Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: “Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.
What are angels? A supernatural being found in various religions and mythologies? A humanoid of extraordinary beauty? A creature with wings and a halo? Something that is only seen at Christmas time in Nativity plays, cards and decorations? A guardian? A myth? The term angel has become so commonplace in the English language that it has almost lost its religious heritage. Today, the term “you’re an angel,” is often heard when someone performs a favour, whereas, in reality, they are merely human. So, what are angels?
The word angel derives from the Late Latin word angelus, literally meaning messenger, which in turn had derived from the Greek aggelos. In religion, particularly Christianity, the term was used to describe the celestial beings who acted as emissaries between God or Heaven and mankind.
The Christian idea of angels was inherited from Judaism, with Michael (who is like God), Gabriel (God is my strength) and Raphael (it is God who heals) being the most well-known in both the Abrahamic religious and secular world. Angels also appear in Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Neoplatonism, although, with slightly different manifestations.
“Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.”
– Christina Rossetti
Angels in Judaism are categorised into ten hierarchies, the more important being in the top ranks. Likewise, Christianity has adopted this idea of a hierarchy, splitting the angels into three groups of three. This Christian angelic hierarchy was initially put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th-6th century), an ancient theologian and philosopher, in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). This work inspired many scholars throughout the middle ages and medieval period to expand upon the idea of angel orders or “Angelic Choirs”, suggesting alternative classifications.
When writing De Coelesti Hierarchia, Pseudo-Dionysius referred to passages from the New Testament, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian Dominican friar and Catholic priest, when tackling the same subject in his work Summa Theologica. Whilst the New Testament is fairly quiet on the hierarchy of angels, both writers used passages, such as Colossians 1:16, to develop a schema of three Spheres of angels, each comprising of three Orders or Choirs.
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
– Colossians 1:16 (NIV)
Due to the subject of angelology coming from sources outside of the Bible, not all Churches believe or accept Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas’ proposed hierarchy. It is viewed on a similar level to the communio sanctorum or the communion of saints, which is mostly associated with Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, the nine orders of angels are generally agreed upon, as recognised by Pope Gregory I (540-604) at the end of the 6th century:
- Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
- Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
- Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.
Naturally, the first sphere contains the angels who are closest to God – those who serve as his heavenly servants. The first two orders, Seraphim and Cherubim are the most recognised titles throughout Christianity and beyond, mostly thanks to the popular Christmas poem-cum-carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Yet, what these terms mean remains a mystery to many.
Seraphim, meaning burning ones, are the highest order of angels and serve as caretakers of the Throne of God. The Seraphim or Seraphs are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in Isaiah 6:1-7. In a vision of the Lord, the prophet saw the Seraphim hovering above God chanting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Interestingly, Isaiah’s description of their appearance goes against contemporary manifestations of the heavenly beings. “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (Isaiah 6:2 NIV)
Pseudo-Dyonisius maintained that Seraphim aided God to sustain perfect order, purifying those on Earth with their ” burning and all-consuming flame”. Around the throne of God, there is no day or night, the light comes from God himself and his Seraphim whose “radiant and enlightening power” dispell and destroy the “shadows of darkness”.
Another early Christian scholar and theologian, Origen of Alexandria (184-253), also wrote on the topic of Seraphim. In his treatise, On First Principles, Origen argues that the angels described in the Book of Isaiah are in fact physical representations of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. As a result, he concludes the Seraphim are privy to the knowledge of God, thus elevating them to the top tier of angels.
Whereas Cherubim are ranked ninth (second from bottom) in Jewish angelic hierarchy, Christianity places them directly below the Seraphim. Of all heavenly beings, Cherubs are mentioned the most in the Hebrew Bible and are traditionally believed to be the guardians of the Garden of Eden. “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 NIV)
Cherubim are highly revered throughout the Bible, for instance, God considered them important enough to feature as gold statuettes on either side of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17-22). Carvings and statues of cherubim feature in the “Most Holy Place” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 3:7-14 (NIV) as well as in the sanctuary described in 1 Kings 6:23-28. It is also believed that Satan came from the Cherubim order before his fall from grace.
The physical appearance of Cherubim is written in the Book of Ezekiel and, similarly to Seraphim, go against contemporary conceptions. According to Ezekiel, the Cherubim were completely covered in eyes, both on their bodies and their wings, of which they have six, as Revelation 4:8 suggests.
“Each creature had four faces. The first was the face of a bull, the second a human face, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:12-14 GNT) Whilst this sounds rather grotesque, it is said that each face has a particular purpose to represent the four dominions of God’s rule: domestic animals, humanity, wild animals and birds. These faces have since been adopted as symbols of the four Gospels: Luke, Matthew, Mark and John respectively.
In the western world, Cherubim have incorrectly become associated with putti or “baby angels”. Putti also derived from the classical Roman god Cupid, who was traditionally portrayed with a slender, youthful body. Putti can be typically found in figurative art, both with and without wings, in the form of small, plump male baby- or toddler-like beings.
The third order in the first sphere are the Thrones, however, there is some discrepancy as to who or what they are. Christian theologians describe them as adoring elder men who listen to the will of God and the prayers of men. These same theologians believe that the twenty-four men mentioned in the final book of the Bible come from the order of Thrones: “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (Revelation 4:4 NIV)
Not including this verse in the book of Revelation, there is only one direct mention of Thrones in the Bible. Paul the Apostle writes about the Thrones in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). There is, however, no physical description.
The idea that the twenty-four elders are Thrones has become generally accepted, however, some writers have other views. Rosemary Ellen Guiley (b.1950) is one of a handful who associates Thrones with Ophanim or Wheels mentioned in Ezekiel 10:16: “When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side.” (NIV)
“The ‘thrones’; also known as ‘ophanim’ (offanim) and ‘galgallin’, are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them. Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes, and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.”
– Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Encyclopedia of Angels (1996)
There is, however, very little evidence to support this argument, the strongest being that the Cherubim and their wheels carry the throne of God according to chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel. As a result, tradition states that Thrones are a separate body of angels from the Cherubim and are not purely material beings.
The angels in the Second Sphere, who work as heavenly governors of God’s creation, are much more difficult to comprehend and find Biblical evidence for their existence. The first of this trio is known as both Dominions or Lordships, which is also mentioned in Colossians 1:16 alongside Thrones: “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (ESV) The only other Biblical reference is in Ephesians: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.” (1:21 KJV)
Depending on the translation of the Bible, Dominions or Lordships are sometimes not mentioned at all but when they are, their title depends on whether the text was derived from the Latin or Greek version. Dominions derive from the Latin dominationes, whereas Lordships stem from the Greek term kyriotēs.
Some theologians claim that Dominions look like divinely beautiful humans with a pair of feathered wings, much like the kind seen on Christmas cards, however, they rarely make themselves physically known to humans. Some claim the Dominions or Lords carry glowing orbs on the end of their sceptres or the pommels of their swords, but where this suggestion came from is unknown.
The second order in the Second Sphere is Virtues or Strongholds. These also appear in chapter 1 verse 21 of Ephesians, however, in some translations are also referred to as powers. Aquinas opted to use the term Virtues in his Summa Theologica.
Pseudo-Dionysius also wrote about the Virtues, stating that they signify “a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies.” They are strong in character and never succumb to weakness, always having their sights set on the “Source of Virtue.” Little else has been recorded about this angelic order.
The final order in the Second Sphere is Powers or Authorities, not to be confused with the powers mentioned in some translations of Ephesians 21:1. Stemming from the Latin potestates and Greek exousia, this order is introduced briefly in Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)
It is thought that the purpose of the Powers is to maintain order throughout the cosmos, supervising the movements of celestial bodies and making sure everything remains in order. Represented as soldiers wearing full armour and helmets, the Powers or Authorities use their shields, spears or chains to fight off evil spirits, particularly ones that threaten the equilibrium of God’s creation.
The third and final sphere of angels contains those that act as heavenly guides, protectors, and messengers to humans. Whilst these are the lower ranks of angels, at least two of the orders are more familiar in today’s world.
The first, however, is as obscure as those of the Second Sphere. These are the Principalities or Rulers, sometimes referred to as Princedoms. Biblical acknowledgement of the order appears in both Ephesians 1:21 and Ephesians 3:10, along with those previously mentioned.
Principalities are responsible for the protection and guidance of nations or large groups of people, for instance, the Church. They are depicted wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre and follow instructions given to them by the upper sphere angels. As well as overseeing groups of people, these tasks involve bequeathing blessings upon the Earth. The Principalities or Rulers are also known as the educators and guardians of the people on Earth, often inspiring the study of the arts or sciences.
The second order of angels in the Third Sphere is perhaps the most famous: the Archangels. The name comes from the Greek archangelos, which translates into English as chief angel, which considering they come so low down the ranks, is a rather peculiar title. The word only appears twice in the New Testament and, despite what many believe, only one archangel is named.
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16
The named Archangel is Michael who appears in Jude 1:9, Revelation 12:7-9 and Daniel 12:1. In the latter, Daniel is informed that Michael will appear at the “time of the end”, i.e. the apocalypse, and in Revelation, Michael’s fight with Satan is recorded in a description of a war in heaven. In Jude, Michael is also recorded confronting Satan: “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'” (NIV)
Another named Archangel is Raphael, who is written about in the Book of Enoch. This book, however, is not included in Christian canons and, therefore, Raphael is not officially a Biblical character. He also appears in the Book of Tobit, however, since this book is deuterocanonical, it also does not count as a Biblical reference.
In Enoch 10:4-6, Raphael is recorded defeating the fallen angel Azazel: “And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert …'”
The most famous story about Raphael is recorded in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The Archangel appears to Tobiah, the son of Tobit disguised in the human form of “Azarias the son of the great Ananias.” Tobiah is on an errand for his blind father and Raphael keeps him company on the journey, protecting him in many ways, including defeating a demon in an Egyptian desert. The archangel only reveals himself as “the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord,” (Tobit 12:15) after healing the blind Tobit later in the story.
Uriel is another of the named Archangels, however, is only mentioned in the second apocryphal book of Esdras, therefore, most Christians dismiss him as a Biblical angel. Uriel, whose name means Light of God, is sometimes listed as a Cherub and, according to Abbot Anscar Vonier (1875-1938) stands at the Gate of Eden with a fiery sword.
The angel in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) painting Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6), which shows Christ and his mother being reunited with John the Baptist after their flight to Egypt, is thought to be Archangel Uriel. Some Christian sources claim that Uriel rescued Jesus’ cousin John and his mother, Elizabeth, from the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod.
Some Christians may argue that Michael is not the only Archangel mentioned in the Bible. The other is Gabriel, meaning God is my Strength, however, he is never referred to as an Archangel in the passages in which he features.
The most famous reference to Gabriel occurs in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament making him a fundamental character in the Christmas story – and, therefore, the key reason for the cute, white-winged angels on Christmas cards. The angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, revealing the prophecy that he will have a son: John the Baptist. The second appearance occurs in Luke 1:26-38, in which similar news is delivered to Mary, telling her that she will have a baby.
“And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women … thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Luke 1:28-31 KJV
Due to the lack of the word Archangel in reference to Gabriel, some people believe he is only an Angel, the lowest of the ranks and the final order of the Third Sphere. Frustratingly, it is not certain why this order is named Angels, also the umbrella term for the entire three spheres, which can make explaining Christian Angelology rather confusing.
These Angels, or malakhim as they are known in Hebrew, whilst the “plain” angels, are the most recognised in the Bible. They are mentioned in numerous book of the Bible, including Psalms, Colossians and Hebrews. “Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 GNT)
Angels of the third sphere variety are the ones who have the most contact with the affairs of men. Often, they are sent to Earth with messages, hence the belief that Gabriel is not an Archangel. They are also sent to guide and support people, for example, the angel who comforted Jesus in Luke 22:43 during the Agony in the Garden.
It is from this realm of angels that the idea of Guardian Angels has arisen. Those who believe in Guardian Angels claim that everyone has been assigned one, regardless of their religious affiliations. Although belief in Guardian Angels can be traced back to antiquity, there is no Biblical evidence of their existence.
So, in answer to the opening question – what are angels? – they are a lot of things. So many things that it requires around 3000 words to fully explain. There is no straightforward answer. One thing for certain is that they are not all the white-robed, feathery-winged, halo-wearing creatures in paintings, literature, Christmas ornaments, and so forth, however, it is much easier to imagine them as such, particularly at this time of year – Merry Christmas.