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What Are Angels? Dr. Dustin Benge

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Benge on the topic of angels.

Topics of conversation include:

  • What attributes do angels have?
  • When were angels created?
  • How did we get fallen angels, specifically Satan?
  • What is the purpose of angels?
  • Should we expect that people today will have interactions with angels?
  • How should we understand the concept of guardian angels?
  • What are some resources and cautions for further study on the topic of angelology?

Dr. Dustin Benge currently serves as provost at Union School of Theology in Wales, but will soon join The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as vice president of Communications and associate professor of Biblical Spirituality and Historical Theology. He is the author of several books, including A Journey Toward Heaven: Daily Devotions from the Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), and Lifting Up Our Hearts: 150 Prayers from John Calvin (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).

 

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:18):

Today, we’re going to talk about angels, those majestic beings that appear periodically throughout Scripture to inform, and to serve, and even to terrify and to kill. Though little understood, that has not stopped angels from taking a prominent place in popular culture. I remember watching the show Touched By an Angel when I was growing up, which had angels showing up as normal people to make some poignant connection with those they were serving. And in the Arnold house, we had a Christmas tree in our front room that was covered with angels. Often angels are pictured as these chubby babies with wings, diapers, and harps, but this hardly compares with the Bible, which portrays angels as breathtaking creatures who must always announce their presence with the promise of peace, since they inspire such awe. Well, angels have garnered lots of attention and, quite frankly, weird speculation. To help us understand what angels are and what they do, we have with us, Dr. Dustin Benge, who currently serves as provost at Union School of Theology in Wales, but will soon be joining Southern Seminary as vice president of Communications and associate professor of Biblical Spirituality and Historical Theology. Dustin Benge is the author of numerous books, and he’s a pro at Twitter—if you’re looking for somebody to follow who’s always going to lift you up and just lead you deeper into Christ, I highly encourage you follow him. Well, Dustin—welcome to the podcast.

 

Dustin Benge (01:34):

Thank you so much, Brian, for having me on.

 

Brian Arnold (01:37):

So today, we’re going to ask this big question, and that is—what are angels? So let’s just dive right into it. What is an angel, and what are some key attributes that they have?

 

Dustin Benge (01:48):

Well, that’s definitely a big topic. And of course we have to follow that up with a question by simply asking—what do the Scriptures say? What does the Word of God say? Scripture is replete with references to angels, from the cherubim who guarded the Garden of Eden in Genesis three, to the angel who Christ sent to reveal so much to the Apostle John in Revelation. Really, the angelic host of heaven is a dominant theme in Scripture. Now there’s two words in the Bible for angel. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word occurs around 213 times, while the Greek word in the New Testament occurs about 176 times. It’s often translated as messenger, one sent, or envoy, or ambassador when referencing some sort of mission or function of the angelic host. The Bible includes about 26 specific historical encounters with angels after the Garden in Eden—10 in the Old Testament, and 16 in the New Testament.

 

Dustin Benge (03:06):

So while these personal encounters are not prevalent in Scripture, the idea, the theology, the reference to angel is everywhere in the Bible. Angels—just to give a few attributes—were created, that is, they had a beginning. They’ve not always existed. God created them during the creation week of Genesis one. Angels are not human beings, and I’ll give you a footnote here, nor do human beings become angels when we die. Angels are spiritual, they don’t possess physical bodies like we do, but they can manifest physical bodies as God sees fit for them to do so. These are just a few of the attributes, Brian, that are necessary in really having a good biblical understanding of the angelic host.

 

Brian Arnold (04:02):

I think that’s a really helpful foundation for us to begin from. And I want to echo what you’re saying there. One of the things that has crept in, and is almost folklore in the churches today, and I see it all over social media—when somebody dies, they say, “heaven’s gained another angel,” or “somebody gained their angel wings.” And I was actually preaching at a church this past Sunday on the resurrection, and I told them—you are a different classification and that’s a good thing for you to be different than the angels. We have opportunity for redemption, and they do not have the opportunity for redemption. We bear the image of God, nowhere do we see that angels have the image of God on them. So let’s even go all the way back then to creation. You mentioned angels are created beings. Help us understand—in your understanding, as best we can even know, when were angels created, and how do we get these fallen angels? What happens there?

 

Dustin Benge (04:54):

Well, that’s also a good question, and we have to speculate just a little bit in regard to their creation. Because we do know there are varying views throughout church history. Augustine says one thing, Thomas Aquinas says another thing, Martin Luther says something else. So there are varied opinions as to when people, theologians, believe that the angels were created. Everyone does agree, within our own circles of theological understanding, that angels would have been created sometime in the creation week, at some point during those seven days of creation, since they have not always eternally existed. We have references in Job and Psalms, and other references in Scripture, which talk about the angels being present, or saying things, or praising God during that creation event. And so they were very present during that period. Now, when we come to the fallen angels, we have to understand there are two categories here.

 

Dustin Benge (06:05):

There are holy angels, that is, those who did not fall. And there are fallen angels, which we would commonly refer to as demons or the demonic. Now, perhaps Jude six is where we find the most, really succinct, understanding of the fallen angels. Jude says something like, “and the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left that proper dwelling—which would be holiness in heaven—God is kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the great day of judgment.” Now you have other biblical texts that speak about their fall, or the effect of the demons upon influencing the world today. I’m most interested in the fall of Lucifer himself, and perhaps we’ll get into that in just a little bit, but it’s a very interesting conversation.

 

Brian Arnold (07:05):

It is an interesting conversation. I don’t want to necessarily take us too far afield, but let’s actually talk about that for a minute, since you raised it. There’s a couple passages in the Old Testament that people often look to—one in Isaiah, and one in Ezekiel, that they think could be referring to the fall of Satan. Do you want to talk about those passages, and whether or not you think that that actually refers to him or not?

 

Dustin Benge (07:27):

Yeah, well, there are various passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel. Isaiah 14, verse 12—”how you are fallen from heaven.” And there he’s called “Oh day star, son of the dawn.” In Ezekiel 28, around verse 14, he’s called “the anointed cherub.” And so, if anything, Brian, we receive from these passages information regarding Lucifer’s position in heaven before he fell. Now, Satan is a fallen angel, and more needs to be said about that. Lucifer, the name that many in church history have given to Satan before his fall, was created to be immensely superior to all the other angels, and held a type of leadership and dominion, if you will, or strength over the other angels. And Lucifer, before his fall, was the chief. He was the head of all the angels, and was created, Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century theologian and pastor, said “with the greatest capacity, strength and wisdom.”

 

Dustin Benge (08:49):

And so he was on the holy mountain of God, according to Ezekiel 28. And so we had this picture of Lucifer being supremely high in heaven, supremely before the throne of God, that is, in closest proximity to God, which caused him to be exalted above all the other angels. But then we have to remember that Christ is exalted supremely higher than Lucifer. Lucifer is a created being, Christ being a person of the divine triune Godhead. So in other words, while Lucifer was only near the throne, Christ, being supremely higher and more excellent in his being, was allowed to sit down on the throne of God. And so there’s a juxtaposition, I think, that Scripture makes between Lucifer and Christ. Now, when we go into the fall of Lucifer, that’s an amazing discussion. It was this excellence and greatness, Brian, that caused this great occasion of his fall.

 

Dustin Benge (10:07):

I often appeal to Jonathan Edwards and his theology, because he’s really helped me to understand this fall. Edwards kind of speculates about the specific temptation that led to this ultimate fall, suggesting that God, either just before or after the creation of man, declared to the angels that one would become of a human nature, and that would be his Son. And so, Christ assumed the role as head and king of the angels, even as redeemed humanity would be given to him as his redeemed and his children. And Edward says, and this is what’s so interesting, Edwards said that God, who declared before the foundation of the world his great love for mankind through Christ, decided that the angels should worship those that were created, that is, human beings. And Lucifer refused to bow before Christ, who himself was going to be a human being. And therefore, that was the occasion of his fall. Now that again is an idea, a theology, that is derived from various texts, but it goes all the way back, even prior to the Reformation into the early church. And so this has been a very prevalent understanding throughout the church.

 

Brian Arnold (11:38):

Well, that’s fascinating, indeed, just to think through. And for those listening, to understand how theological method works, of taking these texts and doing the best we can to kind of put this picture together of what happened. And recognizing, as you said, there is some speculation there. And so we don’t know this as certain as we know that Jesus rose from the dead, which is very clear all throughout Scripture. We have a lesser understanding of this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to piece it together. So I appreciate theologians like Edwards—and then you—retrieving that, and helping us think through that. Let’s go back to angels and think through some of the things that they’re meant to do. What is the purpose of the angelic realm?

 

Dustin Benge (12:19):

Well, we have countless examples of what angels do in the Bible. Let me give you just a few: they make announcements, they act as messengers, from the angel who for instance announced the birth of Christ and John the Baptist in the New Testament, according to Mark 13. They gather, that is, angels gather the elect, those who are Christians, those who are saved at the end of time. Matthew 13 also speaks of angels gathering the wicked at the end of the age, and casting them into the lake of fire. In Genesis three, angels guard the tree of life. We know that angels ministered to Jesus throughout his ministry. Throughout the Old Testament, they ministered to people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses, the prophets of God. And then, Hebrews 1:14, Brian, a fascinating passage, indicates that they also minister to God’s people, here and now. Now angels are not to be worshiped as creatures, but angels are worshiping creatures. That is, they are praising God day and night. So that is their supreme function, according to Scripture—they are worshipers. And so there’s no really set agenda for angels, beyond obeying God perfectly.

 

Brian Arnold (13:45):

So let me press in there a little bit, and ask this question. Because I can imagine somebody who’s a little skeptical…like it’s easier for people to believe in God, even in the Trinity, but there’s something about the spiritual realm that Paul even talks about in someplace like Ephesians six that I think is harder for people to kind of grasp, especially if we’re honest, in the enlightenment period, where that seems a bit more ancient kind of thinking. And I can imagine somebody saying, “if God is all powerful and we don’t need anybody to intercede for us besides Jesus, right—1 Timothy 2—what is the point of angels then?” So you’ve mentioned some of the things that they do, but why does God use them as these intermediaries? If Christ is our person making intercession for us, and if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and can do whatever he wants, what is the purpose of the angelic realm?

 

Dustin Benge (14:41):

Well, that’s something, again, that that must be complete speculation. Why they were created—we have no idea, beyond God desired a heavenly host in order to worship him and to do his bidding. And so we have angels in Scripture appearing at various junctures in people’s lives, not on a great amount, as I said at the beginning, they don’t appear everywhere. They don’t appear to every person of God. But yet they do appear, and they are a sign that God has stepped onto the scene. And so they are just a way to reveal himself to humanity. If we could just speculate for a moment, if everyone received a burning bush like Moses did, I dare say that we would all be scared to death most of the time. And so if anything, to slightly shelter that glory, or to hide, or to veil that glory from humanity—because humanity seeing that glory face to face would just fall dead, because we are sinners. And so to veil that somewhat, God sends forth these other celestial creatures to bring messages to help, to warn, to protect, et cetera, in order to do his bidding.

 

Brian Arnold (16:10):

So, you know, for somebody listening out there, maybe wondering—should I be expecting some sort of angel encounter? You mentioned Hebrews 1:14, that there are ministering spirits sent on our behalf to strengthen the people of God. We see their action throughout Scripture. Should we be expecting that in the church today? Should we be expecting that there’s people in our churches who’ve had encounters with angels? You know, I kind of jokingly mentioned at the beginning this show Touched By an Angel. I don’t know if you remember that show back from my—

 

Dustin Benge (16:34):

Absolutely.

 

Brian Arnold (16:36):

Right. It was like the hallmark kind of feeling thing, where you get these angels showing up and—oh my goodness, surprise! I’ve been an angel this whole time, and I’ve been here to test you, or to lead you in a certain way. Is that what we should be expecting, even in our spiritual lives? I mean, you specialize in biblical spirituality. How do angels even relate to our spiritual lives?

 

Dustin Benge (16:56):

Well, Brian, I remember as a boy watching Touched By an Angel, and I think it struck a nerve to the culture. Because the last I looked, somewhat of 121 million people tuned in to Touched By an Angel. So there’s this desire within humanity to step into the supernatural, but yet I think really the prevalent question is, in regard to angels affecting our lives, is—do we have guardian angels? That’s often a prevalent question that I receive. Jonathan Edwards, I go back to him, because he’s really helped me understand this,  he vehemently rejects the idea of guardian angels. He also vehemently rejects, as do I, as do you, and others who read Scripture would reject this idea, that we should seek out angels, or we should pray to angels, or we should venerate angels in some way.

 

Dustin Benge (18:01):

No time in Scripture do we have anyone praying directly to an angel. Now often in Scripture they pray to God, and God sends an angel to their beckoning call, but yet they’re not praying directly to an angel. But Edwards, who rejected all of this, frequently reminded, for instance, the children in his North Hampton congregation, that angels were chiefly attentive to them. And I really like that, because he’s careful to emphasize that the care of angels has not been exclusively reserved only for children, nor the actions of angels are childish. They’re not fat little babies that we see in paintings. For Edwards, the angels are ever-present realities, and he says there exists the potential for the human nature or humanity to experience this ever-present reality, and sometimes not even know it. We should not seek it. It’s not something we should long for. It’s not something we should pray about, because after all, Brian, why would we pray to a creature when we, through Christ, have access to the Creator himself?

 

Brian Arnold (19:21):

And we get the picture, even in the book of Revelation, where the angels are showing John through heaven—what a majestic image that must have been. And John does what all of us, I think, would do if we beheld the glory of an angel, is to fall on our face as though worshiping. And the angel says to him, “Get up, we worship Christ and Christ alone here.” Which I think is actually a great passage for the deity of Christ, too. That if Christ is worshiped, then he is God. And the angels are directing John to rightly place his worship. Talking about guardian angels, you know, people will go to places like Acts 12, right, where Peter is in jail. And I think this is a great story of unbelief, actually. They’re praying for Peter to be released, an angel releases Peter from prison, he shows up knocking at the door, and they’re like, “I think it’s Peter.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, we’re praying. We don’t believe that it’s going to happen, but we’re praying that this will happen.” And they say, “Maybe it’s his angel.” So if somebody is using that text, how do you help them understand that?

 

Dustin Benge (20:20):

Well, yeah, that’s a text that people would appeal to quite often. You know, I’m not really sure. That passage, though I have studied, I’ve not come to a final conclusion on that particular instance, just because we have no other evidence of that anywhere in Scripture. Now, would it be individuals just, perhaps, believing that God has given angels charge over certain individuals? Or they were somehow looking at Peter as a leader during that time, and therefore believed that God had assigned a specific angel or angelic hosts to protect him? Or there was just some evidential idea that there was a present reality of the supernatural around him? We don’t really know. I don’t think that that should be used as, for instance, in certain current teaching of the New Age, or even certain religious groups in the world, that we have a specific angel that is assigned to us by God, for instance, at our baptism, or something of that effect. No Scripture indicates that. We have no evidence of that whatsoever.

 

Brian Arnold (21:41):

Like an invisible friend—you’re baptized, and you’ve got like this angel kind of walking around behind you all the time. Yet, and I’m not trying to make light of it, because the reality is—God can and does use angels to protect his people, right? And this is part of that spiritual realm we’ve got to recover in our day. I think so many people’s Christian lives have been weakened by forgetting that spiritual warfare is real, and that there are these powers and principalities. And we’ve been charged by the Apostle Paul to suit up in our armor to fight against these spiritual realities, that they’re not flesh and blood that we feel like are the true enemies. There’s really powers behind the scene.

 

Dustin Benge (22:19):

Well, you have two aspects here, Brian. You have the one kind of aspect of the charismatic church, who would speak about angels in such a way that—oh my goodness, you need to think about your angel. You need to somehow contact your angel, or there’s a demon behind every tree and we’re looking for the supernatural in every single aspect. We have no evidence of that type of Christian life or spirituality in the New Testament. We’re never told to pray to angels, we’re never told to seek out angels, but yet we need a recovery of a robust angelology, because I think…if we could say conservative, even more narrowly, reformed evangelicals, if you will, have surrendered a lot of the teaching on the supernatural realm, that is, holy angels and fallen angels, to a subset and a category of, you know, post enlightenment. We’ve given it to the charismatic church, we’ve given it to the New Age. We’ve given it to others to interpret, when, if we look in church history, Brian, all the way back to Augustine in the early church, even prior to Augustine, we have a robust angelology and a robust belief that angels are ever-present realities within the Christian life.

 

Brian Arnold (23:50):

Well, I think that’s a really helpful summation of a lot of things we’ve said—is don’t overemphasize, but don’t underemphasize either. We need to recover a rich, biblical angelology that properly places it. So Dustin, for those who are listening and maybe wondering, what’s a book I could read on this? What’s one or two resources you found the most helpful?

 

Dustin Benge (24:10):

Well, that’s the sad thing, Brian, that there aren’t many.

 

Brian Arnold (24:14):

Well, go write one!

 

Dustin Benge (24:14):

Yeah, well, actually, I have just submitted a proposal for the possibility of a book on angels and everything that I’ve talked about on this podcast. I would say I would recommend Duane Garrett’s book, who is a professor at Southern Seminary. An Old Testament professor, wrote a book on angels and spirituality. I think it’s called Angels and the New Spirituality. That’s quite helpful. Even though there are thousands of books on angels, I would recommend all the listeners not to read the vast majority of those books. They’re not biblical. They come from a New Age perspective. They’re coming from an anti-biblical perspective, just interested in the supernatural. You need to find a book that heavily articulates the glory of God and Christ as being preeminent above the angels, and a thoroughly biblical angelology. And that’s what’s missing in the modern conversation at the moment.

 

Brian Arnold (25:25):

Well, Dustin, thank you. We will look forward to that book when it comes out. We’re so grateful you were able to join us today.

 

Dustin Benge (25:31):

Well, thank you very much, Brian. It’s always a pleasure to join you.

 

Outro (25:35):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

 

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