Angels: what Scripture and Tradition reveal

Angels: what Scripture and Tradition reveal

Susan McKinley

Susan McKinley studied Arts at Monash University where her honours thesis focussed on the angels in Milton's Paradise Lost. She is currently working and travelling around Europe.

A young friend of mine tells the story of how his mother's life was saved by an unexpected visitor. My friend's mother, let's call her Helen, suffers from diabetes and was home alone one morning when she collapsed with dangerously low blood sugar levels. She was so weak she did not even have the strength to reach the sugar bowl on the kitchen table. Her husband was not due home from work for several hours and there was a strong possibility that Helen would be in a coma, or even dead, before he returned.

Just as she was beginning to despair a young man came to the door. Helen was able to crawl to the door and ask the man to alert her neighbours. Within minutes Helen's neighbours were by her side taking the necessary steps to get her blood sugar levels back to normal.

Once Helen had recovered she enquired about the identity of the man who had come to her aid. Her neighbours didn't know him, and later when she asked other people in the area about him no-one could recall ever seeing the young man.

Helen is convinced that God sent this stranger to save her life and even considers the possibility that he could have been an angel. Her son is more cynical. He was surprised to hear that the Catechism has a great deal to say about angels and the fact that each of us is blessed by the aid of a guardian angel is a truth of our faith.

Church teaching

The Church's teaching on angels tends to be overlooked by many as a 'fairy-tale' element of our beliefs, but according to Scripture and Tradition they have played an integral part in God's plan for salvation, and will continue to do so until the end of time.

In fact angels are mentioned about 100 times in the Old Testament and approximately 85 times in the New Testament. A brief exploration of who angels are, when and how they came into existence and what their purpose is may clear up a few questions about these mysterious helpers for my young friend.

St Augustine teaches that angels are pure spirits who are messengers of God while the Catechism describes them as God's obedient servants, warriors and messengers, quoting the psalmist: 'Bless Yahweh all his angels, mighty warriors who fulfil his commands, attentive to the sound of his words' (Ps 103: 20).

St Thomas Aquinas taught that God created angels on the first day, and that they are spiritual beings whose purpose is to serve and praise God. According to Aquinas, angels exist within a hierarchy according to their grace, nature and role in relation to God and His creation.

Whilst the angelic hierarchy differs amongst various theologians, Aquinas in his Summa Theologica and Dionysius in his Celestial Hierarchy list them as follows:

1. Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2).
2. Cherubim (Genesis 3:24).
3. Thrones (Colossians 1:16).
4. Dominations (Colossians 1:16).
5. Virtues (Ephesians 1:21).
6. Powers (1 Peter 3:22).
7. Principalities (Romans 8.38).
8. Archangels (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
9. Angels (Romans 8.38).

Aquinas taught that those angels on the top of the hierarchy are closer in nature to God than those further down in the hierarchy, and that different types of angels have different roles. Certain angels are assigned to worship and praise God, some were created specifically to act as His messengers, some to be responsible for material things, such as stars, whilst others have been appointed to the role of guardian angels for people.

Tradition holds that before God created humanity, one-third of the angels in Heaven rebelled against Him. The leader of these rebel angels was Lucifer (Satan, the devil), a particularly beautiful and powerful angel whose jealousy caused him to revolt. The story of the war in Heaven of the good angels, led by the princely Archangel Michael, against Lucifer's army is vividly recreated in Milton's famous poem Paradise Lost. C.S. Lewis touches on the subject in his Screwtape Letters and also in his Space Trilogy.

In these stories it was Satan's wounded pride and indignation at the thought of bowing down to Jesus, seemingly a mere human, that caused him to dissent.

In Milton's play, it is the Messiah who ultimately casts the rebels into Hell, whereas in Lewis's allegory in his Space Trilogy it's the good angels who triumph over the rebels. In both stories it is implied that, despite being driven into Hell, the rebels will continue to cause strife amongst humanity and the good angels will continue to fight against their wickedness until the end of the world (Revelation, 12, sheds some light on this topic).


Looking through both the Old and New Testaments it is clear that angels have been part of God's divine plan since creation and throughout all of history.

Angels were present when God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; helped Lot's family escape from Sodom; rescued Hagar and her unborn child, Ishmael; prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac; communicated God's law and guided His people; proclaimed the births of significant leaders (Ishmael, Isaac, Samson, John the Baptist and Jesus), and guided individuals in discovering their vocations.

Angels also featured prominently in Jesus' life and throughout the New Testament. The Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of God (Lk 1:26-38) and her husband, Joseph, was constantly guided by the advice of angels who appeared to him in dreams (Matt 1:20, 2:13, 19).

After Jesus was tempted in the desert angels came to minister to him (Matt 4:11) and an angel was on hand to give him strength during his agony in the garden (Lk 22:43). Angels also featured in the story of Jesus' resurrection: it was a shining angel who rolled the stone away from Jesus' tomb and informed Jesus' friends that he had risen from the dead (Matt 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20).

Even after Jesus returned to Heaven angels carried on guiding his followers: they appeared to His Apostles after the Ascension to assure them Jesus would come again (Acts 1:10-11); they freed Peter and other Apostles from jail encouraging them to persist with their good work (Acts 5:19, 12:7-10); and later appeared to Paul to reassure him when he and his travel companions were shipwrecked (Acts 27:23-24).

Angels, we are told, will continue to play a role in God's plan for salvation right until the end of time, for Jesus told his disciples that angels would be present on the last day to cast those who are evil into Hell and gather His faithful together (Matt 13:41, 24:31).

Human form

Aquinas wrote that angels do not have a tangible, physical body but are spiritual, immaterial intelligences who may take on human form when necessary, for instance, when intervening with human affairs (Summa Theologica, Ia, 54-60).

According to descriptions of angels in the Bible, when they do appear they do not look much like the winged creatures depicted in Da Vinci's or Fra Angelico's beautiful paintings.

Sometimes in the Bible they appear in the form of an ordinary human, or a shining youth. Scripture also contains descriptions of Seraphim possessing six wings and several heads whilst Cherubim have several wings and many eyes (e.g., Isa 6:1-8, Rev 4-5).

In so far as they are pure spirits angels have no need to eat, but may appear to do so like the angels that dined with Abraham in Genesis 18, or the Archangel Raphael who eats with Tobias, later explaining that his eating was merely an illusion (Tobit 12:19). Elsewhere in the Bible, when angels are offered earthly food they refuse it or burn it (Judges 6:21, 13:15-16).

In Milton's Paradise Lost this theology is ignored and the angel Raphael enjoys a hearty lunch when he comes to visit Adam and Eve in Eden. More recently Kevin Smith's controversial film, Dogma, features clearly material (as opposed to merely spiritual) angels who regret that they cannot eat and are 'anatomically ill-equipped' where sexual relations are concerned.

Milton's angels, by contrast, enjoy a healthy love life, a fact which has baffled literary critics given that Milton would have been well aware of the Church's teaching that angels are immortal and thus have no need to procreate. This teaching originates from Jesus' explanation that 'at the resurrection men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven' (Matt 22:30).

Guardian angels

In Exodus Moses is told by the Lord, 'Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared' (23:20-23). The Church teaches that each of us is guarded and protected by 'the watchful care and intercession' of our guardian angel throughout our entire lives (Catechism, 336).

Many of the saints had a profound respect for their guardian angels including most recently Saint Josemaria EscrivĂ  who regularly communicated with his, referring to him as 'a great accomplice'. Similarly Saint Padre Pio often sought the aid of his guardian angel in carrying out his good works and was known to invite his spiritual children to 'send me your guardian angel' if they ever needed his help and prayers of intercession.

Helen's son is certainly not obliged to believe that the young stranger who saved his mother's life was her guardian angel, but this possibility is consistent with the Church's teaching on the matter and certainly reflects the prayer to our guardian angels in which we ask them 'to light and guard, to rule and guide' us.

If he wished to learn more about angels, after checking what the Catechism and the Bible have to say about them, he could turn to authors such as Peter Kreeft. In any case he should not be dismissive of the possibility of encountering angels since, as Saint Paul reminded his friends, 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares' (Epistle to the Hebrews, 13:2).

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