There are many stories of supernatural protection from angels. One inner‑city counselor claimed a seven‑foot angel protected her from a gang of thugs.1 On the other hand, Wolly Tope established a Christian ministry to people disillusioned by false and cultic teachings. In April 1992 he had an appointment with destiny. When he heard about riots breaking out in Los Angeles, Tope took to the streets and preached to the rioters. A gang of hoodlums beat him so severely that he fell into a coma. Tope died the following year, never regaining consciousness after his beating. Why didn’t angels protect Tope during the riots? If everyone or at least every Christian has a guardian angel, where was his guardian angel that night?
Guardians Angels in Past Traditions
Belief in guardian angels is nothing new. Ancient thinkers of the Greco-Roman world such as Plato, Plutarch and Plotinus believed in spiritual guardians, as did Babylonian and Assyrian writers.2 Ancient Jewish traditions suggested that angels were assigned to everyone.3 Some examples from Jewish traditions are as follows:*
- “He will set a guard of holy angels over all the righteous and holy ones, and they shall keep them as the apple of the eye until all evil and all sin are brought to an end. From that time on the righteous ones shall sleep a restful sleep, and there shall be no one to make them afraid” (1 Enoch 100.5).
- “But for me it is not the same, because God has protected me and because he has delivered me to his angels and to his guardians that they should guard me” (Pseudo-Philo Liber Antiquitatum biblicarum 59.4).
- “The lowest order is the angels. And the plan has been revealed to it by God concerning every human being whom they watch over, because one angel from this lowest order accompanies every single human being in the world for his protection. And this is its service” (Testament of Adam 4:1).
- “I am the angel who has been walking with you and guarding you from your infancy” (Testament of Jacob 2.5).
- “For a good angel will go along with him, and his journey will be successful; he will return safely” (Tobit 5:22; Lexham LXX/my translation)
- “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter before the glory of the Holy One” (Tobit 12:15; Lexham LXX/my translation)
According to one interpretation of the children of Israel in the wilderness, God commanded Israel’s guardian angels not to intercede anymore on Israel’s behalf, for they had become too rebellious (Pseudo‑Philo, L.A.B. 15.5; compare 11.12). In the Dead Sea Scrolls angels watch over the meek, the despised and the orphaned (1QH [Hodayot] 5.20‑22).
Many of the church fathers believed in guardian angels, but they disagreed on their function. The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140‑155 CE) records that guardian angels were appointed to everyone (Mandate 6.2.1‑3), but Jerome (342‑420) believed that sin prevents these angels from assisting the wicked (In Jeremiam 30.12; compare Basil Homilies 33.5). Ambrose (339‑397), on the other hand, believed that the righteous did not have guardian angels. The saints were to struggle through life without celestial help in order to obtain a greater future glory (In Psalmos Davidicos 37.43).4
Peter Lombard (1100‑1160) believed that every guardian angel was assigned several persons to watch (Sentences 2:11). Conversely, some have argued that certain individuals have more than one guardian angel (compare Matthew 18:10‑13). Others still consider belief in guardian angels to be in keeping with the “mind of the church,” even though it was not an article of faith.5
Some of the church fathers, such as Hermas and Gregory of Nyssa (330‑395), believed that everyone was assigned both a good and an evil angel (Mandate 6.2:1‑3; De Vita Moysis 12‑13).6 When growing up, it was not uncommon for me to see such imagery depicted in comic books and animated programs. Wouldn’t this imply that Satan assigns a “guardian” demon to constantly harass every one of us? If each one of us has an invisible angel always protecting us, why do so many calamities befall us? On our bad days, did the good angel also have a bad day and the evil angel won out? Are there enough angels and demons to protect or alternatively harass over seven billion people who live on earth? We must dig further to arrive at a feasible conclusion about guardian angels.
Guardian Angels in Scripture?
The Bible in some places supports a belief in personal ministering angels (Psalms 90:11; 33:8; 34:5‑7; Hebrews 1:14). It may be comforting to think of an invisible angel standing next to us, but why should this be more comforting than knowing that the omnipresent God always watches over us (Matthew 10:29‑31; compare Hebrews 4:13; Psalm 139)? In what sense do guardian angels protect us more than any other angel that God could send to protect us?
The term guardian angel never appears in the Bible as such. Many biblical passages cited to support the idea only affirm God’s general providence in protecting his saints by sending angels.7 But at least two New Testament Scriptures are used to support guardian angels: in Acts Christians mistook Peter for “his angel” (Acts 12:15); in Matthew Jesus said, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). For Dale Allison in his commentary on Matthew:
“The church Fathers discussed whether Mt 18:10 implies that every individual has an angel (Chrysostom said yes), whether adults or just children are guarded, whether wickedness can drive one’s guardian angel away (Origen and Jerome so thought), whether evil individuals have over them evil angels or spirits, whether one’s guardian angel was received at birth or baptism, and whether one could be looked after by more than one angel (Mt 18:13 seemed to imply an affirmative answer to this last question)” (The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 2.772).
Some ancient Jews may have believed that guardian angels could take on the likeness of the person under their protection.8 The early Christians may have assumed this about Peter when he knocked on the front door of the place where they were praying in Acts 12:15. They thought he was still in prison or perhaps dead. However, the book of Acts is mostly descriptive narrative, not foremost a prescriptive set of commands or exhortations. Since almost everyone in the church of Jerusalem grew up listening to folklore, it perhaps is not a big wonder that they had misconceptions about angels looking like those to whom they were assigned.
Yet assigned angels of some sort do seem to exist if we read that the voice of Jesus teaches about them in Matthew 18:10. In this passage the Matthean Jesus affirms that even those of low status—the “little children”—are immeasurably precious to both God and the highest angels who constantly abide in God’s presence and happen to be “their angels.”9 The passage, however, does not name these as “guardian angels,” nor does it give the number of angels God appoints to believers or those of low status.
Moreover, if these angels reside “in heaven” and are “always” in the presence of God, we must question whether they could be constantly present with the “little ones” on earth, invisibly protecting them. All the same, if they reside in heaven, then their primary function may be to watch God’s chosen, intercede for them, and perhaps request judgment against those who harm them (compare Rev 8:4; Job 5:1[LXX]; Tobit 12.12‑15; 1 Enoch 9:3; 15.2; Testament of Dan 6.1; Pseudo‑Philo L.A.B. 15.5; 1QS 2.9; Origen Stromata 5.14; 7:12; Augustine City of God 7.30; 10.25).10 Occasionally, I suppose that if God so chooses, such beings might be “sent” to assist, guide, or protect the faithful on earth.
So what can we say about guardian angels? Although the term itself is not found in Scripture as such, angels do exist, but not necessarily as commonly described in popular and religious cultures. Even so, Matthew 18:10 describes angels in heaven who watch and perhaps intercede for believers. One way or another, then, God sees and knows what is happening to the faithful (see Hebrews 4:13).
Ultimately, we should remember that benevolent angels are to submit to the sovereign will of God, and God never promised that he would protect every believer from all physical harm in this present age. Instead, God works together all things for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).**
*Translations are in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday/Yale University Press, 1983).
**For similar questions about angels, see B. J. Oropeza, 99 Answers to Questions about Angels, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare. Second Edition, ISBN 9781719986182.
1 Barbara Graham, “Talking with . . . Joan Wester Anderson,” People Weekly, April 11, 1994, p. 25.
2 See Hugh Pope, “Guardian Angel,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Charles G. Herbermann, Edward A. Pace, C. B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, John J. Wynne (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913), 7:49.
3For a list of Jewish sources, see W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 2:770.
4Augustine’s view was perhaps colored by his doctrine of predestination, which seemed to mitigate the necessity of believers’ being under constant angelic surveillance. He did not believe that everyone was assigned a guardian angel: H. L. Pass, “Demons and Spirits (Christian),” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (New York: Scribner’s/Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1911), 4:580.
5Jerome as cited by Pope, “Guardian Angel,” 7:49.
6On a similar note, Origen (185‑254 CE) believed that the soul of every newly baptized convert was assigned a guardian angel. If the soul falls for some reason, it comes under the power of a wicked angel (Homelia in Lucam 12‑13).
7For a brief critique of biblical passages used to support guardian angels, see William Hendrickson, The Gospel of Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), pp. 692‑94.
8 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill./Leicester, U.K.: InterVarsity Press, 1981), p. 136.
9 Ironically, Thomas Aquinas believed that only the lowest‑ranking angels were guardians of humans (Summa Contra Gentiles 113:1‑3).
10For more examples see D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic: 200 B.C.‑A.D. 100 (London: SCM Press, 1964), 242.
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