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At the Beginning of Time, God Created the Angels as Individual, Immortal Spirits with Intelligence and Free Will

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Before we say anything else, I think we should ask ourselves: Why have twelve teleconferences on the angels and demons? This is no idle question because for many people angels and demons are figments of a pious or frightened imagination.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, we are so preoccupied with the material world that surrounds us, that we have practically come to identify reality with matter. A standard dictionary definition tells the readers that “matter” is “to be of importance,” or “as distinguished from nonsense or drollery.”

For too many people to talk about angels is nonsense. The trouble with the word “nonsense,” is that it reveals precisely why we desperately need to learn all we can about the angels.

What does the word “nonsense” literally mean? It means something which is not perceptible by the senses. Nonsense, on these terms, is whatever you cannot see with your bodily eyes, or hear with your ears, or touch with your fingers or taste with your tongue.

What are you saying? Are you saying that if something cannot be perceived by the bodily senses, it is therefore nonsense? Tragically, that is precisely what millions in the so-called developed countries like our own honestly think.

We return to the question we asked: Why have twelve conferences on angels and demons? Because whole nations have become so intoxicated with pleasure of the senses, and so terrified by bodily pain that they have lost contact with spiritual reality.

Our opening presentation is a profession of faith. We declare that, “At the beginning of time, God created the angels as individual, immortal spirits with intelligence and free will.”

You see immediately that we have six articles of faith to open our course on the angels and demons. We affirm that:

  • Time began when creatures first came into existence.

  • God created the world of angels.

  • The angels are individual persons.

  • They are immortal spirits.

  • They have an intelligence with which they can think.

  • They have a free will with which they can desire, choose, love or hate.

Time Began with Creation

I dare say there are few words that we use more often in our conversation than the word “time.” We ask, “What time is it?” We say, “It is time to go.” We may tell someone, “Time is up.”

Yet few people realize what we mean by “time.” Time is the measure of change. It is revealed truth that the world had a beginning. Implied in the first words of Genesis, it is repeatedly stated in the Old Testament, especially in such prayers as the Psalms: “Before the mountains were born, before the earth of the world came to birth, you were God from all eternity and forever”(Psalm 90:2). It is reaffirmed by Christ in His own priestly prayer to the Father: “Now, Father, it is time for you to glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world was”(John 17:4).

God is the infinite immutable being who existed from all eternity. God never changes. Only creatures change. The measure of their change is what we mean by “time.”

There is more than passing value in emphasizing that time is the measure of change. One of the basic errors in every age is the assumption that the world is eternal. This occurs not only among those who do not accept the faith of Christianity. It applies to every culture where faith in a personal God is set aside in favor of merely human speculation.

It may be news to some people, but a creature without a beginning is impossible. Why so? Because the succession involved in change is the very essence of time. An unchangeable creature is unthinkable, since changeability exists only with finite limitations.

Angels Created by God

In the thirteenth century, the Albigensian heresy became a grave threat to the Church. It was condemned on several counts, including the claim that the material world is eternal. Parallel with this assertion was the claim that there were two ultimate principles or gods, one good and the other evil. Spiritual beings come from the good god and matter from the evil deity.

As a result, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D. defined that, “We firmly believe and profess, without qualification, that there is only one true God...Creator of all things visible and invisible, spiritual and corporeal, who by His almighty power, from the very beginning of time, has created both orders of creatures in the same way out of nothing.”

The spiritual world, which means the angels, was created out of nothing. This is crucially important, especially in our day. Our souls are spiritual beings, which God creates out of nothing every time and at the moment that a child is conceived.

Were the angels created before the material world? The Church has never given a definitive answer. But the more common teaching of theologians is that the angels were created at the same time as the visible universe.

Angels are Individual Persons

Strictly speaking, it is not necessary to affirm that the angels are individual persons. Why not? Because every person is an individual intelligent being.

However, to make sure that our understanding of the angels is clear, it seems better to say that they are individual persons. Before this conference is over, we will say more about the intelligence and free will of the angels. For the present it is important to stress the fact that angels are not mere abstractions; they are not symbols or metaphors. They are real beings. They have objective existence.

It would hardly be necessary even to say that the angels are individual persons except for our earthly experience. The only persons we know here on earth are human persons. They all have human bodies. From the moment a child is conceived in the mother’s womb, it is perceptible to the senses. We have become so accustomed to associate personhood with the body that we have to, shall I say, do violence to our thinking to identify persons as bodiless individuals.

Why make an issue of the angels being individual persons? Because the words “angel” and “angelic” are widely considered synonyms for the unreal and unreality. Our materialistic culture has come to identify the real with the material. On these grounds, the spiritual is the unreal and angels are subjective projections of the imagination.

Immortal Spirits

It is an article of the Catholic faith that the nature of the angels is spiritual. The First Vatican Council clearly states that God created both forms of creatures, “the spiritual or angelic world and the corporeal or visible universe”(April 24, 1870). In other words, as distinct from human nature, which is composed of spirit and body, the nature of the angels is purely spiritual, that is, free of all materiality.

Throughout the Scriptures, the angels are called spirits (Latin spiritus, Greek pneumata). In the book of Daniel, the prophet prays, “Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord; praise and exalt Him above all forever”(Daniel 3:86).

Saint Paul compares “the spirits of wickedness,” that is, the fallen angels, with “flesh and blood,” that is, mankind: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high” (Ephesians 6:12).

Among the early writers of Christianity, some were confused about the exact nature of the angels. They ascribed to the angels a fine ethereal or fire-like bodiness. But this has never been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Among other witnesses, we are told by Saint Gregory the Great that, “The angel is a pure spirit; man, on the other hand, is flesh and spirit”(Morals, IV, 3, 8). Saint Thomas Aquinas is unqualified in teaching that the angels are purely spiritual created substances without any materiality.

We cannot overstress the spirituality of the angels. The modern world has been deeply penetrated by the virus of materialism. So true is this, that one of the main reasons for learning as much as we can about the angels is to enable us to cope with the materialistic culture in which we live.

Materialism is the theory that all reality is only matter, or a function or matter, or ultimately derived from matter. There is no real distinction between matter and spirit; even man’s soul is said to be essentially material and not uniquely created by God. In ethical philosophy, materialism holds that material goods and interests, the pleasures of the body and emotional experience, are the only or at least the main reason for human existence. In social philosophy, materialism claims that economics and this-worldly interests are the main functions of society.

All of this has become the bedrock of Marxism, which is the foundation of Communism. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of knowing that there are purely spiritual created beings. Not to know this is to be out of contact with reality.

Intelligent Beings

The most extensive explanation of the angels as intelligent beings is in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He is commonly described as the Angelic Doctor, which means the teacher about angels. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas devotes thousands of words to what we call angelology.

He begins by explaining that you do not need a body in order to have a mind. God, as God, has no body, yet He is infinite intelligence. The reason our soul needs a body is because it is only potentially intelligent. We need to acquire knowledge through bodily experience of the sensible world. The angels do not have this limitation.

How, then, do the angels know? They know by their very nature. Our souls have mental capacities but not innately fulfilled. All our knowledge comes from sense experience. If a human being was never able to see with bodily eyes, or hear with bodily ears, or feel with bodily touch, or taste with bodily tongue, or smell with bodily nostrils - that person would never have a single thought. All our knowledge derives from our bodily powers.

Not so the angels. Each angel is imprinted by the creative Word of God with all the knowledge that God wants that angel to possess.

Our minds, I repeat, are only potentially knowledgeable before they acquire knowledge and then potentially knowing when they do not attend to the knowledge they have acquired. The knowledge of angels does not depend on sense experience. It depends only on the will of God. They are always seeing the face of God, on whom depends the depth and measure of their knowledge of created things.

It may seem surprising, but we call the angels intelligences. We call human beings rational animals. We are animals because we have bodies, which have quantity and size and shape and weight and texture and color. The angels, as we have said, are pure spirits. They do not have quantity or extension in space.

We are called rational because we have to acquire knowledge of truth through processes of reasoning. Our form of intelligence, therefore, is lower than that of the angels. Unlike the angels we have to reason things out to reach conclusions.

That is why St. Thomas says that the light of intelligence is at full strength in the angels. They do not have to reason things out, nor do they have to conclude from premises.

Before we finish our reflection on the intelligence of the angels, it is worth asking a few questions about the extent of angelic knowledge.

Does one angel know another angel? Yes, they know one another in two ways. Each angel may be considered a distinct species. When God infused the angels with innate knowledge, He enlightened them about the specific differences among the angels. Moreover, the angels come to know one another from experience with one another. They communicate thoughts among themselves. This exchange of ideas enables each angel to know other angels from what we might call angelic companionship.

The number of questions that St. Thomas raises and answers about angelic knowledge is large. He asks whether an angel knows himself, whether the angels know material things, whether angels know the future, whether the angels know the mysteries of grace, whether an angel can understand many things at the same time, whether there can be falsehood in the knowledge of an angel.

For the present conference let us ask whether angels know secret thoughts. In one word the answer is, no. What is proper to God does not belong to angels. It is proper only to God to read the secrets of hearts.

The moment we say this, however, we must distinguish. A secret thought can be known in two ways: in its effect and in its presence in the mind and will.

Secret thoughts can be known in their effects not only by the angels but also by us. We can conclude to what people are thinking not only by their outer actions but even by their change of facial expression. Much more then can angels, or even demons more deeply penetrate these hidden bodily changes. A statement of St. Augustine deserves to be memorized. He says that demons can learn our dispositions with the greatest facility. They recognize what we are thinking not only when we express ourselves in speech, but even by the way our thoughts affect our bodies. After all, we are human beings. Every movement of our mind has an effect on our bodies.

That is as far as the angels can know our secret thoughts. Our ideas can be known as they are in the mind and our affections as they are in the will. In this way God alone can know the thoughts of our hearts and the affections of our wills. Why is this true? Because rational creatures are subject to God alone and He alone has access to the human spirit.

The Will of the Angels

We have two more questions to ask about the angels: Do they have a will, by which they can desire? Do they have a free will by which they choose and love?

Because everything comes from God’s will, everything has its own kind of tendency to good. Plants and non-living things have spontaneous tendencies, unconsciously and naturally drawn to what is good for them. Animals have sense-stimulated appetites, not knowing the meaning of good but drawn to particular goods sensed as sweet or white or otherwise attractive. Some creatures are attracted to what their minds first recognize as good.

Thus we are drawn to the good which our minds, enlightened by faith, tell us is humanly fulfilling. So, too, the angels are inclined to what their intelligence tells them is satisfying to their desires.

Do the angels have a free will? Yes, they do. But immediately we must make clear what stage of angelic existence and what angels we are talking about.

When originally created by God, all the angels had a free will. Indeed, their eternal destiny depended on how they would use their freedom. Mysteriously the angels could choose between the real good and the apparent good. They could choose between submitting and refusing obedience to their Creator. We know what happened. Some angels refused to bend their wills to the Divine will, and they were eternally condemned for their pride. Others freely surrendered their wills to the Almighty and are the angels about whom we are mainly speaking in this conference.

We continue. The angels certainly have a free will. But then we ask, “What kind of freedom do they possess?” It cannot be the freedom of choosing between good and evil, which means between doing the will of God and committing sin. The angels are in heavenly glory. They have the peak of freedom, because they always choose to love God.

So true is this that the angels spontaneously love God more than themselves. They do His will because they want to. Behind this statement is a profound mystery of our faith, but a mystery that we should try to understand. The mystery is that a person, whether an angel or human being, is only as free as his will is inclined to conform to the will of God.

The fallen angels are slaves of their selfish wills. The angels in heavenly glory enjoy the sublime freedom of loving God with their whole being.

Before we conclude this first conference, let us make sure we learn the first lesson of angelology. Like the angels at the dawn of their creation, we too have a free will. Like them we can choose to love God with our whole heart or love ourselves in preference to God.

We do not comprehend the next statement, but we better believe it. Our destiny depends, of course, on divine grace. But it also demands the cooperation of our free will.

In closing this conference, I wish to quote from Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Says Ignatius:

We should apply the memory to the sin of the angels, that is, recalling that they were created in the state of grace, that they did not want to make use of the freedom God gave them to reverence and obey their Creator and Lord. Falling into pride, they were changed from grace to hatred of God, and cast out of heaven into hell.

Whatever else we should learn from our teleconferences on the angels, it better be a realization of the power we have in our free wills. We hope to join the good angels in their eternal happiness. We shall join them on one condition, that we follow their example of choosing to please God here on earth at no matter what price to our self-love.

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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