Last week, my friends suffered a devastating loss when their three-year-old daughter died of injuries she sustained in an accident a month ago. There has been an outpouring of grief at the life lost so young from family, friends, co-workers and even strangers. This outpouring of grief has led to numerous requests for prayers and many misguided statements about their young daughter becoming an angel or guardian angel.
My friends are Catholic (they have also taken great pains to express her funeral will be a Catholic celebration of life). I believe they take these assertions as most of us do: as sweet, meaning well, but ultimately misguided. And in their moment of grief, obviously they aren’t going to try to correct this mistaken theology that has crept into our subconscious via the secular world.
What are angels? Courtesy of Catholic.org this is the definition of an Angel:
..pure spirit(s) created by God. The Old Testament theology included the belief in angels: the name applied to certain spiritual beings or intelligences of heavenly residence, employed by God as the ministers of His will.
The word “angel” means “messenger.” While the Bible has human “messengers” those messengers who can perform supernatural tasks and are heavenly “bodies” are referred to as angels.
But, but, what happens to people when they die? If they go to heaven they are now spiritual beings? Doesn’t that mean they are transformed into angels? In Bill Dodds’s excellent article for ewtn.com entitle Angels–Fiction and Fact, he addresses this idea:
Fiction: When humans, especially young children, die and go to heaven, they become angels.
Fact: That’s a popular idea and oftentimes a comforting image for grieving families, but . . . no.
Angels and humans are separate and different beings. Angels are 100 percent spirits; humans are both spirit (soul) and body. A human being’s soul is immortal; his or her body dies. When the soul leaves the body at death, it is not transformed somehow into an angel.
Rather, a soul that has gone to heaven enjoys God’s presence with the angels and joins with the angels—and other human souls—in praising God. This is the image the Church presents. In the liturgy for a Catholic funeral, we pray “may the angels lead you into Paradise….”
But Kristen, I hear the voices, that’s just Catholic theology you’re presenting. Allow me to introduce to you Pastor Jeff Manning. In response to the death of young Lydia Byrd from a brain tumor and the numerous friends and family who responded that she was an angel, Lydia’s mother asked Pastor Jeff (an ordained Free Will Baptist minister with a congregation in Greenville, NC) to address the idea of Lydia being an angel. He credits the common misconception of our becoming angels after death on two things 1. the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and it’s angel character Clarence Odbody and 2. Misunderstanding of a few Bible verses, iucluding, but not limited to, Matthew 20:30 which states that when people die they are like angels . Not that they become angels.
Recent experience has also indicated another theory of mine as to why the myth of humans becoming angels is perpetuated in popular Christian culture: the communion of saints. The communion of saints, in Catholic tradition, are people who have died and gone to heaven where they worship our Lord and pray for those on earth through intercessory prayer, which believers on Earth can request through prayer for specific intentions (this is not praying to the saint, however). And while, for Catholics at least, there is no way to know for certain a person we love who has died has gone to heaven short of formal canonization, Catholics do acknowledge that those in heaven are saints(and that there may be some we cannot acknowledge while we are here on Earth).
Part of the way the communion of saints contributes to this is a Catholic issue. There are Catholics who use the terms “angels” and “saints” interchangeably which is not correct. Angels were always angels. Some angels are also saints (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael). But humans who once inhabited human bodies can never be angels, only saints.
The other confusion is the idea of the Communion of Saints being appealing to some non-Catholic Christians and thus the idea being co-opted and renamed as angels, particularly “guardian angels” so as to distance the idea further from Catholicism. Sometimes this is done with great intention. The point remains that humans, saints or not, cannot become angels.
In reading the comments of Pastor Jeff Manning’s blog post, it is clear to see that many Christians are not comfortable with people saying their deceased loved ones are angels, even when the best of intentions are evident. For those experiencing a loss, of course you would respond however you deem necessary with each case. For those of us on the outside, perhaps we should stick with simply,”I am sorry for your loss, may God comfort you during this time,” or similar.