But Do I Believe in Angels?

An angel comforting Jesus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879. From WikiCommons

I’ll be honest, my post “I Don’t Believe in Demons” led to the single biggest day of traffic on this blog since I left Beliefnet.  It’s intriguing to me that so many people are so interested in this topic — more even than in issues of sexuality in the church, which is always a traffic generator.  There were a lot of gratifying comments under that post from thoughtful folks who said that they pretty much agree with me, but they’d never really known how to talk about the issue.

There are also a lot of folks who really want to hear me discuss this issue with Greg Boyd, so I’m working on a chat with him about this that we can record and make public.

The obvious follow-up question to my thoughts about demons is, What Do I Think about Angels?

Well, to be honest, I tend to think the same thing about angels as I do about demons — that they don’t exist.  The problem is that the Bible has so much more reference to angels than it does to demons.  The Book of Revelation alone has scores of verses about what angels do, etc.  John the Elder, though a master of hyperbolic and metaphoric language, seems very convinced about the existence of angels and their role in the eschatological kingdom of God.

I guess the biggest question vexing me in all of these ponderings about angels and demons is this: What is the place of humankind in the economy of God? Maybe there are, as some cosmologists suggest, many other planets that are inhabited by rational beings.  That would make all the difference for me.  Because if there aren’t — if human beings are truly the crown of God’s creation — then I just struggle to believe that there are spiritual beings like angels and demons that occupy some kind of metaphysical middle ground between God and humans.

If, however, there are other rational beings out there — that is, beings that are cognizant of the possibility of God and therefore able to have a relationship with God — then all bets are off about the likelihood of angels and demons (and the Nephalim!).

  • http://18thandfairfax.wordpress.com Bo Eberle

    I’ve always looked forward to more interaction between “emergent” folks and Boyd, especially Tony and Doug because of the geographical proximity. As someone who’s followed Boyd for a long time (and was actually turned on to emergent-y stuff via the theology of Boyd) I’ve been curious about the relation between Boyd’s progressive evangelicalism and emergent/generative/big tent et al Christianity. To what extent may Boyd’s theological worldview, which contains very real demons, angels, and warfare be a hindrance for those who consider themselves emergent in some sense. Is the future of Xianity a departure from such metaphysical views about the ontological status of supernatural beings? I’m listening.

  • John

    All of the “angst” about this topic stems from the idea that the bible is the inspired word of god. This forces people to accept a Bronze Age world view that is simply ridiculous (and completely inconsistent as well). If one discards this provincial mode of thinking, the answers become pretty clear, pretty quickly. Christians need to make a choice: accept a post-enlightenment world view, or stick with the 2000 year old one.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ Lisa

    It’s not that you’re a blog whore, right?
    It may be that your economy of God is running a deficit.
    But…so are lots of things.

    I HAVE to thank you for posting this, because it’s allowing me to come to a point of confession. You are indeed a figment of my imagination.

    Cheers.
    http://wp.me/p1g2iA-1eE

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  • John

    @Lisa Yikes! Who put rabbit turds in your Cocoa Puffs?

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa

    @John It’s the year of the Rabbit, silly.

  • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

    Lisa, while I do have respect for you and your writing, that is one of the least funny things I’ve ever read. And it’s not because I don’t get, I do. And I have no trouble when people take to the blogosphere to mock me.

    I will honestly say that the musings here are things that I think about theologically. They are not attempts by me to phish for traffic.

    However, you are using my blog to phish for traffic, as your comment and link make clear. I hope you get a little Google juice by using my name in your post a few times. Good job.

  • John

    @Tony “Zingé!”
    @Lisa Enjoy your breakfast cereal– you been served.

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa

    Funny.

  • Dan Hauge

    Hmm. I’m honestly fascinated by your reasoning on this. I had assumed that your un-belief in angels and demons had to do with their ‘spiritual’ nature: that there is no reason to believe in beings that are not understood as part of the material universe, who occupy a ‘metaphysical middle ground’ as you put it.

    But now, apparently if we were to discover other biological, physical intelligent life on other planets, then the existence of spiritual beings is more plausible? Because they are only plausible if the biological intelligent life on this planet is not unique? Why does that make the difference? Is it because in that case you would see angels and demons as physical extra-terrestrials?

    Interesting–but I don’t think I follow. I don’t see how the existence of a set of metaphysical created beings would make human life any less precious, dignified, or important to God, and I don’t see how the quantity of physical intelligent life in the cosmos make metaphysical beings any more or less plausible.

    But, despite a fairly combative tone to this comment (sorry about that) I really do enjoy the discussion, so thanks for keeping it going.
    r biological, physical li

  • Dan Hauge

    and sorry about the weird typos at the end, part of the hazards of commenting with a cheap smart phone

  • http://seguewm.blogspot.com/ Bill Colburn

    I suppose once the sex issue is solved, there are no need for demons.

  • Joe L.

    Tony, have you considered a Walter Wink-esque perspective on this? Considering his work in “The Powers That Be”, we see demons, angels, etc. as personified embodiments of the “spirit” of organizations, governments, zeitgeists, etc. He leaves the question of their independent, ontological existence unanswered.

    Personally, if we accept our own continued existence after death as some form of “soul” or “spirit”, I see no reason to assume their couldn’t be other beings, different in type but not in nature, that exist as well.

    Another possibility might be the Tibetan Buddhist approach to meditation deities, which are seen as personifications, real on one level, and unreal on another. In this, they are no different than us, in that same perspective.

  • Kien

    I have less difficulty believing there are angels than believing there are demons.

    If “demons” are fallen beings condemned to “exist” (somehow) for eternity outside God’s creation, then either God’s creation is too narrow or the demons’ “existence” cannot be real. On the other hand, if “demons” are fallen beings that exist for eternity within God’s creation, then God’s purpose for creation could not be fulfilled.

    “Angels” on the other hand, are not fallen. I don’t see any difficulty having angels as part of God’s creation, just as I don’t see any difficulty having other life forms (whether on planet Earth or elsewhere in the universe) that are “beings” within God’s creation.

  • http://grantschnarr.com Grant

    Perhaps the first sign of angels in our lives are the deep and rich thoughts in our conscious minds that gently guide us, or the whispers of another way when we go astray. Are they from us, or “messengers” from a Divine Source. I believe the latter, for I don’t have the capacity to come up with some of the ideas or directions they present for my life, all of them leading to a better state of happiness. My book coming out, Guardian Angel Diary, of which Dr. Mehmet says, “Speaking to your guardian angels may just be the sort of prescriptions we should be handing out nowadays, deals with this very tender subject in the story of a teen-age girl Nicole, who develops brain cancer and searches into the unknown for an answer and for love, finding her guardian angel within her own journaling. Is he real or a figment of her imagination? It doesn’t really matter if he becomes a vehicle for paradigm shift and life change, and from this resolve to live and to love. The book is due out in MAY and is available now for preorder on Amazon.com

  • Scot Miller

    Unlike @Kien (13), I find it’s easier for me to affirm the reality of the demonic (i.e., the ontic but not ontological personification of human evil) than of angels or the angelic, probably because evil seems more palpable and real than goodness. I have to admit, I have a pretty sparse ontology, which means I don’t think we need to posit entities like demons or angels if simpler explanations suffice (thank you, William of Ockham). So I like @Joe L.’s suggestions (12) to treat angels as personifications, both real (ontically) and unreal (ontologically).

  • Melody

    Hmm, where are all the literalists who were harping on you for heresy? Seems they feel most threatened when you deny the existence of demons or that homosexuality is a sin. Why? Because they want to have someone or something “evil” to blame for everything that’s wrong. Blame the demons for their own shortcomings (“the devil made me do it”). Blame the gays for everything wrong in America. It goes on and on. The hypocrisy is astounding.

  • John Mc

    I agree, there are no demons and there are no angels. The human invention (as set forth in the Bible) of a hierarchy of angels and demons is nothing more and and nothing less than a pagan holdover, intended to provide an alternative source for the suffering we see in the world, and to institute a sacred distance between the holy God and God’s profane creation.

    There is only one God, whether or not conceived of as triune, who created all, the good and the bad, and who is capable of touching the Creation without damaging it, and communicating with humans without intermediaries. Demons and demi-gods cannot exist outside of God’s creative purposes, and as such cannot wage a war against nor even stand in eternal opposition to the will of the divine. God did not create a hierarchy of semi-divine creatures whose designed purpose is to be will-less slave-agents in the structure of God’s relationship with humanity.

    Not that God could not have created things this way, all-powerful is after all, all powerful. For me though all these semi-divine creatures is just so much polytheistic nonsense. As a monotheist, I have to believe that before God created the universe, there was nothing but God, and afterward there was nothing but God and that which God created. In the ‘economy’ of creation there is no place for semi-divine creatures. God’s design doesn’t have to make sense to me, but I think it fair to say that taking the notion of monotheism seriously, semi-divine creatures cannot exist. And if we take God’s claim to be a loving God who empowers the creation, the notion of a whole class of eternal semi-divine slaves is precluded.

    Even my literalist friends have to concede that in the descriptions of creation there was no day set aside for the creation of angels and demons. (If Genesis doesn’t say evolution happened it didn’t happen, if it didn’t say angels and demons were create, it didn’t happen.)

  • Kien

    Although many commentators have said they don’t think there are angels (which is a reasonable position to take), it seems to me that the idea of angels as a heavenly representative from God played an important role in the Jewish-Christian thinking about the Messiah-Christ and Jesus’ identification with the Messiah-Christ. If the pre-Christian Jews did not develop ideas about heavenly beings, early Christians may not have been able to identify the human Jesus with a heavenly identity associated with God.

    Anyway, the issue of whether there really are heavenly beings isn’t important. Just making the point that the idea of heavenly beings seems important to our ability to conceive of Jesus as Christ the Lord. That said, I’m not a historian.

  • http://www.alexgamble.blogspot.com Alex

    Strange how there’s far fewer comments on this. It’s like people are more offended by no demons than angels??

  • John

    @Alex Yeah, that *is* interesting, seeing as how both concepts are illogical and ridiculous.

  • Melody

    @Alex and John:
    Exactly what I said the other day. They are so hooked on looking for the evil instead of the good that they feel threatened when someone shakes this up. They’re forced to question the comfortable black-and-white theology (if you can call it that) and actually (God forbid!) think for themselves instead of what pastor says.

  • John Mc

    Just to be fair there may be other explanations for the lack of passion on the subject of angels. I suspect that angels and saints have a diminished place in the Protestant pantheon in part as a residual aspect of the effort to distinguish Roman Catholicism.

    I think for many Protestants, especially among the more conservative, evil, personified in a demonic entity separate from God, has an even higher place in the supernatural realm. Of course I am just speculating here but if there were a forced ranking of immortal entities I would guess that conservative Christians would rank them (1) God (2) Satan (3) angels (4) saints (meaning all humans who have received salvation and not just those canonized by the church though the latter may have somewhat more status in the minds of some).

    What I discern in all of this is a subliminal move away from monotheism. Salvation is God’s plan for all. God created all that is, and has the power to terminate the creation and do it again. Therefore, there can be no entity engaged in warfare, overt or covert, with such a creative power. A created entity can be resistant to the will of the Creator, but given the power differential, there simply cannot be warfare – it would be pointless. Moreover, if a rather crazed entity were to engage in warfare with the Creator, for the Creator to allow the matter to continue and gain steam (albeit always retaining the power to terminate the matter) would be to suggest that the Creator had an investment in the short term work of the evil entity. Do people really want to go there theologically?

    But in a tortured theological world, humans need a devil to set up a wall between the goodness of God and the terribleness of suffering. Have to have evil to explain it or one is left to accept God as the culprit.

    Angels on the other hand are really nothing but fluff, probably too good to be true, but altogether harmless to humans, if they exist. Angels are messengers of God and it is supposed will one day head up God’s armies against the forces of Evil. As if God needs an army! How often did God send the message to the Jews that whatever success they had did not come as a result of their armies, no matter how bolstered by God, but by the will and word of God alone.

    Modern Christians are no better than the Jews in the desert, we still cannot buy into the full power of God, and so we invent idols as stand-ins.

  • ben w.

    alex, melody, john mc,

    (for full disclosure, I must be a “literalist” as some have declared my ilk, although I think that’s a poor word choice). Quickly, there are numerous reasons why this post generated less sizzle from the “demon” one.

    In “the demon post”:
    1. Tony says that he holds a different worldview from Jesus. That’s going to generate lots of hits & discussion (as it did the day before).
    2. Tony, at least indirectly, proclaims that Jesus was sorely mistaken that the man was demon-possessed when more accurately, he was schizophrenic.
    3. Tony titles his post in the form of a firm conclusion: “I don’t believe in demons.”
    4. Tony jokingly (mockingly?) refers to God as female.
    5. Most importantly, Tony says he doesn’t believe in demons and many, many people take the time to laud him for it.

    If you peruse the comments of that post again, you’ll see that the majority of the comments are 1) people affirming Tony’s demon-doubt; followed by 2) “literalists” beside themselves that a professing Jesus-follower would so blatantly a) declare that Jesus was wrong, and b) declare the Bible’s teaching on demons wrong. The disgust I felt for Tony’s words in his previous post was for those reasons, not because I have a passion for demonology. By the time I read this one, I had come to expect this.

    john mc: “But in a tortured theological world, humans need a devil to set up a wall between the goodness of God and the terribleness of suffering.” I would say that the primary reason for terrible suffering in the world is NOT the devil, but me – and humans like me. It’s human sin, selfishness, and rebellion to God that led to the world being the way it is; and it’s sin, selfishness and rebellion that perpetuate the suffering. Unrighteous sinners, made holy by the blood of God’s perfect Son, is the heart of my theology; not Satan or demons.

    (ps – I’d likewise be skeptical of leg-lengthenings and exorcisms – never be exposed to either myself. Certainly people abuse all sorts of biblical teaching, but that’s not a sufficient reason to dismiss it.)

  • John

    @ben w You said: ” I would say that the primary reason for terrible suffering in the world is NOT the devil, but me – and humans like me. It’s human sin, selfishness, and rebellion to God that led to the world being the way it is; and it’s sin, selfishness and rebellion that perpetuate the suffering. ”

    I’m sorry, Ben, but really? Most of the suffering in this world is caused by natural disasters, famines, and disease– if anyone should shoulder the blame for those circumstances, it would be god and not man.

  • John Mc

    Ben,

    Sometimes it’s sin, sometimes poor choices, and sometimes s##t happens. We don’t need to posit a devil, nor the judgment of identifying other’s sin, nor even the arrogance of thinking our sin is of such significance that God Almighty needed to step in set things aright. We live in a world which does not have all soft corners, a world which is not danger neutral, a world where natural processes don’t ask permission or say “excuse me” before unfolding, very often people are just going to get run over on the highway of life. Tragedy is rarely filled with purpose, and few stories have a moral.

    In a world where everyone has to die eventually, suffering cannot be avoided. The real question of significance is not whether demons are hurrying the process or angels interfering, but whether we are wise enoougfh to accept the lifeline of hope offered by God and the relationships and communities of faith which God has nurtured into being.

  • Scot Miller

    @Ben W — I agree with your analysis, that the “heat” generated by discussing demons (no pun intended) was the result of people (like me) who defended Tony and outrage that any”professing Jesus-follower” could either deny demons or declare that Jesus’ world-view was mistaken.

    What’s interesting is that everybody in the discussion is a “professing Jesus-follower,” which should be both necessary and sufficient for being a Christian. (At least it doesn’t appear that non-Christians give a hoot about what Jesus believed and whether he was mistaken about demons.) The dispute boils down to differences in how Christians read the Bible, the source of their information about being a follower of Christ. Is it more important to be attached to a particular way of reading the Bible (literally, metaphorically, etc.), or not?

    The people who are upset with Tony aren’t really defending the Bible and Jesus from heretical attacks. They’re really only defending their particular way of reading the Bible and understanding Jesus. And I would argue that interpreting Jesus and the Bible in that way misses what’s important about being a follower of Christ.

    So what does it mean to be a follower of Christ? In Matt. 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That sounds like DOING what God wills, BEING a follower of Christ, is far more significant that BELIEVING or SAYING the right thing. What makes me a follower of Christ is not what I say, but what I do. (Yikes! Is that really true?)

    To be honest, Tony is far more interested in being faithful to the Bible than I am. It’s pretty clear to me that the Bible is factually mistaken about the universe (mythological geocentric, 3-storied universe) and some of its supposed inhabitants (demons, angels). Moreover, the Bible seems morally mistaken (about holy war killing, slavery and homosexuality). So I’ll just say the Bible (and even Jesus) were mistaken.

    But because my religious experience was mediated to me through the Bible, I can’t just abandon it (although it might make my life easier if I could). Instead, I think it’s better to find a different way to read the text, one that is not fixed, but open to richer meanings.

    Instead of feeling “disgust” at an alternative reading of scripture, maybe we should all feel “challenged” or “thankful” or “hopeful” that the alternative reading gives us a chance to examine our own interpretations. For our interpretations or readings are not true or false, but better and worse, more and less adequate. In the words of Paul, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21).

  • Kien

    Might I go off-topic and address John’s last post on who to “blame” for suffering caused by natural disasters – ourselves, God, or the devil?

    While I would agree that humans are not to blame for natural disasters, the idea that humans are in some way responsible for the suffering from natural disaster is not entirely misplaced. There is a lot that human society can do, acting collectively, to ameliorate suffering from natural disasters. You only have to compare the effects of an earthquake in NZ or Japan with an earthquake/tsunami in Indonesia. It’s well established in economics that death from past famines were not because of the lack of food but because of the failure of distribution. The Irish potato famine could have been avoided had the British paid close attention to what was happening in Ireland. Similarly, the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously observed that famines in India ceased when India became a functioning democracy on its independence from Britain. A democratic government in India could not ignore the consequences of a famine and made sure policies were put in place to ensure food is distributed notwithstanding shortfalls in food production.

    Still, is it right to blame God (or the devil) for natural disasters? Perhaps, but I think this line of thinking is fundamentally misplaced. My take on this is that humans have, through evolution, developed a capacity to recognise that not all is right in the world. Depending on your reading of the Genesis narrative, you could say that God “blessed/cursed” us with this capacity to imagine how things can be better, and to take steps (by acting collectively) to make the world a better place.

    Somewhere during human history, we developed the idea of “sin” as an explanation for our suffering. This is in fact a liberating notion, in the sense that it presumes that the suffering we encounter isn’t preordained or fated, but due to a failure in human society. Human society had a capacity to ameliorate suffering by following certain rules.

    I also think that the idea of a benevolent God is another tremendous step in making the world a better place. Since Isaiah, we have a very long-term hope that one day suffering will cease in the world, and even death will end. Isaiah’s vision has powerfully given us an idea of very long-term progress to a better outcome that we can grasp in our imagination, and that we increasingly realise in fact over the course of time.

    So rather than question how there can be a God in the face of suffering, I would say that without God, we would not even have the capacity to address suffering.

  • http://matybigfro.blogspot.com matybigfro

    I understand your hesitation about Angels and Demon’s but like if you gonna believe that there is a spiritual being call God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit it’s not to far a stretch move a bit more room for some others.

    Like Joe L above reading this I also wondered what your take was on Wink’s work on the ‘Powers’. As someone coming from a charismatic/Penticostal background at the same time as I started engaging in your, Brians, Doug and Rob’s work amongst others Walter Winks the naming the powers was fascinating and my first real taste of the fruits of liberalism.

    I’m left with two questions

    1) if we eliminate all the talk of Demon and Angels from the biblical text are we loosing something, and more so if we eliminate it from our current discourse do we forsake needed understanding and important labels/words

    2) while skeptical can we remain open to the idea that past peoples of the biblical texts had a insight and understanding into area’s that we now lack from loss. Whilst not taking on the whole mythologies could there be a use in their broadly sketched idea’s

  • http://www.spirithome.com/angels.html Bob Longman

    It’s strange why I ‘connect’ with this, in a way. Because I actually *do* believe in angels, and I also *do* believe that a partially-demythologized, partially-renarrated view of spiritual warfare would not only better reflect reality, but also could be a real aid for emergent believers.

    What I acknowledge when I write about angels is that **they’re not an essential part of Christian belief or practice**. You don’t believe in them? Christ is fine with that; you’re supposed to follow Him, not angels or angel-imitators. Angels are fine with that, too; if they do exist, they exist for a purpose, one way among many of how God makes himself hard to find so we can be freer to act, fail, and learn. Your belief in them means nothing; their belief in you (rooted in God’s belief in you) does. So in a sense, your disbelief in angels is not a real issue, and isn’t worth debating except among us egg-headed types. There are many other more important things to deal with.

    If there are other sentient creatures out in space, and God deals with them with indirection coupled with sharp semi-visible outbursts and well-disguised presences as God did with us, I suspect mal’akim (angel-envoys) are at work there, too.