Rosy-cheeked, winged cherubs may be the most common images associated with angels, but these heavenly messengers actually take many forms in world religions. Whether they are Buddhist devas, Muslim malaikah, or Mormon ministering spirits, angels play important roles in many faiths. Read on to find out about angels' various functions, forms, and figures.
HINDUISM * ISLAM * JUDAISM * MORMONISM
The Buddhist equivalent of angels is devas, or celestial beings. Some schools of Buddhism also refer to dharmapalas or dharma protectors. In Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, devas are sometimes considered to be emanations of bodhisattvas or enlightened beings. Different schools of Buddhism have different important devas, as they are often derived from pre-Buddhist cultures and religions and not from Buddhist philosophy.
Devas are spiritual beings by nature--their form is usually described as bodies or emanations of light or energy. They are, however, often depicted in physical form, and there are many images of devas or dharmapalas, particularly in Tibetan Buddhist iconography.
Devas normally do not interfere in human affairs, but as Buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das notes, they have been known to rejoice, applaud, and rain down flowers for good deeds performed in the world. In Thailand, it is believed that devas approve of people meditating and will harass people of whose behavior they don't approve.
The bodhisattva of compassion, known as Kwan Yin in Chinese and Chenrezig in Tibetan, is widely viewed as a sort of Buddhist angel. The bodhisattva's original Sanskrit name, Avolokiteshvara, means "hearer of the 10,000 cries"--that is, he or she (the bodhisattva is male in the original Buddhist texts, but is represented as female in many Buddhist schools) perceives the suffering of all sentient beings. In some sects, reciting her name is believed to summon her aid.
Angels in Catholicism are intermediaries between God and humans. In addition to their role as servants and messengers, angels are also attendants to God's throne. Catholic theology outlines a hierarchy of nine choirs of angels divided into three groups: Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Dominations, Virtues and Powers; Principalities, Archangels and Angels.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: "The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls 'ANGELS' is a truth of faith." Angels have a huge role in Christian history--announcing Christ's birth, protecting Christ in the wilderness, battling Satan in the Book of Revelation, and more.
Angels are pure spirits and don't have corporeal forms. They remain disembodied forever. Traditional Catholicism teaches that angels speak "within" a person, and not "to" them, thereby maintaining their spiritual nature.
Catholics believe that each individual also has his or her own guardian angel. Guardian angels can intervene in human affairs to help people. They can also influence people's senses and imaginations, but not their will. They remain with their charges even in heaven. The Catechism states: "From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession." Catholics pray to angels to ask for their help and intercession in human affairs.
Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael are the chief angels, called archangels. Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the son of God. Michael's role includes fighting evil and Satan and rescuing the souls of the faithful at the hour of death. He will be present at the time of the Antichrist and the end of the world. Raphael appears only in the Apocrypha, as the angel who helped Tobiah cure his father's blindness in the book of Tobit. The unnamed Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is said by some to be the pre-incarnate Christ. Lucifer is the fallen archangel who, with one-third of the angelic host, was cast out of heaven for the sin of pride. He presides over hell and seeks to lure mankind to sin.
Angels and archangels are part of the hierarchy of nine bodiless powers in Orthodox tradition. Angels are workers and messengers of God.
Angels are usually described in a physical way, either as having the form of man, or being six-winged. However, angels do not actually have physical bodies.
Of all the nine types of spirit beings, the angels are the closest to man. They are appointed to guard and help believers.
Orthodox Christians follow a hierarchy of angels similar to Catholicism, also divided into three levels. The Seraphim are the closest to the Holy Trinity. The most important of all angels is the archangel Michael. Other archangels include Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selaphiel, Jehudiel, Barachiel, and Jeremiel. Satan, the fallen angel, plays a similar role to that of other Christian denominations.
While not specifically referred to as angels, Hinduism does have many different types of spirit beings who act in a similar capacity. One example is the minor gods, or devas, literally "shining ones," who inhabit the higher astral plane. Gods, devas, planets like Sani (Saturn), gurus (teachers), and ancestors can all play a protective role for humans. Also present in Hinduism are asuras, evil spirits or demons. They are fallen devas who inhabit the lower astral plane, the mental plane of existence. If asuras do good, they can be reincarnated into devas and do not have to remain eternally in the lower plane. Hinduism also includes apsaras, who are heavenly nymphs, angiris, who preside over sacrifices, and lipika, who regulate karma.
Devas and apsaras are spiritual beings, but they are often depicted in physical form. Apsaras are seductively beautiful and the devas often look like royalty, stately and handsome.
Devas and asuras can inspire or bring down aspirants, helping or hindering people's spiritual journey.
No specific individual angels.
Angels in Islam, or malaikah, play an essential role as messengers and intermediaries from Allah to the world, beginning with the angel Jabrai'il (Gabriel) who revealed the Qur’an, Islam's holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad.
Angels do not have a real physical shape. Though at certain times angels may materialize in different forms in dreams or visions, their true form is incomprehensible to humans.
Every person has two guardian angels in their lives. Guardian angels watch and record everything people do.
The most important of these messengers was the angel Gabriel, or Jabra'il, who Muslims believe revealed the Qur'an from Allah to Muhammad. The other Islamic archangels are Mika'il (Michael), who patrols the Israelites, Israfil, who will sound the trumpet on the last day, and Izra'il, who is the angel of death. Munkar and Nakir are two other angels who visit graves and test the faith of the recently deceased. Shaitan, the Muslim equivalent of the devil, is also important in Islam. Also called Iblis, Shaitan is the source of evil in the world. He is not considered an angel, but instead is a member of the jinn, invisible spirit beings who can be good or bad. Shaitan tempts humans are tries to mislead them.
Angels in Judaism, or malachim, are messengers of God who help carry out God's work and plans. For a complete explanation of the role of angels in Judaism, see this column on angels in Jewish tradition.
Angels are purely spiritual beings who do not have a physical form. Biblical angels do take on physical form, though Maimonides, the great Jewish sage and biblical commentator, later wrote that physical descriptions of angels were metaphorical.
Angels intervene in stories in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as God's messengers, such as when an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. There is also the famous story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. But in general, angels initiate the communication from God, not vice-versa. There is no angel worship in Judaism, and Jews believe that it is only God who determines what happens on earth—angels merely carry out God's will.
Traditionally, Micha'el is a guardian of the people Israel. He carries out God's mission of kindness. Gabriel is the angel of judgment and strength. Uriel is an angel who illumines the right path. Raphael is a healer.
Angels are described in the Doctrine and Covenant as being one of the two kinds of bodies in heaven. They are described as "resurrected personages." They are considered by Mormons to be messengers of God and "ministering spirits."
Angels are either ministering spirits or more evolved human beings who have flesh and bone.
Latter-day Saints believe that angels can appear to people in a very literal sense, but not necessarily that each person has a specifically assigned guardian angel. Angels serve to advance the work of the Lord through giving instruction or authority for specific tasks, as was the case with the founding of the Mormon religion. Angels can also impart comfort, warning, protection, or knowledge but never in a way that interferes with human free will. Mormons believe that "the whispering of the Holy Ghost" is a more common and ultimately more effective way in which God communicates with individuals.
Mormons believe that their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was visited by the angel Moroni who led him to the Book of Mormon. (Moroni was once human, the son of the prophet Mormon, who became an angel after he died.) A golden statue of Moroni sits atop most Mormon temples.
Angels are messengers and carry out God's will. Some angels are guardian angels. John Calvin viewed angels as protectors and helpers. Angels are recognized as very powerful beings. The gospels are full of examples of the angels intervening with Jesus, as announcers of his birth, ministers to him in the wilderness, and more.
Angels are created as spirit beings—not as humans. They can take on a corporeal form if doing so will help them do their work on earth. They are genderless and invisible.
They provide guidance and assurance to believers. Guardian angels help protect people from harm. Not all angels are good, however.
All biblical angels are important. Most Protestant theologians, however, warn against the Catholic practice of praying to angels (which they viewed as angel worship) and the angel hierarchy of Catholicism because these traditions were not biblical and were seen as having pagan roots. Christianity also teaches that Lucifer, the devil, was a fallen angel who rebelled against God and was kicked out of heaven.