“The name angel belongs to his office, not to his nature. You ask what is the name of his nature. He is a spirit. You ask what is the name of his office. He is an angel.” – Saint Augustine.
The idea of angels has often captivated people through the ages. For most, the word angel conjures up images of Valentine’s Day and of rotund babies with bows and arrows. Yet this image of angels is very far from how they are depicted in the Bible. The appearance of angels to human beings almost always engenders fear and awe.
In this paper, I will explore what angels are and what Catholicism understands about these heavenly creatures. I will also address the question of whether angels are created beings. Finally, I will examine the various types of angels. The first topic, however, is to discuss the evidence for the existence of angels.
Do Angels Exist?
The evidence for the existence of angels begins with the fact that they are depicted throughout the Bible.
Angels waited on Christ when he was tempted in the desert (Matthew 4:11), and angels set Saint Peter free from prison (Acts 12:5-17). And the angel Gabriel came to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce the birth of Christ (Luke 1:26-38).
Owing to the testimony of Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says of angels, “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 328).
Having thus provided the evidence for the existence of angels, we can turn to what angels are exactly.
What Are Angels?
In order to proceed, it is beneficial to detour briefly into philosophy, specifically ontology. One of the questions that ontology deals with is the types of things that exist in the universe. Catholic philosophy adheres to dualism in this regard, arguing that there are two fundamental substances that make up the universe. These two substances are material and spiritual. It is, of course, conceivable that the substances can be combined. Indeed, human beings are composite creatures, composed of a material body and a spiritual soul. Having set the ontological framework, I can proceed to examine what angels are.
When observing creation, it is clear that there exist causes and effects, and it is further evident that things are more and less perfect. A thing is closer to perfection to the extent that it fulfills its nature and is more like its cause to the extent that it shares the power by which it was created.
Since God creates all things by virtue of His intellect, a thing is more like God the more that its nature is intellectual. And since angels are thought to be purely intellectual beings, they are believed to exist at a higher plane of existence than do human beings. The reason that angels must exist at a higher plane is owing to the purity of their spiritual nature. It must be noted that human beings are composite creatures composed of matter and spirit, whereas the angel is pure spirit.
Further, since the intellect exists over above the material body, angels, as pure spirits, do not, by nature, possess bodies. The fact that angels are composed of a spiritual substance means that they are not restricted by time and space, as are beings that are composed of material bodies. However, it appears from Scripture that angels can and do take the form of a physical body when necessary.
Having provided a brief sketch of what angels are, I turn now to how angels are created and for what purpose.
Creation And Purposes
As a matter of faith and logic, the only being that is not created is God Himself. As such, it must be admitted that angels exist in the order of creation. Yet owing to the fact that angels are spiritual beings and that which is of a spiritual substance cannot be destroyed, it is thought that angels are immortal. Put differently, angels are created by God but are not subject to death by virtue of their nature.
We can contemplate the purpose of angels by being aware of the word’s etymology. Angel comes from the Greek angelos, which is interpreted in English as “messenger.” Furthermore, the Bible contains numerous passages depicting angels as messengers of God. Angels are seen delivering messages of God’s plan of salvation, rendering justice, or providing strength and comfort.
Despite the view that angels are believed to be messengers of God, the Bible and Catholic Tradition identify several types of angels. To that, I turn next.
Types Of Angels
Drawing on Scripture, Catholic Tradition identifies three sets of angels, each containing three types of angels. The first category of angels is those in direct contact with God. They are known as the seraphim, which means “the burning ones,” because they have an intense love for God and comprehend Him with the greatest clarity. The cherubim contemplate God’s divine providence and plan for His creatures. Lastly, the thrones symbolize divine justice and judicial power.
The second set of angels are called dominations or dominions and govern the angels called virtues. This set of angels is concerned with the fulfillment of God’s providential plan for the universe. The virtues implement the orders from the dominions and govern the heavenly bodies. Lastly, the powers confront and fight against any evil forces opposed to God’s providential plan.
The final set of angels is directly involved in human affairs. They are called the principalities, whose responsibilities include the care for earthly nations and cities. Within this set, the archangels deliver God’s most important messages to mankind, while each angel serves as a guardian for each of us.
In this work, I have endeavored to explore the mysterious spiritual creatures known as angels.
Depicted in various forms to express the will of God, angels act as messengers of God, mediators between the earthly and heavenly realms, instruments of God’s justice, and models of worship.