Rather Be an Angel?

As a graduate student in philosophy, I wrote my Master’s Thesis on Thomistic angelology. This eventually became a book; unfortunately, the publisher listed it under the name “Kainz” – a relatively unknown assistant professor, rather than “Aquinas.” So it did not become a best seller.

Owing to mergers and takeovers, the book came under the imprint of two other publishers, and was recently reprinted. It follows the angelology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who in his Summa theologiae, De substantiis separatis, and other works, delves in great detail into numerous questions about angelic life, cognition, choices, etc. – questions that most of us would not think of asking.

But Aquinas’ treatment leaves the reader with the impression of what a supernatural life might be like – instant intuitive cognition, instant movement over distances, etc.

In my youthful naiveté, it seemed to me that angels had a definite advantage over humans, possessing heavenly existence without having to go through all the hardships that we humans are prone to encounter. Now I am not so sure.

What some saints have said about angels got me thinking. St. Faustina, for example, in a revelation from Jesus, hears that, if the angels were capable of envy, they would envy humans the capacity to suffer. St. Mary Magdalene De Pazzi learns from God the Father that humans by suffering can attain a higher knowledge of the Divine Essence than the angels, who do not have to struggle to be preserved in grace. Blessed Dina Belanger also said that angels, if they could desire anything extra, would desire to suffer.

Private revelations like these are not de fide, but can they be true? With all due respect to the saints and the pure spirits they are discussing – without bodies, how could an angel know anything about suffering? Especially about sufferings that we would put high on the 1-10 scale? Or the screaming pain that we would have to gauge 11 or higher?

We know, of course, that fallen angels suffer. In the Gospels, Jesus is ready to cast out devils from two savage demoniacs. The devils pleaded with Jesus not to cast them into “the abyss,” but rather to send them into a herd of swine. (Mt. 8:32, Mk. 5:12, Lk. 8:32) Perhaps the suffering the devils were trying to avoid is even greater than any corporeal suffering.

The angels, in making their initial choice after Creation, would apparently have no prior experience of suffering. They would seem to have been in much the same situation as Adam and Eve, who, innocent of any experience of evil, were confronted with the choice about partaking of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

          Tobias and the Angel by Andrea del Verrocchio, c. 1475

But think how “easy” (it seems to us) for the angels to be saved, to enter into eternal blessedness – pure intellects, no passions, no doubts about the existence and goodness of God, no corrupting influences from bad angels.

All they had to do was make a simple choice – maybe enthusiastic, maybe coolly rational – no rough-and-tumble journeys through temptations, no reeling from effects of bad choices, no struggles to make amends, no ups and downs. 

Many human beings, on the other hand, harbor continual uncertainty about whether they are to be saved – along with the always-present possibility that at the last minute they would sin mortally, and be called to eternity at that instant.

It is hard to understand why, with all these advantages, some of the angels – maybe, according to tradition, a third of them – fell, and became the original proprietors of Hell. St. Augustine thought that it was because of pride – something that might be more tempting to the angels with higher powers and endowments, greater natural “beauty.” Others say it was because the mystery of the Incarnation was revealed to them for their assent, and many pure spirits could not accept a future subordination to an earthly but divine Lord. 

Milton traces the non serviam of a supremely endowed angel, Satan, to God’s insistence that he be subordinate to his Son, who seemed to Satan to be an equal, but not superior. St. Thomas Aquinas thought that there was no clear definitive explanation for the fall of the angels, since pure spirits have no adverse appetites and could not be deceived by imagination, habits, etc., in their intellectual apprehensions.

He points, however, to the initial condition of the angels (Summa theologiae, I, q. 62, a. 1, c.) where God offered them the ability to be raised by grace to a state higher than their natural perfections. Presumably, this choice was unacceptable to many spirits, proud of their power and beauty, and unwilling to be raised to some unknown higher state of “grace.”

In any case, the sin of the angels seems to be essentially what sin is for human beings – the choice of self rather than God.

So, would you rather be an angel? In a weak moment, we might feel that, sure, when confronted with that first choice between self and God, we would simply have chosen infinite good. And that would be it. No further jockeying for justification – just accepting beatitude once and for all.

On the other hand, when we consider our own floundering and falls – and consider the fact that falls are irrevocable for angels, but not irrevocable for us, who have the ever-present possibility of conversion, we might breathe a sigh of relief for our humanity, situated in time, and progressing in steps, hopefully forward. We take solace in examples of unexpected conversions, even deathbed conversions.

But finally, our most important consideration might be the fact that the Son of God did not become an angel, but a man, subject to all the vicissitudes and sufferings that flesh is heir to.

That says something of unique consequence.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.