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 dreamthe vision of the
ladderand when awakewhen 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
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
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
Ephesiansthat is to the principalities, authorities, powers and dominionswe
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
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 willthey 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 giftslanguage and free willand 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 pridethat 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
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