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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • Grump

    I cannot understand why angels would want to suffer nor can I understand why humans have to suffer if Christ supposedly did all the suffering for us. Therefore, I’d rather be an angel; Second Class would be OK with me. I don’t need wings.

  • Clement Williams

    My youngest son is receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation today. I have been pondering the first chapter of Genesis in the context of my education in the Biological Sciences. In the womb, my son started off as a single celled animal and throughout the nine months in my wife’s womb he went through all the life forms fish->amphibian->earliest mammals->apes->human when he was born. Since he was born he has gone through all the stages of human evolution: hunter-gather through user of tools and all stages in between gaining knowledge, skills and understanding shepherded by Wisdom and today, I will be celebrating with our families and friends to an infant Homo sapiens able to deal with the joys, sorrows, successes and failures he will encounter through the rest of his life here on earth with his journey to Homo sapiens as it says in the Gospel of Luke 2:52 “And Jesus advanced (in) wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”

    In a nutshell: A reconciliation between Faith in God and Man through The Holy Spirit – Genesis 2:7 “the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and so man became a living being.” – The Holy Spirit, The Lord and Giver of Life – Nicene Creed

  • Stanley Anderson

    This column reminds me of a kind of conversation I have sometimes had with non-believers. There seems to be a common sentiment of “if only God would give us some kind of unmistakable sign (e.g., something like the stereotypical ‘fiery letters written across the sky” sort of thing), then I would believe. But he doesn’t do that – so why not, if he wants me to believe?”

    There are of course many different approaches to trying to answer this type of question, the foremost being that he in fact does do this, and Scripture tells us that he does this (“The heavens declare the glory of God,” etc), but we have simply blinded ourselves to the more blatant ones (#1 on the list: how can we have possibly convinced ourselves that consciousness and self-awareness, the things we are the most absolutely, well, “aware” of in our existence, are mere artifacts or side-effects of chemical reactions and logic circuits?).

    Pink Floyd’s song “Comfortably Numb” is very C. S. Lewisian in its aesthetic awareness of our ability to numb ourselves to reality and its “pointing” toward God. (I mention Lewis because many of his works explore this idea — especially the ending of “That Hideous Strength” at the destruction of the NICE and in “Till We Have Faces”, but virtually everything else he wrote has some degree of that idea too). And along this line, I can’t recommend the movie “Memento” high enough for an almost perfect illustration of our personal guilt in fostering this kind of forgetful and blinding “numbness” in ourselves.

    But all that is just a sideline to the main point I want to make (I often drive my wife nuts not getting to the point right away, just like I am also doing here). What I sometimes point out to doubters, who are seemingly “pleading for a sign” is that Scripture also addresses this very supposition (i.e., that “I would believe if only God would give me a clear sign”). What Scripture tells us throughout OT and NT is that those sorts of “clear signs” very often seem to do no good at all, or can even make the situation worse. We see this especially in the Gospels when the Pharisees are direct witnesses (along with other people in the crowds around Jesus) to miraculous healings and such. The pharisees’ typical reaction is not “Oh, I guess he might be God after all, we’d better change our view and honor and worship him instead”, but rather “he’s doing miracles — we’d better find a way to crucify him.”

    In other words, the “clear sign” people often say they want can actually have either no effect or an opposite effect that they think it would have. Of course there are cases where people see miracles and then believe, but it is not the logically-impossible-to-deny conclusion of God’s existences and definite resulting decision to worship Him that that doubters suggest it should be. Human nature is apparently very capable of ignoring helpful things at times.

    Certainly, for someone who does not accept the authority of Scripture, pointing out these examples and illustrations of human nature from Scriptural passages would seem to do no good of course (but one should never discount the possibility of conversion from simply hearing Scripture presented to the unbeliever). They would call it circular reasoning or some such. But it is one “Christian” answer to the question and indicates that Scripture does at least address the issue, whether the unbeliever agrees or disagrees with it.

    Finally, I think really does boil down to the line from Howard Kainz column – of “what sin is for human beings – the choice of self rather than God.” All this insistence on “signs” when the ones that are already here are ignored or additional ones might even be acted on negatively are merely secondary at best if that “choice of self” has already been made.

  • Stanley Anderson

    To Gump (whose post I saw only after posting my own comments above), I have written elsewhere of a conjecture of mine that we might think of our fallen nature as a kind of “flattening” of the unfallen world where, just as a “flat” drawing of a three-dimensional cube of necessity shows at least some the supposed square faces and right angles they meet at as narrow parallelograms or obtuse or acute angles – or even hides some of the squares altogether, it may be that our sufferings – and even death itself, are only blessings that can only be seen at an oblique angle necessitated by our flattened state as a result of the Fall.

    If only we could see those “parallelograms” or those unseen squares that are hidden around the corner of death in their proper state as part of the glorious solid cube, we might be able to appreciate God’s glory more. But alas, in our flattened state, we can’t even aim our eyes up into that “third dimension”.

    Nevertheless, we do get glimpses of that fullness in other ways. I have a degree in mathematics and follow many scientific developments – trust me, the history of math and science are replete with examples of demonstrating “conclusively” that “this world” that I can see here before me is not all there is, but that there is something “out there” that those demonstrations nevertheless give us absolutely no hint of what the actual nature of that “something out there” is like, only that it definitely exists. From the ancient Greeks’ proof of the irrationality of the square root of two, to “imaginary numbers,” to non-Euclidean geometry, Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, Relativity, and Quantum Physics, science and math point “out there” saying in effect, “we’re not all there is – look out there!” even though they give no hint about how to go about “looking out there.”

    Jesus himself dreaded suffering and sweated drops of blood over it and pleaded for “this cup” to be taken away if possible. Nevertheless, he knew that his suffering was to be instrumental in glory wildly beyond our perception and willingly and gladly took it on. Who are we to disagree?

  • Lisa

    If anyone wants to know more about the value of suffering, just google JPII’s letter SALVIFICI DOLORIS. Peace!

  • Charles Griggy

    The Saints are correct in saying that the Angels would desire to suffer with Christ or for Christ if they could. The fallen Angels suffer because of punishment; that is, God’s punishment.

    The Angels are all around us and they continue to increase in number. These spirits minister to us everyday and strive to help us do and complete the will of God as we live our lives. Their presence is so profound and helpful that you would not achieve much without them. Therefore, never think of your successes as being your own because they belong to God alone.

  • Grump

    Lisa, even one as saintly as Mother Teresa questioned the “value” of suffering and expressed doubts about her faith. I see no point in Man suffering and then, becoming disappointed in a God who lets evil happen and consequently loses all faith in an all-caring, benevolent Supreme Being, to be punished eternally. It’s a double whammy. As Kant put it, I believe in “the idea of God” but an actual God who would let his creatures suffer needlessly as unfathomable to me.

  • Lisa

    Grump, everyone is tempted with doubts…even saints! Also, saints, unless they are speaking infallibly as pope, can state something in error. Salvific suffering is getting deep in theology and can be a difficult subject to grasp. I recommend talking to a Catholic priest. Not sure if you are Catholic or not, but just call your local parish and ask to make an appointment. You can talk to a priest about all sorts of questions and they don’t pressure you or anything. Personally, I’m grateful there is value in suffering…it makes my life not only bearable, but joyful. People tend to think that God is some bully who lets all of this happen to us,but he is a gentle Father who does not delight in our suffering. It is like a dad who is taking his young son for a life saving operation, The dad knows the son is in pain and the recovery will be painful, but if he doesn’t have his son operated on he will die. The son is too young to understand and all he has is the pain. Does the dad not have his son have the operation….of course not! He gets the operation for his son and loves his son and is there for him. It is the same for us. We don’t see the whole picture. We don’t fully understand why all of this is necessary. As a church we are the mystical body of Christ. We are all connected mystically, spiritually….again getting a bit deep. Really…it would be best for you to talk to a priest. Peace to you!

  • Jean Marie

    St Augustine said of human suffering: Let us understand that God is a physician, and that suffering is a medicine for salvation, not a punishment for damnation. (cannot remember who said this) God sends us trials either to show off our virtue or to correct our imperfections.