In movies or TV shows, angels can lend a dash of whimsy or a dollop of gravitas. More importantly for purposes of commercial appeal, Hollywood angels give a story a sense of being “spiritual” without being overtly “religious.”
What they usually don’t do is conform to Catholic and biblical teaching about what angels really are. Instead they’re presented as quasi-mythological creatures, easily shaped by writers to fit story needs. Although there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with entertainers taking dramatic license in this way, it has led to some recurring myths many people believe about angels.
In honor of the feast of the archangels—Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael—which we will celebrate Saturday, let’s set the record straight on a few of these myths.
Myth: Humans become angels after they die (and angels can become humans).
Clarence Odbody from It’s a Wonderful Life is everybody’s favorite angel who has yet to earn his wings. When George Bailey, a small-town banker who faces dire financial straits on Christmas Eve, needs to be given reasons to live, Clarence is dispatched from heaven to save him. We learn, though, that Clarence is actually the soul of a deceased human.
Though people may speak of a deceased loved one becoming an “angel in heaven,” humans and angels are actually distinct creatures. Whereas humans are embodied persons, possessing a material body and a spiritual soul, angels are pure spirits and have no bodies. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes angels as “spiritual, non-corporeal beings” (CCC 328).
Some movies, such as City of Angels, show angels becoming human. But angels are pure spirit and have no bodies. As the Catechism says, they also “are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures” (CCC 330). However dramatic it may seem to a movie director for an angel to “fall” into the lesser state of becoming human, like all creatures angels do not possess the power to change their nature into something else.
Myth: Good angels can be thrown out of heaven and bad angels can return to heaven.
The 1980s TV series Highway to Heaven featured an angel named Jonathan who was tossed out of heaven for unspecified reasons and sent to earth for “probation.” He had to work his way back into heaven by completing tasks for “The Boss” (God). The 1999 movie Dogma, by contrast, featured a couple of fallen angels who believed they’d found a technicality in Catholic doctrine that would enable them to sneak back into heaven—not because they desired heaven, but because they hoped their scheme would prove God fallible.
Because of their nature as spirits, angels already made their definitive choice for or against God. Good angels cannot sin because they have been admitted to the beatific vision, which is the essence of heaven, and now see God as he is (CCC 1028). Sin is not possible in the immediate presence of God because nothing unclean can enter heaven (Rev. 21:27). Likewise, the unchangeable nature of the angels means a fallen angel can’t repent or desire heaven (CCC 392–393). Although the author of the book of Job imagines Satan in heaven challenging God (1:6–7), this is a literary device intended to set up the story of the testing of God’s faithful servant (Job 1:8–12).
Myth: Your guardian angel could kill you by mistake.
In the 1978 comedy Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with a 1943 film of the same name), the guardian angel of Joe Pendleton panics when his charge bikes into a tunnel not realizing that a truck is coming at him from the opposite direction. The Escort, as he’s called, yanks Joe out of his body, believing his human is about to be killed anyway, but Joe isn’t actually scheduled to die for another half century.
Angels are not omniscient, but because they’re spirits unhindered by the limitations of a body, they’re vastly more intelligent than human beings. Because they have the beatific vision, their will is conformed to God’s will. “With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God” (CCC 329). Our guardian angels have us “surrounded by their watchful care and intercession” (CCC 336) and they see God face to face (Matt. 18:10).
In short, we can trust that our guardian angels won’t do anything that contradicts God’s will for us—including bringing us to the judgment seat before it’s our time to die.
Myth: Angels directly intervene in our lives on a regular basis.
The Bible is stuffed with stories of angelic activity in human affairs. Jacob wrestled with an angel (Gen. 32:24–25). An angel predicted the birth of Samson (Judg. 13:3, 24). Daniel prophesied that the archangel Michael would protect the people of Israel in their trials (Dan. 12:1). In the book of Tobit, the archangel Raphael is sent to heal Tobit’s blindness and to drive out the demon that’s been plaguing Sarah by killing her husbands on their wedding night. And, of course, the archangel Gabriel is sent to announce the Incarnation to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1).
Hollywood might be forgiven then for assuming that angels are regularly sent about by God to deliver messages and offer advice to humans in need of their services, much like the angels Monica and Tess did in the popular 90s TV series, Touched by an Angel. Angels are messengers, yes; in fact, the word angel refers not to what they are but to what they do:
St. Augustine says: “Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is spirit; if you seek the name of their office, it is angel.” . . . The angels are servants and messengers of God (CCC 329).
But angelic activity in our lives ordinarily is beyond the human senses. Although angels can manifest themselves to us in a human-like form if God wills it for our good, such instances are rare. Under ordinary circumstances, our interaction with them is limited to our prayer to them for their intercession, and our faith that they intercede for us before God.
Myth: Angels aren’t saints.
John Travolta starred as St. Michael the Archangel in the 1996 movie, Michael. The film’s tagline was “He’s an angel. Not a saint”—which was intended as a flippant explanation for all of the character’s bad habits. We’ve established that angels aren’t human and that they can’t sin. But are they saints?
The Catechism defines a saint as “a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord” (CCC 2156). Those angels who chose to serve God “glorify God without ceasing and . . . serve his saving plans for other creatures” (CCC 350). And, as we have seen, they behold God face to face. That’s why the Church venerates the angels, especially the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, who are given the title Saint and commemorated on a feast day established in their honor.
Angels are not human, but they most definitely are saints.