As I sat around the table with the grieving family you could almost tangibly feel the sense of grief and despair. Their teenage daughter (sister, cousin) had been brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Our church was the closest thing any of them had to a religious affiliation, so it was my job to conduct the funeral. They told me about their precious one’s life, the joy she brought to others, her extensive community involvement. I thanked them for helping me understand something of the life of this young lady I had never met.
Then Dad expressed, for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, his belief that his daughter was now an angel. “You’ve got to tell them that now she is an angel,” he told me.
Where does this idea come from that humans (at least good ones) become angels when they die? It seems to be a common belief in popular culture, maybe even the majority opinion. It is the premise of movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, TV shows like Highway to Heaven, and scores of “Family Circus” cartoons. We might state the proposition as: “All morally good humans become angels when they die.” Often there is a corollary, either stated or implied: “All angels were once humans.”
Does this idea have any basis at all in the history of biblical interpretation or is it merely a modern invention?
Metatron and Sandalphon
In fact, there are a couple of ancient stories about humans becoming angels without dying first. The most famous is the story of Enoch, as recounted in the fifth-century AD Hebrew Apocalypse of Enoch (also called 3 Enoch).
Third Enoch is written under the pseudonym of Rabbi Ishmael, an early second-century scholar. In the opening chapters of the book, Ishmael has a vision of the angel Metatron, who introduces himself by describing the seventy names God had bestowed upon him and his many responsibilities in the heavenly hierarchy. When Ishmael asks why Metatron has been so honored, he responds,
“Because I am Enoch, the son of Jared. When the generation of the flood sinned and turned to evil deeds, and said to God, ‘Go away! We do not choose to learn your ways,’ the Holy One, blessed be he, took me from their midst to be a witness against them in the heavenly height to all who should come into the world, so that they should not say, ‘The Merciful One is cruel!’ … Therefore the Holy One, blessed be he, brought me up in their lifetime, before their very eyes, to the heavenly height, to be a witness against them to future generations. And the Holy One, blessed be he, appointed me in the height as a prince and a ruler among the ministering angels.” (3 Enoch 4:2-3, 5)
The other angels, however, object to this proposed elevation:
“When the Holy One, blessed be he, desired to bring me up to the height, he sent me Prince Anapi’el YHWH and he took me from their midst, before their very eyes, and he conveyed me in great glory on a fiery chariot, with fiery horses and glorious attendants, and he brought me up with the Shekinah to the heavenly heights. As soon as I reached the heavenly heights, the holy creatures, the ophanim, the seraphim, the cherubim, the wheels of the chariot and the ministers of consuming fire, smelled my odor 365,000 myriads of parasangs off; they said, ‘What is this smell of one born of a woman? Why does a white drop ascend on high and serve among those who cleave the flames?’ The Holy One, blessed be he, replied and said to them, ‘My ministers, my hosts, my cherubim, my ophanim, and my seraphim, do not be displeased at this, for all mankind has rejected me and my great kingdom and has gone off and worshiped idols. So I have taken up my Shekinah from their midst and brought it up to the height. And this one whom I have removed from them is the choicest of them all and worth them all in faith, righteousness, and fitting conduct. This one whom I have taken is my sole reward from my whole world under heaven.’” (3 Enoch 6:1-3)
God then bestows heavenly honors upon him, transforms him into a vast supernatural being, bestows upon him various symbols of authority (throne, robe, crown), and sets him in authority over the rest of the heavenly hierarchy. When God places the crown upon his head, the rest of the angels tremble before him.
A second human described as being elevated to the ranks of the angels is Elijah, who in some legends became the archangel Sandalphon (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible [JPS, 1956] 589). Sandalphon is sometimes said to be the twin brother of Metatron. Both figure in medieval Jewish mystical texts and at least have cameo appearances in the Talmud and other rabbinic writings. It is noteworthy that in Scripture itself neither of these figures actually died: Enoch “walked with God; then he was no more because God took him” (Gen 5:24); Elijah was taken to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:1-12). Both therefore figure prominently in various speculative, apocalyptic texts.
These are the only humans ever depicted in Jewish or Christian speculation as being transformed into angels. But where, then, did people get the idea that lots and lots of people turned into angels at death?
New Testament Texts
There are a handful of New Testament texts that might imply some sort of human-to-angel transformation. The first is Mark 12:25 and parallels: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Obviously, Jesus is not teaching that the righteous become angels. First, he explicitly says they are merely “like” angels. Second, the righteous are also explicitly in possession of physical bodies, since he is describing what happens “when they rise from the dead.” Third, in the context of the Sadducees’ hypothetical puzzle of a widow who had been married to multiple husbands in life, the point of the comparison is explicitly with the fact that neither angels nor resurrected saints participate in the institution of marriage. Still, the fact remains that a comparison can be made between the final state of the righteous dead and the nature of angels. Perhaps this was enough to set the stage for later piety to propose the idea that death equates to angelic transformation.
More to the point is a minority interpretation of a couple of other passages. Matthew 18:10 says, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”
Acts 12:12-15 describes how Peter, fresh from his escape from prison (with angelic assistance) flees to safety:
As soon as he realized [that it wasn't just a dream], he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.”
These two passages are usually interpreted as early hints at something like a doctrine of “guardian angels.” At least in the Acts passage, such an angel is assumed to look (and sound) like the person to whom they are assigned. Since at least the nineteenth century, however, there has been an alternative interpretation that should be noted. In his 1887 essay, “The Angels of Christ’s Little Ones,” B. B. Warfield suggested that in these passages what are called “angels” are actually disembodied spirits:
There is yet another explanation which has sometimes been suggested, but which has been received with very little consideration by scholars. This is the very simple one that by “angel” in these passages is meant just “the disembodied soul.”
Assuredly, if we could dare take the word “angel” in these passages in the sense of disembodied spirit, the requirements of both passages would be satisfied. What more natural than that the Christian brethren assembled in Mary’s house, when assured by the maid that Peter stood at the door, speaking with Peter’s voice – though they knew him to be closely guarded in prison, or perhaps already in worse case than even this – should have sprung to the only other possible explanation of the phenomenon: “It is his spirit!”… There is every suggestion that they knew he was destined for death and feared the worst; and there is no reason why they may not have jumped to the conclusion that the worst had come and they were being only now and thus advertised of it.
In the passage in Matthew, nothing could seem more appropriate than the sense of “disembodied spirits.” What could so enhance the reverence with which “these little ones”—especially if literal children are meant—should be treated here than the assurance that it is specifically their souls which in heaven stand closest to the Father’s throne?
In his Commentary on Matthew (Zondervan, 1995), D. A. Carson agrees:
The most likely explanation is the one Warfield defends. The “angels” of the “little ones” are their spirits after death and they always see the heavenly Father’s face. Do not despise these little ones, Jesus says, for their destiny is the unshielded glory of the Father’s presence. The present tense (they “always see”) raises no difficulty because Jesus is dealing with a class, not individuals. The same interpretation admirably suits Acts 12:15: what the assembled group thinks is standing outside is Peter’s “spirit” (angel), which accounts for Rhoda’s recognition of his voice.
But can the word “angel” be pressed into this interpretation? Certainly Jesus teaches that God’s people in the Resurrection “will be like the angels in heaven” as to marriage (22:30) and immortality (Luke 20:36). Similar language is also used in 2 Baruch 51:5, 12 (cf. also 1 Enoch 51:4): the righteous will become angels in heaven, will be transformed into the splendor of angels, and will even surpass the excellency of angels. The evidence, though not overwhelming, is substantial enough to suppose that “their angels” simply refers to their continued existence in the heavenly Father’s presence.
The text Carson cites from 2 Baruch is especially enlightening as an early indication of this sort of speculation. In describing the “shapes” of the righteous and the unrighteous when the final judgment has been passed, the writer has God say,
Also, as for the glory of those who proved to be righteous on account of my law, those who possessed intelligence in their life, and those who planted the root of wisdom in their heart—their splendor will then be glorified by transformations, and the shape of their face will be changed into light of their beauty so that they may acquire and receive the undying world which is promised to them. Therefore, especially they who will then come will be sad, because they despised my Law and stopped their ears lest they hear wisdom and receive intelligence. When they, therefore, will see that those over whom they are exalted now will then be more exalted and glorified than they, then both these and those will be changed, these [i.e., the righteous] into the splendor of angels and those [i.e., the unrighteous] into startling visions and horrible shapes; and they will waste away even more. (2 Baruch 51:2-5)
If one follows this interpretation of Matthew and Acts, then only by the most generous definition can one say that the departed saints “become” angels. It would be far more accurate to say that they “have” angels, that is, spirits. They are nowhere depicted as performing angelic duties—ministering at the heavenly altar, carrying prayers to God, conveying messages to humans, etc. The righteous dead are, however, compared to angels in that they are non-corporeal beings (still awaiting the resurrection) made holy by proximity to the divine. And I should point out that there is nothing in this interpretation that overturns the explicit teaching of Scripture that angels and humans are two distinct orders of creation (see Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:13-14; 1 Pet 1:12, etc.).
In fact, Paul goes so far as to state that in the resurrection the saints will actually be higher than angels in the heavenly hierarchy (1 Cor 6:3). Unless your name is Metatron, you don’t want to be transformed into an angel in heaven—it would be a demotion!
Why Do We Believe that Humans Transform into Angels?
This still doesn’t answer the question of why it is such a prevalent cultural assumption or where this assumption came from. The chances that many people who hold this view have been reading 3 Enoch—or even B. B. Warfield—are infinitesimal. I suppose we could chalk it up to wishful thinking and sentimentality on the part of some whose theological foundation is a bit shaky. As it is most often formulated, it seems to be a thoroughly modern belief. It is most assuredly not the official position of any Christian church of which I am aware.
It may, however, be as simple as this. Any Catholic or Orthodox church is full of depictions of angels and departed saints. It thus attempts to represent who is in heaven and what they are doing (i.e., offering their worship to God and to Christ: see Heb 12:18-24; Rev 4–5, etc.). Combine these sorts of representations of the “demographics” of heaven with deep piety, shallow theology, and natural human curiosity about the afterlife and one can imagine how some people might wander into this view by connecting dots that were never meant to be connected: the saints died and went to heaven > angels are in heaven > the saints turn into angels when they get to heaven.
“You’ve got to tell them that now she is an angel.”
No, sir. With all due respect, I hope for more than that for your daughter—and for us. Therefore I’ve got to tell them about Jesus, who died and rose again to save us, who now lives and reigns with God and with the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. I’ve got to tell them that we can entrust your daughter to his grace and merciful care.