Role of angels and demons in the Bible small, but important

Role of angels and demons in the Bible small, but important

(Credit: Pixabay.)

John Gillman spoke to Crux about his new book, "What Does the Bible Say About Angels and Demons?"

[Editor’s Note: John Gillman Ph.D. is a Lecturer in the Department for the Study of Religion at San Diego State University and an ACPE Certified Educator for Clinical Pastoral Education.  He is also an Associate Editor for The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Among other publications, he is author of What Does the Bible Say About Life and Death? He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new book, What Does the Bible Say About Angels and Demons?]

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what about it led you to write a book titled What Does the Bible Say About Angels and Demons?

First a little background: I grew up in a traditional Catholic family in a small town in southeastern Indiana.  After completing my doctoral studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, a university founded in 1425, I devoted my professional life to a combination of pastoral work and academia. I have served as a chaplain in diverse settings, a Certified Educator for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programs, and a university lecturer in the Department for the Study of Religion at San Diego State where for the past three years I have taught a course on Death, Dying and the Afterlife. Currently, I am an Associate Editor for the Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

John Gillman. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

The answer to the question about how I came to co-author this book is very simple. The editor of the series was looking for someone to complete the project after the original author had to withdraw for health reasons. I accepted the invitation, otherwise, I would probably not have started out to write about this topic. Once I got into the material, however, I became fascinated with the theme. I had not thought much about angels since childhood when I memorized the traditional Guardian Angel prayer.  As to demons, I was intrigued by the film The Exorcist (1973), the ninth highest grossing-film of all time in the U.S. and Canada. Also, years ago I was asked by a distraught woman to bless her home to protect her from what she believed was a demonic presence. I did the blessing – this was not an exorcism – and this seemed to have brought her some comfort.

Angels and Demons are popular topics in our cultural imagination, but taking a specifically Biblical angle is interesting. Is there something like a coherent Biblical vision of angels and demons? How much does that vision overlap–or not–with our popular cultural imagination?

Angels seldom made more than cameo appearances in the Old and New Testament. They are not a central focus. Exceptions are the angel(s) in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke (where the angel is named Gabriel) and the Book of Tobit where we encounter Raphael. In the latter story, Raphael is sent by God to Tobit and his family and serves as a guide and protector, a marriage broker, an advisor for healing, and a source for prayers.

Unlike angels in popular culture where they are sometimes portrayed as departed humans, biblical angels function not on their own authority but as heavenly messengers for God.  An overlap does occur in the angelic social worker Monica from the popular TV series “Touched by an Angel” (1994-2003). She provides helpful intervention in the lives of distressed humans.

While belief in demons has a long history dating back to Mesopotamia and Greece, demons are largely absent in ancient Israel. Satan (literally, “the Accuser”), not presented as a demon, plays a role at the beginning of the Book of Job. The devil only appears in the New Testament, some 35 times, most prominently in the temptation of Jesus. Today, Christians may assign the source of temptation to the devil, and folks in general may ascribe horrific events and divisive animosity to demonic or evil spirits.  For example, in the aftermath of a contentious election Cardinal Gregory of Washington, D.C., stated: “We have lots of evil spirits that somehow are destroying the harming of the nation, making people of different races and cultures and languages and religions afraid of one another” (January 2021).

OK, I just have to ask because a colleague of mine (theologians can be strange people!) is kind of obsessed with this issue. Does the Bible have a vision of angels and demons which permits some of them to be something other than pure spirit? To put it more directly: Does the Bible imagine that some angels and demons have bodies?

The short answer is yes. In the Book of Tobit, mentioned above, Raphael first appears disguised as a young man and is not identified as an angel until much later in the narrative. The devil who confronts Jesus in the desert is presented with humanlike characteristics: The devil leads Jesus up to a high point to show him all the world kingdoms, takes him to Jerusalem, and entices him through ordinary speech, all to no avail. It would be going beyond the temptation narrative, however, to maintain that the devil who shows up has a physical body.

It is a very Catholic thing to believe in one’s guardian angel. Is there a Biblical warrant for this belief?

While it is true that belief in one’s guardian angel is a “Catholic thing,” some Protestants also have similar beliefs. For example, Martin Luther’s statement “that angels are with us is very sure, and no one should ever have doubted it” approximates a belief in guardian angels. Although the expression “guardian angel(s)” does not appear in the Bible there are a few texts that point in that direction, e.g., Psalm 91:11 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” In Matthew 18:10, Jesus is reported saying: “For, I tell you, in heaven their [‘these little ones’] angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” And in Acts 12:15, when Peter arrived at the house of Mary, those present believed that it was “his angel.” In Hebrews 1:14, the question is raised: “Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”

Many report having a guardian angel. Just the other day I came upon the story of Frances of Rome (1340-1440) who was sent a guardian angel by God after her husband was gone and a son died, to serve as a constant companion for the last twenty years of her life. She was reportedly able to see this angel. Just before her death, she said:  “The angel has finished his task — he beckons me to follow him.” Among those who believe in angels, few seem to have such a vivid experience.

This is a complex question, but it is another one I just have to ask. I suspect many people are interested in angels and demons for the same kinds of reasons they are interested in dragons, aliens, and zombies. It takes you out of your current, totally physical world to a fantastic place of enchanted imagination. But your book makes clear that for those people of the Bible this was no mere fantastic place of imagination. The existence of angels and demons for the ancients was deadly serious. Is it possible for we people of modernity to get into the enchanted mindset which makes space for the reality of angels and demons?

There are so many opportunities through TV shows, movies, and other media, to enter such an enchanted world.  However, I’m not sure that a person has to get into an “enchanted mindset” to create space for such a reality.  A few weeks ago, I commented to a hiking partner about my book about angels and demons.  He turned to me and said, “I’m not sure what I believe about angels.” Then he went on to tell what began as a mundane story about how the check engine light in his car had come on during an out-of-state road trip. He stopped to have this investigated, only to find out that there was some other issue regarding the safe functioning of his car that had no connection to the “check engine” indicator. He put up his hands and wondered, what was this about?

Now about demons: When the storming of the U.S. Capitol occurred on January 6, 2021, Representative Jim McGovern, a Marine veteran, said afterwards that he “saw evil” in the eyes of the attackers. Whether this was evil personified, the demonic at work, or simply madness he does not say.  It is not unreasonable to interpret this as something more than an out-of-control mob involved in something most reasonable persons would imagine as totally unthinkable.

For many, the question remains open whether space (that you ask about) ought to be given to angels and demons. Others may have strong convictions on one side or the other. The Bible offers support for such a reality, and in many ways our contemporary culture does too.

Latest Stories