity is a recorded history of God’s progressive revelation of himself to the world. It is through this revelation that we come to understand who God is and what he does. His teachings make known to us not only practical laws for social behavior, but also heavenly things graspable only with faith and a childlike openness to accept the incredible. God, as the author of life, has tremendous creative powers that are beyond our comprehension. Yet throughout the past several thousand years God has opened to us a window to heaven. Through this window we have caught glimpses of an incredible creation that coexists with ours, and an extraordinary vision of the world to come.
Part of this vision includes a revelation of a kind of creature that shares something uniquely with humans. That is to say that of all creatures created by God, only two kinds were given the ability for free moral choice. These two creatures are humans and angels. As fantastic as it seems to the common mind, to those with faith, the existence of angels can be readily accepted. For just as God can create things we see, why can he not create things we can not see? We all know from modern science that there are numerous physical limits to human perception. For instance we can not see infrared or x-rays with the naked eye, nor can we hear sounds of a certain pitch. If we can readily accept our own perceptual limitations and at the same time accept God’s creative powers then why not believe in the existence of creatures who are invisible to us? The history of biblical revelation directs us to do so. The remainder of this article will be devoted to addressing the topic of angels; what the Bible says, and what we learn about them from our own divine liturgy.
In addition to the visible, physical creation there is an invisible world created by God. The Bible sometimes calls it "the heavens" and other times refers to it as "above the heavens." Whatever its symbolical description in the Holy Scriptures, the invisible world is definitely not part of the physical, material universe. It does not exist in space; it has no physical dimensions. Therefore it cannot be located, and it has no "place" which can be "reached" by travel within the galaxies of our physically created universe.
However, the fact that the invisible, created world is purely spiritual and is not discoverable on a map of the created material spaces makes it no less real or truly existing. The invisible creation exists as different from the created material universe and, of course, as totally different from the uncreated, absolutely super-divine existence of the uncreated God.
Invisible created reality consists of the hosts of bodiless powers, generally--and somewhat incorrectly--called the angels.
Angels (which means literally "messengers") are, strictly speaking, but one rank of the incorporeal or bodiless powers of the invisible world.
According to Scripture and Tradition, there are nine ranks of bodiless powers or the Hosts (from the Hebrew 'Sabaoth' meaning literally "armies" or choirs" or "ranks"). There are angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. The latter are described as offering continual adoration and glory to God with the incessant and ever-resounding cry of "Holy! Holy! Holy!" (Isaiah 63 ; Revelation 48 ). Those in the middle of the above listing are little-known to men while the angels and archangels are seen as the active workers, warriors and messengers of Yahweh relative to this world. Thus, angels and archangels are seen to struggle against spiritual evil and to mediate between God and the world. They appear in various forms to men in both the Old and New Testaments as well as in the life of the Church. The angels are those who bring the power and presence of God and who are messengers of His word for the salvation of the world. The best-known of the angels are Gabriel (which means literally "man of God"), the bearer of the good news of Christ's birth (Daniel 8:16 ; 9:21; Luke 1:19 , 2:6), and Michael (which means literally "Who is like God"), the chief warrior of the spiritual armies of God (Daniel 11:13 ; Jude 9 ).
Generally speaking the appearances of the bodiless powers to men are described in a physical way ("six-winged, many-eyed"; or in the "form of a man"). However, it must be clearly understood that these are merely symbolical descriptions. By nature and definition the angels have no bodies and no material properties of any sort. They are strictly spiritual beings.
It is also important to note that in the church, man is at least equal, if not above the angels in the created order.
THE DEVIL/EVIL SPIRITS
In addition to the created spiritual powers who do the will of God, there are those who rebel against Him and do evil. These are the demons or devils (which means literally those who "pull apart" and destroy) who are also known both in the Old and New Testaments as well as in the lives of the saints of the Church.
Satan (which means literally the enemy or the adversary) is one proper name for the devil, the leader of the evil spirits. He is identified in the serpent symbol of Genesis 3 and as the tempter of both Job and Jesus. (Job 16 ; Mark 133 ) He is labeled by Christ as a deceiver and liar, the "father of lies" (John 844 ) and the "prince of this world." (John 1231 ; 1430; 1611) He has "fallen from heaven" together with his evil angels to do battle with God and his servants. (Luke 1018 ; Isaiah 1412 ) It is this same Satan who "entered Judas" to effect the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ. (Luke 22 .3)
The apostles of Christ and the saints of the Church knew from direct experience Satan's powers against man for man's own destruction. They knew as well Satan's lack of power and his own ultimate destruction when man is with God, filled with the Holy Spirit of Christ. There is no middle road between God and Satan. Ultimately, at any given moment, man is either with God or the devil, serving one or the other.
The ultimate victory belongs to God and to those with Him. Satan and his hosts are finally destroyed. Without the recognition of the cosmic spiritual struggle (God and Satan, the good angels and the evil angels), one cannot truly be aware of the deepest realities of the Christian life. Once again, however, it must be clearly noted that the devil is not a "red-suited gentleman" nor any other type of grossly physical tempter. He is a subtle, intelligent spirit who acts mostly by deceit and hidden actions, having as his greatest victory man's disbelief in his existence and power. Thus, the devil attacks "head-on" only those whom he can deceive in no other way, (Jesus and the greatest of the saints). For the greatest part of his warfare he is only too satisfied to remain concealed and to act by indirect methods and means.
The church clearly teaches that there is a devil who is actively trying to turn us from God. In order to protect oneself against the wiles of Satan, one must remain vigilant in prayer and submersed in the life of Christ in the church. While God's primary message to humanity is contained in the most glorious of confessions, 'I AM', Satan's main message to humanity is the blatant intentional lie, 'I Am Not'.
Acknowledging the existence of both good and evil angels is an important part of the Christian life. For it helps us understand the cosmic battle that we are engaged in daily. Forwe are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12 )
*Latter portions of this article contain excerpts from Thomas Hopko’s Book Doctrine SVS Press