IV. Creation of the Spiritual World

A. The Doctrine of the Angels in History.

There are clear evidences of belief in the existence of angels from the very beginning of the Christian era. Some of them were regarded as good, and others as evil. The former were held in high esteem as personal beings of a lofty order, endowed with moral freedom, engaged in the joyful service of God, and employed by God to minister to the welfare of men. According to some of the early Church Fathers they had fine ethereal bodies. The general conviction was that all angels were created good, but that some abused their freedom and fell away from God. Satan, who was originally an angel of eminent rank, was regarded as their head. The cause of his fall was found in pride and sinful ambition, while the fall of his subordinates was ascribed to their lusting after the daughters of men. This view was based on what was then the common interpretation of Gen. 6:2. Alongside of the general idea that the good angels ministered to the needs and welfare of believers, the specific notion of guardian angels for individual churches and individual men was cherished by some. Calamities of various kinds, such as sicknesses, accidents, and losses, were frequently ascribed to the baneful influence of evil spirits. The idea of a hierarchy of angels already made its appearance (Clement of Alexandria), but it was not considered proper to worship any of the angels.

As time went on the angels continued to be regarded as blessed spirits, superior to men in knowledge, and free from the encumbrance of gross material bodies. While some still ascribed to them fine ethereal bodies, there was an ever increasing uncertainty as to whether they had any bodies at all. They who still clung to the idea that they were corporeal did this, so it seems, in the interest of the truth that they were subject to spatial limitations. Dionysius the Areopagite divided the angels into three classes: the first class consisting of Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim; the second, of Mights, Dominions, and Powers; and the third, of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The first class is represented as enjoying the closest communion with God; the second, as being enlightened by the first; and the third, as being enlightened by the second. This classification was adopted by several later writers. Augustine stressed the fact that the good angels were rewarded for their obedience by the gift of perseverance, which carried with it the assurance that they would never fall. Pride was still regarded as the cause of Satan’s fall, but the idea that the rest of the angels fell as the result of their lusting after the daughters of men, though still held by some, was gradually disappearing under the influence of a better exegesis of Gen. 6:2. A beneficent influence was ascribed to the unfallen angels, while the fallen angels were regarded as corrupting the hearts of men, as stimulating to heresy. and as engendering diseases and calamities. The polytheistic tendencies of many of the converts to Christianity fostered an inclination to worship the angels. Such worship was formally condemned by a council which convened at Laodicea in the fourth century.

During the Middle Ages there were still a few who were inclined to assume that the angels have ethereal bodies, but the prevailing opinion was that they were incorporeal. The angelic appearances were explained by assuming that in such cases angels adopted temporal bodily forms for revelational purposes. Several points were in debate among the Scholastics. As to the time of the creation of the angels the prevailing opinion was that they were created at the same time as the material universe. While some held that the angels were created in the state of grace, the more common opinion was that they were created in a state of natural perfection only. There was little difference of opinion respecting the question, whether angels can be said to be in a place. The common answer to this question was affirmative, though it was pointed out that their presence in space is not circumscriptive but definitive, since only bodies can be in space circumscriptively. While all the Scholastics agreed that the knowledge of the angels is limited, the Thomists and Scotists differed considerably respecting the nature of this knowledge. It was admitted by all that the angels received infused knowledge at the time of their creation, but Thomas Aquinas denied, while Duns Scotus affirmed, that they could acquire new knowledge through their own intellectual activity. The former held that the knowledge of the angels is purely intuitive, but the latter asserted that it may also be discursive. The idea of guardian angels found considerable favor during the Middle Ages.

The period of the Reformation brought nothing new respecting the doctrine of the angels. Both Luther and Calvin had a vivid conception of their ministry, and particularly of the presence and power of Satan. The latter stresses the fact that he is under divine control, and that, while he is sometimes the instrument of God, he can only work within prescribed limits. Protestant theologians generally regarded the angels as pure spiritual beings, though Zanchius and Grotius still speak of them as having ethereal bodies. As to the work of the good angels the general opinion was that it is their special task to minister to the heirs of salvation. There was no general agreement, however, respecting the existence of guardian angels. Some favored this view, others opposed it, and still others refused to commit themselves on this point. Our Belgic Confession says in Article XII, which deals with creation: “He also created the angels good, to be His messengers and to serve His elect: some of whom are fallen from that excellency, in which God created them, into everlasting perdition; and the others have, by the grace of God, remained steadfast, and continued in their primitive state. The devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing to the utmost of their power, as murderers watching to ruin the Church and every member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all; and are therefore, by their own wickedness, adjudged to eternal damnation, daily expecting their horrible torments.”

Up to the present time Roman Catholics generally regarded the angels as pure spirits, while some Protestants, such as Emmons, Ebrard, Kurtz, Delitzsch, and others, still ascribe to them some special kind of bodies. But even the great majority of the latter take the opposite view. Swedenborg holds that all angels were originally men and exist in bodily form. Their position in the angelic world depends on their life in this world. Eighteenth century Rationalism boldly denied the existence of angels and explained what the Bible teaches about them as a species of accommodation. Some modern liberal theologians consider it worthwhile to retain the fundamental idea expressed in the doctrine of the angels. They find in it a symbolic representation of the protecting care and helpfulness of God.

B. The Existence of the Angels.

All religions recognize the existence of a spiritual world. Their mythologies speak of gods, half-gods, spirits, demons, genii, heroes, and so on. It was especially among the Persians that the doctrine of the angels was developed, and many critical scholars assert that the Jews derived their angelology from the Persians. But this is an unproved and, to say the least, very doubtful theory. It certainly cannot be harmonized with the Word of God, in which angels appear from the very beginning. Moreover, some great scholars, who made special study of the subject, came to the conclusion that the Persian angelology was derived from that current among the Hebrews. The Christian Church has always believed in the existence of angels, but in modern liberal theology this belief has been discarded, though it still regards the angel-idea as useful, since it imprints upon us “the living power of God in the history of redemption, His providentia specialissima for His people, especially for the ‘little ones.’”[Foster, Christianity and Its Modern Expression, p. 114.] Though such men as Leibnitz and Wolff, Kant and Schleiermacher, admitted the possibility of the existence of an angelic world, and some of them even tried to prove this by rational argumentation, it is quite evident that philosophy can neither prove nor disprove the existence of angels. From philosophy, therefore, we turn to Scripture, which makes no deliberate attempt to prove the existence of angels, but assumes this throughout, and in its historical books repeatedly shows us the angels in action. No one who bows before the authority of the Word of God can doubt the existence of angels.

C. The Nature of the Angels.

Under this heading several points call for consideration.

1. IN DISTINCTION FROM GOD THEY ARE CREATED BEINGS. The creation of the angels has sometimes been denied, but is clearly taught in Scripture. It is not certain that those passages which speak of the creation of the host of heaven (Gen. 2:1; Ps. 33:6; Neh. 9:6) refer to the creation of the angels rather than to the creation of the starry host; but Ps. 148:2,5, and Col. 1:16 clearly speak of the creation of the angels, (comp. I Kings 22:19; Ps. 103:20,21). The time of their creation cannot be fixed definitely. The opinion of some, based on Job 38:7, that they were created before all other things, really finds no support in Scripture. As far as we know, no creative work preceded the creation of heaven and earth. The passage in the book of Job (38:7) teaches, indeed, in a poetic vein that they were present at the founding of the world just as the stars were, but not that they existed before the primary creation of heaven and earth. The idea that the creation of the heavens was completed on the first day, and that the creation of the angels was simply a part of the day’s work, is also an unproved assumption, though the fact that the statement in Gen. 1:2 applies to the earth only would seem to favor it. Possibly the creation of the heavens was not completed in a single moment any more than that of the earth. The only safe statement seems to be that they were created before the seventh day. This at least follows from such passages as Gen. 2:1; Ex. 20:11; Job 38:7; Neh. 9:6.

2. THEY ARE SPIRITUAL AND INCORPOREAL BEINGS. This has always been disputed. The Jews and many of the early Church Fathers ascribed to them airy or fiery bodies; but the Church of the Middle Ages came to the conclusion that they are pure spiritual beings. Yet even after that some Roman Catholic, Arminian, and even Lutheran and Reformed theologians ascribed to them a certain corporeity, most subtle and pure. They regarded the idea of a purely spiritual and incorporeal nature as metaphysically inconceivable, and also as incompatible with the conception of a creature. They also appealed to the fact that the angels are subject to spatial limitations, move about from place to place, and were sometimes seen by men. But all these arguments are more than counter-balanced by the explicit statements of Scripture to the effect that the angels are pneumata, Matt. 8:16; 12:45; Luke 7:21; 8:2; 11:26; Acts 19:12; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 1:14. They have no flesh and bone, Luke 24:39, do not marry, Matt. 22:30, can be present in great numbers in a very limited space, Luke 8:30, and are invisible, Col. 1:16. Such passages as Ps. 104:4 (comp. Heb. 1:7); Matt. 22:30; and I Cor. 11:10 do not prove the corporeity of the angels. Neither is this proved by the symbolical descriptions of the angels in the prophecy of Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation, nor by their appearance in bodily forms, though it is difficult to say, whether the bodies which they assumed on certain occasions were real or only apparent. It is clear, however, that they are creatures and therefore finite and limited, though they stand in a freer relation to time and space than man. We cannot ascribe to them an ubi repletivum, nor an ubi circumscriptivum, but only an ubi definitivum. They cannot be in two or more places simultaneously.

3. THEY ARE RATIONAL, MORAL, AND IMMORTAL BEINGS. This means that they are personal beings endowed with intelligence and will. The fact that they are intelligent beings would seem to follow at once from the fact that they are spirits; but it is also taught explicitly in Scripture, II Sam. 14:20; Matt. 24:36; Eph. 3:10; I Pet. 1:12; II Pet. 2:11. While not omniscient, they are superior to men in knowledge, Matt. 24:36. Moreover, they are possessed of moral natures, and as such are under moral obligation; they are rewarded for obedience, and are punished for disobedience. The Bible speaks of the angels which remained loyal as “holy angels,” Matt. 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; Acts 10:22; Rev. 14:10, and pictures those who fell away as lying and sinning, John 8:44; I John 3:8-10. The good angels are also immortal in the sense that they are not subject to death. In that respect the saints in heaven are said to be like them, Luke 20:35,36. In addition to all this, great power is ascribed to them. They form the army of God, a host of mighty heroes, always ready to do the Lord’s bidding, Ps. 103:20; Col. 1:16; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; Heb. 1:14; and the evil angels form the army of Satan, bent on destroying the work of the Lord, Luke 11:21; II Thess. 2:9; I Pet. 5:8.

4. THEY ARE PARTLY GOOD AND PARTLY EVIL. The Bible furnishes very little information respecting the original state of the angels. We read, however, that at the end of His creative work God saw everything that He had made and, behold, it was very good. Moreover, John 8:44; II Pet. 2:4; and Jude 6 presupposes an original good condition of all angels. The good angels are called elect angels in I Tim. 5:21. They evidently received, in addition to the grace with which all angels were endowed, and which was sufficient to enable them to retain their position, a special grace of perseverance, by which they were confirmed in their position. There has been a great deal of useless speculation about the time and character of the fall of the angels. Protestant theology, however, was generally satisfied with the knowledge that the good angels retained their original state, were confirmed in their position, and are now incapable of sinning. They are not only called holy angels, but also angels of light, II Cor. 11:14. They always behold the face of God, Matt. 18:10, are our exemplars in doing the will of God, Matt. 6:10, and possess immortal life, Luke 20:36.

D. The Number and Organization of the Angels.

1. THEIR NUMBER. The Bible contains no definite information respecting the number of the angels, but indicates very clearly that they constitute a mighty army. They are repeatedly called the host of heaven or of God, and this term itself already points to a goodly number. In Deut. 33:2 we read that “Jehovah came from Sinai . . . from the ten thousands of holy ones,” and in Ps. 68:17 the poet sings, “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands upon thousands: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the sanctuary.” In reply to the question of Jesus addressed to an unclean spirit, the answer was, “my name is legion; for we are many,” Mark 5:9,15. The Roman legion was not always the same, but varied at different times all the way from 3000 to 6000, In Gethsemane Jesus said to the band that came to take him captive, “Or thinkest thou that I cannot beseech my Father, and He shall even now send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Matt. 26:53. And, finally, we read in Rev. 5:11, “And I saw, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands.” In view of all these data it is perfectly safe to say that the angels constitute an innumerable company, a mighty host. They do not form an organism like mankind, for they are spirits, which do not marry and are not born the one out of the other. Their full number was created in the beginning; there has been no increase in their ranks.

2. THEIR ORDERS. Though the angels do not constitute an organism, they are evidently organized in some way. This follows from the fact that, alongside of the general name “angel,” the Bible uses certain specific names to indicate different classes of angels. The name “angel,” by which we designate the higher spirits generally, is not a nomen naturae in Scripture, but a nomen officii. The Hebrew word mal’ak simply means messenger, and serves to designate one sent by men, Job 1:14; I Sam. 11:3, or by God, Hag. 1:13; Mal. 2:7; 3:1. The Greek term aggelos is also frequently applied to men, Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24; 9:51; Gal. 4:14. There is no general distinctive name for all spiritual beings in Scripture. They are called sons of God, Job 1:6; 2:1; Ps. 29:1; 89:6, spirits, Heb. 1:14, saints, Ps. 89:5,7; Zech. 14:5; Dan. 8:13, watchers, Dan. 4:13,17,24. There are several specific names, however, which point to different classes of angels.

a. Cherubim. Cherubim are repeatedly mentioned in Scripture. They guard the entrance of paradise, Gen. 3:24, gaze upon the mercy-seat, Ex. 25:18; Ps. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16; Heb. 9:5, and constitute the chariot on which God descends to the earth, II Sam. 22:11; Ps. 18:10. In Ezek. 1 and Rev. 4 they are represented as living beings in various forms. These symbolical representations simply serve to bring out their extraordinary power and majesty. More than other creatures they were destined to reveal the power, the majesty, and the glory of God, and to guard His holiness in the garden of Eden, in tabernacle and temple, and in the descent of God to the earth.

b. Seraphim. A related class of angels are the Seraphim, mentioned only in Isa. 6:2,6. They are also symbolically represented in human form, but with six wings, two covering the face, two the feet, and two for the speedy execution of the Lord’s commandments. In distinction from the Cherubim, they stand as servants round about the throne of the heavenly King, sing His praises, and are ever ready to do His bidding. While the Cherubim are the mighty ones, they might be called the nobles among the angels. While the former guard the holiness of God, they serve the purpose of reconciliation, and thus prepare men for the proper approach to God.

c. Principalities, powers, thrones, and dominions. In addition to the preceding the Bible speaks of certain classes of angels, which occupy places of authority in the angelic world, as archai and exousiai (principalities and powers), Eph. 3:10; Col. 2:10, thronoi (thrones), Col. 1:16, kureotetoi (dominions), Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:16, and dunameis (powers), Eph. 1:21; I Pet. 3:22. These appellations do not point to different kinds of angels, but simply to differences of rank or dignity among them.

d. Gabriel and Michael. In distinction from all the other angels, these two are mentioned by name. Gabriel appears in Dan. 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19,26. The great majority of commentators regard him as a created angel, but some of these deny that the name Gabriel is a proper name and look upon it as common noun, meaning man of God, a synonym for angel. But this is an untenable position.[Cf. especially Kuyper, De Engelen Gods, p. 175.] Some earlier and later commentators see in him an uncreated being, some even suggesting that he might be the third person of the Holy Trinity, while Michael was the second. But a simple reading of the passages in question shows the impossibility of this interpretation. He may be one of the seven angels that are said to stand before God in Rev. 8:2 (comp. Luke 1:19). It seems to have been his special task to mediate and interpret divine revelations.

The name Michael (lit., “who as God?”) has been interpreted as a designation of the second person of the Trinity. But this is no more tenable than the identification of Gabriel with the Holy Spirit. Michael is mentioned in Dan. 10:13,21; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7. From the fact that he is called “the archangel” in Jude 9, and from the expression used in Rev. 12:7 it would seem that he occupies an important place among the angels. The passages in Daniel also point to the fact that he is a prince among them. We see in him the valiant warrior fighting the battles of Jehovah against the enemies of Israel and against the evil powers in the spirit-world. It is not impossible that the title “archangel” also applies to Gabriel and a few other angels.

E. The Service of the Angels.

We can distinguish between an ordinary and an extraordinary service of the angels.

1. THEIR ORDINARY SERVICE. This consists first of all in their praising God day and night, Job 38:7; Isa. 6; Ps. 103:20; 148:2; Rev. 5:11. Scripture gives the impression that they do this audibly, as at the birth of Christ, though we can form no conception of this speaking and singing of the angels. Since the entrance of sin into the world they are sent forth to minister to them that are heirs of salvation, Heb. 1:14. They rejoice at the conversion of a sinner, Luke 15:10, watch over believers, Ps. 34:7; 91:11, protect the little ones, Matt. 18:10, are present in the Church, I Cor. 11:10; I Tim. 5:21, learning from her the manifold riches of the grace of God, Eph. 3:10; I Pet. 1:12, and convey believers into the bosom of Abraham, Luke 16:22. The idea that some of them serve as guardians of individual believers finds no support in Scripture. The statement in Matt. 18:10 is too general to prove the point, though it seems to indicate that there is a group of angels who are particularly charged with the care of the little ones. Neither is it proved by Acts 12:15, for this passage merely goes to show that there were some even among the disciples of that early day who believed in guardian angels.

2. THEIR EXTRAORDINARY SERVICE. The extraordinary service of the angels was made necessary by the fall of man, and forms an important element in the special revelation of God. They often mediate the special revelations of God, communicate blessings to His people, and execute judgment upon His enemies. Their activity is most prominent in the great turning points of the economy of salvation, as in the days of the patriarchs, the time of the lawgiving, the period of the exile and of the restoration, and at the birth, the resurrection, and the ascension of the Lord. When the period of God’s special revelation closed, the extraordinary service of the angels ceased, to be resumed only at the return of the Lord.

F. The Evil Angels.

1. THEIR ORIGIN. Besides the good there also are evil angels, who delight in opposing God and antagonizing His work. Though they are also creatures of God, they were not created as evil angels. God saw everything that He had created, and it was very good, Gen. 1:31. There are two passages in Scripture which clearly imply that some of the angels did not retain their original position, but fell from the state in which they were created, II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6. The special sin of these angels is not revealed, but has generally been thought to consist in this that they exalted themselves over against God, and aspired to supreme authority. If this ambition played an important part in the life of Satan and led to his downfall, it would at once explain why he tempted man on this particular point, and sought to lure him to his destruction by appealing to a possible similar ambition in man. Some of the early Church Fathers distinguished between Satan and the subordinate devils in explaining the cause of their fall. That of the fall of Satan was found in pride, but that of the more general fall in the angelic world, in fleshly lust, Gen. 6:2. That interpretation of Gen. 6:2 was gradually discarded, however, during the Middle Ages. In view of this it is rather surprising to find that several modern commentators are reiterating the idea in their interpretation of II Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6 as, for instance, Meyer, Alford, Mayor, Wohlenberg. It is an explanation, however, that is contrary to the spiritual nature of the angels, and to the fact that, as Matt. 22:30 would seem to imply, there is no sexual life among the angels. Moreover, on that interpretation we shall have to assume a double fall in the angelic world, first the fall of Satan, and then, considerably later, the fall resulting in the host of devils that now serves Satan. It is much more likely that Satan dragged the others right along with him in his fall.

2. THEIR HEAD. Satan appears in Scripture as the recognized head of the fallen angels. He was originally, it would seem, one of the mightiest princes of the angelic world, and became the leader of those that revolted and fell away from God. The name “Satan” points to him as “the Adversary,” not in the first place of man, but of God. He attacks Adam as the crown of God’s handiwork, works destruction and is therefore called Apollyon (the Destroyer), and assaults Jesus when He undertakes the work of restoration. After the entrance of sin into the world he became Diabolos (the Accuser), accusing the people of God continually, Rev. 12:10. He is represented in Scripture as the originator of sin, Gen. 3:1,4; John 8:44; II Cor. 11:3; I John 3:8; Rev. 12:9; 20:2,10, and appears as the recognized head of those that fell away, Matt. 25:41; 9:34; Eph. 2:2. He remains the leader of the angelic hosts which he carried with him in his fall, and employs them in desperate resistance to Christ and His Kingdom. He is also called repeatedly “the prince of this (not, “of the”) world, John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11, and even “the god of this world,” II Cor. 4:4. This does not mean that he is in control of the world, for God is in control, and He has given all authority to Christ, but it does convey the idea that he is in control of this evil world, the world in so far as it is ethically separated from God. This is clearly indicated in Eph. 2:2, where he is called “the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.” He is superhuman, but not divine; has great power, but is not omnipotent; wields influence on a large but restricted scale, Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:2, and is destined to be cast into the bottomless pit, Rev. 20:10.

3. THEIR ACTIVITY. Like the good angels, the fallen angels, too, are possessed of superhuman power, but their use of it contrasts sadly with that of the good angels. While the latter perennially praise God, fight His battles, and serve Him faithfully, they as powers of darkness are bent on cursing God, battling against Him and His Anointed, and destroying His work. They are in constant revolt against God, seek to blind and mislead even the elect, and encourage sinners in their evil. But they are lost and hopeless spirits. They are even now chained to hell and pits of darkness, and though not yet limited to one place, yet, as Calvin says, drag their chains with them wherever they go, II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6.