Seraphim, Virtues, and Angels, Oh My

The Catholic Church has angels traditionally organized in a hierarchy--so why don't most people know about it?

Have a question about angels? Email Bill Webber at angelquestions@beliefnetstaff.com.*

Find Out:
  • How are angels ranked in heaven?
  • Where were the angels of murdered children?
  • How do we recognize a "human" angel?


    Many people are fascinated with the ordering and ranking of angels. While some Christians believe in an angelic hierarchy, others have never heard of it. How is it possible that this hierarchy is accepted as gospel by millions of Christians but also remains unknown to millions of other Christians? In the past, I have received questions about whether angels are ranked in heaven. This month, I will explore the answers to the following self-posed question:

    The Scriptures say there are countless angels. Do we know how they are organized?

    Catholics and Protestants disagree on the hierarchy of angels. Though the Catholic Church has never issued an official declaration on the organization of heavenly hosts, there is a long tradition that recognizes a celestial hierarchy of angels. St. Jerome and St. Ambrose made lists of a possible organization of angels, but the chart as we know it began with Dionysius. It first gained authority with the acceptance of Pope Gregory the Great and then, through the adoption and reworking by Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure in the 12th and 13th centuries embraced it. This celestial hierarchy divides angels into three tiers and three more subdivisions ("choirs") of angels.

    1. The highest tier comprises (in descending order) seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. These angels are noted for their zeal and ceaseless contemplation of God. Reigning at the top of this spectrum, in the realm closest to God, are the seraphim. They are characterized by their fiery love, which is said to reflect onto the lesser ranks of angels. Cherubim are associated with intellect, sharing deep insight into God's secrets and understanding the requirements for salvation. Thrones symbolize submission and peace; they help people abide by God's will. By tradition, God rests on them and imparts His spirit, which they pass on to lesser angels and mankind.

    2. The second tier is made up of dominions (or dominations), virtues, and powers. Dominions rule over other angels to carry out God's commands and make His authority known. Through virtues, God oversees the seasons and visible heavens. The powers, on the other hand, are assigned to fight evil spirits and defeat their plans.

    3. Principalities, archangels, and angels make up the third tier. Principalities are the top choir. They guard countries, make announcements to mankind, and govern souls and bodies. Archangels protect important people and, under St. Michael, the Church as well. Angels form the lowest rank and include guardian angels who lead, guide, and protect humans.
  • Generally, Protestants reject the idea of nine choirs in the celestial hierarchy and divide the angelic order only into angels and archangels. Protestant scholars also point out that the idea for the angel hierarchy came from the book "The Celestial Hierarchy" by Dionysius the Areopagite. From the 6th century through the Middle Ages, this book was believed to have been written by the Biblical Dionysius, a first-century Greek who Saint Paul at Athens (Acts 17:34) converted. At that time, "The Celestial Hierarchy" was treated as an authority almost equal to the Bible because it was purported that Paul, caught up into the "third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2), had taught Dionysus the special revelation about angels received in his visions and in John's visions.

    The ideas in the book were generally accepted in the centuries that followed. But, both Protestant and Catholic scholars now agree the book had existed before the 6th century and was not authored by the Dionysius mentioned in the Bible. Instead, the book was written by an unknown 6th century Christian, not the convert of St. Paul. After the discovery, Calvin wrote that the greatest parts of the book were mere babbling, and contemporary theologian Karl Barth dismisses Dionysius as "one of the greatest frauds in church history." In fact, today the author of "The Celestial Hierarchy" is referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius.

    The Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, and most Protestants today reject the notion of the nine choirs of angels. Protestants point out that the words for angels (thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, seraphim, cherubim, angels, and archangels) are found in verses that are scattered throughout the Bible, such as Ephesians 1:21, 3:10, and 6:12; and Colossians 1:16-20, but all nine are never found in one place. There is no indication that the different names represent different ranks. Instead, Protestant theologians argue that the nine terms describe the functions of angels without ranking them.

    There will always be differences of opinion about the angelic organization--until, that is, we get to heaven and discover the truth firsthand. For now, there is one truth of which we are certain about: The angelic hierarchy is completely different from the bureaucracy we find here on Earth because, in God's service, the angels work in perfect harmony as ministering spirits to mankind.

    Why do we hear stories of angels saving lives, but there are still innocent children who get murdered? Where were their angels?
    --Teri McCloud


    When God created the world, he created the laws of nature as well, and God seldom chooses to override his own laws. Even though I have searched for a pattern to explain why God has his angels intervene only at certain times, I have yet to find one. God is sovereign and does not need to explain his reasons or decisions to us.

    Children are hurt not because there aren't enough guardian angels or because angels go on vacations. Accidents happen, bad people sometimes do bad things, and innocent children die. Where are their guardian angels then? They are there all the time. More often than we realize they are doing unseen work—guiding, helping, and protecting. Sometimes they even intervene miraculously.

    Katherine Lippy also wrote me, “My little nine-year-old friend Jason was hit by a car and killed. His mother and I are good friends. Well, last spring I was painting a ceramic angel. All of a sudden Jason came to mind, and I spoke my thoughts out loud, ‘Lord, where was Jason’s guardian angel that day?’ My all-too-human questioning brought an instant answer as I heard the Lord speak, ‘Carrying Jason into my bosom.’ I certainly could see angels swooping Jason up—instantly as the car hit him—so he didn’t even feel a pain as he went to be with Jesus.

    Once, before a television taping, a woman asked Joan Wester Anderson, the author of "Where Angels Walk," the question “Where were the guardian angels when my daughter was stabbed to death?” Joan answered, “I believe they may have been with her, taking away the pain after the first wound.” Even though we may never know for certain, for many children, this may very well be the case!

    How can we recognize an angel in human form?
    --Bruce D.


    Sometimes we can recognize an angel who appears in human form because they tell us, 'I am an angel." Other times, like Abraham’s visitors in Genesis 18, it becomes clear by the things they say and do. But many times we do not know. We are left wondering, "Could he have been an angel?"

    Apparently angels appear in human form even though we do not recognize them despite the Bible's reminder, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). I have had many people tell me they did not know an angel had helped them until after they had disappeared. Here are some clues for figuring out if you've just met an angel:

    1. The angel in human form suddenly appears to help. The angel did not seem to have been around before and seemingly appears out of nowhere.

    2. After an angel in human form has finished helping you, he or she disappears. It seems to be a characteristic that angels do not stay around long to be thanked. They want the glory to go to God.

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