Angels: Fiction and Fact

Author: Bill Dodds


Bill Dodds

They are not like elves, we don't know how many there are, and not all of them are nice

Angels are in. Angels are hot.

Images of winged creatures are appearing on greeting cards, gift wrap, pins, pendants, book covers and bumper stickers. Manufacturers and merchants are cashing in on the public's renewed or newfound interest in these celestial beings, but how much of what is being said, written and illustrated is fact? And how much is fiction?

Here's what the Church teaches.

Fiction: Angels are like pixies, elves or leprechauns. It's fun to imagine they exist, but adults know they're not real.

Fact: Oh, yes, they are. God created the spiritual, non-corporeal (bodiless) beings we call angels, explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 328-336). The Church bases this teaching on both Scripture and Tradition.

Each angel has intelligence and will, and each is a personal and immortal creature. In other words, each heavenly angel is a unique being who has chosen to love and serve God, its Creator. It is a being who will never die.

Fiction: All angels are wonderful and will help us humans.

Fact: Some are, some aren't. Some do, some don't.

Heavenly angels—"good angels"—are enjoying great popularity these days, but their counterparts—"bad angels"—tend to be forgotten or dismissed as primitive superstition or childish fairy tales.

But the Church teaches that not all angels chose to do God's will. "'The devil and other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing,"' the Catechism says (no. 391), quoting from the writings of the Fourth Lateran Council (held in the year 1215).

Some angels sinned. We don't know exactly what they did wrong, but their "fall" was a result of radically and irrevocably rejecting God and His reign.

And since the beginning of humanity's time on earth, the devil— immortal and powerful, but not all-powerful like God—has been encouraging human beings to also reject their Creator.

No human being has been spared this tempting, not even Jesus (Mt 4:1-11).

Fiction: When humans, especially young children, die and go to heaven, they become angels.

Fact: That's a popular idea and oftentimes a comforting image for grieving families, but . . . no.

Angels and humans are separate and different beings. Angels are 100 percent spirits; humans are both spirit (soul) and body. A human being's soul is immortal; his or her body dies. When the soul leaves the body at death, it is not transformed somehow into an angel.

Rather, a soul that has gone to heaven enjoys God's presence with the angels and joins with the angels—and other human souls—in praising God. This is the image the Church presents. In the liturgy for a Catholic funeral, we pray "may the angels lead you into Paradise...."

Fiction: Every human male gets a male guardian angel to help him on earth; every human female gets a female.

Fact: There are two separate issues here. First, are their "guardian angels"? Second, do they have different genders?

Yes, throughout our lives God's angels are there to offer care and intercession. It was St. Basil the Great (who died in A.D. 379) who said, "Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life."

But there is no male-female assignment. Angels have no bodies, remember? They aren't made male or female. They are purely spiritual beings.

A generation or two ago, it was not uncommon for young children in Catholic schools to be taught to scoot over in their chairs once in a while to "make room" for their guardian angels. This was a teaching method for helping students appreciate the fact that guardian angels exist. But, obviously, no angel needs "extra room." No angel needs any room.

Fiction: The Catholic practice of praying to angels borders on worshiping false gods.

Fact No angel is God. No angel is a "Junior God." What the Church teaches, and highly encourages, is asking angels for help. In the same way, a person can ask—can pray—to Mary and to the saints, asking for their help, their intercession.

Fiction: The word "angel" itself means something that's very good or holy.

Fact: "Angel" comes from a Greek word that was translated from the Hebrew. It means "messenger." The word doesn't describe what these beings are, but what they do.

They deliver.

In both the Old and New Testaments, angels bring God's message to human beings. It was an angel, Gabriel, who announced to Mary that God had chosen her to be mother of the Messiah (Lk 1:2638).

Fiction: Every angel has a name.

Fact: Maybe so, but we don't know that. Traditionally, we recognize three archangels (considered "princes" of the angels):

Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Their feast day is Sept. 29. (Since the 17th century, there has also been a feast for all guardian angels. It's Oct. 2.)

We also have a name for another angel; a fallen angel. The devil is known as Lucifer (the "light bearer," one who was close to God's throne) and as Satan (from the Hebrew for "adversary").

He's also been referred to as Beelzebub ("the lord of the flies").

The origin of the word "devil" is the Greek word for "slanderer." "Demon" is based on the Greek for "evil god." The Church teaches there is a devil and a multitude of demons, all "fallen angels."

Fiction: There are exactly as many angels as there are humans.

Fact: We don't know how many angels there are.

Again, traditionally, angels are said to be divided into various "choirs."

Since the fourth century, that number has been placed at nine: virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim.

Fiction: Angels are just a fad, the latest pet rock. They're not going to last.

Fact: The current craze fueling the angel marketing bonanza may fizzle out before too long, but it's a safe bet that angels, the real McCoys, are going to be around for a long, long time. They are, after all, immortal.

Bill Dodds is the author of the children's books "Bedtime Parables" (Our Sunday Visitor) and "My Sister Annie" (Boyds Mills Press).

This article was taken from the March-April 1996 issue of "Catholic Heritage". To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750-9957 or call 1-800-348-2440. Published bimonthly at a charge of $18.00 per year.