Round Table: Angels and Demons
Christianity makes some bold claims: God created the universe. Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Human existence does not end at physical death. These statements all point to an important component of the Christian worldview: that which we can see, touch, and measure—the physical world—is not all that is. Reality is composed of something beyond the natural, physical material that we see all around us.
Once one accepts the reality of the non-natural, an important question closely follows: are there beings which belong to the spiritual side of reality? Christians throughout the ages have answered in the affirmative. Indeed, all of the world’s major religions affirm the existence of non-physical beings. What people often disagree on, however, are the actions, attitudes, and attributes of these beings.
In today’s Round Table conversation, four Conciliar Post writers weigh in on the character of these spiritual beings, answering the question, “Angels and Demons: What are they and what power do they possess?” We invite you reflect on their responses and join the conversation in the comments section below.
Jody Byrkett, Anglican
The word angel means ‘messenger’ in both the Hebrew and the Greek, according to Strong’s Concordance. We see in various appearances that angels (unfallen) or the Angel of the Lord (a theophany) are physical beings and have physical properties:
“And the angel of the LORD found [Hagar] by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.” (Gen 16:7) [Here the Angel of the Lord goes on to speak with Hagar in this place.]
“And as [Elijah] lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat.” (I Kings 19:5)
“And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men [angels] stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:25)
The interesting thing about fallen angels is that they appear to lack physicality, often referred to as tormenting spirits (from the spirit that bothered King Saul to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him). We are told they gave up their habitation (Jude 1:6); habitation means the body or dwelling place for the spirit. We see this expressed regarding the spirits cast from the demoniac and into the herd of swine, and in other places in the gospels when Jesus casts out demons; they inhabit the bodies of people, causing them to be sick or paralyzed or insane. These demons speak through the people they inhabit, not in any physical form of their own. They are parasitic, looking for a dwelling place to commandeer.
We see that fallen and unfallen angels are both subject to God’s authority: Even “Michael, the archangel, when contending with the devil. . .durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee” (Jude 1:9). So, too, the fallen angels are subject to being chained in darkness: “…God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment…” (2 Pet 2:4).
Fallen angels appear to possess the power to torment, bother, and inhabit persons (though they can only inhabit a person who is not inhabited by the Holy Spirit). Unfallen angels are ministering spirits who can contend with Satan and aid God however he directs. God is often referred to as the Lord of Hosts, or angelic armies, in the Old Testament—this indicates the fierce warrior-like-ness of the angels.
From the beginning it appears that angels were meant to be mighty, ministering, serving beings. The Fall fragmented both the physical and the spiritual world, including the angelic hosts. The angels who chose to leave their habitation are doomed to never be at home, to be chained in darkness, and to face the judgment of God.
John Ehrett, Lutheran (LCMS)
Growing up, I enjoyed a steady diet of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker novels (and have written my own series of supernatural thrillers on this subject), so I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the existence and character of angels and demons.
Taking the biblical text as a starting point, questions about angels are necessarily bound up closely with longstanding philosophical debates about miracles (since most discussion about angels seems to hinge on discrete interventions or messages). More broadly, angels serving God are doing so within His providential purposes—a massive topic to which lifetimes of study have been devoted. A discussion of such themes can’t really be distilled into a short blurb, and ought to be left to theologians far more knowledgeable than I. Accordingly, this piece’s closer attention to demons than angels shouldn’t suggest an unhealthy interest in the former, but rather the limitations of my own aptitude to discuss the latter.
Questions about demons exist on a different field. “Possession” seems to be a behavior unique to demons, and (given its symptoms) it can be investigated more readily than an alleged angelic visitation. Many don’t take this subject at face value: it’s de rigueur in academic-religious contexts to treat the Bible’s accounts of demonic possession (e.g., Matt. 8:28-34) as descriptions of undiagnosed mental illness.
There are good reasons for the academicians’ caution. In some subcultures of American evangelicalism, I’ve personally observed a dangerous tendency to attribute every evil in the world to the interference of consciously malevolent supernatural beings. Sick with a fever? That’s a sign of demonic attack. Depressed? The demons of despair are wreaking havoc. This has dangerous implications: not only do real biological or neurochemical maladies go untreated, but deeply sincere Christians are forced into terrified over-analysis of their spiritual condition. Such theology is a crude attempt to address the problem of evil, but one that ultimately ends up exacerbating it.
The “mental illness” explanation can certainly be defended on theological grounds—and I share the second-order concerns of this explanation’s proponents. Obviously, depressed persons shouldn’t be treated with ad-hoc exorcisms where therapeutic intervention is necessary. But, that said, it seems that hard-edged methodological materialism offers an incomplete explanation of the available data.
To begin with, the early church did have conceptual categories for distinguishing “mental illness” from “demonic possession.” Thus, the New Testament texts referring to demonic activity (or, by corollary, angelic activity) shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as the speculation of a “backwards” era.
Even more intriguingly, some contemporary experts are actually less willing to dismiss the possibility of the supernatural than the aforementioned theologians. In his controversial (but gripping) book Hostage to the Devil, journalist and ex-Jesuit Malachi Martin traces five cases of demonic activity in contemporary America. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck describes elements of “behavior that could not be accounted for by standard psychological mechanisms.” Clinical psychiatry professor Richard Gallagher recounts “skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.” Film director William Friedkin, after presenting footage of alleged demonic activity to a panel of Columbia University psychiatrists, writes that he “went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with.” Despite the fact that Martin, Peck, Gallagher, and Friedkin hail from diverse religious traditions, their testimonies converge at critical points.
In the face of compelling expert evidence, unswerving commitment to a neurological explanation of such phenomena is simply not justifiable. But if such a strong case for non-materialistic explanations of certain data can be mustered, why the backlash when—just to name one example—Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia mentioned his belief in the devil in a New York interview?
Quite simply, the possibility of real, extrinsic, objective evil does not mesh well with a secular framing of reality. Late in the 1973 film The Exorcist (directed by Friedkin), one weary priest asks another why evil spirits have targeted an innocent girl. His companion’s answer: demons seek to make us “reject the possibility that God could love us.” The grimness of that line veils an implicit, deeply stirring truth: if demons are real, so too is God.
And that, at bottom, is what this debate is really about.
Mike Landsman, United Church of Christ
In independent Charismatic/Pentecostal churches, the belief in the supernatural and the supernatural’s interaction with the everyday world is something that is taken seriously. Belief in demons and angels is common and many people have stories of their experiences with them. Even as a child I heard horror stories of demon hands coming through someone’s bedroom door, or stories of the evangelist in the Far East who claimed the Devil himself messed with his bed while sleeping, only to leave him alone once he rebuked him in Jesus’ name.
The belief in spirits for particular maladies is ubiquitous. Many a spirit of depression, sickness, anger, and poverty are cast out in church services. Some take this to extreme levels, submitting adults and even children to blasting, a process of yelling at someone in tongues to cast out their evil spirits. Deliverance ministries sprang up and books were published concerning how to cast out demons, along with encyclopedias of particular demons with their names listed so one could know “who” they were casting out.
Angels are also equally present in this view, invisibly filling our worship spaces during services (visible only to the preacher and a select few given the gift of seeing into the spiritual realm). We were taught that angels could even be commanded to do things for us; after all, they are ministering spirits sent to serve those of us who are the heirs to salvation. And if angels are sent to serve us, then we can send them on tasks as mundane as finding a lost contact lens in a field. Angels and demons filled our imagination, fueled our theological reflection, and were always fighting over us in the background.
While I cannot fully agree with the worldview of my youth in regards to angels and demons, Scripture does give snapshots of a battle going on behind the scenes. Often angels and demons are portrayed in popular media as equally powerful spiritual forces vying with one another over human souls, but is that the case? I do not believe so. Demons in movies and TV shows are portrayed as having real, visible power while God or angels are rarely afforded such power, and relief for victims is only barely achieved.
Demons in the Christian tradition, more broadly, are viewed either as the angels who rebelled against God and were kicked out of heaven along with the Devil, or as spiritual powers who were given their portion of the nations who rebelled against God to rule over. Saint Paul seems to have this latter world view in mind in his epistle to the Ephesians, where he explains to his churches that the battle they are engaged in is not between human beings, but between the people of God and those wicked spiritual forces in rebellion against God. Demons, then, may not be flitting to and fro possessing the unwary (though they can), but they may be involved in the day-to-day struggle we face while living as God’s people in a yet to be redeemed world. Angels would be those mighty spiritual beings who can encircle the throne of God, and who are sent with particular missions to particular people for the furtherance of God’s purposes in the world.
In the gospels, Jesus encounters demons quite often. After his baptism and subsequent temptation in the wilderness, his first miracles in Mark and Luke are casting out evil spirits. Now, according to some Charismatic/Pentecostal theologies, Jesus casting out these evil spirits serves as a guide for how we should handle evil spirits (should we encounter them). Jesus gives his followers the authority to cast them out and that authority resides in his followers today. But is there more going on here? I think there is. These stories of Jesus casting out evil spirits don’t just serve as instructions, even though they can be interpreted that way. They serve to show his utter domination over the powers of darkness that have dogged humanity since the Garden. He walks into enemy territory completely unafraid and masters the masters. His death and resurrection seal his complete victory over the demonic forces and, like Saint Paul, remind us that he publicly shamed them. He then shares this victory with his church and promises that hell itself, the place he despoiled, will not triumph over his people, the church!
Ben Winter, Roman Catholic
Spiritual beings—whether angelic or demonic—exist on a plane of reality separate from our own and are essential to the biblical worldview. Today, awareness of these beings has either been relegated to the realm of the occult and “paranormal” or jettisoned as antithetical to the thoughtful empiricist. What should we as Christians do in light of this situation? We should first examine what our own Scriptures say about angels and demons. We will find that these spiritual beings play many important roles, including helping us probe the universal question of evil’s origin and charting the way for our participation in divine life.
Let us begin with Gen 6:1–4: “When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose … The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.”
Although rarely discussed by Christians today, this text has not always been ignored. A significant corpus known as “Enoch Literature” arose to elaborate upon and fill in the gaps of Gen 6:1–4.1 Lest we assume that Enoch Literature has been overlooked with good reason, note that a canonical book of Scripture (Jude 14–15) directly cites 1 Enoch 1:9.2 As it pertains to the problem of evil’s origin, Genesis 6 and pertinent passages in Enoch Literature attribute the corruption of the human race—at least in part—to interbreeding with the angelic “sons of God.” The Book of Enoch describes an angel named Asael who artificially enhanced the beauty of human women through jewelry and cosmetics, thus drawing other angels to earth. In this Promethean account, the “technology” of Asael and the arcane teachings of his companions were accepted by humans—splitting the culpability for humanity’s corruption between the two types of creatures.
I humor you with this extended treatment because we must recognize it as paradigmatic of the larger manner in which the Bible speaks of angels: as spiritual beings who can either help or harm humanity, and who are irrevocably entangled in our fate. When Isaiah speaks of a “Day Star that fell like lightning from heaven,” we are meant to understand that we too can fall, in the same manner as Lucifer, through pride. Stories like those found in the Enoch Literature expand upon the classical teaching that angels were the first rational creations of God, endowed with their own agency and their own capacity to choose goodness or evil. As the traditional narrative goes, the first “angelic” fall precipitated the entrance of the snake into the garden. This was, of course, followed by humanity’s decision to follow the deceitful one down the path of destruction. Yet there is no doubt that, from the creation story onward, the Bible portrays angels and demons as powerful and influential in human choices (including the most important choice that led to the original sin).
All of this prepares us to see what Paul means when he speaks of “principalities, powers, virtues, and dominions in high places” (Eph 1:20–23).3 Now perhaps the elaboration of Pseudo-Dionysius—whose exegesis of Paul’s text establishes a celestial hierarchy with three orders of angelic being—does not seem so strange or out-of-place. In fact, Dionysius is simply doing the same thing that the authors of the Enoch Literature and the interpreters of Isaiah did: he is taking texts of Scripture and filling in the gaps, with the goal of teaching us to reach beyond ourselves and to see creation outside the lens of anthropocentrism.
Dionysius teaches that we become more like God by imitating the orders of being above us, while we distance ourselves from God by allowing pride and base desires to drag us from the source of Goodness and Life. So in this Round Table discussion of angels, let us move beyond overused tropes of “guardian angels,” and even beyond analysis of the visiting angelic messengers found in passages like Luke 1. Let us instead see the bigger picture—let us stretch our minds to imagine the universe as a place governed by orders higher than our own, a mysterious place wherein the music of the spheres testifies to the harmony of the one Creator and the fecundity of its creation. Let us imitate the Seraphim, who continually cry “Holy, Holy, Holy.”4 It is to such an awareness that Bonaventure calls us, when he says: “In prayer we speak to God, hear him, and converse with the angels as if we were living an angelic life.” I hope this generation will continue the process of reflection on angels and demons by applying such insights within the scientific paradigms of our day—paradigms that are constantly stretching the limits of reality.Read more
1 This literature was composed sometime between the second century BCE and the first century CE. For resources on this topic see: George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam. 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012; Annette Yoshiko Reed. Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enoch Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005; John J. Collins. “The Apocalyptic Technique: Setting and Function in The Book of Watchers.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly: 44 (1): 91–111; Mitchell G. Reddish, editor. Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
2 The story recounted in 1 Enoch 1–36 (known as “The Book of Watchers”) is also the background for Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4, as well as for the punishment of Satan and his angels in Rev 20.
3 The Vulgate text shows the traditional reading more clearly: quam operatus est in Christo, suscitans illum a mortuis, et constituens ad dexteram suam in cælestibus: supra omnem principatum, et potestatem, et virtutem, et dominationem.
4 Annie Dillard relates an enlightening anecdote on this subject in Holy the Firm: “The seraphs are born of a stream of fire issuing from under God’s throne. They are, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, ‘all wings,’ having, as Isaiah noted, six wings apiece, two of which they fold over their eyes. Moving perpetually toward God, they perpetually praise him, crying Holy, Holy, Holy … But, according to some rabbinic writings, they can sing only the first ‘Holy’ before the intensity of their love ignites them again and dissolves them again, perpetually, into flames” (Harper & Row, 1977, p. 45).
Luke Togni, Roman Catholic [Guest Author]
As a latecomer to this discussion of angels (and a complete newcomer to writing for Conciliar Post), I would like to stretch the conversation in yet another direction: the liturgy. Mike’s response already pointed in this direction with reference to the belief that angels fill our worship spaces. This belief is not peculiar to Pentecostal communities. The conviction that angels worship with us—or perhaps better in terms of deference, the conviction that we worship with the angels—has long been testified to by the texts of the historical Christian liturgies.
As Ben pointed out (here and elsewhere), Pseudo-Dionysius filled out the angelic world through his explanation of their celestial hierarchies. The key to that story lies in that word which he coined, hierarchy, which refers to the office of the chief cultic actor, the hierarch. For Dionysius, the angels exercise a priesthood received from Christ, who descends through them in his incarnation. Through the Incarnation, humanity too shares in this very same priesthood—so that our liturgy both manifests and cooperates with the liturgy of heaven.
This idea certainly predated Dionysius, even if it was not articulated in the same fashion. The notion that worship is rooted in heaven has its beginnings in Judaism. Moses sees the heavenly plan of the tabernacle (Ex. 25:9), while Seraphim and the Glory of the Lord inhabit the Holy of Holies (Is. 6:1-7). Second Temple era traditions present the angels as intercessors and worshipers (for example: 1 Enoch, the Aramaic Levi Document, and Qumran’s song of the Sabbath Sacrifice).
Is it any wonder that early Christians took the liturgy to be a heavenly affair? Enter the Sursum corda (“lift up your hearts”), an exhortation not to lift our spirits but our eyes to heaven, where the myriads of angels worship with Christ the eternal high priest. This exhortation is common to all known early Eucharistic prayers—and in many of them it introduces the Sanctus, the “Holy, Holy, Holy” of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:3. These angelic praises, which the Church takes to herself, are frequently anticipated by a direct evocation of our company with the angels—as in the Roman Rite’s ancient common preface:
It is truly meet and just, and profitable unto salvation, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks to thee, O Holy Lord, Father Almighty, eternal God, through Christ, our Lord. Through whom the angels praise thy majesty, the dominions adore it, the powers are in awe. Which the heavens and the hosts of heaven together with the blessed seraphim joyfully do magnify. And do thou command that it be permitted to us join with them in confessing thee, while we say with lowly praise: Holy, holy, holy [etc.].
Or in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
Priest: […] We thank You also for this Liturgy, which You have deigned to receive from our hands, even though thousands of archangels and tens of thousands of angels stand around You, the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft upon their wings…
Singing the triumphal hymn, exclaiming, proclaiming, and saying:
People: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
Priest (in a low voice): Together with these blessed powers, Master, Who loves mankind, we also exclaim and say: Holy are You and most holy…
The angels also dwell around sacrifice of the altar, the Roman Rite bids them to bring the Church’s oblations to the heavenly altar:
We most humbly beseech Thee, almighty God, command these offerings to be borne by the hands of Thy holy Angels to Thine altar on high, in the sight of Thy divine majesty, […].
And likewise in the ancient Coptic liturgy of St. Mark:
Accept them upon Your holy, rational, and heavenly altar, a savour of incense to Your greatness in the heavens, through the service of Your holy angels and archangels […].
Many other liturgical texts express the same insight: Christian worship on earth steps into the worship of heaven. From this perspective, the angels are not only our guardians and agents of providential care, but our concelebrants in the glory of the world to come—and which yet, under a veil, is already here.