At the beginning of The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis notes that the Devil is equally pleased by two errors about him: an unhealthy obsession with him and an ignoring or denying of his existence. The same is true of angels. Idolising or ignoring them are equally unrealistic. But of the two errors the latter is by far the most common today. Angels, like God, are easy to ignore because they are invisible. They are also easy to ignore because we believe many myths about them.
The first myth about angels is that they are myths. The word “myth” has many meanings, but all of them have this in common: myths are not literally, historically true. Father Christmas never really came down anyone’s chimney, Mother Nature has no birth certificate, no nation ever had a naked emperor and Hobbits never lived in any Shire, no matter how instructive and edifying any of these stories may be. But angels are as real as ants. Thousands (probably millions) of people have met them. Every culture and religion claims that something like angels (superhuman, sub-divine beings) are real. Belief in their non-existence is unique to the modern Western mind. To disbelieve in angels, therefore, is to commit what CS Lewis calls “chronological snobbery”.
Widespread experience confirms belief in angels. Stories of humans meeting angels abound everywhere and everywhen. Some such stories are clearly counterfeit; but the existence of counterfeit money is a reason for believing rather than for disbelieving in real money.
Commonsense philosophising, as well as traditional faith and extensive experience, tells us that believing in angels’ existence is reasonable. The simplest argument is the analogy with animals. Premise one: our experience tells us that there is an astonishing multitude of beings (chemicals, plants, and especially animals) that lack self-conscious minds and free moral wills. Premise two: our self-consciousness tells us that we possess those two spiritual qualities. Premise three: dozens of good arguments tell us that there is a perfect spiritual being, usually called God, above and beyond us.
What is missing from this picture? Why should there be a gap above us if there is none below us? Is it reasonable that the Great Chain of Being should have just one enormous gap? Does the God who invented such a plethora of animals as to include the otter, the ostrich and the octopus lack the creativity to invent a plethora of spirits?
Even if this argument is unsound, and even if there are no good arguments for angels that depend on reason alone rather than religious faith, still there are many very good purely rational arguments for the truth of religious faith, and most major religious traditions teach that angels are real. They populate the Bible as birds populate the skies. Angels are not myths. They are the real extraterrestrials.
A second myth is that angels are nice. Tame, like pets. Innocent, like babies. No. The cherubim are not little cherubs. Like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, they are “terrible” but good. They are more like God than we are, and “God is not an uncle; God is an earthquake” (as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it). The first thing they usually say when they appear in Scripture is: “Fear not.”
To be good (and to be helpful) is not the same thing as to be nice. For the essence of goodness is active love (“agape”), and as Dostoyevsky says, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams”. Its most perfect and complete picture is a bloody Cross.
A third myth is that angels are boring. No bodies, no sex, no murder mysteries, no sports – all they do is think. No one would want to be an angel: it would be boring.
Thinking isn’t boring, and angels do more than just think. Thinking isn’t boring because everything that’s interesting is interesting to thinking, to mind, not to matter. A violent fight to the death is interesting only to minds that contemplate it. Mindless matter is never interested in anything, only minds are. And angelic minds are interested in everything. They are more like children, or saints, or God, than we are. They are never bored.
And angels do more than think. They love, and desire, and will, and choose. They fight – spiritually. Think of two mental telepaths, one good, one evil, wrestling with each other. They also feel: they have spiritual emotions (though not physical ones), like the ones we have and the animals do not have: gratitude, humility, compassion, confidence, trust, suspicion, affection, repulsion, love and hate (of evil).
But what do angels do? Just contemplate God, read the mind of God, see God face to face? First, that’s not all they do, at least not the ones we interact with. Second, that’s everything. If God is not interesting, nothing is.
A fourth myth is that angels are all the same. They have no bodies to differentiate them. It is true that they are not differentiated by matter, as we are, since they are pure spirits. The bodies they assume when we see them are not their nature but their spy cover, their disguises. But this makes them more individual, not less. Even we differ more innerly than we do outerly. Think of two identical twins; they never have identical personalities. In fact, angels are so different, so individuated, that each one is a separate species. The difference between St Michael and St Gabriel is not like the difference between Rover and Lassie but like the difference between Dog and Cat. Just as humans are more individuated than animals, and animals more than plants, so angels are more individuated than humans. God is most individuated of all. The three most individual and unique persons in all reality are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Angels’ activities, or “missions”, also differentiate them. Only some (the guardian angels, the lowest order) deal with us. A fallible but reasonable theological tradition distinguishes nine “choirs” or levels of them, like a seven-level a capella chorus singing a fugue, or seven levels of meaning in an allegory.
A fifth myth is that angels are extras, add-ons, not necessary or important. The objection is partly true: angels are not necessary. Neither are we. Only God is a “necessary being” because only God exists necessarily by His essence. But the fact that we (and the angels) are not necessary does not mean that we (and they) are not important.
“Important” means two things: first, “making a great, objectively real difference”, and therefore secondly,“worth taking subjective account of”. What important difference do the angels make to us? The same difference shields or tanks make to soldiers.
Without them, we would be helpless against invisible forces of evil that are immeasurably stronger and cleverer than we are. If that’s not true, then the Bible, the Church, all the saints, and God Incarnate Himself all lie to us, because they all say that.
What difference does believing in angels make? I know at least seven answers. It makes the same difference the air force makes to an army, or a big brother to a little brother. It is a weapon against materialism, which has beachheads in our subconscious mind if not in our conscious. It keeps us humble to know we are not the highest of species. It makes us rely on faith more. It expands our appreciation of God, whose creative imagination and whose present graces come in very varied packages. It schools us in Shakespeare’s quintessentially Christian cosmology, that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And the very unpopularity of the belief trains us to be countercultural.
A sixth myth is the idea that all angels are good. If there is anything in religion that is today ignored by believers and disdained by unbelievers as “fanatical” and “unscientific”, it is the existence of evil spirits, fallen angels. But if spirits exist without bodies (angels) as well as with bodies (humans), and if all spirits have free wills as well as intellectual minds, and if free will can choose evil as well as good, then it follows that there can be evil angels. That is why we can pray the cursing psalms, and identify with the psalmist’s repeated pleas for deliverance from our “enemies”. We do have enemies, who want to kill our souls, and they are far more fearsome than the terrorists who want to kill our bodies. Life is war. Life is also a love story. Seeing only half of that double-sided truth means half your mind is sleeping.
A seventh myth is that angels are so “supernatural” that they have nothing to do with politics; that they never rescue nations. Not so. Scripture identifies St Michael as Israel’s angel, and a demon as Persia’s. Since we have collective identities, needs and choices, and the angels minister to us as we are, they cannot be apolitical because we are not. Bismarck said that “laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” He was only half right. Seeing the natural material causes of sausages would send us to the vomitorium, but seeing the supernatural spiritual causes of political deals would send us to our knees.
An eighth myth is that angels are separable from God. Some people believe in angels but not in God, probably because angels do not give out 10 Commandments. Others believe in God but not in angels, usually because they think angels are “unscientific”. Yet no one has ever offered a scientific argument against them. In fact the so-called “war between science and religion” is the real myth. Not a single dogma of Christianity has ever been refuted by a single discovery of any science.
A ninth myth is that they are all sexless. But that assumes that sex is only physical, not spiritual. This is a strange assumption, considering that nearly everyone accepts two premises that prove the opposite conclusion. One is the psychosomatic unity of body and spirit in us; and the other is the biological innateness of masculinity and femininity in every cell of our bodies. Everything innate in our bodies is innate in our souls’ bodies, and everything innate in our souls is innate in our bodies’ souls. Sex is spiritual as well as material. And therefore angels too have spiritual gender, or gender-differentiated personalities.
Perhaps there are feminine (though not biologically female) angels, or perhaps angels are spiritually hermaphroditic. But whichever is the case, angels lack none of the perfections of femininity, any more than God does. Spirits are not pale copies of bodies, bodies are pale copies of spirits. Therefore what masculinity and femininity essentially mean is more clearly present in angels than in us.
The tenth myth about angels is that you will never meet one, unless you become a mystic or a saint. Scripture says the opposite. You have very likely already met some: read Hebrews 13:2. Their disguises are excellent, and they are humble and anonymous. And even if you never meet one in this world, you will in the next. When you die, your angels will carry you to heaven (Luke 16:22). Meeting your guardian angel and seeing his role in your earthly life will be an occasion for a million thank-yous and recognitions: “So that was your inspiration!”
Most of the best ideas in this article, and in my 80-plus books, are probably 99 per cent unoriginal. Haven’t you ever sensed that in your life: the never-ending yet never-quite-audible music, so high and far and yet so near?
Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, Massachusetts