Exploring the mystery of angels

A commonly-held view that angels are souls of virtuous or much-beloved dead people is “definitely not classical Christian teaching,” says Anglican priest the Rev. Christopher Snow. Photo: Zwiebackesser
A commonly-held view that angels are souls of virtuous or much-beloved dead people is “definitely not classical Christian teaching,” says Anglican priest the Rev. Christopher Snow. Photo: Zwiebackesser
Published April 7, 2016

Conclusion of a two-part series

Wayne Hankey, a specialist in ancient and medieval philosophy, laments people's abandonment of intuitive forms of thought. Image: Claire Wahlen
Wayne Hankey, a specialist in ancient and medieval philosophy, laments people’s abandonment of intuitive forms of thought. Image: Claire Wahlen

The future of our planet depends on our re-embracing belief in entities such as angels, a Halifax professor says.

Wayne Hankey, a specialist in ancient and medieval philosophy at Dalhousie University and one-time Anglican priest (now a Roman Catholic), says that many in the Western world, including Anglicans, have largely come to disbelieve in angels because of their “infatuation” with ratiocination—the type of reasoning used by science, as most of us understand it, technology and other forms of manipulation and control. It has led to abandoning older, intuitive forms of thought and to a technological society that has spawned climate change and other threats to human life, he asserts.

Asked what he would say to those who are skeptical about angels, Hankey doesn’t mince words. “Infatuation with ratiocination…and its false freedom is what’s destroying the conditions of human life on the planet in every sense,” he says, “so you’d better get over it and discover that there are higher forms above you and that the cosmos is governed by things that you really do not have control over and that you’d better get in tune with.”

In fact, surveys suggest a fairly consistent tendency toward belief in angels among Canadians. Over the past few decades, the proportion of Canadians claiming to believe in angels has stayed at just over six in 10, according to an Angus Reid poll.

It’s unclear, however, how closely modern conceptions of angels fit in with traditional notions. People claiming to have seen or to believe in angels today describe them in a wide range of ways—from “ethereal spirits with human-like qualities but lacking a material body,” to unseen influences that have shielded them from harm, to other human beings seen as doing God’s work, says Joseph Baker, a professor of sociology at East Tennessee State University and co-author of a recent study on angelic belief in the U.S.

The Rev. Christopher Snow, rector of Grace Anglican Church in Milton, Ont. Photo: Contributed
The Rev. Christopher Snow, rector of Grace Anglican Church in Milton, Ont. Photo: Contributed

Another common view of angels—that they are the souls of virtuous or much-beloved dead people—is “definitely not classical Christian teaching,” says the Rev. Christopher Snow, who served 11 years as rector at St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, Nfld., before his current role as rector of Grace Anglican Church in Milton, Ont. The same goes for much that appears about angels in the popular media, he says.

Traditional representations of angels as winged human-like beings, he says, are only attempts to represent what is really an immaterial reality. “These are wonderful works of art, but they don’t actually convey the actual idea.”

According to Hankey, the truth about angels can be found in the writings of the great Christian angelologists, starting with St. Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and running to the 13th-century thinker St. Thomas Aquinas and beyond-and their Jewish and Muslim counterparts of the Middle Ages. The work most influential on both Eastern and Western Christian thought about angels, Hankey says, was a book called The Celestial Hierarchy, written in the 5th century by Pseudo-Dionysius, a Syrian Christian.

An important element in this tradition, Hankey says, was an attempt to synthesize what’s written about angels in sacred texts—the Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Qu’ran—with ideas drawn from ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

What emerged was a conception of angels as purely intellectual entities. Though for many thinkers in this tradition—including Augustine and Aquinas—angels are able to temporarily take on bodily form, in themselves they are purely immaterial.

One might think of them, Hankey says, as ideas—living, acting ideas that govern the cosmos. Contents, one might say, of the mind of God.

“For someone like the great Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides, the angels are essentially forms that come from the divine mind—the forms that are, in fact, the laws of reality,” he says.

The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, meaning “messenger.” Angels, Hankey says, “are intermediary forms of intellect between the divine and the human because the human cannot approach the divine directly”-they’re relayers, one might say, of divine truths to human beings. Mysteriously, the angels love us, but for them, love is “an ecstasy” that is free of the passion of human emotion, he says.

Hannah Roberts Brockow, an Anglican angel devotee who lives in Montreal, says the traditional names of angels—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and so on—all name aspects of God. Raphael, for example, means “God heals” in Hebrew.

“It’s as if each one is a ray of God’s light—they have a quality of God that we can connect to more easily. And I think that’s a really important piece of it because God can seem so vast,” she says. “We use parental roles frequently in worship to get closer to him, but there are many other roles.”

Not all Christians, of course, are so interested in angels. According to Lawrence Osborn, a former Cambridge researcher in theology and author of a 1994 paper on angels, few Protestant theologians of modern times have devoted much time to angels. Most, he says, have been happy to “consign angels to the outer darkness of popular Christian piety: a harmless belief perhaps but not one which need concern the scientific theologian.” For others, concern about angels is a distraction from the “weightier matters” of Christianity.

This is not what Osborn believes. Borrowing from 20th-century Protestant theologian Karl Barth-in Osborn’s view, virtually the sole Protestant thinker of our time to take angels seriously-Osborn defines angels as “heralds of the mystery of God.” For Barth, Osborn says, “A theology without angels is a theology without mystery.”

Drawing also from U.S. theologian Walter Wink and Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychiatry, Osborn develops a concept of angels as quasi-psychological entities that reveal to us the “inwardness” or “depth” of creation in a way that is outside the scope of modern science.

“As we explore the mystery of creation we may experience some of its ‘contours’ as presences or entities which are best described in personal or quasi-personal terms,” he writes. “If these encounters direct us beyond themselves to the triune God, we may rightly interpret them as messengers (angels) of God.”

The importance of angels as God-sent inspirers of wonder is taken up by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his 2007 book, Tokens of Trust. Angels, Williams writes, “can be at least a powerful symbol for all those dimensions of the universe about which we have no real idea.” Whether we believe in angels or not, he writes, “It’s worth thinking of them as at the very least a sort of shorthand description of everything that’s ’round the corner’ of our perception and understanding in the universe—including the universal song of praise that surrounds us always.”

Editor’s note: In 2021, Wayne Hankey, who is cited in this article, was charged with sexual assault and indecent assault in relation to incidents alleged to have occurred in the 1970s and 80s. He died in 2022, before he could go to trial on these charges. In 2021, the University of King’s College, where he had taught for many years, announced it had hired a law firm to conduct an independent review of the facts that led to one of the charges. The review, the final report of which was released in March 2022, concluded that Hankey had “engaged in a pattern of predatory and abusive behaviour towards some young men.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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