Friday 11 December 2020

What about the common idea that people become angels after they die?

I am reading On the banks of Plum Creek - which is part of the Little House on the Prairie (so-far, wonderful) series by Laura Ingalls Wilder - and the main character mentioned that she expected her reward for being a Good Christian was to become a beautiful angel. 

This idea much appealed to her, and was a strong incentive for 'good' thought and behaviour.

I have encountered similar ideas many times over the years - I mean the idea that the aim of a Christian life was to become 'an angel'. 


I personally think this is true-enough; since I regard 'angel' as a 'job-description' for messenger, intermediary; and therefore a resurrected man or woman might well be an angel. (The other type of angel is a pre-mortal, never-incarnated spirit.)

However, for mainstream Christians - whether Protestant, like Laura Ingall's Wilder's heroine; or any type of Catholic (Western or Eastern) - angels are a separate creation from Man, essentially spiritual beings (who cannot and do not ressurect) - so that Men cannot become angels; and especially not after resurrection into Heaven.

At least; that is what priests and theologians of mainstream Christianity have been saying for most of the past 2000 years... 


Yet, this popular/ lay/ naive Christian belief persists - apparently naturally and spontaneously - since I doubt whether anybody has been officially taught that mortal Men can look-forward to becoming angels.   

Here is a situation where many actual Christians over the centuries, including many (apparently) Good Christians, have held a heretical belief. 

And if you are like me, you may agree that those uncounted 'ignorant' folk may well have been closer to the truth than Establishment opinion - despite flying in the teeth of official doctrine as expressed by informed and educated opinion.   


Chent said...

(Full disclaimer: I am Catholic. What I am going to explain is the official Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental doctrine. I think some Protestant churches share it too).

As far as I know, people cannot become angels (in the popular meaning of the word), not only because they are a different creation, but because people have bodies.

As you say, the end state of saved people is not to be disembodied souls but to resurrect in body and soul.

However, when people are resurrected, they become part of the Divine Council, where God rules the world with the help of subordinate spiritual beings (some of these beings are angels, who are the spiritual beings that have the role of messengers).

"Spiritual beings" ("elohim") is a description of the nature of some beings. "Angel" is a description of a role of some spiritual beings (now I use "angel" in the technical meaning of the word and not the popular meaning).

These spiritual beings are translated as "gods" (with lowercase) in some parts of the Bible. This is why Orthodox people say: "Jesus was made human so that he might make us gods". The sentence is from Athanasius of Alexandria (298 – 373). Hardly a new invention or the product on a heretic.

So I don't see where is the heresy in that, Bruce. Sometimes I have the impression that you try to reinvent the wheel (or reinvent Christianity) starting from your intuitions, your reasoning and some favorite authors of yours (all of them modern). Many times I have thought while reading a theological post of yours: "But this sounds completely Catholic!" You are very intelligent, Bruce, and I have learned a lot from you, but 2000 years of saints and scholars combined (which you completely disregard) are more intelligent than you.

Bruce B. said...

The folk belief may stem from little children's confusion. People would often tell children that so-and-so is "with the angels now." You can see how a child would be confused.

Also, that angels are portrayed as being so beautiful and good. Who wouldn't want to become one?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chent - I probably know more about Catholic theology than you imagine - having been a practising (confirmed) Anglo Catholic, an Orthodox Catechumin, and investigated the RCC for several years, in depth.

And angels just Are orthodoxly a separate creation from Men! And angels have been around a lot longer (e.g. Old Testament) than Men have had the chance of resurrection.

So there is no serious doubt that for orthodox mainstream Christian theology (including protestant), Men cannot become angels. Surely that can simply be accepted as a fact.

And then we move onto to consider the common folk belief that Men *can* become angels: the purpose of this post.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - "People would often tell children that so-and-so is "with the angels now." "

But that is merely kicking the can - why weren't the children corrected? Why wasn't this common and explicit belief addressed at confirmation, or in sermons?

Probably it was thus address - yet if so, then the children (and confirmation candidates) *did not believe* the priests and theologians 'correction' of their belief; and continued to believe that Men could become angels.

Which is my point.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

As I’m sure you know, Mormonism makes this folk belief explicit, going so far as to identify specific people with specific named angels. Michael and Gabriel are said to have lived on earth as the patriarchs Adam and Noah.

I believe Judaism sees the angels as a separate creation. Nevertheless, the patriarch Enoch is said to have become the angel Metatron.

Luke Cummin said...

This is the first time I've heard of this belief that I can recall. I would assume that whoever believes in becoming an angel does not mean it in the simple messenger way, but means something more.
However, I have known at least one person who wanted to bring hope and comfort back to people on earth once she had died and gone to heaven. Now, she may have gotten that idea from reading about the Saints and it may not be hers spontaneously. I don't know. That desire could fit in with becoming an angel in only the messenger sense and not in the pure intelligence or Maiar sense that people also believe in, both of which I think would be superseded by resurrection and divinity.

Amethyst Dominica said...

This might relate to the Catholic idea of the Saints - as humans who experienced the trials of Earth, it would make sense that they would remain in the world and be called upon to intercede on humans behalf. In certain forms of Buddhism, there is the idea of the bodhisattva - holy humans who were close to Enlightenment, but chose to remain in our plane of existence and guide others to it.

Over the years this has morphed in popular culture into humans becoming angels and helping the living to overcome their trials. In some movies and TV shows, imperfect but redeemable humans become guardian angels, doing a sort of Community Service in the afterlife to eventually become full-fledged angels ("earn their wings" sort to speak.)

Jergen said...

Because of the verse where Jesus says in Luke those counted worthy of the resurrection and that world will be "like the angels" neither marrying nor given in marriage, and the easiest way to become like an angel is to become an angel. Interestingly also when Origenism was condemned in councils one of the condemned doctrines was the idea that men can become angels, as well as that angels by sinning can falldown and be incarnated as men again.