In the Western spiritual traditions, angels are understood to be heavenly or divine beings that are greater than humans in knowledge and power, but less than deities. The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means “messenger.” In Hebrew, angels are called mal’ak, which also means “messenger.” Both words are used to mean either divine or human messengers. Only in Latin and later Western languages is the term used solely of divine beings. Although not necessarily eternal, angels do not die; their relationship to time is thus somewhat ambiguous.
Angels in Early History
The idea of angels first appeared in Sumeria around 3000 BCE. The Sumerians were polytheists who believed that messengers mediated between the gods and humans. Also, they believed people had a spirit companion with them throughout their lives, perhaps a primitive version of a guardian angel. Archaeological excavations have discovered home shrines with images of winged humans, which seem to be dedicated to these spiritual beings. This trend continued into later Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. Around 650 BCE, Zoroaster claimed an angel revealed to him the tenets of a monotheistic religion, later called Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism portrays Mithras as an angel, along with a hierarchy of six archangels and many lesser angels. Zoroastrian angelol- ogy influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Angels in the Bible
In the biblical text, angels appear to be genderless attendants of God. They are created beings. Though they are not timeless, they do not die. Their roles are to praise God, serve in the heavenly council, and carry out God’s bidding. Many are heralds, but some are warriors and guards. As spiritual beings, angels are usually invisible (formless) but can take on humanlike form, even to the point of being indistinguishable from other humans. The Bible does not always distinguish between the angels and God. For example, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush, but two verses later the text says God called to Moses from the same bush.
The Hebrew Bible mentions at least two other types of heavenly beings—seraphim and cherubim. Seraphim are heavenly fiery serpents with six wings. In medieval Christianity, they are assigned to the highest order of angelic beings as attendants to God’s throne. Cherubim are also winged beings, perhaps with human characteristics. Such beings guarded the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve. As described in the Book of Exodus, golden images of two cherubim sat upon the Ark of the Covenant facing each other. Their wings spreading toward each other formed the mercy seat of God.
Angels are sparsely mentioned in the early writings of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. In this section, they function primarily as messengers; however, they also serve as protectors and guides, agents doing God’s bidding, attacking enemies, and leading God’s people. In later Old Testament writings, angels become more prominent with a shift in roles and nature, perhaps due to Babylonian and Zoroastrian influence. Here, angels reveal secrets about the future and interpret visions and dreams. The Book of Daniel provides the first occurrence of named angels—Gabriel and Michael. Daniel also introduces the beginning of a hierarchy of angels, where Michael is called the “great prince.”
During the Intertestamental period (4th to 1st centuries BCE), angelology greatly expanded, perhaps due to Persian influence (specifically Zoroastrianism). Angels were thought of as too numerous to count. They began to be placed in an ordered hierarchy, giving rise to the development of archangels. Also introduced is the idea of “fallen angels,” thus the beginning of the dualistic idea of good and evil angels. In this thought, angels have free will and the ability to choose to disobey God. Some angels were a part of angelic armies. Other angels took on the role of protector or guardian angel. For example, Raphael protects Tobit as he travels to Media.
In the Christian Bible, or New Testament (1st century CE), angels announce the birth of Jesus and continue to carry out God’s works. They attend to Jesus’s needs while he is in the wilderness; however, they are inferior to him. The Book of Jude speaks of angels who rebelled against being held for the Day of Judgment. In the Book of Revelation, angels play a prominent role in the final battle between good and evil forces. The archangel Michael leads an army of angels into a battle against Satan. Satan loses the battle, and he and his angels are cast down to the earth.
Angels in Islam
Islam portrays angels in a manner similar to Jewish and Christian views. They are seen as servants of God and agents of revelation to humans. However, in Islam, angels do not possess free will and cannot sin or disobey God; thus they cannot be evil. Angels exist in a hierarchy and have specific tasks. For example, Jibril (Gabriel) dictated God’s message to the prophets, including giving the Qur’an to Muhammad. Angels accompany each person on Earth in order to record that person’s deeds—both good and bad.
Angels in Later History and in Art
Angelology continued to develop after the New Testament period. Pseudo-Dionysius, a person associated with a 5th-century CE philosopher, arranged angels in nine orders, divided into three hierarchies containing three choirs each. Saint Thomas Aquinas, a scholastic (1225-1274 CE) following Pseudo-Dionysius, added that the hierarchies are arranged according to their proximity to the Supreme Being. The superior angels have more knowledge of truth and enlightenment than do lower ones. This view of the angelic hierarchy continues to be the generally accepted Catholic view.
Protestant reformers such as John Calvin downplayed the earlier development of angelology. They tended to de-emphasize a hierarchy and focus on the role of guardian angel. In the Age of Enlightenment angels began to be marginalized or even dismissed as mere fantasy. A diminished emphasis on angels continues to be a main Protestant position.
Art presents a good view of the development of angelology. Angels are regularly depicted as having wings from the time of Constantine the Great (280-337 CE) and afterward. Byzantine artists frequently depict angels in military uniforms, especially Gabriel and Michael wearing officer uniforms. This trend continued into later periods. Also, artists tend to depict angels in pale or white clothing, except during the Renaissance when red and blue garments became the norm. During the Renaissance, angels erroneously began to be associated with putti—chubby winged babies—and began to be depicted as such until this appearance became normative. Angels continue to be a common theme in the arts, including in the modern film industry.
As intermediaries between God and mortals, angels are usually thought of as inhabiting the spiritual realms of heaven and earth. However, some people believe angels also inhabit other worlds in this universe.
See also Christianity; Devils (Demons); Genesis, Book of;
God and Time; Grim Reaper; Islam; Judaism;
Revelation, Book of; Satan and Time; Sin, Original
Davidson, G. (1994). Dictionary of angels: Including the fallen angels. New York: The Free Press. (Original work published 1967)
Guiley, R. (2004). Encyclopedia of angels. New York: Checkmark.