WCG #13: How can you believe in Angels and Demons?
The Extent of Creation
- What is quite interesting to me is the way in which - as a society - we tend to be very selective about the extraordinary ideas that we take seriously and the ones which we consider ‘outdated’ or ‘ridiculous.’
- Science fiction enthusiasts readily embrace ideas like parallel dimensions, powerful extraterrestrial species, and any number of crazy cool technologies. While people many still recognize that such things are unlikely to all be true or possible in our real world, they are still generally considered worthwhile areas of speculation. Because who knows, right? If it is possible to travel faster than light or access realms beyond our wildest imaginations, wouldn't we want to learn more about it?
- Modern theoretical physics regularly entertains concepts like an eternally inflating multiverse utterly beyond our ability to perceive, higher dimensions of time, extra-dimensional space enfolded into regions smaller than atoms, and the source of gravitational force being connected to energy bleeding through into our universe from another adjacent one. Of course, some of these things do possesses empirical evidence, but it would be a far cry to say that any of these concepts would be intuitive to a human being prior to the modern scientific revolution.
- The word supernatural just means "beyond the natural world" - that which cannot be accessed by our senses and normal scientific endeavors. For a long time, many of the things we now consider to be empirical were at one point firmly in the realm of untestable and unknowable.
- In the strictest sense of the word, the discussion of and/or speculation about forces and powers in realms that we cannot fully access via scientific study is the definition of that which is supernatural. While would be hesitant to apply that term because of the historical baggage that comes with it, nearly all worldview’s - secular or religious - involve such ideas.
- We discussed last semester how the complete denial of any possible supernatural reality left you in a position where you were nothing more than an impersonal clump of atoms. By moving past that and claiming that there does exist this higher “ultimate reality” from whence our entire natural / physical reality emerged, we have now opened the door for a whole new range of fascinating possibilities:
- Why must we believe that PHYSICAL existence is the only mode of being? We already have at least one candidate for non-physical life - that being God himself. Why should it be only him? Why must physical existence bound to a set of deterministic laws be the only way that things could come to be?
- If we are willing to accept the possibility of extraterrestrial life... why not extra-dimensional life? If consciousness does not need to be bound to a physical form in order to exist... what other multitude of ways might conscious personal agents exist? What kind of "bodies" would non-physical entities even have?
- If this seems weird to you, consider the alternative: To deny this, from a theistic perspective, you would have to say that “the ONLY living things which God EVER created were HUMANS and THINGS HUMANS INTERACT WITH.” Such a claim is undoubtedly extremely arrogant. Why should we think ourselves so unbelievably special? Why would the entire story of God's infinite creative potential start and stop with us?
- The question it all boils down to: How big is God’s creation? How much more life is out there? How many more stories are there? How much more beauty is there to existence that we have only barely began to interact with? What is the full extent of reality itself?
- Some might object that we must be of special significance in God's ultimate story because the Bible focuses so repeatedly on God's relationship with humanity.
- What we have in the Bible is an intentional revelation of the nature of God’s relationship with humanity. Everything else that is mentioned is circumstantial to that central purpose. You see that from page 1, when the frame of reference is set form the surface of the Earth.
- And then - as it is relevant throughout the story - you get glimpses of a higher reality, of other created beings who are also living out their purpose under God's will. Our story is not in some isolated pocket of God’s creation. It almost seems inevitable that there would be forces at play beyond our comprehension.
- The depiction of angels as "beautiful men/women with brilliant white wings and a halo" almost couldn’t be further from what the Bible says. The only part of that description that receive any biblical support is the wings part, but as you’ll soon see that’s not very helpful. These images below, while cool, are almost certainly not how these divine beings actually "look."
- A further clarification: Angels are not, in any sense, departed human souls. We don’t “become angels” when we go to Heaven. They are totally independent entities heavily implied to have been around prior to the creation of the Earth. But they are still, like us, created contingent beings totally dependent upon God for their existence. They may be relatively powerful in comparison to us, but compared to God we are all as nothing.
- Here’s where it gets interesting: The word for Angel in Hebrew (mal’ak) and Greek (aggelos) quite literally just means “messenger.” It is not a taxonomic or species description. "Angel" isn't a race, its a job description.
- When Angelic Messengers do show up, they are always serving a very specific purpose and don’t stick around for very long. They get the job done, and then "vanish" in some form or another.
- To be an “Angel of God” was to be - by literal definition - God’s messenger. That's why, when Angels show up in scripture, they vary widely in their physical description - most of the time being given no description at all. To the original reader this was totally normal. The text is just saying "A messenger of God appeared and told so and so that they needed to do such and such." The understanding was that a messenger of God could be any number of different heavenly entities.
- So here’s where you ask yourself... what do angels... look like? Due to of the lack of uniformity among things that go by the term "angel," there is no one consistent description of what they look like.
- The heavy implication is that there are many different things - a multitude of higher divine or spiritual beings - that when desired by God have taken up the position of "messenger" for a specific God-ordained purpose.
- This might seem weird at first - to imagine God interacting with some other spiritual beings and having them do things on his behalf - but we have to keep in mind exactly why we exist as well. We were created to live in relationship with God and rule on his behalf. Why should we be so arrogant to assume that we (in all of God's vast creative potential) are the only beings whom God created that he wanted to live in relationship with?
- Something that does seem to be consistently true of these angelic or divine beings is that they don't (at least primarily) exist in the physical / corporeal way that we are used to. They seem to be able to move through reality in a way we can't quite articulate, passing in and out of our world with ease.
- When these beings do take some kind of corporeal appearance, the descriptions can range anywhere from nothing more than the appearance of a normal human person (like the ones in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah) all the way to some of the craziest lovecraftian entities you can possibly imagine (like the ones in Ezekiel’s vision). At least some of them seem to be able to change their physical appearance with ease.
- In Daniel 10 an angel is described as a man whose “face was like lightning and whose eyes were like flaming torches.” Yeah, that's not normal.
- Whenever angels appear in glory, we usually imagine some floating handsome person with wings. But have you noticed how they almost always start with the phrase “Do not be afraid”? Given the limited descriptions that we do have, that shouldn't be much of a surprise.
The Divine Beings of the Bible
The Cherubim (or “Keruvim” in Hebrew)
- So if "angel" is just a job description that could be referring to any number of different supernatural entities taking up the task as "God's messenger"... do we have any way to identify specific "types" or "species" of these beings? Or is it all just one big mystery?
- Yes... and no. Some of these “angelic” beings ARE given are given what you might consider - at least at first glance - to be taxonomic classifications, but scholars have debated this stuff for ages and ages.
- We have to be careful for two reasons: 1.) It's not clear that these identifications are exclusive and could therefore theoretically overlap. 2.) The actual descriptions of these entities are almost always given in the context of a heavenly vision in which nearly every other element is already explicitly symbolic.
- Here's a virtually comprehensive list of the different "types" of divine beings that are mentioned in the Bible. I use this term as loosely as possible, and hopefully you'll soon see why.
The Cherubim (or “Keruvim” in Hebrew)
- An interesting ill-defined group of heavenly beings that are consistently portrayed as divine “guardians,” particularly around the throne of God. In all instances when they are brought up in the Bible they serve this general purpose of an appointed guardian, either in a functional or in a ceremonial sense.
- Cherub figures were engraved into the Ark of the Covenant and weaved into the curtains of the tabernacle, a symbol of their role as heavenly guardians. A Cherub was stationed at the entranced to the Garden of Eden to seal off the way to the Tree of Life - and had a badass flaming sword, no less!
- Out of all of the potential "taxonomic" classifications, this one is actually the most likely to NOT be one - though it's certainly a subject of much debate. Given the limited information we have, however, "Cherubim" is probably (like "Angel") also just another job description.
- Modern research into the various cultures of the Ancient Near East has revealed that these Cherub beings are a very common motif in the way divine throne imagery is portrayed in that region. Like ma'lak referring to the position of a heavenly messenger, keruv likely refers to the position of a heavenly guardian. The diversity of the way in which these throne guardians were represented across cultures was a testament to that. Virtually the only thing that unites them in physical appearance is the motif of wings.
- This is reflected in the Bible, where, while there are only a couple of descriptions of Cherubim, they are quite distinct and exclusive from one another. The first time a Cherubim appears in the Bible (in Genesis 4), it spends absolutely zero time telling you what it looks like. It just shows up and fulfills its purpose.
- Modern scholarly material would attribute this to the fact that its nature is implicit in its name. The passages in Genesis 4 might as well have said "and God appointed a heavenly guardian to guard the way to the Tree of Life." It wasn't concerned with telling you what it looks like. Given the already prevalent idea of a keruvim as a heavenly guardian, this would have made perfect sense to the original readers.
- In the times when Cherubim are given descriptions, they are presented in distinct and sometimes mutually exclusive ways (though there are some similarities). They are usually described as beings with a multitude of wings and faces (some of their faces being different animal species) and a bunch of "eyes" covering them all around and within. These diverse descriptions, the fact that many of these descriptions are found in heavily symbolic visions, and the likelihood that this was just a generic term for an divine "throne guardian," makes it difficult (if not impossible) to identify the true visual appearance of even a single Cherubim.
- Remarkably, there is actually no point anywhere in the entire Bible where the Cherubim are even implied to be grouped in with the previously mentioned messenger "Angels" (mal'ak or aggelos), so we are left to speculate on the nature of the relationship between these two categories. Are they mutually exclusive, or, if they are both just job descriptions, could a heavenly entity be a cherub one day and an angel the next day? It's not clear, but it certainly is interesting.
- If it wasn't obvious at this point - no, Cherubim are not (nor are they ever) presented in the Bible as "little chubby babies with wings."
- (usually translated as “burning ones”) are described equally as alien / lovecraftian in prophetic visions. They usually are said to have six wings totally covering up their whole body and are somehow “full of eyes all around and within” and are covered in brilliant light.
The Sons of God (Bene Elohim)
- Ezekiel’s vision also includes descriptions of these strange unnamed “living creatures” that are said to be like concentric rotating circles covered in eyes and shining brightly, shifting in and out of itself. (It is my personal theory that such descriptions are reflecting Ezekiel’s attempt to describe some kind of crazy extra dimensional entity).
- The Four “living creatures” of Revelation which are constantly singing praises to God.
- Please remember that all of these descriptions are either human attempts to convey the unconveyable or they are present in visions where the description of the entity actually carries an important symbolic meaning. We are likely just getting a snapshot of what is most likely a large array of entities.
One Special Angel
- There is one very special angel mentioned a couple of times in the Old Testament. This is the Angel of the Lord, or more precisely the Angel of YHWH (the holy divine name that was most probably spoken as “Yahweh.”)
- Yes, this entity is a Messenger of God, but whenever He shows up something really weird happens in the Hebrew grammar. It starts referring to this angel as if it is God, grouping them together and interchangeably switching out the antecedents.
- When this Angel speaks it doesn't speak of God’s messages in the third person, it says “I will do this.” It is, in fact, the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses and delivers the famous “I AM THAT I AM” proclamation.
- It was a developing practice within early Judaism to understand that God’s essence could, in some sense, manifest itself within our world in different ways. They talked about things like God’s wrath, or God’s love, or God’s name as if they were independent aspect of God’s that had their own identity yet were somehow still one with God.
- This entity, the messenger of the lord was no different. He was the God’s word, so to speak.
- This has led Christian scholars and theologians across the ages to see the angel of the Lord as a christophany, which is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. (in the beginning was the word...)
- The idea of a multi-personal God is not foreign to the Old Testament. In fact, the “Word of God” is not alone in this identification. The second verse of the bible describes the “Spirit of God” (the ruakh, the breath and life).
The Spiritual Forces of Evil
- Demons are not separately created beings. The consistent idea (though it is not comprehensively elaborated on) throughout the Bible is that there is some group of these “divine angelic beings” (who please remember, are not a uniform group) that knowingly rebelled against God.
- Unlike humanity, who rebelled mostly in ignorance, these entities seem to have been in full awareness of who God was and what it meant for them to break away.
- There is no indication whatsoever that the appearance of these beings changed when they rebelled. If they look like anything at all, it is the same kind of indescribably spiritual awesomeness.
- We do not fully understand when or why these being rebelled, nor how many there are nor how much power they actually hold over the world.
- There is an implication that some of them are bound and imprisoned by God, awaiting final judgement (though this is debating on constantly). This is that fourth word translated as Hell that I skipped over last time - “Tartarus” or “The Abyss.” Nobody is quite in agreement on what or where that is.
- However, the strong indication is that a vast majority of these rebellious beings are not “in Hell” nor have they ever been “in Hell” (and they certainly wouldn’t be ruling over it if they were there). They are, in some sense, on this Earth. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say “where they are they have influence over this Earth.” They are quite properly present here, obviously.
- That’s probably alarming at first, but the image that the Bible gives is not of a bunch of rebellious being that God carelessly “kicks out” in order that they might do bad things to the rest of his creation. It’s of God absolutely stomping them to the ground and ensuring their destruction. These beings are not capable of doing anything of worth that isn’t allotted to them by humans.
- There is a thread that you can trace from the beginning of the Bible to the end that seems to identify one of these rebellious divine beings as a bit more significant than the rest. This “Devil” or this “Satan” (which in hebrew just means adversary) is something that Jesus certainly seemed to believe in. (deliver us from the evil one).
- However, this entity should not be understood as a monolithic force equal in power to God like some kind of yin-yang relationship. Satan is - at best - a very strong angelic being who has already been utterly humiliated and defeated by God and who’s destruction is assured.
- He is described in Revelation (symbolically) like a thrashing dragon who’s already been mortally wounded but who’s just thrashing about trying to harm as many people as possible. Satan knows his fate is sealed. He’s just trying to take as many other people with him as he can.
- However, saying all that, it’s not at all clear that all of the instances throughout scripture where an entity is referred to as “the Satan” are referring to the same individual. The being in Job is a great example.
- The strongest connection is between the serpent / nacash of Genesis and the “dragon” of revelation. “9 So the great dragon was thrown out—the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil[f] and Satan,[g] the one who deceives the whole world.” - Revelation 12:9
- Remember, being one of these powerful spiritual (and potentially even extra dimensional) beings, Satan is not just some red dude with a pitchfork.
- There is also quite a bit of scholarly evidence to suggest an understanding of the seraphim to have been serpentine in appearance. The prefix “seraph” also means serpent.
- This is very interesting, because the serpent of Genesis 2 & 3 is the hebrew word nacash. While this word does mean serpent, it can (in its verb form) mean “deceiver” or “diviner,” and (in an adjective form) mean “the shining one.”
- In essence, there is a running theme of luminosity and serpentine imagery across a wide range of biblical descriptions and ancient near eastern material. The connection is not air tight, but it is there.
- A lot of people talk about “spiritual warfare” as if it’s between Angels and Demons. There are insinuated instances of conflict between the rebellious and non-rebellious angelic beings, but this isn’t the primary focus of the Bible.
- Spiritual Warfare is a conflict between your spirit and the evil spiritual beings of the “heavenly realms.”
- And our ally in this conflict are not guardian angels. Our ally is the infinite holy spirit of the God who sustains all of existence. What could be better than that?
- In the gospel, literal demonic possession is spoken about a lot.
- GROUP QUESTION: What do you think ‘demonic possession’ means in the gospels?
- Remember, in a naturalistic worldview there is nothing beyond the physical world. In a supernaturalists... there is. This would greatly change how you would react to witnessing a demonic posession.
- The goal of demons is ALWAYS to lead people away from God. Any action they take will be to that end (they have nothing else to live for). Any action they take to make someone doubt a worldview that is already anti-christian (like staunch naturalism) would be detrimental to their goal. It makes NO SENSE for them to reveal themselves so clearly and obviously in the middle of a society that is obsessed with their non-existence.
- But, in countries like India where the societal norm is supernaturalism, it makes more sense to interact more actively. It only makes sense for a demon to be more obviously real if those witnessing the possession would almost certainly lead people away from God.
- ‘Possession’ doesn't just have to mean foaming at the mouth / speaking in tongues weird stuff. It can just mean a voice in your ear that you’ve heard so much that you hear it as a part of you own conscience.