“Guardian angel” is a common expression, often used quite seriously and sincerely. In San Francisco there is a Church of Satan, with a minister who calls himself a high priest of Satan. Primitive peoples are often dominated by demons.
Are angels, the devil, and demons the result of ignorant superstition, or are they objective realities? The Bible speaks clearly about each of these types of spiritual beings. They can affect a Christian, and he is well advised to understand clearly who and what they are. Otherwise he is in danger of being victimized by popular ideas that may be totally erroneous and harmful.
Angels are mentioned in both the Old and the New Testaments. Jesus Himself referred to them many times. Speaking about ‘little ones,” Jesus said, “In heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father” (Matt. 18:10). Concerning His return to earth in the last days, He said, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven” (Mark 13:32). Other references He made to angels are recorded in Mark 8:38; Matthew 13:41; 26:53.
Angels are created beings, “For by Him were all things created that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). Angels probably preceded man in creation; Satan, presumably a fallen angel, visited the Garden of Eden to tempt man. The words, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” probably include the creation of angels, though they are not specifically mentioned.
Unlike man, who is composed of body and spirit, angels are incorporeal (purely spirit) beings. “Are they not all ministering spirits?” (Heb. 1:14) They at times take bodily form, as when two angels came to Lot in Sodom (Gen. 19:1), and sometimes they become visible, as at the Resurrection (John 20:12). Such appearances, however, were exceptions rather than the rule.
Though the masculine gender is always used with the word “angel,” there is no distinction of sex with these beings. Jesus referred to this truth when He said of resurrected believers, “They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).
Angels are eternal; they never die. They are not subject to aging, and in heaven we shall be like them in this respect. “Neither can [ the saved in heaven] die anymore; for they are equal unto the angels” (Luke 20:36).
In God’s order of creation, angels are higher than man. God has made man a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5). But redeemed man, as part of the new creation, is higher than the angels and will have authority over them. “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:3 )
The intelligence and power of angels are greater than man’s, though they are limited or finite. This truth is implied in our Lord’s statement that the angels, though they are in heaven, do not know the day or the hour of the end time (Mark 13: 32). The Gospel and salvation are things the angels “desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:12), which implies that they do not fully understand them. Angels are also referred to as greater in power and might than men (2 Peter 2:11). They excel in strength (Ps. 103:20). One angel killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night (Isa. 37:36). The angels’ power is not theirs inherently, but Comes by delegation from God. The Greek term translated “angel” means, literally, “messenger.” Angels are, basically, messengers or servants of God. They are messengers of His might (cf. 2 Thess. 1:7).
Angels stand in the very presence of God. Jesus said they “behold the face of My Father” (Matt. 18:10). They are higher than men in this respect, and they continually worship God (cf. Rev. 5: 11, 12; Isa. 6:3). They also take pleasure in His works and grace, and Show awareness of and interest in individual human beings. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents” (Luke 15:10).
The activity of angels on earth has a number of facets, though essentially it is concerned with the doing of God’s will: “Ye His angels…that do His commandments…that do His pleasure” (Ps. 103:20, 21).
Angels punish the enemies of God and execute His judgment, as Herod discovered when “the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory” (Acts 12:23). God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem in David’s time (1 Chron. 21:15).
A more comforting truth is the relationship of angels to individual believers. Angels protected Daniel because of his faithfulness to God. To the amazed Darius, who appeared at the lion pit expecting to find him dead, Daniel said, “My God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me” (Dan. 6:22). An angel provided for distraught and hungry Elijah: “An angel touched him and said unto him, ‘Arise and eat’ ” (1 Kings 19:5). Peter was twice “I released from prison by an angel (Acts 5:19; 12:8-11). From these instances and others, we see how angels defend, protect, and deliver God’s servant when it is in His providence to do so.
Angels may guide Christians to witness to a certain unbeliever, as an angel led Philip to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26). Angels may also guide an unbeliever to a Christian, as when Cornelius and Peter were brought together.
In the midst of a shipboard crisis, Paul was cheered by an angel in the night (Acts 27:23). During His agony in the garden, our Lord Himself was strengthened by an angel (Luke 22:43).
Angels are also concerned with the Church and its activity. Paul charged Timothy, concerning his ministry: “Before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels…observe these things” (1 Tim. 5:21). Women were enjoined to wear veils on their heads “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10), who presumably would be offended by any show of immodesty or indecorum.
Angels will accompany Christ when He comes in glory and in judgment. “The Son of Man shall come…and all the holy angels with Him” (Matt. 25:31).
No number of the angels is given in Scripture, but it is clear that they are many. Daniel, of his vision of God, said, “A thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him” (Dan. 7:10). John reported, of his vision, “I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne…and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Rev. 5:11).
Among this vast number of angels there is organization and rank. Jesus said that had He so desired He could summon more than 12 legions of angels (Matt. 26:53). References to the hosts of heaven in the Old Testament imply organization. Micaiah said, “I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right hand and on His left” (1 Kings 22:19).
The statement about “thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” (Col. 1:16) seems to indicate ranking. These orders of heavenly beings are viewed as good, being God-ordained. Evil beings seem to have similar organization and ranking: “principalities…powers,…the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12).
Other Angelic Beings
Michael is the only archangel mentioned in Scripture. He is considered as a special guardian of Israel and as “one of the chief princes” (Dan. 10:13, 21). He contended with the devil for the body of Moses (Jude 9). It may have been Michael who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, or Horeb (Ex. 3:2). He led the battle in heaven against Satan (Rev. 12:7).
Apocryphal, Babylonian, and Persian Sources mention seven archangels. That only one archangel is mentioned in the Bible indicates that the biblical doctrine of angels was not derived from secular sources, as some critics suggest.
The only other angel named in the Bible is Gabriel, renowned for blowing his horn. Presumably this association Comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:16, where Christ’s return is said to be accompanied by “the voice of the archangel and the trump of God.” Gabriel appears in the Old Testament as the one commissioned to explain the vision of the ram and the he-goat to Daniel (Dan. 8:16) and to declare the prophecy of the 70 weeks (9:21-27). In the New Testament he announced two great births – of John to Zacharias and Elizabeth and of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:19, 26). Gabriel evidently has high rank as one who continually stands in the very presence of the Lord (Luke 1:19). His function seems to be that of a messenger, while Michael’s appears to be that of a warrior.
Angels are never mediators between man and God, and men are not to worship them. Certain ancient Greek philosophers developed a whole series of graded emanations or spirits through which men could make contact with God. These philosophers maintained that God is much too holy to have anything to do with material things in general, and with earth and man in particular. Ancient Zoroastrianism taught a similar belief. This sort of doctrine is totally foreign to the teaching of the Bible, however. Angels are God’s messengers, but this in no way implies that He has no direct contact with men when He so chooses. It emphatically is not necessary for us to approach God through any medium other than Jesus Christ.
In most popular thinking and art, angels are winged creatures. There is little biblical warrant for this notion. In Scripture, angels most often appear in manlike form. The only winged beings mentioned in Scripture are cherubim and seraphim (the singular forms are cherub and seraph). We do not have a great deal of information about either. God stationed cherubim at the east entrance of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword to guard the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). In Ezekiel’s vision (chaps. 1; 10), cherubim are called “living creatures.” Each cherub is described as having four faces – of man, lion, ox, and eagle. Each has four wings; two are stretched upward and two downward to cover his body.
Seraphim are mentioned in Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple. They have six wings and can fly (Isa. 6:2, 6). These beings apparently were human in form, apart from their wings, and were associated with the cherubim in guarding the divine throne. It is possible that the cherubim and seraphim are in some way related to the living creatures in heaven (Rev. 4; 5).
Contrary to a popular mythology, there is absolutely no scriptural warrant for the idea that a person becomes an angel after he dies.
The question often arises as to whether angels appear today as they did in biblical times. Experience does not indicate that such appearances are usual. There is, however, no biblical teaching that rules out this possibility. It would be wise, however, to maintain an attitude of healthy skepticism toward any story of an angelic appearance, unless the report were independently verified. Sometimes impressionable people have hallucinations, and sometimes they embellish their stories unwittingly in retelling them.
“One story about angels which seems to be authentic has to do with the well-known missionary to the New Hebrides, John G. Paton. Since he had aroused the enmity of the local native chief by his successes in the Gospel, the chief hired a man to kill the missionary. The man went to the missionary’s house, but instead of murdering Paton he returned in terror, saying he had seen a row of men, dressed in white, surrounding the missionary’s home. The chief thought the man had drunk too much whiskey and encouraged him to try again. The next time others of the tribe accompanied him. That night they all saw three rows of men surrounding Paton’s home.
“When the Chief asked the missionary where he kept the men in the daytime who surrounded his house at night, Paton, knowing nothing of what had happened, disclaimed the whole idea. When the Chief, in amazement, told his story , the missionary realized the natives had seen an angelic company which God had sent to protect him, and he related it to Psalm 34:7: ‘The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.’ The savages were powerfully impressed with the missionary’s explanation, as well they might be.”46
Evil Spiritual Beings
God created angels perfect, and they were originally uncorrupted in spirit. At the same time, they had free will and were susceptible to temptation and sin. How sin could have come into the experience of a perfect creature is a mystery, but that it actually happened is clear. Peter warns against apostasy on the basis of God’s judgment on angels (2 Peter 2:4), and we read of angels that “kept. not their first estate, but left their own habitation” (Jude 6). Some feel that this angelic fall took place after the Creation (Gen. 1:1) and that because of it the original creation became “without form and void” (v. 2).The cause of the angels’ fall is not specified, but presumably is related to the fall of Satan.
The name Satan means “adversary” or opponent. Peter calls him “your adversary the devil” (1 Peter 5:8). Joshua stood before the angel of the Lord, with “Satan standing at his right hand to resist him” (Zech. 3:1). Satan (“adversary”) is the opposer and enemy of both God and His people.
It has been fashionable, in recent years, to consider belief in the existence and personality of Satan as primitive, naive, and even superstitious. It is suggested instead that Satan, if we must use the term, is only the personification of the evil in the world. This notion has resulted partly from reaction to extravagant ideas and poetic expressions about Satan that were prominent during the Middle Ages. But these distorted ideas have no basis in Scripture, our only source of authoritative information.
Nowhere does the Bible depict Satan as a red man with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. Some suggest that these caricatures are part of Satan’s wiles to persuade sophisticated Twentieth Century men that he doesn’t exist. People’s credulity makes his job that much less difficult.
Biblically, there can be no doubt as to the devil’s existence and personality. He is presented as appearing before the Lord when God challenged him about Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7). There is no mistaking Satan’s reality in his temptation of our Lord in the wilderness. He spoke to Jesus and Jesus spoke to him (Matt. 4:1-11).
Satan’s Other Names
Satan’s other scriptural names also indicate his reality and personality. The only other proper name given him is Devil. Other terms applied to him describe him and his work. He is the tempter: (1 Thes. 3:5). He is the wicked one who snatches away the good seed of the Word of God out of people’s hearts (Matt. 13:19). He is the enemy who sows tares among the good seed (Matt. 13:39). He is our adversary (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus calls him the father of lies and a murderer (John 8:44). He is the supreme deceiver (Rev. 12:9).
Belial (2 Cor. 6:15) and Beelzebub (Matt. 12:24) have obscure derivations, but are used as synonyms for Satan. They denote a wicked person.
The fall of Satan from his exalted position as a perfect angel is shrouded in mystery, as is that of the other angels who fell with him. Presumably they shared his attitudes and he became their leader. Many Bible students feel that two Old Testament passages give clues as to what led to Satan’s rebellion and fall.
One of these passages is Ezekiel 28:12-19. Though the entire passage speaks of the “prince of Tyros” (v. 12 ) , it seems also to characterize a being who was more than a mere man. What is said of Tyros could only be applied to the earthly king of Tyre in a graphic and figurative sense. But if we take what is said as applying to Satan, we learn that he was, as originally created, “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (v. 12). The passage also indicates that originally he was assigned by God to the earth. The statement, “Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou was created till iniquity wast found in thee,” would indicate that though he was created perfect, he became sinful. Since this sin dates back to pre-Adamic times, Satan probably was the originator of sin. His sin was pride.
The second of the two passages is Isaiah 14:12-15, which, if we take it to refer to Satan, describes the nature of his initial sin. The passage refers specifically to the King of Babylon, but there are reasons for believing that Satan wants to identify with the leading political power in the world at any given period of history. If this is so, it is easy to see how he may be described as the King of Tyre at one time and as the King of Babylon at another. The Lord Jesus three times referred to him as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 17:11). Scripture teaches that the affairs of nations and cultures are affected by both angels and demons.
If Isaiah 14 refers to Satan, we see that he may have felt that his assignment on earth was too trivial for his status, which may well have been that of archangel. He is called “Lucifer, son of the morning” (Isa. 14:12). The word Lucifer means “shining one,” or ‘light bearer.” As a created being and a servant of God, he perhaps was not fully aware of his Master’s plan concerning the earth (cf. John 15:15), and therefore did not understand its importance as the sphere where God would display Himself both in His creature, man, and later in the incarnation of His Son.
In the five “I wills” attributed to Satan (Isa. 14:13, 14), some see the root of all sin – the setting of a creature’s mind and will against God’s. In the Garden of Eden, Satan cast doubts on God’s love and wisdom (Gen. 3:4, 5), as though God either did not know what was best for man or was unwilling to give it to him. “God’s will is always the highest good His wisdom can devise. In the Garden of Eden Satan succeeded in convincing man that he could do better for himself than God had planned for him; and this is a contemporary problem in the world today.”47
There are similarities between the description in Isaiah, Jesus’ statement (“I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven,” Luke 10:18), and the vision of John on Patmos: “I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 9:1). These passages all refer to Satan and they further indicate his identification with Lucifer.
After being cast out of heaven, Satan continued his work of opposition to God in the Garden of Eden, where he succeeded in tempting Adam and Eve to sin. He has continued his diabolical work through man’s history, and is actively prosecuting it to this day. He is “the god of this world, [who] hath blinded the minds of them that believe not” (2 Cor. 4:4). This is an important fact to remember in evangelism, which is not merely a contest of human wills or intellects. The opponent of Christian witness is “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). He heads a powerful kingdom whose earthly subjects only Christ can turn “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18).
Our Lord was accused of casting out demons by the power of “the prince of demons” (Matt. 9:34, ASV ). Demons are most likely fallen angels. They carry out the same kinds of activity as Satan.
In modern times, many theologians regard demon possession as only a primitive, prescientific description of what we now call mental illness. Throughout history, undoubtedly; some victims of mental illness have been wrongly accused of demon possession, and so treated harshly. But we should guard against confusion of the two conditions.
Some people suggest that all sickness is initiated and caused by demons, but the New Testament makes clear distinctions: “They brought to [Jesus] all who were ill, taken with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics” (Matt. 4:24, NAS). Here clear differentiation is made between ordinary diseases and demon possession, and between demon possession and lunacy.
On another occasion Jesus cast out a demon who had caused dumbness (Matt. 9:32,33). From this account it is clear that the results of demon possession are not exclusively mental or nervous. Nor does the Bible connect epilepsy and demon possession. The boy Jesus healed of fits (Matt. 17:15-18) seems to have been afflicted with more than epilepsy. The Gadarene maniac (Mark 5:1-20), and possibly the man who overpowered two sons of the exorcist, Sceva (Acts 19:16), in addition to being demon possessed, may also have been afflicted with mental illness.
Demon possession is seldom mentioned in the Old Testament, The Acts, or the epistles. The incidents of it centered around our Lord’s ministry and may indicate a special attack on mankind by Satan during that period.
Demon possession is a worldwide phenomenon, however, with authenticated contemporary cases being reported in this country as well as in other parts of the world. It is apparently possible deliberately to open oneself to demons. Trifling with the occult or playing around the edges of the spirit world are dangerous practices and Christians should carefully avoid them.
We should never try to conquer demons by our own power. Even the disciples had some frustrating encounters with such spirits. Jesus said, “This kind can come forth by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). Generally, evil spirits were exorcised by being commanded to come out in the name of Christ (e.g., Acts 16:18). It has been suggested that rather than attempt to exorcise a satanic spirit ourselves, even in the name of Christ, we should ask God to do so for us. Even Michael the archangel did this (Jude 9).
A demon-possessed person invariably acts in ways that are not natural and normal to him. He often speaks in a voice entirely different from his normal one, and sometimes displays superhuman strength. He may also have powers of telepathy and clairvoyance. It should be noted that possession, in every instance, is by demons or evil spirits, never by good spirits.
Despite the great power of Satan and his demons, however, a Christian need not fear them if he is in close fellowship with the Lord. The Holy Spirit’s presence in us is a reality and insures our safety (1 John 4:4).
These truths are clear from scriptural teachings and their implications about Satan and demons.
First, Satan’s power over a believer is limited. The devil could not touch Job without God’s permission (Job 1:9-12; 2:4-6). Demons had to ask permission of Christ to enter swine (Mark 5:12). Satan is not all-powerful.
Neither is the devil all-knowing. If he were, he would have known in advance the futility of his scheme to subvert Job, and he would surely have realized that it was useless for him to tempt the Lord in the wilderness.
Satan was conquered by Christ on the Cross. There, “having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). We are told that “for this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Satan is slated for final eternal judgment: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).
Because Satan has been overcome by Christ, Christians are encouraged by God’s promise that if they resist the devil he will flee from them (James 4:7). But our resistance must be “steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9). We can best thwart Satan’s designs on us by daily yielding ourselves to the Lord in prayer and by putting on the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:10-17).
We should avoid the extreme of trying to see Satan behind every misfortune, in this way evading our personal responsibility. Equally dangerous, however, is being So lulled by the sophistication of our age as to be unaware of Satan and his wiles against us in the spiritual battle in which every true believer is engaged.
For Further Reading
Koch, Kurt. Christian Counseling and Occultism. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1965.
Lewis, C. S. Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Peterson, Robert. The Roaring Lion. London: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1968.
Unger, Merrill F. Biblical Demonology. Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press, 1952.