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An angel is a spiritual supernatural being found in many religions. Although the nature of angels and the tasks given to them vary from tradition to tradition, in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, they often act as messengers from God. Other roles in religious traditions include acting as warrior or guard; the concept of a “guardian angel” is popular in modern Western culture.

Angels are usually viewed as emanations of a supreme divine being, sent to do the tasks of that being. Traditions vary as to whether angels have free will or are merely extensions of the supreme being’s will. While the appearance of angels also varies, many views of angels give them a human shape.


The word “angel” in English (from Old English and German Engel), French (from Old French angele), Spanish, and many other Romance languages are derived from the Latin angelus, itself derived from Koine Greek: άγγελος, angelos, “messenger” (pl. άγγελοι).[1] The ultimate etymology of that word in Greek is uncertain.[2]

In Hebrew & Arabic the primary term for “angel” is “malakh” (מַלְאָךְ), “malaika”, or “malak” (ملاك) derived from the Semitic consonantal root l-‘-k (ל-א-ך), meaning “to send.” This root is also found in the noun “Melakha” (מְלָאכָה), meaning “work”, and the noun “Mal’achut” (מלאכות), meaning “message”. Other words referring to angels include כרוב kruv[3] describing young children, from which the English word “cherub” is derived. Another Hebrew term is Gil-Gulim, meaning “revolving,” and angels are sometimes depicted as wheels with wings. Derived from this is the Hebrew term “Gal-Gal,” “the rotation of fortune, change.”[4]

Judaic Beliefs

The Bible, Oral Law, Midrash and various mystical texts present angels as heavenly beings created by God who are not endowed with free will.[need quote] They occasionally appear on earth in furtherance of God’s will, often as messengers. They are frequently encountered in mystical texts, particularly those of the Merkabah tradition. Jewish angelology is far from systematic, and the purpose, nature and personalities of individual angels and the heavenly host as a whole varies greatly across historical eras, texts, genres and traditions.[improper synthesis?][5]

The Bible uses the terms מלאך אלהים (melakh Elohim; messenger of God), מלאך יהוה (melakh Adonai; messenger of the Lord), בני אלוהים (b’nai Elohim; sons of God) and הקודשים (ha-qodeshim; the holy ones) to refer to beings traditionally interpreted as angels. Other terms are used in later texts, such as העוליונים (the upper ones). Daniel is the first biblical figure to refer to individual angels by name.[5]

In post-Biblical Judaism, certain angels came to take on a particular significance and developed unique personalities and roles. Though these archangels were believed to have rank amongst the heavenly host, no systematic hierarchy ever developed. Metatron is considered one of the highest of the angels in Merkabah and Kabbalist mysticism and often serves as a scribe. He is briefly mentioned in the Talmud,[6] and figures prominently in Merkabah mystical texts. Michael, who serves as a warrior and advocate for Israel (Daniel 10:13)is looked upon particularly fondly. Gabriel is mentioned in the Book of Daniel (Daniel 8:15-17) and briefly in the Talmud,[7] as well as many Merkabah mystical texts.

Maimonides and Rationalism

In the Middle Ages, some Jews presented a rationalist view of angels that is accepted by many Jews.[citation needed]

The rationalist view of angels, as held by Maimonides, Gersonides, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, etc., states that God’s actions are never mediated by a violation of the laws of nature.[citation needed] Rather, all such interactions are by way of angels. Even this can be highly misleading: Maimonides harshly states that the average person’s understanding of the term “angel” is ignorant in the extreme.[citation needed]

Rather, according to Maimonides, the wise man understands that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as “angels” are actually metaphors for laws of nature, or the principles by which the universe operates. This is explained in his Guide of the Perplexed II:4 and II:6, and differs from the more widespread perception of angels in the Torah.[improper synthesis?]

…This leads Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that God, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. God burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the ‘angels which are near to Him’, through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move….thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from God and are the intermediaries between God and all the bodies [objects] here in this world. – Guide of the Perplexed II:4, Maimonides


Early Christians took over Jewish ideas of angels, which had passed from an early stage, where the idea of angels oscillated between that of a messenger of God and God himself to an identification with specific individual messengers (Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel). Then, in the space of little more than two centuries (from the third to the fifth) the image of angels took on definite characteristics both in theology and in art.[8]

By the late fourth century there is a consistent teaching among the Church Fathers on the existence of different categories of angels in line with the missions and activities assigned to them. Development of the doctrine of the angels was related to the settlement of the Trinitarian disputes in which some proposed that Jesus was not divine but on the level of immaterial beings subordinate to the Trinity.[9]


Accounts of angels in the Bible say nothing of wings, except for the Seraphim, which have six or three pair, and the earliest known Christian image of an angel, that in the Cubicolo dell’Annunziazione in the Catacomb of Priscilla, which is dated to the middle of the third century, is without wings. Representations of angels on sarcophagi and on objects such as lamps and reliquaries of that period also show them without wings.[10]

The earliest known representation of angels with wings is on what is called the Prince’s Sarcophagus, discovered at Sarigüzel, near Istanbul, in the 1930s and attributed to the time of Theodosius I (379-395).[11]

From the same period is a statement by Saint John Chrysostom explaining the significance of the wings: “They manifest a nature’s sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature.”[12]

From then on, though of course with some exceptions, Christian art represented angels with wings, as in the cycle of mosaics in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (432-440).[13]

Latter-day Saint Beliefs

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (generally called “Mormons”) views angels as the messengers of God sent to mankind to deliver messages, minister to humanity, teach doctrines of salvation, call mankind to repentance, give priesthood keys, save individuals in perilous times, and guide mankind.[14]

Joseph Smith, Jr. described his first angelic encounter thus:[15]

“While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. “He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom. “Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.”

People who claimed to have received a visit by an angel include Joseph Smith, Jr., and the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Although Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris all eventually became disaffected with Smith and left the church, none of them retracted their statement that they had seen and conversed with an angel of the Lord, and indeed, even defended their claim of angelic visitation to their deaths. Countless other Latter-day Saints, both in the early movement and modern church, claimed or have claimed to have seen angels, though Joseph Smith posited that, except in extenuating circumstances such as the restoration, mortals teach mortals, spirits teach spirits and resurrected beings teach other resurrected beings. [16]

The majority of the angelic visitations in the early Latter Day Saint movement were witnessed by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who, prior to the establishment of the Church, both claimed to have been ministered to by the prophet-historian Moroni, the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, John the Baptist, and the Apostles Peter, James, and John. Later, at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery claimed to have been visited by Jesus, and subsequently by Moses, Elias, and Elijah.[17] Joseph Smith taught that “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those that do belong or have belonged to it”[18] and, accordingly, Latter-day Saints believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and that Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.[19]


Islam is clear on the nature of angels in that they are messengers of God (Allah in Arabic). They have no free will, and can only do that which God orders them to do. Angels mentioned in the Quran include Gabriel, Michael, Israfil, Harun, Maroot and the Angel of Death.

Angels can take on different forms. Prophet Muhammad, the last Prophet of Islam, speaking of the magnitude of Angel Gabriel has said that his wings spanned from the Eastern to the Western horizon. At the same time, it is well known in Islamic tradition that angels used to take on human form.

Following is a Quranic verse that mentions the meeting of an angel with Mary, mother of Jesus: Surah Ali ‘Imran Chapter 3 verse 45

Behold! The angels said: O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus. The son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those Nearest to Allah. [Al-Qur’an 3:45]


In Zoroastrianism there are different angel-like animals. For example, each person has one guardian angel, called Fravashi. They patronize human beings and other creatures, and also manifest God’s energy. The Amesha Spentas have often been regarded as angels, although they don’t convey messages,[20] but are rather emanations of Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”, God); they initially appear in an abstract fashion and then later became personalized, associated with diverse aspects of the divine creation.[21]


Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, referred to angels as people who through the love of God have consumed all human limitations and have been endowned with spiritual attributes.[22]

`Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son, defined angels as “those holy souls who have severed attachment to the earthly world, who are free from the fetters of self and passion and who have attached their hearts to the divine realm and the merciful kingdom”.[23]

Furthermore, he said that people can be angels in this world:

“Ye are the angels, if your feet be firm, your spirits rejoiced, your secret thoughts pure, your eyes consoled, your ears opened, your breasts dilated with joy, and your souls gladdened, and if you arise to assist the Covenant, to resist dissension and to be attracted to the Effulgence!”[24]


Aleister Crowley tried to teach people to attain what he called “the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel”. Within the system of Thelema, the Holy Guardian Angel is representative of one’s truest divine nature. Citing Crowley, people have linked the term with the Genius of the Golden Dawn, the Augoeides of Iamblichus, the Atman of Hinduism, and the Daemon of the gnostics.

According to most Thelemites, the single most important goal is to consciously connect with one’s HGA, a process termed “Knowledge and Conversation.” By doing so, the magician becomes fully aware of his own True Will. For Crowley, this event was the single most important goal of any adept:

It should never be forgotten for a single moment that the central and essential work of the Magician is the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. Once he has achieved this he must of course be left entirely in the hands of that Angel, who can be invariably and inevitably relied upon to lead him to the further great step—crossing of the Abyss and the attainment of the grade of Master of the Temple. (Magick Without Tears, Ch.83)

Crowley felt that attaining Knowledge and Conversation was so important, that he staked the claim that any other magical operation was, in a sense, evil.


Some mystics[citation needed] believe that a soul grows in steps from a mineral, to a plant, then an animal, and then to a human. When the human resolves to die, a soul could become an angel.[improper synthesis?] The Persian Sufi mystic poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote in his poem Masnavi:

I died as inanimate matter and arose a plant, I died as a plant and rose again an animal. I died as an animal and arose a man. Why then should I fear to become less by dying? I shall die once again as a man To rise an angel perfect from head to foot! Again when I suffer dissolution as an angel, I shall become what passes the conception of man! Let me then become non-existent, for non-existence Sings to me in organ tones, ‘To him shall we return.’ (Translation from Wikisource, Masnavi I Ma’navi, Book III, Story XVII)[broken citation]

The Christian (Swedish) writer Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) wrote in his book Conjugial Love that a soul of a man and a soul of a woman who are (happily) united by marriage enter heaven and become an angel. This could be a married couple on earth or a couple that met after their earthly deaths.

Occult author Samael Aun Weor argues that a soul cannot evolve to become an angel through mechanical evolution—the Buddhist Wheel of Life has involution of nature as well as evolution—as such the steps would be mineral, plant, animal, human, animal, plant, mineral.[citation needed] To evolve to become an angel involves conscious work and voluntary suffering: marriage is treated as a sacrament, and is the means which Swedenborg was referring to.[improper synthesis?] The mystics were not referring to the death of the human body, but to the “dissolution of the ego”; the psychological death; the Buddhistic annihilation; the death of “myself”; the method of the removal of all our sins which Jesus Christ so wisely pointed out, and which was emulated by innumerable Saints.[improper synthesis?]


  1. angel in Online Etymological Dictionary
  2. Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Woerterbuch “Da das ganz unsicher ist, bleibt diese Etymologie sehr fraglich.” [1]
  3. p.664, Jastrow
  4. Bava Batra 16b
  5. Jewish Encyclopedia, accessed Feb. 15, 2008
  6. Sanhedrin 38b and Avodah Zerah 3b.
  7. cf. Sanhedrin 95b
  8. Proverbio(2007), pp. 25-38; cf. summary in Libreria Hoepli
  9. Proverbio(2007), pp. 29-38; cf. summary in Libreria Hoepli and review in La Civiltà Cattolica, 3795-3796 (2-16 August 2008), pp. 327-328.
  10. Proverbio(2007), pp. 81-89; cf. review in La Civiltà Cattolica, 3795-3796 (2-16 August 2008), pp. 327-328.
  11. Proverbio(2007) p. 66
  12. Proverbio(2007) p. 34
  13. Proverbio(2007), pp. 90-95; cf. review in La Civiltà Cattolica, 3795-3796 (2-16 August 2008), pp. 327-328.
  14. page 36. , Deseret (1966) God’s messengers, those individuals whom he sends (often from his personal presence in the eternal worlds), to deliver his messages (Luke 1:11-38); to minister to his children (Acts 10:1-8, 30-32); to teach them the doctrines of salvation (Mosiah 3); to call them to repentance (Moro. 7:31); to give them priesthood and keys (D. & C. 13; 128:20-21); to save them in perilous circumstances (1 Ne. 3:29-31; Dan. 6:22); to guide them in the performance of his work (Gen. 24: 7); to gather his elect in the last days (Matt. 24:31); to perform all needful things relative to his work (Moro. 7:29-33) — such messengers are called angels.
  15. Joseph Smith History 1:30-33
  16. The Fulness of Times
  17. D&C 110
  18. D&C 130:5
  19. LDS Bible Dictionary-Angels
  20. Lewis, James R., Oliver, Evelyn Dorothy, Sisung Kelle S. (Editor) (1996), Angels A to Z, Entry: Zoroastrianism, pp. 425-427, Visible Ink Press, ISBN 0-7876-0652-9
  21. Darmesteter, James (1880)(translator), The Zend Avesta, Part I: Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, pp. lx-lxxii, Oxford University Press, 1880, at
  22. Smith, Peter (2000). “angels”. A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 38-39. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
  23. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1976). “THE SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY”. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust. Retrieved on 2007-06-24.
  24. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “Ye Are The Angels”. Retrieved on 2007-06-24.

Further Reading

  • Angels and Devils, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology], Claude Beufort Moss


  • Cheyne, James Kelly (ed.) (1899). Angel. Encyclopædia Biblica. New York, Macmillan.
  • Driver, Samuel Rolles (Ed.) (1901) The book of Daniel. Cambridge UP.
  • Hastings, James (ed.) (1898). Angel. A dictionary of the Bible. New York: C. Scribner’s sons.
  • Oosterzee, Johannes Jacobus van. Christian dogmatics: a text-book for academical instruction and private study. Trans. John Watson Watson and Maurice J. Evans. (1874) New York, Scribner, Armstrong.
  • Smith, George Adam (1898) The book of the twelve prophets, commonly called the minor. London, Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Bamberger, Bernard Jacob, (March 15, 2006). Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm. Jewish Publication Society of America. ISBN 0-8276-0797-0
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition article “Angel”, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Briggs, Constance Victoria, 1997. The Encyclopedia of Angels : An A-to-Z Guide with Nearly 4,000 Entries. Plume. ISBN 0-452-27921-6.
  • Bunson, Matthew, (1996). Angels A to Z : A Who’s Who of the Heavenly Host. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-517-88537-9.
  • Cruz, Joan Carroll, OCDS, 1999. Angels and Devils. TAN Books and Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-89555-638-3
  • Davidson, Gustav. A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels. Free Press. ISBN 0-02-907052-X
  • Graham, Billy, 1994. Angels: God’s Secret Agents. W Pub Group; Minibook edition. ISBN 0-8499-5074-0
  • Guiley, Rosemary, 1996. Encyclopedia of Angels. ISBN 0-8160-2988-1
  • Jastrow, Marcus, 1996, A dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic literature compiled by Marcus Jastrow, PhD., Litt.D. with and index of Scriptural quotatons, Vol 1 & 2, The Judaica Press, New York
  • Kainz, Howard P., “Active and Passive Potency” in Thomistic Angelology Martinus Nijhoff. ISBN 90-247-1295-5
  • Kreeft, Peter J. 1995. Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them? Ignatius Press. ISBN 0-89870-550-9
  • Lewis, James R. (1995). Angels A to Z. Visible Ink Press. ISBN 0-7876-0652-9
  • Melville, Francis, 2001. The Book of Angels: Turn to Your Angels for Guidance, Comfort, and Inspiration. Barron’s Educational Series; 1st edition. ISBN 0-7641-5403-6
  • Ronner, John, 1993. Know Your Angels: The Angel Almanac With Biographies of 100 Prominent Angels in Legend & Folklore-And Much More! Mamre Press. ISBN 0-932945-40-6.
  • Swedenborg, Emanuel (1979). Conjugal Love. Swedenborg Foundation. ISBN 0-87785-054-2
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


  • “Angels: Good or Evil”, The History Channel, TV documentary, originally aired May 10, 2003

External links