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Podcast: Are Angels and Demons Still Active Today?

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Scripture Says about Angels, Demons, and Satan

Graham Cole, author of Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons discusses what the Bible really teaches us about angels. He talks about the different kinds of angels mentioned in Scripture, whether or not every person has a guardian angel, the nature of demon possession today, and what we know about the when, why, and how of Satan’s fall.

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Against the Darkness

Against the Darkness

Graham A. Cole

This book explores the doctrine of angels and demons, answering key questions about their nature and the implications for Christians’ beliefs and behavior.

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Full Transcript

01:23 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Graham, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

Graham Cole
It’s my pleasure to be with you.

01:28 - Entertaining Angels

Matt Tully
I want to start at a passage that is often very perplexing and fascinating to many Christians. It’s a passage in Hebrews 13 and just to set the stage a little bit, the author of Hebrews is emphasizing how we are to live as Christians in front of a watching world. And he says in verse two, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Probably many Christians have read that in their own quiet time, or devotions, or a Bible reading plan, and were maybe a little bit surprised. Does that mean that we might be passing strangers on the street everyday who are actually angels? Is that how we should take that verse?

Graham Cole
That’s a good question, Matt. But I think that’s to take the verse too far. When we only have one reference to something in Scripture it can lead to quite a lot of speculation about what its full meaning is. And that’s fine, as long as we admit that that’s what we’re doing. I wonder if the writer to the Hebrews has in mind what happened to Abraham when the three men turned up and it turned out that the two of them were angels and one of them was the Lord himself, as far as I understand the passage. But he wasn’t aware of that immediately. So he might have that biblical passage in mind as he writes. Both talk about welcoming someone to your door, as it were, rather than just passing anyone in the street. But we also learn from Hebrews, Matt, that angels are ministering spirits. So I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of God sending his messengers in that way. But whether we recognize them or not, well it would require a special grace of God’s Spirit for us to be able to do that.

03:36 - The Presence of Angels

Matt Tully
Is it safe to assume that angels are around us, close to us, even watching us all the time?

Graham Cole
I think it’s safe to assume that they’re actively involved in the story of salvation, indeed our salvation. But as to exactly what they’re doing—unless you’re a prophet like Elijah, who can enable his servant to see what otherwise the servant couldn’t see, how they were surrounded by the angelic hosts—we just don’t really have the tools to be able to recognize exactly what they’re doing. And I think one reason why the Lord doesn’t reveal what those tools are is Scripture is not written to angels. It’s written to us. So when angels make their appearance in the Scriptures it’s as minor players on the stage, because the real action is between God and the images he hopes to restore, and will restore, namely the sons and daughters of Adam.

04:41 - Under-Emphasizing the Role of Angels

Matt Tully
So in light of that, it feels like many Christians in the West today—America is a great example of this—maybe don’t think a lot about angels and demons in general. We might not deny that they exist, but they don’t really factor much into how we think about not just our daily lives but even our spiritual lives, our relationships with God and with others. Is that a good approach to this topic or do you think we’ve gone too far in under-emphasizing the role that angels play in our lives?

Graham Cole
It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in his famous The Screwtape Letters—he was speaking about demons, but it also applies to angels—that there are two errors: you can be either over-interested in them and that can happen with some Christian people. Or you can be under-interested in them. And I think in many sections of the evangelical world in the West we are under-interested and so we have a kind of blind spot. We think that the drama that we are caught up in is just a drama between God and ourselves, between belief and unbelief at the human level, without recognizing the richness of the biblical worldview. That there’s another level of intelligent reality, creaturely reality, some of which is in obedience to God as I speak, and some of which is in rebellion against God as I speak. And I think that’s a blind spot and we need to be made aware of it in the churches.

06:20 - Different Kinds of Angels and Their Roles

Matt Tully
Are there different kinds of angels?

Graham Cole
Indeed there are. And again this is an area where people have gone well beyond the Scripture. We read in Scripture of cherubim, and we read of seraphim, and we read of living creatures who may or may not be seraphim and cherubim, and we read of archangels, like Michael, and angels who are obviously under an archangel. But in the early church period there was someone called Dionysius the Areopagite who was very speculative and he came up with nine categories of angels arranged in groups of three to mirror the Trinity are going from Seraphim down to ordinary angels. Well that was very, very interesting stuff but highly imaginative.

If you believe that the Scriptures are the norm of norms, the thing we go to to exercise quality control on our theological beliefs and values, then you think to yourself, That seems to be a textless doctrine. What we do know, though, is that there are at least archangels, and that implies that there are angels under them. But as for the rest, I think it’s highly speculative.

Matt Tully
What about the seraphim and cherubim: there are a few passages in Scripture that seem to speak to them and they’re often pictured as combinations of animals with eyes all over their bodies and in the throne room of God. What else do we know about the role that they play and maybe their unique position in heaven?

Graham Cole
I think we can say—and scholars help us here—that seraphim, those bright shining ones, are really throne angels that are in the immediate presence of God, from where they can come to earth, as in the experience of Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where seraphim brought coals to his lips so he could be purified.

We do know something about cherubim and when we think about cherubim we particularly think of the earthly, because if you read Genesis 3 we find that after the defection from God of Adam and Eve, the cherubim are there to guard any kind of reentry into the Paradise Garden of God. So we can say that they’re associated with guarding.

The four living creatures who live constantly in the presence of God and praise him around his throne in Revelation 4—we don’t know whether they’re seraphim or not. That’s another speculative question.

So we do know some things about some of the angels like that. We do know that Michael leads the armies of God as in Revelation 12, and actually in Revelation 12 he takes on Satan—that great dragon—and Satan’s entourage of fallen angels, and defeats them. Gabriel, who may be an archangel too and traditionally Gabriel is seen in those terms, becomes the named angelic messenger to Mary who’s to conceive Jesus. So these are some of the things we indeed know.

09:56 - Satan’s Origins and Fall

Matt Tully
So let’s turn then to Satan and his demons. What do we know about Satan’s origins and his fall? And in particular, when did it happen? And do we know any of the details surrounding that?

Graham Cole
I think we know some things for sure. We know that Scripture identifies the serpent of Genesis 3 with Satan. Revelation 20 does just that.

We know that the serpent comes from the outside, from the world of wildness, and we know that the serpent comes to be deceptive and to trick Eve in the first instance into disobeying God. And as the great deceiver, the serpent questions the character of God, the motives of God, the goodness of God.

We know from Genesis 3 and the subsequent depiction of Satan, the great adversary—that’s what the name can mean—that the great adversary is a spoiler. Out to spoil relationships, out to spoil our relationship to God, our relationship to one another. We see that consistently in the biblical testimony from Genesis 3.

As for the origins, given what I’ve said then I would argue that there is a fall before the fall of humanity—a rebellion before the human rebellion. But you can’t really give a timeline for that except to say that it was before what happened in Genesis 3 in some sense.

As for why Satan did that, the traditional answer is pride. And in great Old Testament passages like Isaiah 28 and Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, we may see something of that. In talking about earthly rulers against the people of God in their arrogance it seems that the language is so extravagant that it’s not hard to see, as the church has seen, the picture of an even greater malevolence behind them, which is Satan. So I think that traditional answer about pride is probably correct, especially when Paul warns about falling into the condemnation of the devil, which seems again to be about pride on human beings path.

And there may be another clue to this, Matt. It’s interesting when you look at Matthew 4 and those temptations, the last temptation of Satan to Jesus is that Jesus bow down and worship Satan. To give Satan the deference that belongs to God alone. And I wonder if that’s not a clue as to what Satan is really all about? Satan wants to be God.

13:06 - Cultural Ideas vs. Biblical Truth

Matt Tully
That’s fascinating. It’s such an interesting topic, and to your point about how we have to kind of thread this needle of not under-emphasizing the role that they play and under-emphasizing what we know Scripture says about angels and demons and Satan, but also not over-emphasizing that. As you think about the question of angels and the role that they play in our lives today and then Satan and demons and the role that they play today and even their history, are there things that stand out to you as examples of historical tradition or kind of just cultural ideas that have seeped in that a lot of Christians might think about these topics that aren’t necessarily supported in Scripture. Does anything come to mind along those lines?

Graham Cole
A few things do, Matt. There is the belief that every person has a guardian angel. I don’t find that in Scripture. I think that’s a textless doctrine. We do find that there are guardian angels and that angels, plural, can guard God’s people. But the idea of having your own individual guardian angel, especially as in the Roman Catholic tradition, I think goes well beyond what’s written. Especially when you find that some leading Roman Catholic philosophers speculate therefore that you can calculate how many angels there are dealing with earthly creatures like us at any one time by just adding up the human population. Well, where on earth does that come from?

The idea that angels look like cute little babies with wings? That’s a bit hard to find in the book of Revelation or anywhere else. There are so many ideas . . . the idea that the devil has horns and a pitchfork. So some of this is just the religious imagination I think running riot and that’s where over-interest can take a person. Now we just need to be disciplined by what God makes known and be careful in speculating about what he has not made known.

15:31 - Praying to Angels

Matt Tully
So I think a lot of non-Protestant traditions—Roman Catholicism is a good example of this—might have some kind of concept in place related to praying to angels, bringing our prayers to them with the thought that they will then communicate those prayers onto God. Is there any biblical support for that idea? What would the Scriptures teach us on that idea?

Graham Cole
I think the Scriptures would teach us to stay away from it because there’s one mediator between God and ourselves according to Paul as he writes to Timothy, and that’s our Lord Jesus Christ. There’s only one great high priest to whom we go with our prayer requests, according to the book of Hebrews. I think to put angels between God and ourselves, all the saints, or even the Virgin Mary—as in the Catholic tradition—is the problem we see at Colossae where Paul warns the Colossians about the worship of angels. They seem to have this view that between God and ourselves were layers of creatures and one layer of creature were angels. And Paul was not happy with that idea. Neither should we be. So I think one of the ways we can spur the gospel mad is by interposition. We put something between Christ and ourselves whether it’s a saint or an angel.

17:03 - What Are Angels Made Of?

Matt Tully
What does the Bible teach about what angels are made out of? I think we we have this vague idea that they’re their spirit but what do we mean by spirit when we say that?

Graham Cole
Isaiah says that, “As for the Egyptians they are men and not spirits. Their horses are but flesh.” And whether it’s in Isaiah or whether it’s in the New Testament writings, there seems to be a contrast between spirit existence, and fleshly existence. So when I read in Hebrews 1 that angels are ministering spirits, I would argue that they are immaterial beings. They’re not made up of atoms and molecules, unlike our bodies are made up of atoms and molecules. And so as a consequence of that they are like God in that respect because we know that it is possible to exist without a physical body. Otherwise we’d have problems with our very doctrine of God. And so it’s no surprise then that God has made a creature that is a spirit creature just like he’s made creatures that are purely material, like gold or silver. The amazing thing is that human beings, as it were, participate in both by having the kind of natures that we have. As one philosopher puts it, we are a dualism in reality but as far as we can see we’re just a unity. And it’s a dualism of body and spirit. I think that’s what the biblical testimony tells us about ourselves. So angels are on the spirit side of that, not on the body side.

19:07 - Were Angels Created?

Matt Tully
That’s fascinating. Going back to the question of the origin of the angels, is it clear that angels were created as part of the creation account that we read of in the first chapters of Genesis? I think when we think about that that Genesis 1 creation account we often attach that or connect it directly to the physical world, the physical universe that we inhabit. That seems to be what it talks about specifically and it doesn’t mention angels in there at all. Is it right to see angels as also created in that or is it possible that they would have existed before the events recorded in Genesis 1 and 2?

Graham Cole
I think Augustine may have been onto something when he argued that when it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,“ by creating the heavens God was not just creating heavenly bodies like stars, and the sun, and the moon; but also the angelic realm. So if he’s right, then right from the start we have some clue as to the creation of angels.

20:24 - Demon Possession

Matt Tully
That’s interesting. So what about demon possession? We look in the Bible. and particularly the New Testament, there are lots of examples of these evil angels—fallen angels—possessing people, exercising profound influence over their physical bodies and their attitudes and actions and speech. Is that something that still happens today in your opinion? And if so how should we understand that and distinguish that from other things like perhaps mental illness or other types of physical maladies that we often suffer from?

Graham Cole
I think the traditional way of talking about this phenomenon that we have in the New Testament where Jesus exorcises spirits from some poor person—like that demonic in Mark 5 that lived amongst the tombs, that had a legion, a multitude of demonic presences pressing him—I think that I would rather say demon inhabited instead of demon possessed. Because Jesus, when he exorcises a demon says, “Come out.” And we read that the spirit or spirits leave that person.

On another occasion Jesus compares the person to a house—if you clean it you might get rid of a demon, but if you’re not careful, seven more will come back. All that is very spatial, suggesting that human beings sadly can be inhabited by a demon. But it also shows us a very important thing, that the demonic—and Satan himself—they’re not omnipresent. They can be in this locale or that locale, but they don’t have the attributes of God, one of which is omnipresence. Does it happen today? Yes, I believe it does happen today. I’ve actually read accounts of it, heard exorcisms on tape, I watched them on television, talked to witnesses who had firsthand experience; but it has tended to be in the majority world rather than this Western world.

And here’s an idea—and I’m not saying it’s only the case in the West—but as I read Scripture, the devil has a couple of main guises. He can be the roaring lion of Peter 5 who is clearly out to get God’s people by way of persecution. And I think the roaring lion shows itself in demon habitation as the entourage of the devil gets to work. But also the devil and his agents can work as angels of light as in 2 Corinthians 11. And that’s an evil work that’s done chiefly through force teaching that deconstructs the gospel. And I think in the West that’s where we’re really seeing the devil and the demonic at work. That’s not to say that they can’t be demonic inhabitation in America or other countries in the West, but I think in the main that’s how the devil is operating.

24:07 - Are Angels and Demons at War?

Matt Tully
That’s fascinating and it makes me wonder too a lot of times when we think about spiritual warfare it has a component that is kind of between humans and evil spirits. But also sometimes we have this idea, this vague notion, that angels and demons are also at war or fighting with each other. Is there any biblical warrant to that idea? And if so what might that look like?

Graham Cole
There is a biblical warrant. Revelation 12 talks about war in heaven. And as I alluded to earlier, Michael and his angels fighting and defeating the devil and his angels. Would that suggest that the devil was an archangel originally or some lesser angel? But what we do know is that Scripture testifies to the victory of Michael at that point. But again—and this is a really important point, Matt—since the Bible, the revelation of God, is addressed to human beings and not to angels, there is just a myriad of questions we’d love to know the answer to. But we don’t have any revelation to go on. But we do know at least this: that there is a conflict between good and bad angels.

Matt Tully
It’s interesting to put together so many passages of Scripture, on this topic in particular. We just get these glimpses of what might be going on and how to understand this topic. As you say, it really isn’t a focus of Scripture. And yet when we put all the pieces together you start to get a bit of a sense for what’s going on and how to think about these things, but also need to guard against going too far in our speculation.

Graham Cole
That’s true. I just might throw one other thing in here, Matt. This richer worldview. Paul says to the Ephesians in chapter three that through saving the church God is making a point to the principalities and powers. So God’s project is much bigger than just saving you and me.

26:19 - Angels and Our Salvation

Matt Tully
That actually leads into my last question. In 1 Peter 1 when Peter talks about this salvation that we have, “a salvation that prophets of the Old Testament prophesied about inquiring what person or time the spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ.” And then he goes on to say, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you and the things that have now been announced to you through those who preach the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.” How should we take that that verse? What does that tell us about angels and even about salvation history itself?

Graham Cole
I think it tells us in the first instance that angels are not omniscient. There are things that they don’t know but they long to know. So that’s one thing we will learn from that. They are creatures, and creatures have limitations. Although they may be much more powerful than us and much more knowledgeable than us, they are not God. So that’s one thing we learn.

The second thing is they’ve been involved in the story of redemption. But how much more about it they would have loved to have known! Especially when it comes to how God was going to pull off the great rescue. And I think Paul helps us here in 1 Timothy 3 where he says to Timothy, “Great is the mystery of godliness that he was manifest in the flesh.” He’s referring to the fact that the Son of God became incarnate and he calls it a mystery, a mysterion. Which doesn’t mean that it was spooky, but it was something that had not been revealed but now stands revealed. So that’s something that I’m sure the angels would have loved to have known more details about, but they too had to wait until the Word became flesh before we could know that great is the mystery of our religion that he was manifest in the flesh. And I think that’s part of the story.

Matt Tully
Yeah that kind of changes how you read those opening chapters in the Gospels where we read of the angels appearing to the shepherds declaring, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among men!” That might have been their first glimpse of God’s final rescue plan, as you say, to come and save us from our sins.

Graham Cole
That’s the first great celebration of it that we know of as far as the Scriptural witness is concerned.

29:13 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well Graham, thank you so much for spending some time today to talk with us about this fascinating topic, and for the wisdom in helping us to navigate how much to focus on this, what we really know from Scripture, and then what we need to be careful about not going too far with. We appreciate you taking the time.

Graham Cole
I’ve really enjoyed our session, Matt.


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