Publications: Articles - Theology
God – Creator of the Heavenly World
God is not only the Creator of the physical universe but also of the spiritual or invisible world. In addition to the visible world created by God, the Scriptures claim that God also created an invisible or heavenly world made up of ‘celestial and bodiless powers’ generally called angels. Even though this invisible created reality is not part of the physical or material universe, and therefore cannot be concretely located since it has no ‘geographical place’, yet it is no less real or truly existing than our world. The Orthodox Christian tradition would claim that the invisible world is made up of nine ranks of bodiless powers or hosts mediating God’s will on earth. These include the angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. From this we can see that strictly speaking angels are but one rank of the host of bodiless powers. The Scriptures offer the names of three angels: Michael , the leader of the people of Israel; Gabriel and Raphael of which the first two are referred to as archangels.
Regarding their beginning
There is no doubt in the Scriptures that God created these heavenly bodies just as He created the entire universe out of nothing. In wanting to stress the supremacy of Christ over the entire world to the Colossians, St Paul states clearly that:
“for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).
The Scriptures however are not explicit in stating when they were brought into existence. For this reason the Patristic tradition offers various different interpretations. For example St Gregory the Theologian and St John of Damascus believe that the angelic world was created before the material world. They base such an assertion from the book of Job in the Old Testament, which describes a conversation of God with Job regarding the creation of the world:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38: 4; 6-7).
It is from this passage that certain fathers concluded that the angels preceded the creation of the visible world. Other fathers, such as the blessed Augustine contend that this invisible world was created during the creation of the first day when God created the heavens and the earth and said “let there be light!” and there was light. The reason for this is that angels are described in terms of light. What is important however is that the entire Patristic corpus would agree that the invisible world was created before humankind.
Regarding their nature
Angels are spirits; they are in fact called bodiless or immaterial when compared to human beings, although when compared to God this cannot be said. It is for this reason that that many fathers believe that ultimately nothing created can be without materiality or bodily form. They are creatures created out of nothing, just like the world, and out of God’s free will. Furthermore, God bestowed upon these bodiless hosts, His gifts of freedom, intelligence and immortality. Being bodiless there is no gender in angels nor do they need to multiply for survival since they are immortal. Their description in physical terms (six winged, many eyed) is purely anthropomorphic and must not be understood literally as they are spiritual beings.
Since they do not have a bodily shape and are not confined by materiality (such as doors or walls) they can move with ease from place to place; yet they are not unbounded or everywhere present. Regarding this point, St John of Damascus writes that “when they are in heaven they are not on earth: and whey are sent by God down to earth they do not remain in heaven.” This same father also points out that angels “are moved with difficulty towards evil but they can so be moved even though they are not.” What is meant by this phrase is that angels, being created as free beings remain steadfast in holiness not as a result of a natural quality innate within them but by God’s grace. Their knowledge and power are incomparably greater than humanity’s, yet again infinitely lacking when compared to God’s.
The task of the angels
There are at least four different tasks attributed in the Scriptures to angels. They include offering continuous thanks and glory to God; secondly acting as God’s messengers on earth; thirdly serving God by fulfilling His will on earth and in heaven; and lastly being assigned to each person as a guardian angel. A primary function of the bodiless powers is to offer continual adoration to God in offering Him praise, worship and thanksgiving for His great glory. This task of giving glory to God is beautifully described in the Divine Liturgy:
“We give thanks to you also for this liturgy which you are pleased to accept from our hand, though thousands of Archangels and myriads of Angels attend you, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed soaring aloft on their wings.”
It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church teaches that the Divine Eucharist makes present in an anticipatory way the actual worship in front of God’s throne.
Regarding their second task, namely acting as messengers of God’s will, the best known example in the Scriptures is the joyous message brought by Gabriel of Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary . Luke describes the angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary saying:
“Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women” (Lk 1:28).
This salutation clearly indicates the heralding function of angels who are sent to the world to announce the will of God. It is from this function of bringing the good tidings of God to the world that angels receive their name. The word “angel” comes from the Greek work angellos meaning messenger. Therefore angels are God’s messengers to the world.
The third general function of service is described in the letter to the Hebrews: “are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:13). From this passage we can see that angels mediate between God and the world bringing the power and presence of God into the world for its salvation. In the New Testament Scriptures they are depicted serving Christ during his life on earth particularly at his birth, during his temptation in the desert and at Gethsemane, in his resurrection and assumption. In the Old Testament they are portrayed not only protecting as in the case of the three children in the fiery furnace (cf Dan 3:25) but bringing the righteous to salvation. For example they provide for Elijah when he flees from Jezebel.:
“Then he [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat”. He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” (1Kings 19:5-6)
And in Luke’s gospel the joy of the angels when even one person is brought to salvation is clearly described:
“I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10).
From this we could say that angels, generally speaking are the servants of God’s divine providence in the world.
Regarding the fourth task of angels, the Orthodox Christian tradition also claims quite emphatically that, upon Baptism God assigns each person a guardian angel to guide and protect human beings throughout their life on earth. In the parable of the lost sheep Jesus urges the people not to despise the humble in heart for their guardian angel occupies a leading position before God.
“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt 18:10).
In the Divine Eucharist of St John Chrysostom the Orthodox faithful pray,
“for an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.”
The Orthodox Christian insistence that each person has a guardian angel is further exemplified in the book of Acts which states that the apostle Peter had an angel assigned to him. After Peter was released from prison he ran to the house of Mary, the mother of John and knocked at the door. Rhoda, the house-maid was so overjoyed that she ran into the house to announce that Peter was standing out at the gate. However she was not believed, since they knew that Peter was in prison and, thinking Rhoda was out of mind said to her: “it is his his angel” (Act 12:15). From this minor detail we can conclude that it was common amongst the early Christians to believe in the reality of angels and especially the existence of guardian angels.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College