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Spiritual Beings: Good & Evil

Angels are Pure spirits devoted to the worship and service of God. Most developed religious traditions have a class of beings that range between the human realm and the supreme God or Ultimate Reality. They include lesser gods, Saints, ancestral spirits, Bodhisattvas, and today even aliens from other planets. Angels are among the most prominent, especially in monotheistic (believing in one God) religions. They are believed to be pure spirits created directly by God to praise and honor him in heaven, and serve as his messengers (the word angel comes from the Greek angellos, messenger) on Earth.

Angels are important in the Western religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here they have several roles. A hierarchy, including the mighty archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and others, is believed to praise and serve God in heaven. According to ancient sources, there are ranks of angels, in descending order known as Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and ordinary angels. A well-known story, hinted at in the Bible but developed by the poet John Milton and others, says that satan, the devil, was once a very high angel, Lucifer ( Light-bearer), but rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven and into hell.

Second, angels are messengers of God. Archangels and angels have performed missions for God crucial to the central narratives of these three faiths. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament to Christians) angels guarded the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were driven out of that garden. They visited Abraham with the promise of a son, and the prophet Isaiah saw a six-winged cherubim, a kind of angel, in the temple. In Christianity, it was the archangel Gabriel who visited Mary to inform her she would become the mother of the Savior, Jesus, and angels appeared singing in the skies at the time of his birth in Bethlehem. In Islam, the same archangel, Gabriel, delivered the sacred scriptures, the Koran, to the prophet Muhammad. On a more personal level, these faiths have traditionally believed that each individual has a guardian angel who guides and protects him or her. There is some popular belief that the departed become angels after death, but this is not considered orthodox.

Gabriel:
Christians believe this archangel visited the Virgin Mary to inform her she would bear God's son; as the herald of good newa, he is often portrayed with a trumpet. Muslims believe Jibril is the angel who brought the Koran to Muhammad.
Michael:
First among angels in both the Old and New Testaments, it is the sword-wielding archangel identified in the Book of Daniel as the protector of Israel. Early Christians saw Michael not only as the agent who banished Lucifer from heaven but also as a patron of healing.
Heavenly Choir:
In the Gospel of Luke, we read that a herald angel spoke to shepherds on the night of Christ's nativity, saying, "I bring you good news of great joy." A host of angels then appeared, praising the Lord; memories of their voices still resound in Christian churches in the Christmas season.
Raphael:
This archangel, whose power is healing, plays a minor role in Judaism; in Islam, he will sound the horn on Judgment Day. Roman Catholics know him from the Book of Tobias (considered apocryphal by Protestants), in which he appears in human form as Azarias, who travels with Tobias and helps heal his blind father.

Third, angels are pictured as protectors. Great archangels are patrons of nations and cities; lesser angels of individuals are "guardian angels," designated to help those persons and fend off temptations from the demons.

Angels have traditionally been portrayed as beautiful human-like figures with wings. They often appear female but are said to be sexless, although the greatest archangels are often represented as male. The wings are partly due to the influence of ancient Greek and Roman art, which pictured various spirits in this way, although some ancient Hebrew angels, like the one Isaiah saw, were also winged. Historically, angels may have been a way to bring popular belief in many gods and spirits into harmony with belief in one God, by making them all his servants. But belief has certainly been reinforced by accounts from numerous ordinary people who report angelic help and encounters. One such account is from the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, by Joseph Smith. Beginning in 1823, the angel Moroni is said to have visited Smith in upstate New York, and directed him to the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon, scriptures supplemental to the Bible in Mormonism. Moroni is often portrayed atop Mormon temples.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, the equivalent of angels are beautiful figures, apsaras or yaksas in India, tennin or tennyo in Japan, said to inhabit the heavens of the gods, the Pure Land, and even mountains and forests as playful or mysterious spirits. Some may tempt holy men, but in their most exalted conceptualization, as in the Pure Land, they represent the wonderful joy of the world of gods and buddhas. The Taoist immortals also have some angelic characteristics, and live in beautiful places in Heaven or Earth accompanied by other worldly beings of angelic character.

Lately there has been a renewal of interest in angels in popular culture in the United States. These beautiful beings appear to have meaning to many moderns, just as they did for people of the past.

Devils and Demons are Personalized sources of evil. The two words mean about the same thing, though demons may be subordinate to a principal devil, or to satan, the chief of the forces of evil in Western religion. Most traditional religions have given a place to individual powers that work wickedness in the world, and usually are related to a principle of cosmic evil. These entities may be called demons or devils. For simple believers they may help explain many unfortunate things: sickness, madness, war, disasters. They may even have a positive role as an agent of the divine to punish the wicked. The more sophisticated may see demons as symbolic of important truths of FAITH: that evil exists despite a good GOD or universe, that it afflicts and can even possess humans yet also comes from outside them, and finally that evil is a force of cosmic dimensions "" perhaps part of a "war in heaven" of God and his angels against Satan and his demons "" and so the defeat of evil requires divine action on a large scale. At the same time, the actual history and meaning of demons in various religions says much about them. Sometimes the gods of one era or religion are turned into the demons of another that supersedes it.

In ancient Hinduism, for example, the asuras, demonic deities, were originally good gods but became malevolent beings to the next race of gods, gods like Indra and Vishnu. The asuras are in constant conflict with those gods, but the latter always outwit them in the end. Another class of demons are the raksasas, like Ravana in the great epic, the Ramayana; they delight in causing misery to human beings.

Many of these Hindu entities were borrowed by Buddhism. The realm of the asuras is one of the six places of rebirth, for those overly dominated by anger, violence, and stupidity; those condemned to the worst of those six places, the hells, are tormented by raksasas-like demons. But the most important Buddhist demon is Mara, who tempted the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment. Significantly, Mara is not so much consumed by evil will as blinded by ignorance, unable to see that the Buddha's enlightenment could be of benefit to him too, though the Buddha is "teacher of gods and men" alike. For in Buddhism as in Hinduism the ultimate source of evil is not in the will but in ignorance of the true nature of reality.

The demons in Western religion, like the Western Satan, are beings in rebellion against God out of evil will, though even here ambiguities may occur. An early example is Satan in the Hebrew scriptures' book of Job. Here Satan appears as an adversary to God in the sense of a prosecutor whose function is to present an opposing point of view to the Lord, in this case that Job should be unjustly afflicted to test him. Other demonic figures, probably influenced by Babylonian examples, like Leviathan and Rahab representing chaos, Lilith the demoness of night, and Azazel the wilderness, also appear but only on the margins of the divine story.

However, by the sixth century B.C. and probably under the influence of Zoroastrianism from Persia, Judaism became much more prone to see the world in terms of an eternal cosmic war between two opposing forces of good and evil, led by two personal commanders, God and Satan.

Zoroastrianism believed the universe was a battleground between the high god Ahura Mazda and the hosts of darkness under Angra Manyu or Ahriman. Hellenistic Judaism likewise saw Satan as the adversary of God from the beginning and the world infested by demons under his rule. This is the world view carried over into the New Testament and Christianity. In mainstream rabbinical Judaism after the Diaspora of the Jews throughout the world, belief in Satan and demons became less of a central force and today has relatively little importance, although it lives on in Jewish folklore about Lilith, about magicians who had dealings with demons, about dibbuks or evil spirits, and about golems or artificial humans created by sorcery.

Christianity in its traditional form perceived Satan as a fallen angel in age-long rebellion against God, who corrupted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and thus brought SIN to the world, and who continues to twist toward himself whom he can out of his hatred for the good. Cast down from heaven, Satan and his minions landed in hell at the center of the Earth. There they not only plot their war against God waged through tempting humans on the world's surface, but also receive the souls of those condemned to eternal torture and gleefully impose that punishment. This story is familiar to readers of Dante and Milton. In it Evil in the world can be attributed both to perverse human will and human entanglement in the cosmic rebellion of Satan and his angels. The height of Christian demonism was the 15th to 17th centuries, the period of the notorious witch-persecutions and of related elaborate beliefs in the powers of demons, their pacts with humans, their signs and methods of operating. But the horrible injustice and cruelty to which such beliefs could lead produced a reaction, and they went into decline with the 18th century and the "Age of Reason."

Since then, liberal theologians and psychologists have taken demons as allegorical personifications of the evil within the human consciousness. In conservative Christian circles belief in the Devil and his demons often remains strong; much that is bad is attributed to them, and there are rituals and services for exorcism or the driving of demons out of persons and places.

In Islam, the opponent of God is Iblis or Shaitan, who first disobeyed God by refusing to bow before his greatest creation, human beings. While not always totally evil, he and his jinns (genies; spirits) and shaitans (demons) are ill-disposed toward humans and keep trying to lead them astray. Demon-doctrine is not a central feature of Islamic thought, but acknowledgment of the reality of angels and demons is required of the orthodox, and there is a large store of popular belief and folklore about the jinns and shaitans.

Robert S. Ellwood, General Editor; Gregory D. Alles, Associate Editor. The Encyclopedia of World Religions . Facts on File. 1998.


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