Angels—What are They?

To most people, an “angel” is a catchall word for all spirit beings living in God’s heavenly realm. In reality, there are several different kinds of beings besides angels, but since this article is basically an introduction to the subject of Judeo-Christian angelology, angels are what we will focus upon.

What are angels, anyway—spirits of dead people, their ghosts, or souls? The true answer to that question is complex, but we can make some simple comparisons with humans to obtain an overview. The Bible says humans were created a “little lower” than the angels (Psalm 8:5), but unlike us who live in a physical universe here on earth, the angels are nonphysical spirit beings (Hebrews 1:14) that are otherworldly and live in a heaven, universe, realm, or dimension that is invisible to us.

Like us, they were created by God (Nehemiah 9:6), but they are of a different nature, so weren’t designed to reproduce (Matthew 22:30) like us. They were all created individually in the ancient past before earth was established (Colossians 1:16), therefore they are not the souls or spirits of dead humans (Ecclesiastes 9:10), as most people imagine they are. When we die, we do not go up to heaven (or down to hell) as an angel.

Angels are more powerful and smarter than we are and have more abilities, too. For instance, they have the ability to manifest themselves as humans (Genesis 19:1) if needed, and can move between their realm and earth. They were created to have individual personalities like us and, just as in our own human governments and organizations, there is also a hierarchy in heaven for its angels, indicating differing levels, ranks, jobs, and positions.

“The most influential Christian angelic hierarchy was that put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite1 of Athens in the 4th or 5th century in his book . . . On the Celestial Hierarchy. Dionysius described nine levels of spiritual beings which he grouped into three orders.”2 The higher ranks have greater power and authority over the lower ranks.

Like humans, God created them in his image, which means they have similar mental, moral and social attributes and characteristics. It also means they have free will and can choose between right and wrong (Jude 1:6), therefore they can sin, too. As sinful humans we die, but the Bible says angels cannot die (Luke 20:36).

Wait a minute! The Bible also says that evil angels will be thrown into a lake of fire and it specifically states that the devil will be destroyed,3 so why is there a contradiction? Well, the Greek word translated as “die”4 means, figuratively and literally, to “die off” as in passing away naturally, as from old age, or “lie a-dying” as from injury or sickness. But God, who can do anything, will eventually eliminate evil spirits, which means having them or their powers terminated, separated, removed, made inactive, rendered useless, or changed into something else.

Jesus, as a human while on earth, is an example of someone having their eternal life removed. Had he not been killed, he would have lived as a human forever. There is a very important difference between immortal life (indestructible) and eternal life (destructible). God is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16), but angels are not.

Let’s face it, when humans were created they were designed to have everlasting life, too. But, because of disobeying God’s command, sin entered into the world and because of this sin, we die. (See References & Notes for an article about how this happened and how it will be corrected).5

The Truth has Not been Taught.

Angels are not ghosts—the fact is, we can’t see angels unless they take the full form and functions of a human, and even then we may not even know of them, for as the Bible states, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Hebrews 13:2, NLT). There are many instances of angels interacting with humans in personal contact (for examples, see: Genesis 16:7-14; Genesis 19:1-22; Numbers 22:31-35; Joshua 5:13-15; Zechariah 2:3).

“For centuries, artists have portrayed angels as beautiful humans with wings and glowing light, complete with halos, harps, and flowing white gowns . . . Angels have inspired all sorts of imaginative stories and depictions . . . .”6 Nearly all is untrue, and although many angels, in books, movies and television, have been envisioned as women, in reality all depicted in the Bible are men. “Every reference to angels in the Bible uses the masculine gender. An angel is always a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she’ or an ‘it.’ In addition, the Greek word for ‘angel’ in the New Testament is angelos, itself a masculine noun. A feminine form of this word does not exist.”7

The fact of gender should not matter, because angels are not human. Even so, can they make their appearance as human females? Some scholars say yes, most say no. I would guess, yes. I believe angels could display either male or female personas, but that is only speculation.

There is, however, one instance that could help you decide for yourself. For example, let’s take a couple of verses in Zechariah into consideration: “Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. Then I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘Where are they taking the basket?’ He said to me, ‘To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base,’” (Zechariah 5:9–11, ESV).8 Of course, they may not have been angels, but something else entirely (angels generally don’t have wings). Also, “a curious Talmudic legend has it that the cherubim in Solomon’s Temple were in the form of male and female,”9 but cherubim may not be angels, either (as we will see).

A Few Types of Angels

As mentioned, there is a hierarchy of type, rank, power, and function; regular angel, archangel, fallen angel, watcher, and the satan are but a few. The regular or plain angels, for a lack of better description, are the envoys or messengers. They are the couriers of communications to humanity and they sometimes act as a personal or guardian angel to us. The archangel is a chief angel ranking first in power and leadership and there is only one identified as such, in the standard Christian Bible. He is named Michael and appears to be a warrior (Revelation 12:7). Some consider Gabriel as an archangel, but there is no direct support for this idea. In some apocryphal books of the Bible, other names are mentioned.

The cherubim (or cherubs; singular = cherub) are the creatures that sometimes appear as cute children or chubby babies with wings in the art world. Although thought by many as angels, some scholars say they are not really angels, and are never called by that term in the Bible.10 These creatures are important, as noted by being depicted on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant and for guarding the garden in Eden with a flaming sword. Ezekiel mentions that they have multiple faces, hands, and wings.11

The watchers are angels that protect God’s creations on earth. They are mentioned in Daniel 4 and some are also described as fallen angels in the apocryphal book of Enoch12 and are thought by some to be those mentioned as having had intercourse with the women of earth in Genesis 6.13 And then, there is the satan (more commonly called Satan or devil), the original fallen angel, who “decided that he would lead a rebellion against God so he could take God’s place as the ruler of all creation. The Bible says, “You said in your heart . . . ‘I will make myself like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:13-14, NIV).14 Satan is sometimes called Lucifer, an inaccurate but popular term.15

Angels Attend the Divine Council

Within the heaven full of angels is an organized body, indicating God has a heavenly host or divine council that convenes to govern and rule his creations and their activities. They discuss things and make plans and carry out important decisions; evidence of this is in several places in the Bible. Here are a few of the examples.

“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, ‘From where have you come?’ Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it,’” (Job 1:9–7).

“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgement,” (Psalm 82:1).

“I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so,’” (1 Kings 19–22).

The way it will be.

After creating angels, creating humans on earth wasn’t just an afterthought of God—it is part of his overall plan. He wants an integrated system of life which includes interaction of all his creatures, and incorporates angels and humans in service to him in heaven and earth. But the Bible teaches us that we will not travel up to heaven, but that heaven will come down to us. Our future is right here on this physical planet as it has always been.

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,’” (Revelation 21:2-4).

P.S. (27 July 2019): This ‘new Jerusalem’ promise will come true, in the not-to-distant future, just as all other promises made by God have been. After publishing this article I thought I should have added a reference to this old gospel song filled with hope and faith of that glorious coming day. (See References & Notes for a link to a video.)16

Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
OutlawBibleStudent.org

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References & Notes

  1. Areopagite: Member of the supreme tribunal (the Areopagus) of Athens, Greece. Dionysius was a Christian theologian and philosopher.
    “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 18 July 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudo-Dionysius_the_Areopagite
  2. “Christian angelology,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 June 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_angelology
  3. Strong’s Greek word #2673, καταργέω, katargĕō, to be (render) entirely idle (useless), abolish, cease, destroy, bring to nought, make void.
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
  4. Strong’s Greek word #599, apŏthnēskō, ἀποθνήσκω, figuratively and literally, to “die off” or “lie a-dying.”
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (see above).
  5. Hermann, Ray, “What Do You Mean, ‘Christ Died for Our Sins?’” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 31 December 2017), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-do-you-mean-christ-died-for-our-sins/
  6. Grudem, Wayne, “Angels in the Bible: What Do We Actually Know About Them?” (Zondervan Academic, 13 December 2017), https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/biblical-facts-angels
  7. “Are all angels male or are some female?” (Compelling Truth, retrieved 22 July 2019), https://www.compellingtruth.org/angels-male-female.html
  8. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. The text has been used by permission. All rights reserved.
  9. Jacobs, Louis, “Cherubim,” (My Jewish Learning, retrieved 23 July 2019), https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/cherubim/
  10. Heiser, Michael, Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the Unseen World—and Why it Matters, (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2015), p. 18.
  11. “Christian angelology,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 June 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_angelology
  12. “Watcher (angel),” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 17 July 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watcher_(angel)
  13. Hermann, Ray, “When the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind — the story of the Nephilim,” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 9 December 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/when-the-sons-of-god-were-having-sexual-relations-with-the-daughters-of-humankind-the-story-of-the-nephilim/
  14. Graham, Billy, “Angels, Satan,” (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 29 November 2012), https://billygraham.org/answer/who-is-satan-is-he-a-fallen-angel/
  15. Hermann, Ray, “Satan, the Devil, and Lucifer: are they one and the same?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 9 June 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/satan-the-devil-and-lucifer-are-they-one-and-the-same
  16. Hill, Jim (featured), “What a Day That Will Be,” video at Fiddler’s Grove, Lebanon, TN, (from album: Homecoming Picnic Album, Gaither Music Group, © 2008), VIDEO – http://vevo.ly/8aYqn5
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10 thoughts on “Angels—What are They?”

  1. Good post but you stated that Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite lived in the fourth or fifth century but I read once it was later. How do we know what is right?

    • Thanks for taking the time to read this article and asking your question. Unless you were doing serious research into his writings and wanting to compare them with others of his time, it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference trying to pin down his life span. But…

      His time on earth is mostly a guess by authors writing about him. I used that range because I was quoting an author that used that range. I’ve seen dates ranging between the 4th into the 8th century. The best guess, I think, is made at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which states “(fl. c. 650—c. 725 C.E.)”. https://www.iep.utm.edu/pseudodi/

    • Thank you for your visit to our website and making a comment. Yes, you are correct—the seraphim are heavenly beings, or angels. My article is only an overview and did not include all types (there are many). Seraphim, an angelic choir, are mentioned in Isaiah 6:3 where they worship God singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (NRSV).

  2. Thanks again Ray for another great article. If it wasn’t for you and this great website my Biblical knowledge would have stayed at a halt.

    I had no idea that the Bible had all this information about angels. To me, the Bible is “hard to read” and as I hear ministers and other people shell out their memorized Scripture verses, seldom do they make any sense to me.

    • Your kind words are appreciated and I am happy you find this website of value.

      You are correct in that many pastors don’t take the time to research the Bible and gather enough information to build a concise educational picture of a particular subject. If they quote some scripture they feel their job is done, even if it is taken out of context.

  3. I enjoyed this post and learned a lot I didn’t know, but it didn’t mentioned how many angels are there? Is there any way to figure that out?

    • Thanks for reading the article. Concerning how many angels there may be in God’s heaven, Revelation 5:11, in the ESV version, states “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” The Greek word for “myriad” means tens of thousands, therefore myriads of myriads would be 10,000 x 10,000, plus thousands of thousands more, so it would be a very large number of angels.

  4. Thank you Ray, this is certainly insightful. While there are points that I disagree with, I don’t imagine that any of us can say for certain what has and will happen.

    Your post intrigued me in large part because a good friend of mine and I wrote a movie script addressing points in this very topic. It’s not something that we’re actively pushing, but may come to light down the road.

    I came to your page and am writing you for a separate but related reason, faith. It’s been about ten years since I began this journey and I hope that it’s finally coming to a head. Over the past decade I’ve lost everything that I was once familiar with and cherished, but it’s been replaced with a sense of purpose.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read this article and for sharing your opinion. It is appreciated. Any bible-based information is valuable to our God, in one way or another, so I hope you get to see your movie script evolve into a finished film.

      By the way, that is a cool piece of artwork you have (War of Angels).

      You have an interesting story behind your present state in life. I pray that your final destination will be one that pleases both you and God.

      I enjoyed looking at the photos and one stood out—it was of the glass marked “I ♥ NO”. I was born and raised in New Orleans. So to quote one of my favorite New Orleans singer’s (Aaron Neville) attitude where he vents his past life filled with hard times but, with God’s assurance, he accepts that past and moves on: “God said, ‘I forgive you, wipe away the scars ‘cause I know it took who you were and where you came from, to make you who you are.’”

      (See: “Looking at Life Through a Rear View Mirror,” https://outlawbiblestudent.org/looking-at-life-through-a-rear-view-mirror/).

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