Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
God created humanity to inhabit a material world of things we can see and things we can touch. We pass through time, which we can remember and record (history). Created in God’s image, we are designed to inhabit the created order in which God has placed us. In our original creation, we were upright and innocent, but after our first father Adam’s sin in Eden, ours is a fallen race. Still, we are capable of great things and great ideas, and we experience powerful emotions. The psalmist tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together in the womb by our Creator (Ps. 139). As divine image bearers, we are like God in every way that a creature can be like God. Yet because we are creatures, we are not and cannot become divine in any sense.
Despite the wonders of human nature, we do not possess the capacity to experience on a daily basis the very real but invisible spiritual world also created by God and inhabited by creatures that we commonly call “angels.” Although this invisible reality is as real as the material world we inhabit, our access to the spiritual world is severely limited because of our creaturely and physical existence. We are not designed to fully comprehend what transpires in the spiritual world, even though we know that such a world exists and that what takes place in it is consequential in ours.
From the earliest days of the Christian church, discussion about angels has produced much controversy. Much of this discussion took place in dialogue with Jewish, gnostic, and pagan thought about the nature of the invisible world, leading to all sorts of unbiblical notions. Our limited knowledge regarding spiritual beings has led to speculative questions such as these: “What form do angels possess?” “What is a ‘spiritual body’ like?” “What role do angels play in our lives, if any?” There are hints in Scripture that angels are involved in human affairs, even if we cannot witness them directly. Because we cannot see the angels who inhabit this invisible reality, they often become a source of speculation and superstition. But this is also why we need to pump the speculative brakes, for all we can truly know about angels is revealed to us by their Creator and ours in His Word.
Since we do not have full access to the invisible world, we are dependent on Scripture for reliable information about this realm and its immaterial creatures. Thankfully, the Bible gives important information about both—although not in the detail we may wish for.
We start with the angels who are best understood as messengers sent by God (Hebrew malach, Greek angelos). In Hebrews 1:14, angels are described as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” The psalmist tells us, “Yet you have made [humans] a little lower than the heavenly beings [angels] and crowned [them] with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). Angels are of a different created order from humanity, so our deceased loved ones do not “get their wings” in the afterlife—a common but erroneous opinion. We read that angels rejoice when a sinner repents (Luke 15:10), and at times, angels, in their role as messengers, are depicted in Scripture as mediators of divine revelation (e.g., Dan. 9; Luke 1–2; Gal. 3:19).
Psalm 148:2–5 tells us that angels as created beings are included in the ranks of the heavenly court:
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
Scripture ascribes to angels a certain preeminence, since they rejoice in God’s creation of the material world as recounted in Job 38:7: “The morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Angels do not have physical bodies as we do, but Scripture reveals that they can appear visibly in various ways to human beings (Luke 2:9) or to animals (Num. 22:21–39).
Scripture informs us that God does not provide redemption for the angels: “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16). Those described as “good angels” are likely the “elect angels” in 1 Timothy 5:21. Furthermore, angels are said to be immortal in Luke 20:36: “For they cannot die anymore, because [the redeemed] are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” Some angels participate in the glory and praise of God around His heavenly throne (Ps. 103:20–21; Isa. 6:2, 6; Rev. 4), while others have special care of the “little ones” (Matt. 18:10). This has led to much speculation about the existence of “guardian angels” who protect Christian children, yet Matthew does not go beyond this brief declaration.
Angels also have names and ranks. Two angels are mentioned by name in Scripture. Michael, who appears in Daniel 10, Jude 9, and Revelation 12, is described as an “archangel” and a warrior. A second angel named Gabriel serves as a messenger/mediator of revelation. Gabriel appears in Daniel 8 and 9 and Luke 1. Scripture speaks of an order of angels known as the cherubim, who are creatures with four wings and four faces (Ezek. 10) and who are depicted in Genesis 3:24 as guardians of holy places (such as Eden). The seraphim are mysterious creatures who appear only in Isaiah 6:2, 6. They are said to have six wings: two cover their eyes in the Lord’s presence, two cover their feet, and two are used to fly.
Angels are not the only inhabitants of the invisible world, since the Bible speaks of other invisible spiritual beings that possess an evil, malevolent orientation toward us. Scripture identifies them as “demons.” These beings are closely associated with magic and the occult. They seek the destruction of humanity, yet they are aware of their ultimate doom, for they ask Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34). They are commonly identified as “fallen angels,” who, under certain conditions, can possess (control) unbelievers. We do know that Jesus engaged regularly with these “evil spirits,” as in Matthew 8:16: “They brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and [Jesus] cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.” Matthew 9:32 gives us another example: “As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him.” Because deep mystery surrounds them, and since they are malevolent toward humans, they too are the source of much speculation and have given countless authors, musicians, and Hollywood filmmakers much material with which to thrill and terrify.
Like all other created things, angels are included in the declaration made in Genesis 1:31 that all that God had created was created “good.” Since these spiritual beings were created “good,” certain angels must have followed Satan, as recounted in 2 Peter 2:4: “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment”; and in Jude 6, where we read of “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, [whom] he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” “Good” angels became “fallen” angels, which we speak of as demons.
The more difficult matter is, How do demons relate to Satan (the adversary)? Thought to be an angelic being of the highest standing, now fallen and expelled from heaven, Satan is the archenemy of Jesus and His saints. Satan (or the devil) appears to be the head of the ranks of fallen angels. There are some indications in Scripture that he, like Michael and Gabriel, was a majestic prince of the spiritual world (Job 1:6–12). It is he who tempts Eve (Gen. 3:1) and accuses God’s people (Zech. 3:1–2). His very name means “adversary,” and we see him at work in opposing God’s purposes by appearing in Eden, ultimately leading to Adam’s act of rebellion and to the fall of the human race (Gen. 3).
After Adam’s fall, Satan is said to be the accuser of God’s people (Rev. 12:10). He is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Although currently bound and confined to the abyss (Rev. 20:1–3), Satan behaves like a roaring lion looking to devour (1 Peter 5:8). He is angered by the limits on his deceptive activity and the knowledge that his eventual destruction is certain. He fears what is foretold in Revelation 20:10: “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” As Martin Luther aptly put it in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “One little word shall fell him.”
Although regular access to the spiritual realm is barred to us until Jesus returns, Scripture reveals to us a real but invisible world inhabited by angels and demons. All we can say about this mysterious realm is what is revealed to us in Scripture, which is why speculation beyond the biblical data not only is foolish but can be dangerous.