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The Church's Teaching Concerning Angels

The Creation, Nature and Purpose of the Angelic World. Angels in Holy Scripture.

The word "angel" means "messenger" and this word expresses the nature of angelic service to the human race. From the days of man's life in paradise, mankind has known of their existence, and its almost universal recognition is reflected not only in Judaism but in most other ancient religions as well.

When Adam was expelled from paradise after his fall, one of the cherubim with a flaming sword was set to guard the gates of Eden (Gen. 3:24). When Abraham sent his servant to Nahor, he encouraged him by telling him that the Lord would send His angel before him and prosper his way (Gen. 24: 7, 40). Jacob saw angels both in a dream—the vision of the ladder—and when awake—when returning home to Esau he saw a host of the angels of God. In the Psalter there are constant references to angels, and we also read of them in the Book of Job and the prophets. The Prophet Isaiah saw the seraphim surrounding the throne of God, and the Prophet Ezekiel saw cherubim in his vision of the Temple of God (Is. 6:1-7, Ezek. 10:1-22.)

In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation contains much information about angels and many references to them. An angel announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias; so also did an angel announce the birth of the Savior to the most holy Virgin Mary and appear in a dream to Joseph. A mighty host of angels sang the glory of Christ's nativity; an angel announced the birth of the Savior to the shepherds and stopped the Wise Men from returning to Herod; angels ministered to Jesus Christ during His temptation in the wilderness; an angel appeared to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane; angels announced His Resurrection to the myrrh-bearing women; and at His ascension angels proclaimed, His second coming. Angels loosed the bonds of Peter and the other Apostles (Acts 5:19) and of Peter alone (Acts 12:7-15); an angel appeared to Cornelius the Centurion, telling him to send for Peter who would instruct him in the word of God (Acts 10:3-7). An angel announced to Paul that he was to appear before Caesar (Acts 27:23-24) and the vision of angels is the foundation of the Revelation of St. John.

The Creation of the Angels

In the Symbol of Faith we find the following words: "I believe in One God . . . the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." The invisible, angelic world was created by God before the visible world. "When the stars were made, all My angels praised Me with a loud voice" (Job 38:7). The Apostle Paul writes: "For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him" (Col. 1:16). Studying the first words of the Book of Genesis, "in the beginning God created heaven and earth", some of the Fathers of the Church understand the word "heaven" as meaning not the firmament, which was created later, but the invisible heaven, the world of angels. Many teachers of the Church have expressed the thought that God created the angels long before the visible world (Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Anastasius of Sinai) and that at the time when the material universe was created, they already stood before the face of the Creator and served Him. St. Gregory writes about this as follows: "As the goodness (or "love") of God could not find satisfaction in contemplating Himself, He wished to spread this goodness ever further, so that the number of those who would enjoy it should be as great as possible (for such is the nature of the highest form of goodness) and so God first thought of the angelic heavenly powers, and thought became act, carried out by the Word and fulfilled by the Spirit. As His first creation was pleasing to Him, He then devised another world, material and visible, and a well-balanced unity between heaven and earth and that which is between them." This idea of St. Gregory is echoed in the work of St. John of Damascus (Precise Confession of the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter 3).

The Nature of the Angels

By their nature, angels are active spirits endowed with reason, will and knowledge; they serve God, fulfil the will of His Providence and praise Him. They are incorporeal spirits, and because they belong to the invisible world, cannot be seen by our bodily eyes. St. John of Damascus writes: "When it is the will of God that angels should appear to those who are worthy, they do not appear as they are in their essence, but, transformed, take on such an appearance as to be visible to physical eyes." In the book of Tobit, the angel accompanying Tobit and his son says of himself: "All these days I was visible to you, but I neither ate nor drank, this only appeared to your eyes" (Tobit 12:19).

But St. John of Damascus also writes: "An angel can only be called incorporeal and non-material in comparison with us. For in comparison with God, Who alone is beyond compare, everything seems coarse and material, only the divinity is totally non-material -and incorporeal."

The Degree of Perfection of the Angels

Angels are the most perfect spirits, superior to man in their spiritual powers; but even they, like all creation; are bound by their limitations. As they are incorporeal spirits, they are less confined, by space and place than men, and can travel distances of, to us, inconceivable vastness with lightning speed, to appear where it is necessary for them to act. However, it is impossible to say that they are totally independent of limitations of space and place, or that they could be omnipresent. Holy Scripture depicts angels as descending from heaven to earth, or ascending from earth to heaven, which gives us reason to believe that they cannot be on earth and in heaven at the same time.

Immortality is one of the qualities of angels, as we are given clear evidence in Holy Scripture, which teaches that they cannot die (Luke 20:36). However, their immortality is not divine (that is, independent and unconditional), but depends, like the immortality of human souls, completely on the will and mercy of God.

Angels, being incorporeal spirits, are capable to the highest degree spiritual development. Their mind has a much more exalted quality than that of the human mind and in power and strength they transcend all earthly authorities, as St. Peter teaches (II Pet. 2:11). The nature of an angel is higher than the nature of a man, as King David teaches us when, to stress the dignity of a man, he remarks, "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels" (Ps. 8:5). However, even their exalted qualities have their limits. Holy Scripture tells us that they do not know the depths of the essence of God, which is known only to the Spirit of God: "The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God" (I Cor. 2:11). They do not know the future, which is also known only to God: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, ... not the angels which are in heaven" (Mark 13:32). The angels are also incapable of fully understanding the mystery of redemption, which they "desire to look into" (I Pet. 1:12) but cannot. They are even incapable of knowing all human thoughts (Kings 8:39), and cannot perform miracles on their own but only by the will of God. "Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel, Who alone doeth wonders" (Ps. 71:19).

The Numbers and the Ranks of Angels

The world of angels is depicted in Holy Scripture as immeasurably vast. When the Prophet Daniel saw the Ancient of Days in a vision, he saw that "thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousands of myriads attended upon Him" (Dan. 7:10). A multitude of the heavenly host are also described as hymning the nativity of the Son of God.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: "Imagine how great in number is the Roman people, imagine how great in number are the other barbarian peoples that now exist, and how many must have died even! In a century, imagine how many have been buried in a thousand years, imagine all mankind, from Adam to the present day. Great is their multitude, but it is small in comparison with the angels, whose numbers are greater. They are the ninety-nine sheep, whereas the human race is the one lost sheep. By the greatness of a place one can judge the numbers of those who dwell in it. The earth we inhabit is a mere dot in the heavens, thus the heaven that surrounds it must have a much greater number of inhabitants. As is has greater space, the heavens of heavens hold their innumerable number. If it is written that 'a thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousands of myriads attended upon Him' this is only because the prophet could express no greater number." When the numbers of the angels are so great, it is natural to assume that in their world, as in the material: world, there are various degrees of perfections and therefore various ranks or a hierarchy of the heavenly powers. Thus Holy Scripture calls some angels and others archangels (I Thess. 4:16, Jude v. 9).

The Orthodox Church, guided by the views of the writers of the early Church and the Fathers of the Church, and in particular by the work On the Celestial Hierarchies by St. Dionysius the Areopagite, divides the world of the angels into nine ranks, and these nine into three hierarchies, each consisting of three ranks. In the first hierarchy stand those that are closest to God-thrones, cherubim and seraphim. In the second, or middle hierarchy are authorities, dominions and powers. The third hierarchy, which is closest to us, contains angels, archangels and principalities (Orthodox Confessions). We find the enumeration of nine ranks of angels in the "Decrees of the Apostles", and in the works of St. Ignatius the God-bearer, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom; later in the works of St. Gregory the Dialogist, St. John of Damascus and others. This is what St. Gregory the Dialogist writes: "We accept the existence of nine ranks of angels, because from the evidence of the Word of God we know about angels, archangels, powers, authorities, principalities, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. The existence of angels and archangels is witnessed throughout Holy Scripture; it is principally the books of the Prophets which mention cherubim and seraphim. The names of yet another four ranks are listed by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians, where he writes: ‘Far above all principality; and power, and might, and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come’ (Eph. 1:21); and also in his Epistle to the Colossians: ‘For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him and for Him’ (Col. 1:16). Thus, when to those four, of whom he speaks to the Ephesians—that is to the principalities, authorities, powers and dominions—we add the thrones, mentioned in the Epistle to the Colossians, that adds up to five ranks of angels; and when to them we add the angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we can see that there are nine ranks of angels."

And in fact, when we examine the books of Holy Scripture, we find the names of the nine ranks which have been listed; more than nine are not mentioned. We read the name of the cherubim in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, in Psalms 80 and 99, in ch. 10 of Ezekiel; of the seraphim in Isaiah ch. 6; of powers in the Epistle to the Ephesians ch. 1, and to the Romans ch. 8; of thrones, authorities, principalities, and dominions in the Epistle to the Colossians ch. 1, to the Ephesians ch. 1 and 3; of archangels in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians ch. 4 and the Epistle of Jude v. 9; of angels in the First Epistle of Peter ch. 3, and the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans ch. 8, and in; various other places. On this evidence of Holy Scripture the number of angelic ranks recognized in the teaching of the Orthodox Church is normally limited to nine.

However, some Fathers of the Church express their personal opinion that the division of angels into nine ranks covers only those names and ranks which have been revealed to us in this present life; others will be revealed in the world to come. This idea has been developed by St. John Chrysostom, the Blessed Theodoretus, and Theophilactus the Bulgarian. Chrysostom writes: "There are in truth other powers, whose names even are unknown to us. Not only angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, authorities and powers inhabit the heavens, but there are innumerable other kinds and an unimaginable multitude of classes, which no words can be adequate to express. But what evidence is there that there are more powers than those whose names are known to us? The Apostle Paul, when he mentions one of the series of ranks we know, also reminds of the other which we do not, when he writes of Christ: 'He ... set Him at His own right hand, in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come' (Eph. 1:20-21). From this we see that there are certain names which will be known then, but are now unknown. Hence the reference to a "name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come." These ideas, however, are regarded by the Church not as dogma, but as personal opinions which may or may not be true.

On the whole the writers and teachers of the early Church regarded the doctrine of the heavenly hierarchy as something mysterious. St Dionysius writes in his On the Celestial Hierarchies: "How many ranks there are of heavenly beings, what their nature is and in what manner the mystery of holy authority is ordered among them, only God can know in detail. It is He Who created their hierarchy, and they themselves know their own powers, the nature of their light, their holy and most peaceful system of ranks. All that we can say about this is what God has revealed to us through them themselves, because they know themselves". The blessed Augustine has similar ideas. "That there exist thrones, principalities; dominions and powers in the heavenly mansions, I believe most firmly, and I hold it as an undoubted fact that there are distinctions between them, but what exactly they are like and what exactly are the distinctions between them, I do not know."

In Holy Scripture we find the names of some of the highest angels. There are two such names in the canonical books, "Michael" ("Who is like unto God?" Dan. 10:13; 12:1; Jude v. 9; Rev. 12:7-8) and "Gabriel" ("Man of God" Dan. 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19-26). In the deutero-canonical books of the "Apocrypha" we have "Raphael" ("The help of God" Tobit 3:17; 12:15); "Uriel" ("Fire of God" A.V.) or "Jeremiel" ("The highness or mercy of God" R.V.), in II Esdras 4:36; "Uriel" also in II Esdras 4:1; "Salathiel" ("Prayer to God" A.V.) or "Phaltiel" R.V. or "Psaltiel" (in Syriac, II Esdras 5:16). Apart from these names, pious tradition gives yet another two names of angels, "Jehudiel" ("The praise of God") and "Barachiel" ("The blessing of God"), although these names do not appear in Holy Scripture. Various listings exist of the great archangels and in these many alternative names occur, yet it is significant that in all cases only seven names are given and this is in agreement with the words of St. John in the Revelation: "Grace be unto you and peace, from Him Which is, and Which is to come: and from the seven spirits which are before His throne " (Rev. 1:4).

The Service of the Angels

But what is the purpose of the beings who people the spiritual world? Obviously God intended and intends that they should be the most perfect reflections of His majesty and glory and share in His bliss. If we are told of the visible heavens, "The heavens declare the glory of God", how much more is this the purpose of the spiritual heavens. For this reason St. Gregory the Theologian calls them "reflections of the Perfect Light" or secondary lights.

The angels of those ranks which are closest to the human race appear in Holy Scripture as messengers or heralds of the will of God, guides for people and the servants of their salvation. The Apostle Paul writes: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" (Heb. 1:14).

Angels not only hymn the glory of God, but also serve Him in the plan of His Providence for the material world. The Fathers of the Church often speak of this service of theirs. "Some of them stand before the Great God, while others by their action support the whole world" (St. Gregory the Theologian, "Songs of the Mysteries"). Angels are "set in command of the elements, the heavens, the world, and all within it" (St. Athenagoras). "Each of them has received under his control some particular part of the universe, or is attached to some particular thing or person in the world, as is known to Him Who arranges and orders all things, and all work towards one goal, by command of the Builder of all things" (St. Gregory the Theologian). Some ecclesiastical writers express the idea that particular angels are set in charge of particular aspects of the kingdom of nature, inorganic, organic and animal or animate, as we read, for example, in the works of Origen and Blessed Augustine. This idea comes from the Revelation, where we read of angels set in charge of certain physical elements by the will of God (Rev. 16:15: "And I heard the angel of the waters say . . ."; Rev. 7:1 : "I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, not on the sea, nor on any tree;" Rev. 14:18: "And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire . . ."). According to the vision of the Prophet Daniel, there are angels to whom God entrusts the fate of the kingdoms and peoples of the earth (Dan. chapters 10-12).

The Orthodox Church believes that every person has his own Guardian Angel, unless he has driven him away by an evil life. The Lord Jesus Christ said: "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones, for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the Face of My Father Which is in heaven" (Matt. 18:10).

The Conflict of the Good and Bad Angels

Those parts of God's creation which are inanimate and not endowed with reason have no freedom and automatically do God's will—they obey the rules He has laid down for them, which we call "the laws of nature." But those beings which God has endowed with reason, He has honored with great gifts—language and free will—and it is free will which invests each action of a free being with moral value. To be free to choose to do good and perform the will of God, not merely be forced to do so by irresistible natural laws, is essential for there to be any moral value in one's doing of good, and for obedience to the will of God to truly express love for God. However, to have the freedom to choose to do good, one must also be free to do evil, for without alternatives there can be no choice, and if there is no choice there is no moral value in doing good, it is simply an automatic reaction to irresistible force. Having the freedom to choose evil, one of the angels actually did so, and by so doing, from an angel of light became the devil. This took place before the creation of the visible world.

The devil, who is also called "Satan" or "the enemy," was created as a mighty and beautiful archangel, one of the most perfect and radiant, and for this reason he was given the name Lucifer, "the light-bearer". But when he chose not to do the will of God, he fell, lost his exalted qualities, and left his dwelling in heaven. St. Jude says: "And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, He hath reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude v. 6). Lucifer had been richly endowed by the Creator and should have ever held his eyes on the Lord, "as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress." But instead he concentrated his attention on his own perfection, fell in love with it and was seized with pride. By doing this he left the path of truth, which united him with the Source of Life and Light, and entered the path of destruction. He forgot that he owed all to God, that all his perfections were the gift of God. He ascribed them to himself, and so seemed exceedingly great to himself. He was so blinded by the idea of his own greatness and considered, "is there any who is equal to me? Any angel ... or God, even God Himself. I myself am divine, I myself am a divinity!" Satan rose against his Lord and took with him a large number of spirits who accepted his authority. The Archangel Michael took command of the angels who remained faithful to God, forming an army of angels, and entered into conflict with the fallen spirits. Long before the creation of the material world took place this war which was waged between the angels of light and the spirits of darkness. But light conquered darkness, and the rebels were hurled into the abyss.

The fall of the mighty spirit was horrifying and inevitable. "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven," says Christ (Luke 10:18). And this fall, associated with increasing stubbornness and hardening of heart continues, further and further downwards, to this day. One sin leads to another, pride leads to envy and spite, whose weapons are lies, false witness and cunning. Darkness falls when we leave the Source of light, and this is what happened to the devil. From a light-bearing angel he was transformed into the prince of darkness. But can he not repent? Would not the merciful Lord receive his penitence? One hermit, who pondered over this problem, was granted a revelation. An angel brought him from heaven the answer that forgiveness is always possible for those who repent. The holy man repeated this comforting reply to the devil, when he appeared before him. The enemy of mankind burst into laughter and disappeared: every thought of repentance is comic to him, every suggestion of humility unbearable. Stubbornness, hardness of heart and pride which develops into a habit can reach such a level that a sinner no longer wishes to make use of the means of salvation. This is the curse of pride—that extreme pride no longer desires salvation and hence perishes.

Thus the angelic world of light divided; some angels, faithful to the Lord, remain in light, joy, love and gratitude, piously serve God and all the time continue to develop, to make progress towards perfection, to closer union with the Lord. And they have gone so far in their work and in the path of grace, and have developed such a habit of goodness, that none of them can or will rebel against God now. The leader of this holy army of heaven is the radiant Michael, whereas that other world of darkness and spite consists of Satan and the demons.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 27, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec., 1977), pp. 39-47. Translated from the Russian by Fr. John Suscenko. This also appeared in a slightly different form in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, by Fr. Michael Pomazansky, pp. 112-122. As the author was unnamed in the Orthodox Life version, I can only assume that Fr. Michael was the author in Russian.