By Clete Hux
Angels. According to Christian belief, these are spiritual, immortal creatures that serve as intermediaries between God and humans. They live in heaven but can be sent to earth by God for special service. The word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos and also translates the Hebrew malak. Both words mean “messenger.” The Bible describes angels as making known and executing the purposes of God in the spiritual realm (Lk. 1:11; Ps. 104:4; Mt. 4:6; Rev. 16:1).
Classification of Angels in Christianity.
Even though the word angel appears nearly three hundred times in English translations of the Bible, other words also refer to these messengers. These words are used often to classify angles and delineate their duties.
Ministering Spirits. The word for minister in the Greek, leitourgos, and the Hebrew mishrathim both designate a priest or person with religious duties (Heb. 8:2; Phil. 2:25; Rom. 15:16; I Ki. 8:11; 2 Ki. 4:43), and are used of angels (Ps. 104:4) as those who minister for God in spiritual service.
Heavenly Host. The Hebrew sava is used for angels in connection with God’s heavenly army. In Psalm 103:20-21, the malakim and mishrathim are called sava, and are called upon to bless the Lord. The sava are an extension of God’s power and providence, accomplishing his will and doing battle for him as a military force. God Himself, Yahweh of Hosts, is the sovereign commander of this great heavenly army who does His will in both heaven and earth.
Watchers. This term designates angels employed by God to carry out his will in directing human government (Dan. 4:13,17). As God is in sovereign control of his creation, he may use such watchers to effect decision-making and execute his decrees in the world’s affairs.
Sons of God. The Hebrew idiom bene elohim is used of angels as belonging to a class of powerful beings closely associated with God. As a family or class they are “sons of Elohim” as in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; possibly Genesis 6:2,4. The term pictures angels as a supernatural class of beings similar in nature to God (i.e., beings of spirit) though inferior to him.
Chariots of God. These are part of God’s heavenly host or army. In Ps. 68:17, these intervened to enable victory for Israel when kings and armies opposed them. It is also used in 2 Kings 6:16-17, when Elisha and his servant were protected by an angelic force of horses and chariots. Zechariah described these as “four spirits of the heavens, which go forth standing before the Lord of all the world” (Zech. 6:5).
Stars. “Stars” symbolizes the heavenly nature and abode of angels, comparing angels to stars as heavenly creations that reflect God’s omniscience and power (Ps. 148:1-5). Both angels and stars are called “the hosts of heaven” (Ps. 33:6; 1 Kings 22:19; Deut. 4:19; 17:3). For angels to be called stars in Scripture is to speak symbolically of spirits created by God.
Holy Ones. A translation from the Hebrew kadoshim, meaning “set apart to God,” as in Ps. 89:6-7. “Holy ones” is understood as referring to angels. Other passages using the same expression include Job 5:1; 15:15; Dan. 8:13 and Zechariah 14:5, reflecting the holy character and activities of angels devoted to God.
Cherubim. This is the plural form of the Hebrew cherub, describing special orders or classes of angels that have great power and beauty, beyond human imagination. After humanity was removed from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24), cherubim were placed by God at the garden’s gate with flaming swords to protect the way to the tree of life, lest sinful human beings should partake of it. Figures of cherubim are associated with the tabernacle (Ex. 25:17-22; Heb. 9:5) and are important symbols of the Mosaic worship. They also represented with human features like faces and hands, but also are seen as having wings. Though cherubim are considered a class of angels, they are never termed “angels,” possibly because of the non-revelatory nature of their duty. Instead of being messengers, they seem to be protectors of God’s glorious presence, his sovereignty, and his holiness (Ps. 80:1; 99:1).
Seraphim. From the Hebrew word meaning “burning ones.” It likely refers to their devotion to God rather than their outward appearance. They are represented as having human features such as faces, hands, and feet, as are the cherubim. They also have six wings, two of which cover their faces indicating that no creature can look at God; two wings cover that their feet, showing that the ground before God and His things are holy; and the other two wings that allow them to fly showing their readiness and speed to obey God’s commands. In Isa. 6:3 the seraphim cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This passage appropriately displays the seraphim’s devotion and desire to forever praise the perfect holiness of God. It represents a priestly service to God which calls attention to His holy standard, which demands the holiness of anyone who approaches God, just as Isaiah’s lips had to be cleansed before speaking God’s word to human beings (Is. 6: 5-9).
Angels in Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), though it professes to be the only true Christian church, denies many of the essentials of the Christian faith. The angel Moroni supposedly showed Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the LDS Church, where gold plates could be found that contained the Book of Mormon. According to LDS theology, the term angel normally refers to a heavenly messenger who has a body of flesh and bones (either by having already been resurrected or by being “translated” to heaven without dying). Thus Moroni is identified as the final human author of the Book of Mormon, who lived in the Americas in the early fifth century AD. Joseph Smith also claimed that various biblical figures appeared to him as agnels, such as John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Moses and Elijah.
Angels in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A notable doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that Jesus Christ is not the one true Jehovah God, but is instead a spirit creature known as Michael the Archangel. In false religions and pseudo-Christian groups where Christ is dethroned and the Bible is either disregarded or added to, there is evidence of doctrines of demons (I Tim. 4:1,2) and deception that lead people away.
Angels in Other Religions Just as there are angels in the Christian religion, they, or their functional equivalent, are also part of other religions. In many religions, there is no concept that is strictly identified with the Christian view of angels. Nevertheless, most religions have at least a belief in “spirit” beings that are analogous to the Christian idea of angels.
African Traditional Religion. On the surface, African traditional religion (ATR) is monotheistic, but many tribes recognize various gods subordinate to the one supreme God who is known by different names in different tribes. For most ATR practitioners, the concept of God is vague or irrelevant to their daily lives. Their religious practice is more or less animistic. There are two types of spirits in animism: nature spirits and ancestor spirits. The latter receives the most attention in ATR. In some tribes, wayward nature spirits may actually be neglected ancestor spirits. Accordingly, such spirits can be responsible for illnesses, which may require the use of a medicine man or witch doctor for healing.
Native American Religion. Native American religion (NAR) is often viewed as monotheistic, referring to God as the Great Spirit. However, in traditional religious practice, NAR focused on nature spirits for the most part. Such were/are said to inhabit all things – objects, animals, and so on – and to be sacred. There are wind spirits, thunder spirits, and spirits for the bear, buffalo and the moon. As with ATR, NAR uses shamans to appease different spirits if they present themselves as evil.
Hinduism. Hindu worship of gods, goddesses, and other spirit beings varies based on locale, provincial custom, and, to a lesser extent, caste tradition. Animistic spirit-worship is incorporated into religious life. Spirits of departed ones are often provided for and honored. However, demon spirits, which can cause disease and disasters must be appeased to prevent them from causing harm.
Islam. The beliefs of orthodox Islam concerning angels are similar to those of Judaism and Christianity, and it is incumbent upon the Muslims to believe in their existence. This similarly probably relates to Muhammad’s borrowing of Jewish and Christian perspectives in forming Islam. Four archangels are acknowledged: Gabriel, the messenger of revelation who brought such to the prophet Muhammad; Michael, guardian of the Jews; Israfil, the summoner to resurrection; and Izra’il, the messenger of death. Beyond these, Muslims also believe there are an indefinite number of ordinary angels.
These include two recording angels for every person. One angel on the right of every person records the good deeds of that person, while the angel on the left of every person records the bad deeds. Animistic beliefs in Islam regarding jinn are common as well. These are good and bad spirits that make up these spirit creatures. It is believed that the good spirits help in the religious performance of Muslims. It is also believed that with the coming of Jesus and Muhammad that the bad jinn or disbelieving jinn have been cast out of the various levels of heaven, though they are believed to eavesdrop from time to time in the lowest levels of heaven. It is also believed that Muhammad allowed spells, using of the names of God and of good angels, to ward off evil jinn.
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This article appears in The Evangelical Dictionary of World Religions by H. Wayne House, Baker Books, 2018.