by Fr. William Most
Do angels exist? Many today are denying that fact. The Church in the
Fourth Lateran Council in 12 15 (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 LG 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
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
, of God. The Greek word for is
, 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
So, what we need to do now, is to explore these problems.
We begin with asking the help of the Church. In DV 1 1 taught: "Since
then, everything that the inspired authors 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
We underlined that word . If someone asks: Are there errors
in Scripture? We reply: No, if you look at just what the sacred
We need to keep this in mind constantly in dealing with scriptural
passages on angels.
What does that word 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 US 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
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 (). 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
Still later (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
The oldest mention of what seem 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
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 , meaning
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 -- we are following up on DV 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 , which some translate as
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
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
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 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 ,
that is, by righting the moral order, which was put out of line by
sin. Hence the Hebrew word , 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 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 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 . 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, 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 stands near Joshua the High Priest
to accuse him. And in 1 Chronicles 21.1 the word 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
, the Greek equivalent to , the accuser. The notion
will be developed much more fully in the NT, as we shall see later
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
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 OT 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 . 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 ) 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
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 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
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
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
anounce the birth of John the Baptist. Later in ths same chapter,
Gabriel is send to the Virgin Mary to ask her to cosent 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
. 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 NT where scholars like to write
things off as .
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
(, 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' ( # 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 (LG 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 LG 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
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
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. LG 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 , 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
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
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
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 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 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
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
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 , 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
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 . 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
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
How are we to take this? This is a bit of apocalyptic genre - of
which we spoke in commenting on the OT 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
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
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
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
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 , 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 ,
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
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
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
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
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
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