An angel is a spiritual being which assists and serves God or the gods in many religious traditions. The word originated from the Latin angelus, itself derived from the Greek αγγελος, ángelos, meaning “messenger” (double gamma "γγ" is pronounced "ng" in Greek). The closest Hebrew word for angel is מלאך, mal'ach , also meaning messenger. "Angel" is also used in the English Version for the following three Hebrew words:
The Biblical name for angel, mal'akh (meaning "messenger"), obtained the further signification of "angel" only through the addition of God's name, as "angel of the Lord", or "angel of God" (Zech. xii. 8). Other appellations are "Sons of God", (Gen. vi. 4; Job, i. 6 [R. V. v. 1]) and "the Holy Ones" (Ps. lxxxix. 6, 8).
According to Jewish religious thought in understanding the term, 'Elohim is almost entirely reserved for the one true God; but at times 'Elohim (powers), bnē 'Elohim, bnē Elim (sons of gods, i.e. members of the class of divine beings) were general terms for beings with great power i.e. Judges or alternately, some kind of super powerful human beings. Hence they came to be used collectively of superhuman beings, distinct from Yahweh, and therefore inferior, and ultimately subordinate. (E.g. Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6; Ps. 8:5.)
So, too, the angels are styled "holy ones", (Zech. 14:5) and "watchers", (Dan. 4:13) and are spoken of as the "host of heaven" (Deut. 17:3) or of "Yahweh". (Josh. 5:14) The "hosts", צבאות Sebaoth in the title Yahweh Sebaoth, Lord of Hosts, were probably at one time identified with the angels. (The identification of the "hosts" with the stars comes to the same thing; the stars were thought of as closely connected with angels. It is probable that the "hosts" were also identified with the armies of Israel.) The New Testament often speaks of "spirits", πνεύματα. (Rev. 1:4)
In the earlier periods of the religion of Israel, the doctrine of monotheism had not been formally stated (if it indeed existed,) so that the idea of "angel" in the modern sense does not occur, but we find the Mal'akh Yahweh, Angel of the Lord, or Mal'akh Elohim, Angel of God. The Mal'akh Yahweh is an appearance or manifestation of Yahweh in the form of a man, and the term Mal'akh Yahweh is used interchangeably with Yahweh (cf. Exod. 3:2, with 3:4; 13:21 with 14:19). Those who see the Mal'akh Yahweh say they have seen God (Gen. 32:30; Judges 13:22). The Mal'akh Yahweh (or Elohim) appears to Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Gideon, &c., and leads the Israelites in the Pillar of Cloud (Exod. 3:2). The phrase Mal'akh Yahweh may have been originally a courtly circumlocution for the Divine King; but it readily became a means of avoiding anthropomorphism, and later on, when the angels were classified, the Mal'akh Yahweh came to mean an angel of distinguished rank. The identification of the Mal'akh Yahweh with the Logos, or Second Person of the Trinity, is not indicated by the references in the Hebrew scriptures; but the idea of a Being partly identified with God, and yet in some sense distinct from him, illustrates a tendency of Hebrew religious thought to distinguish persons within the unity of the deity. Chirstians think that this foreshadows the doctrine of the Trinity, while Jews would deny that and might show how it develops into kabbalistic theological thought and imagery.
In the earlier literature the Mal'akh Yahweh or Elohim is almost the only mal'akh ("angel") mentioned. There are, however, a few passages which speak of subordinate superhuman beings other than the Mal'akh Yahweh or Elohim. There are the cherubim who guard Eden. In Gen. 18, 19. (J) the appearance of Yahweh to Abraham and Lot is connected with three, afterwards two, men or messengers; but possibly in the original form of the story Yahweh appeared alone (Cf. 18:1 with 18:2, and note change of number in 19:17). At Bethel, Jacob sees the angels of God on the ladder (Gen. 28:12), and later on they appear to him at Mahanaim (Gen. 32:1). In all these cases the angels, like the Mal'akh Yahweh, are connected with or represent a theophany. Similarly the "man" who wrestles with Jacob at Peniel is identified with God (Gen. 32:24, 30). In Isaiah 6 the seraphim, superhuman beings with six wings, appear as the attendants of Yahweh. Thus the pre-exilic literature, as we now have it, has little to say about angels or about superhuman beings other than Yahweh and manifestations of Yahweh; the pre-exilic prophets hardly mention angels ("An angel" of I Kings 13:18 might be the Mal'akh Yahweh, as in 19:5, cf. 7, or the passage, at any rate in its present form, may be exilic or post-exilic). Nevertheless we may well suppose that the popular religion of ancient Israel had much to say of superhuman beings other than Yahweh, but that the inspired writers have mostly suppressed references to them as unedifying. Moreover such beings were not strictly angels.
Once the doctrine of monotheism was formally expressed in the period immediately before and during the Exile (in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Isaiah 43:10) we find angels prominent in Ezekiel. He, as a prophet of the Exile, may have been influenced by the hierarchy of supernatural beings in the Babylonian religion, and perhaps even by the angelology of Zoroastrianism (It is not however certain that these doctrines of Zoroastrianism were developed at so early a date). Ezekiel 9 gives elaborate descriptions of cherubim; and in one of his visions he sees seven angels execute the judgment of God upon Jerusalem. As in Genesis they are styled "men", mal'akh for "angel" does not occur in Ezekiel. Somewhat later, in the visions of Zechariah, angels play a great part; they are sometimes spoken of as "men", sometimes as mal'akh, and the Mal'akh Yahweh seems to hold a certain primacy among them (Zech. 1:11). The Satan also appears to prosecute (so to speak) the High Priest before the divine tribunal (Zech. 3:1). Similarly in Job the bne Elohim, sons of God, appear as attendants of God, and amongst them the Satan (Heb. ha satan), again in the role of public prosecutor, the defendant being Job (Job 1, 2. Cf. I Chron 21:1). Occasional references to "angels" occur in the Psalter (Pss. 91:11, 103:20 &c.); they appear as ministers of God.
In Ps. 78:49 the "evil angels" of the Authorized Version conveys a false impression; it should be "angels of evil", i.e. angels who inflict chastisement as ministers of God.
The seven angels of Ezekiel may be compared with the seven eyes of Yahweh in Zech. 3:9, 4:10. The latter have been connected by Ewald and others with the later doctrine of seven chief angels (Tobit 12:15; Rev. 8:2), parallel to and influenced by the Ameshaspentas (Amesha Spenta), or seven great spirits of the Persian mythology, but the connexion is doubtful.
In the Priestly Code, c. 400 B.C., there is no reference to angels apart from the possible suggestion in the plural in Genesis 1:26.
During the Persian and Greek periods the doctrine of angels underwent a great development, partly, at any rate, under foreign influences. In Daniel, c. 160 B.C., angels, usually spoken of as "men" or "princes", appear as guardians or champions of the nations; grades are implied, there are "princes" and "chief" or "great princes"; and the names of some angels are known, Gabriel, Michael; the latter is pre-eminent (Dan. 8:16; 10:13, 20-21), he is the guardian of Judah. Again in Tobit a leading part is played by Raphael, "one of the seven holy angels". (Tob. 12:15.)
In Tobit, too, we find the idea of the demon or evil angel. In the canonical Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures, angels may inflict suffering as ministers of God and the Satan may act as accuser or tempter; but they appear as subordinate to God, fulfilling his will and not as independent morally evil agents. The statement (Job 4:18) that God "charged his angels with folly" applies to all angels. In Daniel the princes or guardian angels of the heathen nations oppose Michael the guardian angel of Judah. But in Tobit we find Asmodaeus the evil demon, τὸ πονηρὸν δαιμόνιον, who strangles Sarah's husbands, and also a general reference to "a devil or evil spirit", πνεῦμα (Tobit 3:8, 17; 6:7).
The Fall of the Angels is not properly a scriptural doctrine, though it is based on Gen. 6:2, as interpreted by the Book of Enoch. It is true that the bnē Elohim of that chapter are subordinate superhuman beings (cf. above), but they belong to a different order of thought from the angels of Judaism and of Christian doctrine; and the passage in no way suggests that the bne Elohim suffered any loss of status through their act.
The guardian angels of the nations in Daniel probably represent the gods of the heathen, and we have there the first step of the process by which these gods became evil angels, an idea expanded by Milton in Paradise Lost. The development of the doctrine of an organized hierarchy of angels belongs to the Jewish literature of the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 100. In Jewish apocalypses especially, the imagination ran riot on the rank, classes and names of angels; and such works as the various books of Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah supply much information on this subject.
Appearance of angels
In the Hebrew Bible, angels often appear to people in the shape of humans of extraordinary beauty, and often are not immediately recognized as angels (Gen. xviii. 2, xix. 5; Judges, vi. 17, xiii. 6; II Sam. xxix. 9); some fly through the air; some become invisible; sacrifices touched by them are consumed by fire; and they may disappear in sacrificial fire, like Elijah, who rode to heaven in a fiery chariot. Angels appeared in the flames of the thorn bush (Gen. xvi. 13; Judges, vi. 21, 22; II Kings, ii. 11; Ex. iii. 2). They are described as pure and bright as heaven; consequently they are said to be formed of fire and encompassed by light (Job, xv. 15), as the Psalmist said (Ps. civ. 4, R. V.): "Who makes winds his messengers; his ministers a flaming fire."
Though superhuman, angels assume human form; this is the earliest conception. Gradually, and especially in post-Biblical times, angels came to be bodied forth in a form corresponding to the nature of the mission to be fulfilled—generally, however, the human form. They bear drawn swords or destroying weapons in their hands—one carries an ink-horn by his side—and ride on horses (Num. xxii. 23, Josh. v. 13, Ezek. ix. 2, Zech. i. 8 et seq.). A terrible angel is the one mentioned in I Chron. xxi. 16, 30, as standing "between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand". In the Book of Daniel reference is made to an angel "clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: his body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in color to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude" (Dan. x. 5, 6). Angels are thought to possess wings (Dan. ix. 21) as they are described in the Bible, and depicted in Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian art. They are commonly depicted with halos.
Images of angels in Christian art are identical to prior depiction of gods such as Zeus and Nike, in pre-Christian classical art, and some divine beings in Mesopotamian art. The use of wings suggests an original artistic convention merely intended to denote the figure as a spirit.
Angels are portrayed as powerful and dreadful, endowed with wisdom and with knowledge of all earthly events, correct in their judgment, holy, but not infallible: they strive against each other, and God has to make peace between them. When their duties are not punitive, angels are beneficent to man (Ps. ciii. 20, lxxviii. 25; II Sam. xiv. 17, 20, xix. 28; Zech. xiv. 5; Job, iv. 18, xxv. 2).
The number of angels is enormous. Jacob meets a host of angels; Joshua sees the "captain of the host of the Lord"; God sits on His throne, "all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left"; the sons of God come "to present themselves before the Lord" (Gen. xxxii. 2; Josh. v. 14, 15; I Kings, xxii. 19; Job, i. 6, ii. 1; Ps. lxxxix. 6; Job, xxxiii. 23). The general conception is the one of Job (xxv. 3): "Is there any number of his armies?"
An angel statue in a church in Belgium
Though the older writings usually mention one angel of the Lord, embassies to men as a rule comprised several messengers. The inference, however, is not to be drawn that God Himself or one particular angel was designated: the expression was given simply to God's power to accomplish through but one angel any deed, however wonderful.
Angels are referred to in connection with their special missions as, for instance, the "angel which hath redeemed", "an interpreter", "the angel that destroyed", "messenger of the covenant", "angel of his presence", and "a band of angels of evil" (Gen. xlviii. 16; Job, xxxiii. 23; II Sam. xxiv. 16; Mal. iii. 1; Isa. lxiii. 9; Ps. lxxviii. 49, R. V.). When, however, the heavenly host is regarded in its most comprehensive aspect, a distinction may be made between cherubim, seraphim, ḥayyot ("living creatures"), ofanim ("wheels"), and arelim (the meaning of which term is unknown). God is described as riding on the cherubim and as "the Lord of hosts, who dwelleth between the cherubim"; while the latter guard the way of the Tree of Life (I Sam. iv. 4, Ps. lxxx. 2, Gen. iii. 24). The seraphim are described by Isaiah (vi. 2) as having six wings; and Ezekiel describes the ḥayyot (Ezek. i. 5 et seq.) and ofanim as heavenly beings who carry God's throne.
In post-Biblical times the heavenly hosts became more highly organized (possibly as early as Zechariah [iii. 9, iv. 10]; certainly in Daniel), and there came to be various kinds of angels; some even being provided with names, as will be shown below.
In the Bible, angels are the medium of God's power; they exist to execute God's will. Angels reveal themselves to individuals as well as to the whole nation, in order to announce events, either good or bad, affecting them. Angels foretold to Abraham the birth of Isaac, to Manoah the birth of Samson, and to Abraham the destruction of Sodom. Guardian angels were mentioned, but not, as was later the case, as guardian spirits of individuals and nations. God sent an angel to protect the Hebrew people after their exodus from Egypt, to lead them to the promised land, and to destroy the hostile tribes in their way (Ex. xxiii. 20, Num. xx. 16).
In Judges (ii. 1) an angel of the Lord—unless here and in the preceding instances (compare Isa. xlii. 19, Ḥag. i. 13, Mal. iii. 1) a human messenger of God is meant—addressed the whole people, swearing to bring them to the promised land. An angel brought Elijah meat and drink (I Kings, xix. 5); and as God watched over Jacob, so is every pious person protected by an angel who cares for him in all his ways (Ps. xxxiv. 7, xci. 11). There are angels militant, one of whom smites in one night the whole Assyrian army of 185,000 men (II Kings, xix. 35); messengers go forth from God "in ships to make the careless Ethiopians afraid" (Ezek. xxx. 9); the enemy is scattered before the angel like chaff (Ps. xxxv. 5, 6).
Avenging angels are mentioned, such as the one in II Sam. xxiv. 15, who annihilates thousands. It would seem that the pestilence was personified, and that the "evil angels" mentioned in Ps. lxxviii. 49 are to be regarded as personifications of this kind. "Evil" is here to be taken in the causative sense, as "producing evil"; for, as stated above, angels are generally considered to be by nature beneficent to man. They glorify God, whence the term "glorifying angels" (Ps. xxix. 1, ciii. 20, cxlviii. 2; compare Isa. vi. 2 et seq.).
They constitute God's court, sitting in council with him (I Kings, xxii. 19; Job, i. 6, ii. 1); hence they are called His "council of the holy ones" (Ps. lxxxix. 7, R. V.; A. V. "assembly of the saints"). They accompany God as His attendants when He appears to man (Deut. xxxiii. 2; Job, xxxviii. 7). This conception was developed after the Exile; and in Zechariah angels of various shapes are delegated "to walk to and fro through the earth" in order to find out and report what happens (Zech. vi. 7).
In the prophetic books angels appear as representatives of the prophetic spirit, and bring to the prophets God's word. Thus the prophet Haggai was called God's messenger (angel); and it is known that "Malachi" is not a real name, but means "messenger" or "angel". It is noteworthy that in I Kings, xiii. 18, an angel brought the divine word to the prophet.
In some places it is implied that angels existed before the Creation (Gen. i. 26; Job, xxxviii. 7). The earlier Biblical writings did not speculate about them; simply regarding them, in their relations to man, as God's agents. Consequently, they did not individualize or denominate them; and in Judges, xiii. 18, and Gen. xxxii. 30, the angels, when questioned, refuse to give their names. In Daniel, however, there occur the names Michael and Gabriel. Michael is Israel's representative in heaven, where other nations—the Persians, for instance—were also represented by angelic princes. More than three hundred years before the Book of Daniel was written, Zechariah graded the angels according to their rank, but did not name them. The notion of the seven eyes (Zech. iii. 9, iv. 10) may have been affected by the representation of the seven archangels and also possibly by the seven amshaspands of Zoroastrianism (compare Ezek. ix. 2).
Angels appear in several Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) stories, in addition to the ones previously mentioned above. These include the warning to Lot of the imminent destruction of Sodom. Many Bible chapters mention an "angry God" who sends His angel to smite the enemies of the Israelites. Traditional Jewish biblical commentators have a variety of ways of explaining what an angel is. The earliest Biblical books present angels as heavenly beings created by God, some of whom apparently are endowed with free will. Later biblical books in the Tanakh present a stunningly different view of angels, as Jewish thought and understanding of such things developed over the many years covered in the Bible. Such a differing perspective on angels is discovered in the Book of Ezekiel, where these angels bear no relation whatsoever to the former understanding of what an angel was.
The archangels named in post-exile Judaism are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Raguel, Sariel, and Jerahmeel. Gabriel and Michael are mentioned in the book of Daniel, Raphael in the book of Tobit (from the Protestant Apocrypha or Catholic and Orthodox Deuterocanon) and the remaining four in the book of Enoch from the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox).
Maimonides and rationalism
In the Middle Ages, some Jews developed a rationalist view of angels that is still accepted by many Jews today. The rationalist view of angels, as held by Maimonides, Gersonides, Samuel Ibn Tibbon , etc., states that God's actions are never mediated by a violation of the laws of nature. Rather, all such interactions are by way of angels. Even this can be highly misleading: Maimonides harshly states that the average person's understanding of the term "angel" is ignorant in the extreme. Instead, he says, the wise man sees that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as "angels" are actually metaphors for the various laws of nature, or the principles by which the physical universe operates, or kinds of platonic eternal forms. This is explained in his Guide of the Perplexed II:4 and II:6.
- "...This leads Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that God, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. God burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the 'angels which are near to Him', through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move....thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from God and are the intermediaries between God and all the bodies [objects] here in this world."
- "...Aristotle's doctrine that these disembodied spheres serve as the nexus between God and existence, by whose mediation the sphere are brought into motion, which is the cause of all becoming, is the express import of all the Scriptures. For you will never in Scripture any activity done by God except through an angel. And "angel", as you know, means messenger. Thus anything which executes a command is an angel. So the motions of living beings, even those that are inarticulate, are said explicitly by Scripture to be due to angels.
- ...Our argument here is concerned solely with those "angels" which are disembodied intellects. For our Bible is not unaware that God governs this existence through the mediation of angels...(Maimonides then quotes discussions of angels from Genesis, Plato, and Midrash Bereshit Rabbah)...the import in all these texts is not—as a primitive mentality would suppose—to suggest any discussion or planning or seeking of advice on God's part. How could the Creator receive aid from the object of his creation? The real import of all is to proclaim that existence—including particular individuals and even the formation of the parts of animals such as they are—is brought about entirely through the mediation of angels.
- For all forces are angels! How blind, how perniciously blind are the naïve?! If you told someone who purports to be a sage of Israel that the Deity sends an angel who enters a woman's womb and there forms an embryo, he would think this a miracle and accept it as a mark of the majesty and power of the Deity—despite the fact that he believes an angel to be a body of fire one third the size of the entire world. All this, he thinks, is possible for God. But if you tell him that God placed in the sperm the power of forming and demarcating these organs, and that this is the angel, or that all forms are produced by the Active Intellect—that here is the angel, the "vice-regent of the world" constantly mentioned by the sages—then he will recoil. For he [the naïve person] does not understand that the true majesty and power are in the bringing into being of forces which are active in a thing although they cannot be perceived by the senses.
- The sages of blessed memory state clearly—to those who are wise themselves—that every bodily power (not to mention forces at large in the world) is an angel and that a given power has one effect and no more. It says in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah "We are given to understand that no angel performs two missions, nor do two angels perform one mission."—which is just the case with all forces. To confirm the conclusion that individual physical and psychological forces are called "angels", there is the dictum of the sages, in a number of places, ultimately derived from Bereshit Rabbah, "Each day the Holy One creates a band of angels who sing their song before him and go their way." Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, LXXVIII. When this midrash was countered with another which suggests that angels are permanent...the answer given was that some are permanent and other perish. And this is in fact the case. Particular forces come to be and pass away in constant succession; the species of such forces, however, are stable and enduring....[Giving a few more examples of the mention of angels in rabbinic writings, Maimonides says] Thus the Sages reveal to the aware that the imaginative faculty is also called an angel; and the mind is called a cherub. How beautiful this will appear to the sophisticated mind—and how disturbing to the primitive."
One can perhaps say that Maimonides thus presents a virtual rejection of the "classical" Jewish view of miracles; he and others substitute a rationalism that seems more appropriate for 20th and 21st century religious rationalists.
Others might perhaps view Maimonides's statements as being perfectly in keeping with the continued evolvement of Jewish thought over a period of several millennia.
In the New Testament angels appear frequently as the ministers of God and the agents of revelation (E.g. Matt. 1:20 (to Joseph), 4:11. (to Jesus), Luke 1:26 (to Mary), Acts 12:7 (to Peter)); and Our Lord speaks of angels as fulfilling such functions (E.g. Mark 8:38, 13:27), implying in one saying that they neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). Naturally angels are most prominent in the Apocalypse. The New Testament takes little interest in the idea of the angelic hierarchy, but there are traces of the doctrine. The distinction of good and bad angels is recognized; we have names, Gabriel (Luke 1:19), and the evil angels Abaddon or Apollyon (Rev. 9:11), Beelzebub (Mark 3:22) and Satan (Mark 1:13); ranks are implied, archangels (Michael, Jude 9), principalities and powers (Rom. 8:38; Col. 2:10), thrones and dominions (Col 1:16). Angels occur in groups of four or seven (Rev 7:1). In Rev. 1-3. we meet with the "Angels" of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. These are probably guardian angels, standing to the churches in the same relation that the "princes" in Daniel stand to the nations; practically the "angels" are personifications of the churches. A less likely view is that the "angels" are the human representatives of the churches, the bishops or chief presbyters. There seems, however, no parallel to such a use of "angel", and it is doubtful whether the monarchical government of churches was fully developed when the Apocalypse was written.
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the traditional role of messenger to inform her that her child would be the Messiah, and other angels were present to herald his birth. An angel appeared at Jesus' tomb, frightened the Roman guards, rolled away the stone from the tomb, and later told the myrrh-bearing women of Jesus' resurrection. Two angels witnessed Jesus' ascent into Heaven and prophesied his return. When Peter was imprisoned, an angel put his guards to sleep, released him from his chains, and led him out of the prison. Angels fill a number of different roles in the book of Revelation. Among other things, they are seen gathered around the Throne of God singing the thrice-holy hymn.
An interpretation of the angels in the gospels is that angels are simply humans carrying a divine message. Indeed, the term angel frequently appears to describe not beings of power, but simply announcers of events.
Angels are frequently depicted as human in appearance, though many theologians have argued that they have no physical existence. (Hence the frequently recounted tale of Scholastics arguing about how many angels could fit on a pinhead; if angels possess physical bodies, the answer is "at most a finite number", if they do not, then we rule out any finite number greater than zero as the answer.) Seraphim are often depicted as six wings radiating from a center — either concealing a body, or without a body. Starting with the end of the 4th century, angels were depicted with wings, presumably to give an easy explanation for them travelling to and from heaven. Scholastic theologians teach that angels are able to reason instantly, and to move instantly. They also teach that angels are intermediaries to some forces that would otherwise be natural forces of the universe, such as the rotation of planets and the motion of stars. Angels possess the beatific vision, or the unencumbered understanding of God (the essence of the pleasure of heaven). Furthermore, there are more angels than there are anything else in the universe (although when first written this would have probably not included atoms since atomic structure was not known).
Religious thought about the angels during the middle ages was much influenced by the theory of the angelic hierarchy set forth in the De Hierarchia Celesti, written in the 5th century in the name of Dionysius the Areopagite and passing for his. The creeds and confessions do not formulate any authoritative doctrine of angels; and modern rationalism has tended to deny the existence of such beings, or to regard the subject as one on which we can have no certain knowledge. The principle of continuity, however, seems to require the existence of beings intermediate between man and God.
Some Christian traditions hold that angels are organized into three major Hierarchies which are subdivided into orders Choirs, and list as many as ten orders of angels. This is particularly clear in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an unknown 5th century author whose work The Celestial Hierarchy gives the names that have become part of tradition: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. In this hierarchy, the Cherubim and Seraphim are typically closest to God, while the Angels and Archangels are most active in human affairs. Many of these names come from verses in the bible which would appear at first to be referencing a literal thing, although retroactively suggesting that they really mention angels can also make sense in the context. For example the verse in Paul "our struggle is not with earthly things but with principalities and powers" (meaning according to most theologians the fallen angels of those choirs, used as an example of all the fallen angels).
Some Christian traditions also hold that angels play a variety of specific roles in the lives of believers. For instance, each Christian may be assigned a guardian angel at their baptism (although never defined by the Catholic or Orthodox churches, nevertheless it is personally held by many church members and most theologians). Each consecrated altar has at least one angel always present offering up prayers, and a number of angels join the congregation when they meet to pray. In the story of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, in which 40 Christian Roman soldiers were made to stand naked on a frozen lake in the snow until they renounced their faith, angels were seen descending from Heaven placing the crowns of martyrs on their heads.
Certain Christian traditions, especially the Reformed tradition within Protestantism hold that references to the "Angel of the Lord" are references to pre-Incarnation appearances of Jesus.
Some medieval Christian philosophers were influenced by the views of Maimonides, and accepted his view of angels. Today, these views of angels are still technically acceptable within many mainstream Christian denominations. However, for all practical purposes most Christian lay people know little or nothing of these views, and do not accept them.
Satan and the demons are thought by Christians to be angels who rebelled against God and where expelled from Heaven.
In many informal folk beliefs among Christians concerning the afterlife, the souls of the virtuous dead ascend into Heaven to be converted into angels. However, this belief is not supported by scripture.
A belief in angels is central to the religion of Islam, beginning with the belief that the Qur'an was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.
In Islam, angels are beings created from light. They are completely devoted to the worship of God, their creator.
The chief of all the archangels is Gabriel (Jibril); Michael (Mikal) comes next; Sarafiel (Israfil) sounds the trumpet of the resurrection; and Izrael is the angel of death (the etymology of the last name is obscure). Instead of four, there are eight angels that support the throne of God (sura lxix. § 17). Some angels have two, some three, others four wings (sura xxxv. § 2). "They celebrate the praise of their Lord and ask forgiveness for those that are on earth" (sura xlii. § 2). "Each man hath a succession of angels before and behind him" (sura xiii. § 12). The angel who has charge of hell is Malik. Hell has seven doors (sura xv. § 44).
Nineteen angels are set over the fire (sura lxxiv. §§ 30-31). Munkar and Nakir are the angels that interrogate the dead; and another angel, Ruman, makes each man write down his deeds.
Angels are also a part of Zoroastrianism and New Age beliefs. In Hindu pantheology and some New Age beliefs, they can be interpreted as gandharvas, apsaras, dakini or, in general, devas.
Aleister Crowley, who some call the Prophet of the New Aeon, tried to teach people to attain what he called "the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel". Within the system of Thelema, the Holy Guardian Angel is representitive of one’s truest divine nature. The term is equivilent with the Genius of the Golden Dawn, the Augoeides of Iamblichus, the Atman of Hinduism, and the Daemon of the gnostics.
According to most Thelemites, the single most important goal is to consciously connect with one’s HGA, a process termed “Knowledge and Conversation.” By doing so, the magician becomes fully aware of his own True Will. For Crowley, this event was the single most important goal of any adept:
- It should never be forgotten for a single moment that the central and essential work of the Magician is the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. Once he has achieved this he must of course be left entirely in the hands of that Angel, who can be invariably and inevitably relied upon to lead him to the further great step—crossing of the Abyss and the attainment of the grade of Master of the Temple. (Magick Without Tears, Ch.83)
Crowley felt that attaining Knowledge and Conversation was so important, that he staked the claim that any other magical operation was, in a sense, evil. In Book 4 (Ch. 21) he explains:
- As was said at the opening of the second chapter, the Single Supreme Ritual is the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. It is the raising of the complete man in a vertical straight line...Any other operation is black magic...If the magician needs to perform any other operation than this, it is only lawful in so far as it is a necessary preliminary to That One Work.
He then softens his position somewhat:
- There are, however many shades of grey. It is not every magician who is well armed with theory. Perhaps one such may invoke Jupiter, with the wish to heal others of their physical ills. This sort of thing is harmless, or almost so. It is not evil in itself. It arises from a defect of understanding. Until the Great Work has been performed, it is presumptuous for the magician to pretend to understand the universe, and dictate its policy.
Named angels and archangels