People don’t become angels when they die. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t watching over us.
I recently read a debate on social media about the question of whether our dead relatives become angels who help us. Some vigorously claimed that of course they do, while others said with equal certainty that this is a ridiculous notion. It is a bit of a hurricane in a hatbox, as there is not a lot of first-hand evidence available either way. Really, who is to say we do not get to wander around the globe helping people in a blue denim shirt and leather jacket after we die? (This is an unapologetic “Highway to Heaven” reference. Google it.)
At the same time, the topic raises some interesting questions. If angels are not dead people helping us, what are they? And if in fact we cannot become them when we die, is it still possible for us to intercede for our families from heaven?
What’s the Deal With Angels?
Believe it or not, trying to write about angels is actually pretty hard. Most images we have of them—naked babies with wings; dudes with fire swords; a shirtless Patrick Swayze—come not from Scripture but from pop culture across centuries. Take one of the most popular stories about angels, the war in heaven and Satan’s fall. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament describes a war kind of like that, but the description is just three verses long, and it is actually a depiction of a final good-versus-evil war in heaven to come, not a past event. Meanwhile the story of Lucifer’s fall that we all think of probably comes mostly from John Milton’s 1667 epic poem “Paradise Lost.”
Most images we have of angels—naked babies with wings; dudes with fire swords; a shirtless Patrick Swayze—come not from Scripture but from pop culture across centuries.
Cherubim as adorable little babies with wings are similarly a creation of Renaissance artists drawn from ancient Greece and Rome, which liked to represent the “spirits” or instincts that influence our decision-making, like attraction, as winged children (ergo Cupid). In Scripture the cherubim are mentioned more than any other kind of angel—91 times; but the only time they are described, by Ezekiel, they have wings, four faces (of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle) and are definitely not toddlers. Also they are either carrying God around on a throne or protecting Eden with a flaming sword. Try making that adorable, Donatello.
Even the idea of the guardian angel who hangs around waiting to make sure we do not get hit by a car owes a lot more to “It’s a Wonderful Life” than to Scripture. In the Bible, “Angels are divine messengers,” Laurie Brink, O.P., professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, told America’s Maggi Van Dorn last Adventin the “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” episode of our Hark! Podcast. The Greek word angelos literally means “messenger”; so does the Hebrew term for angels, malak.
The ways angels offer their messages can vary widely. In Luke the angel Gabriel just shows up to tell Mary what’s what; meanwhile, in Numbers, an invisible angel keeps spooking Balaam’s donkey until finally he starts punishing it, at which point the angel reveals itself and says it is displeased with Balaam, which causes him to change his ways. (And yes, this does seem like an awful lot of work to relay a message.)
The burning bush that Moses sees in the wilderness that sets him on his path—that voice was an “angel of the Lord.” So are the young men in white at Jesus’ empty tomb, who tell the mourning women that Jesus is gone.
Biblical angels do sometimes help people. They grab Lot and get him out of Sodom when he dawdles in escaping. They free imprisoned disciples in the Acts of the Apostles. They take care of Jesus in the desert. But there is no biblical basis for the idea that people have guardian angels, strictly speaking. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is taken care of by one angel, Sister Brink noted in a phone interview. “But it’s probably added,” she went on. “Everywhere else in Luke there’s two angels.”
According to the Bible, angels are messengers and mouthpieces. But you know what they’re not, ever? Our dead relatives.
With biblical angels there is never any sense that an angel has free will or even an individual identity. Sister Brink quotes a fellow biblical scholar, Benjamin Sommer: “Biblical authorities never attribute distinct personalities to these beings, and only rarely do they refer to them by a specific name.” In all the mentions of angels in canonical Scripture, only three angels are ever given a name—Raphael, Gabriel and Michael. (Lucifer, a name mentioned only in Isaiah 14, is a reference not to an angel but to the king of Babylon and the fall he will suffer at God’s hands.) Each of them appears only briefly and, once again, none of them are ascribed any real personality.
In some cases in Scripture angels are so closely identified with God, in fact, that it is not clear if the reference is actually to God. In Judges 2 an angel talks of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and having taken them to the land it swore it would. Likewise in Genesis 18 we are told that “The Lord appeared to Abraham,” but then it is actually three men who show up. Yet when they speak, the speaker is again identified as the Lord.
This seeming lack of distinction between God and God’s angels is not some kind of translation error, says Sister Brink. It is the way messengers were understood in the ancient world. “In the Greco-Roman period, when ambassadors or emissaries spoke to people, they were in persona of whoever sent them. That is certainly how biblical angels function. They were God’s mouthpieces.”
So according to the Bible, angels are messengers. They are mouthpieces. But you know what they’re not, ever? Our dead relatives (or any other human beings, for that matter).
Hanging Out on Clouds Playing Harps
It’s confusing, right? There is a veritable heavenly host of reasons why we might associate our dead with angels. First of all, that belief represents our desire to be fully united with God and also reunited with our loved ones in the afterlife and connected to our dead relatives while we are alive. We believe that God has a place ready for us in heaven, and in Scripture angels are occasionally described in heaven surrounding the throne of God and singing God’s praises (see Revelation 5 or Isaiah 6). If we imagine we are neighbors with angels in heaven, is it really that weird to imagine we might also get some wings?
Is it in keeping with our faith to believe it is possible that those who have died may be able to help us? Absolutely.
The New Testament scholar Carolyn Osiek, R.S.C.J. points out there are even a couple of Scripture passages that some might interpret to suggest a deeper connection between the dead and angels. “In Daniel 12:2-3 we hear, ‘The holy ones will shine like stars in Heaven,’ she explains. “The Greek comparative there is ambiguous; it can mean ‘like’ or ‘as,’” which could suggest the dead are themselves akin to stars.” Mt 22:30 makes the analogy to angels even clearer: “They will neither marry nor be given in marriage,” Jesus says of the resurrected dead, “But they will be like/as angels in Heaven.”
While we have no concrete scriptural descriptions of life after death, doesn’t “helping people in need” seem a likely scenario for what we do in heaven, or part of what we need to do on the way to getting there, part of that process of purification that the church has imagined as happening after death? Isn’t that the kind of help what we would expect of those who love us, or for that matter from ourselves? Can we really imagine that when we die we would stop caring about the needs of those who have meant so much to us, or that the God who loved us so much he actually decided to become a human being would want us to?
In point of fact, our practice of the faith has long included the idea of asking the dead to intercede for us. “It’s documented as early as third-century North Africa during the persecutions of [Roman emperors] Decius and Valerian,” Sister Osiek notes. Intriguingly, the early practice often involved petitioning those who were yet to die. Christians “would ask living persons that they expected to be martyred to intercede for them when they died, mostly for [the purpose of] the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God,” Sr. Osiek said. “When that person was martyred, people figured that’s what they’re doing in Heaven.”
The next time you need help, feel free to say a prayer to your deceased grandparents or spouse, a saint or a friend.
But even with one’s deceased family members, there was a notion in the early church of an ongoing connection. On the anniversary of the death of a loved one, surviving family members would gather at the grave of their dead loved ones and have a meal, Sister Osiek explains. “In the course of the meal there would be a libation of wine, and they would pour some of the wine either into the ground or directly into the tomb” through a hole that would have been originally drilled in the tomb for precisely this reason. This wasn’t about praying to the dead for help, Sister Osiek notes, “but of sharing with the dead, wanting the dead to still be present.”
An Angel With a Broken Wing
Maybe this question of humans and angels comes down to semantics. No, we do not believe that human beings can become literal angels. From a scriptural point of view that is like asking, Can human beings become zebras? They’re a whole different kind of being from us. And humans probably wouldn’t like becoming angels even if we could, as they have no life of their own. “Angels serve as God’s email,” Sister Brink says.
But is it in keeping with our faith to believe it is possible that those who have died may be able to help us? Absolutely. Every time we pray to a saint for help, that is the very conviction that we are expressing. The church has even come to assign different saints their own “case files.” Know someone whose situation seems dire? Send them to St. Jude. Lost your wallet? Give a holler to St. Anthony. We bury a figurine of St. Joseph upside down in the backyard to sell our house.
So the next time you need help, feel free to say a prayer to your deceased grandparents or spouse, a saint or a friend. They may not have wings (or, thankfully, four faces). But we do believe they are out there rooting for us just the same.