The daughter of a friend of mine asked me some years ago if, for her class project, I could answer some questions about the angels. She sent me twenty-six questions. And very intelligent questions they were. Some were not so easy to answer. I did answer all of her questions, twenty-four pages, single-spaced. I thought that over the next few months I would share now and then some of these Q&A’s with you. Here’s a good place to start.
Question: Can the existence of angels be known from human reason or did it have to be revealed in holy scripture?
Interesting question. I would have to say that although the existence of angels is a very “reasonable” doctrine, nevertheless, their existence cannot be ascertained from reason alone. Plato and Aristotle believed in one Eternal God, but neither mentions any species of immaterial beings, unless one takes Plato’s doctrine of the pre-existence of souls as a kind of angelism. However, in this scenario, men would be angels trapped in a material body. This is actually the doctrine Plato espoused, only he didn’t call the soul a “spirit,” he used the Greek word pseuche, which means “soul,” rather than pneuma, which means “spirit.”
Although there is no rational proof for the existence of angels — as there is for God — it is reasonable to argue that in the scale of being, from mineral to plant to animal to rational animal (man) to God, there is a type of possible being missing between the composite creature, which is man, and the uncreated and uncomposed (simple) infinite Spirit, who is God. That is to say, since man is a composite of spirit and matter and God is an uncomposed, immaterial, and infinite pure Spirit, then reason could argue that there should be finite, immaterial, and intelligent creatures that are not simple, but composed pure spirits. Composed of what, you ask? The composition in an angel is not that of parts outside of parts, as in the circumscription of all material bodies (including the tiniest atom), but it is that of essence and existence, and intellection and volition. Only God is perfectly one. His essence is “to exist” and His knowing is His willing (within His own Trinitarian life, that is). The existence of finite spirits would complete the universe, so to speak. There would be no other possible grade of being. Of course, it must be affirmed that the Being of God is infinitely superior to the being of the highest created intelligence. It is only by analogy that the word “being” can be applied to both God and His creation.
It is a dogma of faith that the existence of God, as First Cause and Creator, can be known from the powers of reason. Vatican I defined this infallibly. However, the doctrine of creation from “nothing” could not be known from reason alone. That truth is above the reach of reason and it had to be revealed by God. The concept of a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), was unique to the Hebrews, and it is revealed, as you know, in the Genesis account of creation. Angels, on the other hand, are not mentioned in the creation account of Genesis. They first appear — or “Satan” does in the form of a serpent — in the account of the Fall. The first time angels are specifically mentioned is in the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise: two cherubim with flaming swords are sent to guard the entrance to the garden of Eden so that no man might re-enter it.
The generic word “angel” first appears in the story of Abraham. Thereafter, angels appear throughout the Old Testament. They are praised in the Psalms as well. As you well know angels are frequently active players in the scenes from the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Apocalypse. Too, Saint Paul often mentions them, and almost all their nine choirs, in his Epistles. If you take the fourteen Epistles of Saint Paul and the two of Saint Peter alone, these refer to all but two of the nine choirs: the cherubim and seraphim.
It is not by accident that all the pagan religions have had some kind of a belief in angels or spirits. Often it degenerated into a polytheistic mythology, giving them their multi-talented and multi-nefarious deities, but we must know that the original revelation, as it was given to the Hebrews (and is clearly revealed in the Old Testament books), provided the foundation for whatever truths the pagans did have about the celestial spirits and their interaction with man. These true beliefs, originally held in the most ancient times, became corrupted, as did monotheism and the moral law written on every man’s heart.
It is hardly known today that in Noe’s time false religion was manifested not in the worship of graven idols, but in forms of astrology, worshipping the heavens, and a loss of justice and purity. It was long after the universal flood, however (3000 BC), before we find any record of the grosser forms of idolatry, the worship of nature and idols made by human hands, as we see in the time of Jacob (circa 1800 BC), and abundantly so by the time of Moses (1500 BC). Nevertheless, even among the pagans, a correct tradition endured concerning the angel ministers and guardians.
I will conclude here with a few verses from a poem of the Greek poet/historian, Hesiod, who lived in the eight century BC.
Upon the thickly peopled earth,
In ever ceaseless flow,
Full thrice ten thousand deathless beings,
Pass lightly to and fro.
Keepers of mortal men unseen,
In airy vesture dight,
Their good and evil deeds they scan,
Stern champions of the right.