Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

Angels and ghosts

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7 minutes to read The common assumption that Matthew 18 and Acts 12 give us glimpses of guardian angels is probably mistaken. Rather, the term angel in these passages is referring to human spirits.

The angels mentioned in Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 are typically taken as mutually-reinforcing references that point us to the existence of guardian angels. In Matthew 18, Jesus says of the little ones that “their angels” always see his Father’s face in heaven; in Acts 12, the disciples try to convince Rhoda that Peter is “his angel.”

Steve Hays, however, has recently observed the striking consonance between Acts 12:15 and a crisis apparition, in which a recently-deceased person makes contact with a friend or family member—usually appearing to them bodily, usually within about 24 hours of death, and often with the “appearee” not realizing the person has even died. According to research by David Hufford, about 30% of people have experienced such an apparition, though the figure rises dramatically for certain classes of people like combat veterans, who clock in at 58%.

I was initially skeptical of this interpretation because I wasn’t aware of any evidence that αγγελος (angelos; angel) was used this way anywhere else. However, I was providentially reading Acts 23:8 only a day or so later—and was immediately struck by Luke’s parenthetical comment that:

…the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.Acts 23:8

In his commentary on Acts, Barrett makes the following observation about this verse:

…the statement that the Sadducees do not believe in angels or spirits, if taken in its most obvious sense, has no parallel, and indeed can have none, for the Sadducees accepted the authority of the written Torah and the Pentateuch contains many references to angelic and spiritual beings, in whose existence the Sadducees must have believed … It is not claimed that the Sadducees denied outright the existence of spiritual beings—they could not have done so—only that they denied the existence of an interim state, in which those who had died existed as angels or spirits, these being more or less synonymous terms (see 1 Enoch 22:3,7; 45:4–5; Mt 22:30; Mk 12.25; Lk 20:36). C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles (T&T Clark, 1998), 2:1065–66.

It is impossible, in light of what we know of the Sadducees, to interpret Acts 23:8 in any other way. The terms spirit and angel are clearly being used synonymously to refer to the disembodied human soul between death and resurrection. Indeed, although many translations say “the Pharisees acknowledge them all,” the term αμφοτεροι properly means “them both.” Luke is saying that the Sadducees not only deny the resurrection, but even the continuation of human existence after death in the form of the angel or spirit. The Pharisees, by contrast, acknowledge both the resurrection and the angel or spirit.

Barrett also notes the comparison with Matthew and Mark’s discussion of marriage in the resurrection. Curiously, both gospels specifically say we will be “like angels in heaven.” There seems to me a subtle distinction being made by the lack of definite article, as evidenced by the fact that I previously assumed this did refer to ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14); I subsequently, and incorrectly, recalled both verses as saying that “we shall be like the angels in heaven”—which they pointedly do not say.

Moreover, although Barrett also cites 1 Enoch 22:3, 7; 45:4–5, a much clearer parallel to this usage in Second Temple thought is 1 Enoch 51:4–5. Speaking of the righteous believers in the eschaton, it says:

And in those days the mountains will skip like rams, and the hills spring like lambs satisfied with milk, and they will all be angels in heaven. Their faces will shine in gladness, because the Chosen One has arisen in those days, and the earth will rejoice, and the just will live thereon, and the chosen will walk and move thereon.

So it appears the semantic domain of αγγελος certainly may include human spirits—and indeed, this makes good sense given that the word initially carried the denotation of a messenger regardless of ontology. A crisis apparition would naturally fit into that semantic range, since it is the messenger of a decedent. And it is hardly difficult to see how the word could then be pushed into service for any sensible spirit, whether human or not.

This interpretation is reinforced by how neatly it solves four otherwise thorny questions with Acts 12:

  1. Why does Luke describe the angel who liberates Peter as an angel of the Lord (Acts 12:7), rather than as the angel of Peter? If there is a specific angel assigned to protect Peter, and Luke speaks of him just a few verses later, surely he would also be the one to get Peter out of jail? On the other hand, if the second angel (so-called) is actually a crisis apparition, then the distinction makes good sense.
  2. Why do the disciples think that Peter’s guardian angel would be knocking at the door in the first place? What possible precedent is there for such an event in their minds? On the other hand, they are busy praying for Peter because they expect him to be executed (Acts 12:2–3)—so it makes perfect sense that they would infer that this has now happened, and he is appearing to Rhoda to say goodbye.
  3. Why do the disciples think that Peter’s guardian angel would sound like him? What possible reason could there be for a spirit assigned to protect someone to have their voiceprint? On the other hand, a crisis apparition would obviously be expected to sound like the decedent.
  4. Perhaps most troublesome: why do the disciples not immediately invite the angel in? They do not even bother to go and check at first—but if they thought that there was even a small chance of this being a ministering spirit, they would certainly not have acted in such a way! A guardian angel, as a fellow servant of the Lord with greater natural status than they (Hebrews 2:7), would have been promptly shown the requisite hospitality their culture demanded (e.g. Genesis 18:2–8; cf. Hebrews 13:2). On the other hand, if they thought this was a crisis apparition, then they probably would not have investigated at first, since such apparitions typically aren’t sensible to anyone but the particular person to whom they appear.

That said, could this new interpretation not also present a problem, given that it makes Luke’s use of αγγελος confusing? Isn’t it awkward to think that one term means two different things in the same pericope? Perhaps—but I’m skeptical of this objection’s force: if the semantic domain of αγγελος included both human and non-human spirits, it is hardly asking too much of a reader to recognize that two different meanings are in view. I dare say we do this in English on occasion without even noticing. Moreover, there are two other possible answers to this objection:

  1. Luke is not at liberty to choose exactly the words he would prefer for literary clarity. He is, after all, reporting what the disciples actually said.
  2. Deliberately reusing αγγελος rather than φαντασμα or πνευμα could be a rhetorical device to intensify the dramatic irony of the overall pericope through a common thematic link: in the first part, Peter thinks the angel is not real, but rather a vision (Acts 12:9); in the second part, the disciples think Peter is not real, but rather an angel!

Why it matters

If this interpretation is accurate, it could also reflect back on Matthew 18:10 in ways which go beyond simply understanding exactly what the disciples were thinking. This has important soteriological, pastoral, and even eschatological implications:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.Matthew 18:10

Here, the angels are no longer guardian angels, but rather the spirits of deceased children; Jesus is speaking of them as a class, and saying not to despise them because God counts them worthy of coming into his presence (cf. Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). Aside from the obvious pastoral benefit of being able to tell a grieving parent that the children of God’s people—at least—go directly into his presence when they die, this interpretation has two exegetical benefits also:

  • It harmonizes with a known phenomenon in people’s experience, which is in turn mentioned many times in the Bible and presupposed by the biblical authors (cf. Matthew 14:26; Luke 24:37; 1 Samuel 28:15; Isaiah 29:4)—and even by Jesus himself (Luke 24:39). On the other hand, the concept of guardian angels is nonexistent in Second Temple literature—let alone in the Bible itself.
  • It explains how the angels in this passage can be perpetually before the throne of God, rather than here on earth, if their job is actually protecting children here on earth. This is very difficult to explain on the traditional view, because although we don’t know much about the “geography” of the spirit world, to see God’s face is a metaphor for being in his direct, close presence (cf. Luke 1:19; Revelation 8:2; Exodus 33:11; Genesis 32:30; Esther 1:14). On the other hand, if these angels are the spirits of the children themselves, then what Jesus is saying makes straightforward sense.

So Matthew 18:10 seems—very likely—a clear proof that children who die before the age of reason (cf. Isaiah 7:16) are predestined to glory. Given the infant mortality rate of both the ancient world (sometimes as high as 75%) and the modern (see http://www.numberofabortions.com/), this would seem to have significant implications for passages like Revelation 7:9, and for the question Calvinists sometimes get asked about God predestining a majority of the world to hell.

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