Left: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Right: Diorama of a Grey extra-terrestrial by G. W. Dodson, Roswell UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico, USA. Image courtesy of mr_t_77 from WV, USA and Wikipedia.
Let me begin with a confession. Temperamentally, I’m very much disposed to believing in angels – and aliens too, for that matter. I would certainly echo Hamlet’s famous saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The notion that human beings are the most intelligent creatures in existence strikes me as a monstrous vanity.
Now, I don’t claim to know what other kinds of intelligences exist in our cosmos. But one thing I do know: both angels and aliens pose genuine conundrums for would-be defenders of the Christian faith. In a nutshell:
(i) if belief in angels is reasonable, then so is belief in magic wands, as both beliefs attribute occult properties to matter (namely, the power of being moved by agents’ wishes alone, without the need for any physical mechanism). Such a belief is clearly absurd, because matter (by definition) has only physical properties [the connections between which can be described by laws of nature], whereas the properties of angels are said to be purely spiritual [relating only to thought and volition], which means that the former cannot possibly be affected by the latter, since they share nothing in common, making it impossible for them to interact. [This is basically Descartes’ famous interaction problem, applied to angels and bodies instead of human minds and their bodies.] Additionally, because bodies as such have no semantic properties, it makes no sense to say that they are capable of moving in response to the meaning of a disembodied agent’s wishes. It therefore follows that angels are unable to move material objects. To make matters worse, angels have no means of communicating with human beings, leaving them unable to fulfill their traditional role as messengers. For in the first place, they are incapable of transmitting messages by placing images into our minds (e.g. through apparitions or dreams), since spirits (by definition) have no power either to store or send anything physical, such as images. Second, Christian theologians are in unanimous agreement that angels lack the ability to transmit immaterial thoughts directly into our minds (telepathy): God alone can do that. So it seems to follow that angels are powerless to influence human beings, as well. But in that case, angels have no role left to play in God’s cosmos: being unable to influence either humans or other material objects, they are unable to have any impact on what happens in the world, which means that they may as well not exist;
(ii) since there’s good scientific evidence (see also here) for the theory of cosmic inflation, which entails the existence of a multiverse, and since the most promising rival to the multiverse is the ekpyrotic cyclic universe theory, which proposes that our universe has gone through an indefinitely large number of cycles (ending not in a big bang, but a big bounce), it follows that the cosmos is either very, very large (perhaps infinitely large) or very, very old (perhaps infinitely old) – probably, much, much larger and much, much older than the observable universe. It is therefore highly likely that there are, or have been, countless races of aliens (or embodied intelligent beings), in addition to the human race. If we assume that at least some of these alien races are fallen, like the human race, and therefore in need of redemption, then Christians must either believe God chose to become incarnate on our planet alone (which would mean that God’s choice to become incarnate on planet Earth was an arbitrary one, which is impossible for a spirit) or that God became incarnate on countless other inhabited planets, as well. But if that’s the case, then God ends up sounding more like Vishnu than the God of Christianity.
Now, I’m sure there are many Christian readers who believe they can answer the foregoing arguments, but these are merely a brief summary of what follows. In the essay below, I have tried to anticipate (and rebut) any answers that might be proposed by apologists, and I will leave it to my readers to decide whether or not I have been successful. (Note: I’ve added a couple of clarifying remarks below, which are shown in green font.)
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1. Which is more reasonable: belief in angels or belief in magic?
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The Magician card from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. 1909. Image courtesy of Pamela Coleman Smith, Arthur Edward Waite and Wikipedia.
Most of us have either read the books in J. K. Rowling’s seven-part Harry Potter series or watched the movies that were based on these highly enjoyable books. In J. K. Rowling’s story, the young wizard Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermione study magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, they learn to perform lots of spells, including the levitation charm, Wingardium Leviosa. In order to perform these spells, they require a wand, which does whatever magic its owner orders it to do. In their first few years at Hogwarts, Harry, Ron and Hermione perform their spells verbally, by saying them aloud. But in Book Six, their least favorite teacher, Professor Snape, teaches them to perform non-verbal spells, in which the wand works its magic simply by responding to its owner’s thoughts. Additionally, the most powerful and disciplined wizards and witches are capable of reliably performing wandless magic, although children can sometimes do so as well, especially when they are upset or in danger. (As readers of Book Seven will recall, Harry’s mother, Lily, was able to make swings move, as a young child.) In such cases, wizards and witches move objects purely by mind control, without any instrument. As we’ll see below, this is precisely what angels and demons are said to be able to do, by Christians and many other religious believers.
Now, in today’s world, belief in magic is universally regarded as a childish superstition, and any adult professing to believe in magic would probably be considered to be not just weird, but highly irrational. At the same time, belief in guardian angels (disembodied spirits who are said to be able to protect people from danger either by warning them or by removing any objects that are in harm’s way) is quite widespread in the general population: in a thought-provoking online article titled, Do Angels Really Exist?, Professor Peter S. Williams (who is a firm believer in angels) points out that no less than 41% of adults in Britain (including a narrow majority of women) professed to believe in angels, in a 2009 opinion poll. And as agnostic Robert Lawrence Kuhn acknowledges, most human beings believe in angels and demons. So the question I’d like to put to my Christian readers is: why is it rational to believe in angels, but irrational to believe in magic?
My question is not intended to be a facetious one. In his book Magick (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, p. 31), English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) defined magic as “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian, “angels are stated to be the movers of the heavenly spheres, and to move them according to their knowledge and will” (S.T. I, q. 57, a. 2). Aquinas evidently believed that it was possible for angels to work what Crowley would have called magic. And in our own day, the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft has published a book, titled, Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), in which he declares (in answer to a question about how angels act upon bodies) that angels are able to “stop speeding cars” by “a power of mind and will” (p. 97). If that isn’t magic, then what is?
Now, some readers who are well-versed in angelogy (the study of angels) might object that magicians (such as witches and wizards) are said to have extraordinary powers which angels lack, such as the power to transform objects at will. For example, during Harry Potter’s second year at Hogwarts, Harry’s enemy and rival, Draco Malfoy, uses the Serpensortia charm in a duel with Harry, to transform the end of his wand into a serpent. However, as we’ll see in section 4 below, the Christian theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both taught that demons were able to replicate this amazing feat: “Thus the magicians of Pharaoh by the demons’ power produced real serpents and frogs.” How? In a nutshell, by using their detailed knowledge of what’s hidden inside objects, along with their ability to manipulate objects on a microscopic level and accelerate natural processes. And although angels and demons are unable to work miracles in the strict sense of the word (such as raising the dead), they are nonetheless able to create illusions that can fool people into thinking that they’ve witnessed a miracle. So on a practical level, the feats that angels and demons are capable of performing are indistinguishable from what most people would call magic.
a) Exactly why is it irrational to believe in magic, anyway?
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The American philosopher and mathematician Dr. Hilary Putnam, who developed an argument against the rationality of belief in magic. Image courtesy of Dr. Putnam and Wikipedia.
Let’s look at the second half of the question first. Exactly why is it irrational to believe in magic? One answer is that there’s no good evidence for it, but the same could be said for UFOs, and yet believers in UFOs are not regarded with the same withering scorn as believers in magic are. Why not?
In Renewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992; reissue edition, 1995), philosopher Hilary Putnam addresses the question of what makes belief in magic so irrational:
If a witch must have magical powers, then it is far from clear that the concept of a witch is a coherent one, because it is far from clear that the concept of a magical power is a coherent one. We can certainly imagine possible worlds in which things regularly happen that superstitious people would regard as magic; but the very fact that they regularly happen in those possible worlds is strong reason for saying that in those possible worlds those things are not really magic — it is just that those worlds have different laws than the actual world. The notion of a world in which things happen that are “truly magical” is, I think, an incoherent one; and that means, I think, that the notion of a witch is an incoherent one. (p. 44)
Commenting on Putnam’s penetrating critique of the concept of magic, Catholic philosopher Ed Feser remarks in a blog post titled, Magic vs. Metaphysics (October 21, 2011):
That it is intrinsically unintelligible has to be what is objectionable about it. For it is not reasonable to object to the notion of powers or causes which are intelligible in themselves, but which we simply don’t happen to understand, or perhaps even cannot understand given the limitations on our intellects…
So, again, what is objectionable about magic can only be that it is supposed to be inherently unintelligible, unintelligible even in principle and not merely in practice. Appeals to magic in this sense can, of necessity, explain nothing. They are rightly dismissed as pseudo-explanations or worse — Putnam suggests that they are actually incoherent.
b) Why doesn’t the objection to belief in magic also apply to belief in angels?
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Dr. Peter Kreeft, Catholic apologist and Professor of philosophy at Boston College. Image courtesy of Dr. Kreeft, Marax and Wikipedia.
Feser makes a valid point here. When we ask how the spell “Wingardium Leviosa” (uttered mentally or verbally) makes an object rise in the air, the only answer seems to be, “Well, it just does” – which is not an explanation at all. But surely, the same could be said when we ask how an angel moves objects with its will. In order to prove that I’m not attacking a straw man here, allow me to briefly quote from a popular book on angels, Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995) by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, who endeavors to answer no less than 100 questions that might be asked about angels. In question 7 of his book, Kreeft neatly summarizes the traditional theory of angels believed by Christians, including the fact that angels are spirits who are capable of moving objects and influencing our imagination (emphases mine):
Angelology has data, and its theories are justified by its data. For instance, the traditional theory of angels, which I will try to explain and defend in this book, says that angels are (1) creatures of God, (2) bodiless spirits, (3) with intelligence (4) and will, (5) who live in God’s presence in heaven, (6) obey his will, (7) carry his messages (angel means “messenger”), (8) assume bodies as we assume costumes, (9) influence our imagination (10) but not our free will, and (11) move material things supernaturally. (pp. 28-29)
What’s more, angels, like witches and wizards, are said to move objects simply by the power of their will. Here’s Kreeft again, responding to a question (number 67, in his book) about how angels can move objects (emphases mine):
67 How do angels act on bodies, if angels are bodiless spirits?
Angels do sometimes act on bodies—for example, stop speeding cars. Some of the many such stories that have been published lately are true, at least.
How do angels act on bodies? As corporations do: from a distance.
Think of a corporation in New York deciding the fate of a subsidiary, or an employee, or a client in Hawaii. Like a corporation, an angel is present wherever he makes a difference, wherever the body is on which he is acting. And at the same time he is present in heaven, because angels bilocate (questions 39 and 61).
A body is surrounded by space. But a spirit is not. Rather, a place is surrounded by the spirit. Not by his body, for he has none, but by his presence—for he’s really there!—and by his power. He can really change things.
Just what that power is by which angels stop speeding cars, I don’t know. It’s not a physical power, since angels have no physical bodies, so it must be a power of mind and will. But its effects can be physical. This is not impossible, for it happens all the time within each of us when we think and will to move our arm, and then our arm moves. The gap between spirit and matter is bridged, somehow. It happens in us.
But if we can’t explain even how we do it, we can hardly expect to explain how angels do it. (p. 97)
“The gap between spirit and matter is bridged, somehow.” Is this any more informative than a magical explanation? I think not. In his response, Kreeft defends the intelligibility of “mind power” (for that is what it is) by likening angels’ ability to move objects to that of our own minds to move our bodies. But this reply won’t do. In the first place, the claim that our acts of will cause our arms to move is highly controversial in philosophical circles (the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle famously attacked this notion in his now-classic work, The Concept of Mind, arguing that if we define a voluntary act as one that was caused by a volition, then this volition must in turn be caused by another voluntary act, and so on ad infinitum); second, the claim that human acts of will are disembodied, immaterial acts is also a controversial one among philosophers, more than half of whom are physicalists, according to a recent survey, and only a minority of whom are dualists; third, the Cartesian substance dualism that Kreeft apparently espouses in the passage quoted above represents an extreme position even among dualist philosophers, most of whom are property dualists. It is one thing to say that mental properties are irreducible to physical properties; quite another thing to assert that spirit moves matter. Finally, even if we grant Kreeft’s claim that a person’s acts of will can cause his/her arm to move, this is a change that occurs within a single entity (i.e. a human being). It has no bearing on the question of how a disembodied spirit can cause another entity to move, simply by thinking and willing.
I conclude that Kreeft’s defense of angels’ power to move objects is unacceptably vague, leaving Christian believers in angels vulnerable to the same charge of unintelligibility that believers in magic are accused of.
c) Feser: angels’ modus operandi is unknown but not unintelligible (as in magic)
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In his blog post, from which I quoted above, Feser (who is a devout Catholic) attempts to defend belief in angels and demons from the accusation of irrationality:
Now angels, demons, and souls are of course associated in the popular mind with all sorts of superstitions and crude images. But rightly understood there is nothing superstitious about them, and certainly nothing “magical” in the objectionable sense of being intrinsically unintelligible. The traditional philosophical arguments for the immateriality of the intellect provide independent grounds for holding that it is possible in principle for there to be a disembodied intelligence. And in traditional theology, that is exactly what an angel, a demon, or a postmortem soul is supposed to be. Here too, while one could of course disagree with the arguments in question, they are not “magical” in the sense of appealing to powers regarded as intrinsically unintelligible.
But this is beside the point. The question at stake here is not whether disembodied intelligences exist: it is widely allowed that the notion of such intelligences is at least logically conceivable. Rather, the question is how such intelligences could move material objects and thereby influence worldly events, as angels are said to do. Consider the case of a witch who waves her magic wand and casts a spell designed to make an object fly. I would ask: is this any different from the case of an angel who moves objects by willing them to move to the place it desires them to go? In both cases, the agent in question (angel or witch) is expecting the object to respond to the semantic meaning of the words that are employed, or the thoughts that lie behind them. Indeed, it could be argued that belief in witchcraft and wizardry is actually more rational than belief in angels’ ability to move objects, as wizards and witches are at least material agents who are capable of interacting with bodies, whereas angels are purely immaterial beings.
So here’s the question I’d like to pose: if you believe that angels and demons exist, and are pure spirits, then how do you suppose that they interact with the physical world? And why is it perfectly rational for Christians to believe that they can do so, but at the same time irrational to believe that wizards with magic wands can do so?
d) Four possible ways to address the question of how angels move bodies
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As I see it, there are four possible ways in which one might answer the question of how angels (and demons) move bodies.
(i) Angels don’t actually move anything; rather, God acts on their behalf
One possibility is that angels can only affect us indirectly, by asking God to act on their behalf – but that would mean that God sometimes acts at the behest of demons, as well. It also leaves unanswered the question of how angels are made aware of what’s happening in the physical world – for if they’re not, then they can’t make any informed requests of God. Perhaps God continually infuses information about the world into their minds, so that they are able to make appropriate requests of Him. However, this strikes me as a very ad hoc solution to the question of how angels can influence worldly affairs – and in any case, the angels are not really doing anything: God is doing it for them. Occam’s razor dictates that we set aside the hypothesis of angels, since they are metaphysically superfluous, and ascribe whatever it is that they are supposed to do to God, instead.
(ii) Angels are invisible embodied agents, living inside our universe
Another possibility is that angels are in fact intelligent beings who actually live inside our universe, and who are not (as popularly supposed) disembodied agents, but rather, embodied agents who happen to be beyond the reach of our senses (i.e. invisible and intangible). In effect, this solution turns angels into advanced aliens. As I see it, the main problem with this view is that if angels dwell within our cosmos, then they must be subject to its laws, which means that they are physically destructible, and not immortal. While there have been Christian theologians in the past (such as Origen) who were willing to entertain the view that angels were corporeal beings, I know of no doctor or theologian who has proposed that angels are mortal.
(iii) Angels are embodied agents living in the multiverse, but outside our universe
A third solution is that angels are embodied, intelligent beings outside our universe, who are in some way capable of influencing bodies inside our universe. But that would mean that bodies which are in our universe are capable of being physically influenced from without, which runs counter to the prevailing scientific view that each universe within our multiverse is not only self-contained but also incapable of interacting with other universes, which are causally disconnected with ours, on account of their vast distance from us. One could of course hypothesize that there may be hidden tunnels from the multiverse into our universe, which angels (who are supposed to be extremely intelligent) are capable of manipulating for their own ends, but this strikes me as a very ad hoc move, taken straight out of the pages of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, which was, after all, a children’s fantasy series. (In chapter three of The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis describes a place called the Wood between the Worlds, where visitors can tunnel into any world they wish to visit.) In any case, the supposition is an arbitrary one, which we should refrain from making unless we have overwhelmingly good reasons for affirming the existence of angels.
(iv) Angels are disembodied agents, whose wishes bodies are “hardwired” to respond to
A final possibility is that material objects just happen to have the basic, built-in property of moving in response to the wishes of an angel or demon (whatever those wishes may be), because God designed them that way – but if you believe that, then it’s equally rational to believe in magic wands that can move objects in response to the wishes or spoken commands of their owners.
3-D model showing hydrogen bonds between molecules of water. If you believe in angels, then you have to believe that in addition to its chemical properties, water also possesses spiritual properties which enable it to be moved by angels. Image courtesy of Qwerter and Wikipedia.
The irrationality of both beliefs can be demonstrated in three ways. First, let us consider, for argument’s sake, the statement found in several manuscripts of the Gospel of John (but see here), that “from time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters” at the healing pool of Bethesda, in Jerusalem, and that “the first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had” (John 5:4, NIV). In order to believe that water can be moved by an angel, you would need to believe that in addition to all of the chemical properties that water has, it also happens to possess the spiritual property of being responsive to the wishes of angel X. Such a belief would mean that material objects possess psychic properties – in which case, they’re not really material. For the very essence of materiality consists in a thing’s behavior being exclusively defined by its relations to other material objects – relations which are described by physical laws. In Aristotelian-Thomistic jargon, we could say that physical laws describe the active and passive powers that bodies have over one another, and that the essence of corporeality consists in having exclusively physical powers, whether passive or active.
At this point, some Christian readers might object that my argument proves too much, as the notion of material objects having the built-in property of moving in response to God’s wishes seems equally arbitrary, which would then imply (absurdly) that God is incapable of miraculously moving bodies. In reply: it is entirely rational to suppose that all creatures have God-relative “back-end” properties – for instance, the property of having God as their Creator and Sustainer. However, creatures don’t need to possess the additional property of being responsive to God’s will; since He is their Author, they cannot fail to be. (To illustrate: when J.K. Rowling created the character of Harry Potter, she didn’t need to endow Harry with the additional property of being obedient to her wishes. It is of course true that humans can defy their Divine Author’s wishes, which is something Harry Potter can’t do, but that’s only when God, who unlike J.K. Rowling is fond of writing stories with open-ended plots, deliberately leaves us with the option of saying “No” to him.) Angels, however, are not authors: theologians of all stripes agree that they can neither create bodies nor sustain bodies in existence, as God alone does that. Angels are part of God’s created order, not co-creators of it. Hence there is absolutely no reason to expect that a body would have any angel-relative properties.
To return to my argument: if you’re willing to suppose that angels can interact with bodies at will (as Christians have traditionally believed), then you have to suppose that bodies also have angel-relative properties – specifically, the psychic property of being responsive to an angel’s will. You also need to suppose that angels possess the physical property of being able to be influenced by changes occurring in the cosmos – e.g. people’s comings and goings, or natural disasters – otherwise, they would have no natural ability to know what’s going on in the world. But if you are willing to grant that bodies can have psychic properties and that angels can have physical properties, then the distinction between physical and spiritual beings collapses, which is absurd.
It might be suggested that angels and bodies alike have both physical and spiritual properties, but that the spiritual properties of angels are active powers (as they can move things by their will), whereas those of bodies are purely passive (as they are moved by an angel’s will). The problem with this proposal, as I see it, is that it is equivalent to a form of monism, in which all things are said to possess both mental and physical properties. Essentially, it places angels and bodies on a metaphysical continuum, which is very much at odds with the traditional Christian view that angels are altogether incorporeal.
To recap: the reason why I consider spirits to be incapable of moving bodies is that they share no common properties with them. Metaphysically, they are as different as chalk and cheese – indeed, more so, since at least chalk and cheese are both material. And if you believe that the former can move the latter, then you can have no principled objection to believing that magicians can move bodies, as well.
Readers with a philosophical background will of course recognize that the problem I am alluding to here is the famous interaction problem which bedeviled the dualist philosopher Rene Descartes. Critics wondered how an immaterial and unextended human mind (as Descartes supposed it to be) could possibly act upon an extended human body. The same argument can be used to show that immaterial spirits (angels) cannot act upon material bodies. Applied to angels, the argument is all the more telling, because an angel and a body are two distinct entities, whereas Descartes, despite his insistence that mind and body are really distinct, nevertheless affirmed that each human being is a single entity: mind and body make up “one single thing.”
A second reason for rejecting the notion that bodies respond to angels’ wishes is that it would imply not only that all bodies possess spiritual properties, but also that all bodies possess semantic properties – for instance, that when angel X wishes that P, body B will move this way, but when angel X wishes that Q, body B will move that way. This raises the question: how does a body (say, an electron) “know” what an angel is wishing? Does it have a built-in wish-detector? The very question is risible. Once again, belief in magic generates a similar question: how does a body such as a wand “know” what the magician who waves it is wishing, so that it can carry out the appropriate spell?
A third argument against ascribing angel-relative properties to matter is that it would destroy the metaphysical unity of a body’s properties. Consider gold, for instance. All of its chemical properties are ultimately entailed by the characteristic that defines its essence: having an atomic number of 79 and an electronic configuration of 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 3d10 4s2 4p6 4d10 5s2 5p6 4f14 5d10 6s1, for the 79 electrons in a gold atom. (The fact that chemists haven’t yet managed to explicitly derive all these properties from gold’s atomic number and electronic configuration is beside the point.) Suppose now that gold has an additional property of moving in response to the angel Gabriel’s wishes. It is impossible in principle to derive such a property from the atomic number and electronic configuration of gold. Adding such a property would then imply that there is no “common thread” tying all of the properties of gold together in a way that our intellects can grasp – in which case, we might reasonably ask: what is it that makes gold one thing, rather than a mere assortment of properties attaching to an underlying “something-I-know-not-what”? In short: belief in angels is tantamount to metaphysical obscurantism, for it prevents us from ever having a complete grasp of even the humblest material substance. And the same can be said regarding belief in magic – except that in this case, the additional properties imputed to matter are those relating to a magician’s wishes, rather than an angel’s. The two cases are parallel.
Finally, the notion that mere acts of will – whether human, angelic or demonic – are able to bring about changes in the world is (quite literally) wishful thinking. Wishing for something doesn’t make it happen. Full stop. That’s the reason why magic doesn’t work. And since angels are said to possess no powers but thought and volition (or intellect and will), it follows that they are also incapable of moving objects.
To sum up: there are powerful reasons for concluding that belief in angels who can move objects is no more rational than belief in wizards and witches who can do so.
2. Can angels physically intervene in human affairs? What the Bible teaches
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At this point, some Christian readers may be inclined to object: “How can we be sure that angels’ ability to physically intervene in human affairs (by moving bodies) really is a part of Christian teaching?” My answer is that the doctrine can be clearly found in the pages of Scripture (which ought to satisfy Protestants), as well as in the teachings of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Let me begin by examining Scripture.
The Bible depicts angels as agents who are capable of intervening in worldly affairs, which includes moving bodies. It also depicts angels as being capable of influencing our minds by delivering messages in dreams and apparitions – a belief which I will critique below, in section 5. Rather than going through every episode enumerated in Scripture, which would be tedious, I’d like to confine my attention to the very first books of the Old and New Testaments, respectively: the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew.
(a) Angels in the book of Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament)
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Genesis 3:24 tells us that after banishing Adam from Eden, where he had previously lived, God “placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (NIV) – the clear implication being that these angelic guardians are capable of driving away intruders.
In Genesis 16:7-14, the angel of the Lord finds Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham’s wife Sarai (or Sarah), who is running away from her harsh mistress. The angel tells Hagar to return to her mistress, and promises her that the child whom she is pregnant with will grow up to be a wild man named Ishmael, and that her descendants will be “too numerous to count.” The text does not say that the angel physically intervened to prevent Hagar from fleeing, but it clearly implies that the angel was capable of appearing to a human being (Hagar) at will.
In Genesis 18, “three men” appear to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, and prophesy that his aged wife Sarah will have a son by the following year, and that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah face destruction, unless ten good men can be found living there. Two of the men appear to be angels (though the text itself does not explicitly say so), while the third seems to be God Himself, judging from verse 1 (“Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre.”) At any rate, all three of the men accept a meal from Abraham, who slaughters a calf on their behalf and offers them bread cakes, curds and milk. At the very least, these angels (assuming that is what they were) must have been capable of making the food disappear, even if they did not actually digest it.
In chapter 19 of the book of Genesis, “two angels” arrive at the city of Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew Lot lives, and accept a meal of unleavened bread from their host, which means that they had to be capable of picking the food up and swallowing it. When the evil men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that he bring out the two guests so that they can have sex with them, Lot goes outside to intercede on their behalf, but the men of Sodom threaten to break down his door. At this point, the angels physically intervene to save Lot:
10 But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. 11 Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. (NIV)
Later, the angels warn Lot that Sodom is about to be destroyed and tell him to flee the city with his family. When Lot hesitated, “the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them.”
In Genesis 22:9-12, the angel of the Lord calls out to Abraham from heaven and stays his hand, just as he is about to slay his son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice to God:
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12, NIV)
The implication of the passage is that the angel could have stopped Abraham from slaying Isaac at any point, but that he decided to wait until the last possible moment to do so, as a test of Abraham’s obedience.
In Genesis 28:12, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, has a strange dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder that reaches to heaven. The author of this mysterious passage of Scripture obviously believed that angels are not only capable of moving through space, but also of influencing our imagination while we are asleep.
Finally, Genesis 32:22-32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with a mysterious man, until daybreak. Jacob refuses to let the man go until he receives a blessing from him. Afterwards, he declares, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” So did Jacob wrestle with an angel (as Hosea 12:4 apparently suggests), or with God (as the text itself seems to imply)? Scholarly opinion is divided, so this passage, taken by itself, does not prove that angels are able to physically intervene in the world. Nevertheless, the testimony of the book of Genesis is clear: angels are agents who capable of physically intervening on our behalf, and of influencing our minds in some way.
Angels in the Gospel of Matthew (the first book of the New Testament)
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Turning to the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, Matthew 1:18-24 tells the story of an angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream and instructing him to take Mary as his wife, because she is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Later, in Matthew 2:13, an angel of the Lord warns Joseph in a second dream to flee to Egypt with his family in order to escape the wrath of Herod. After Herod’s death, the angel tells Joseph in a third dream to return to the land of Israel (Matthew 2:19-20). Clearly, the author of the Gospel envisaged angels as capable of influencing the human subconscious, via the imaginative faculty (i.e. by sending images in dreams).
In chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel, we see the devil tempting Jesus after his baptism by taking him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, and urging him to throw himself down, citing Psalm 91:11-12:
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
(Matthew 4:5-6, NIV)
If angels are capable of lifting Jesus up, and if the devil is capable of transporting Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, then the implication is obvious: angels are capable of moving material objects.
Jesus explicitly discusses the angels in his parables, including the parable of the wheat and the tares and the parable of the net, which Jesus interprets as follows:
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
49 “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
(Matthew 13:40-43, 13:49-50, NIV)
The reference to angels throwing sinners into the blazing furnace speaks for itself. Jesus is clear that these events are to happen in the near future, when Jesus will return with his angels:
27 “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:27-28, NIV)
When Jesus interacts with demonic spirits, their ability to physically move people (and animals) is even more evident. Matthew 8:28-34 tells the story of Jesus exorcising two men with demons in them. The demons then beg Jesus to send them into a large herd of pigs, which Jesus does, whereupon the demons cause the pigs to stampede, and they charge down a steep bank into a lake and drown. Later, Jesus expels a demon who is preventing a man from being able to speak (Matthew 9:32-34). In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus describes how a demon who has left a person wanders through the desert, looking for a place to rest. When it fails to find a place, it then returns to the person whose body it occupied previously, along with seven other spirits, leaving the person in worse shape than they were before.
A few days before his death, Jesus gives a long, apocalyptic discourse, in which he proclaims (Matthew 24:30-31) that when the Son of Man returns, appearing on the clouds of heaven, “he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” Were the angels incapable of transporting people from one place to another, the task of gathering the elect would clearly be an impossible one for them.
In chapter 26 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is arrested by a group of men (led by Judas) in the Garden of Gethsemane. One of Jesus’ loyal disciples tries to protect him by drawing a sword, but Jesus rejects the path of violence, declaring that all who draw the sword will die by the sword. In any case, Jesus adds, he could easily call on his Father to send twelve legions of angels to protect him, if he wished:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:50-54, NIV)
Once again, the implication is plain: angels are capable of physically influencing the course of events.
Finally, in the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, an angel intervenes on Easter Sunday morning by rolling back the stone (see picture above), when Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to visit Jesus’ tomb:
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:2-4, NIV)
There can be no doubt, then, that Scripture portrays angels as being able to move both people and objects, when it is God’s will that they should do so. The devil and his demons are likewise depicted as being capable of transporting people (and animals). Furthermore, angels are said to be capable of influencing our minds by appearing to us, either while we are awake or in our dreams.
3. Can angels physically intervene in human affairs? What the Church teaches
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Some Catholic and Orthodox readers might still be wondering whether belief in angels’ ability to move material objects really is part-and-parcel of the Church’s official teaching on angels, so I’d like to respond by examining what the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have taught about angels, down the ages.
(a) The teaching of the Orthodox Church on angels
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I’d like to begin with the teachings of the Orthodox Church, as they are very comprehensive on the subject of angels. Here’s how the Orthodox Christian Information Center explains the Orthodox Church’s teaching on angels:
The Nature of the Angels
By their nature, angels are active spirits endowed with reason, will and knowledge; they serve God, fulfil the will of His Providence and praise Him. They are incorporeal spirits, and because they belong to the invisible world, cannot be seen by our bodily eyes….
The Degree of Perfection of the Angels
Angels are the most perfect spirits, superior to man in their spiritual powers; but even they, like all creation; are bound by their limitations. As they are incorporeal spirits, they are less confined, by space and place than men, and can travel distances of, to us, inconceivable vastness with lightning speed, to appear where it is necessary for them to act. However, it is impossible to say that they are totally independent of limitations of space and place, or that they could be omnipresent. Holy Scripture depicts angels as descending from heaven to earth, or ascending from earth to heaven, which gives us reason to believe that they cannot be on earth and in heaven at the same time.
Immortality is one of the qualities of angels, as we are given clear evidence in Holy Scripture, which teaches that they cannot die (Luke 20:36). However, their immortality is not divine (that is, independent and unconditional), but depends, like the immortality of human souls, completely on the will and mercy of God...
The Service of the Angels
…Angels not only hymn the glory of God, but also serve Him in the plan of His Providence for the material world. The Fathers of the Church often speak of this service of theirs. “Some of them stand before the Great God, while others by their action support the whole world” (St. Gregory the Theologian, “Songs of the Mysteries”). Angels are “set in command of the elements, the heavens, the world, and all within it” (St. Athenagoras). “Each of them has received under his control some particular part of the universe, or is attached to some particular thing or person in the world, as is known to Him Who arranges and orders all things, and all work towards one goal, by command of the Builder of all things” (St. Gregory the Theologian).
From the foregoing passage, we can see that according to the Orthodox Church, angels are incorporeal but nonetheless finite spirits, who move through space, and who play a key role in controlling God’s created order: they are “set in command of the elements, the heavens, the world, and all within it” as the second-century Church Father St. Athenagoras puts it. Were they unable to move material objects, they would be clearly incapable of exercising this power.
(b) The teaching of the Catholic Church on angels
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The Catholic Church’s teaching about angels is neatly summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The existence of angels – a truth of faith
328 The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.
Who are they?
329 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’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel.'”188 With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they “always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” they are the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word”.189
330 As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.190
Later, the Catechism gives a brief recap of the role of angels in salvation history:
332 Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar or near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan: they closed the earthly paradise; protected Lot; saved Hagar and her child; stayed Abraham’s hand; communicated the law by their ministry; led the People of God; announced births and callings; and assisted the prophets, just to cite a few examples.194 Finally, the angel Gabriel announced the birth of the Precursor and that of Jesus himself.195
333 From the Incarnation to the Ascension, the life of the Word incarnate is surrounded by the adoration and service of angels. When God “brings the firstborn into the world, he says: ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.'”196 Their song of praise at the birth of Christ has not ceased resounding in the Church’s praise: “Glory to God in the highest!”197 They protect Jesus in his infancy, serve him in the desert, strengthen him in his agony in the garden, when he could have been saved by them from the hands of his enemies as Israel had been.198 Again, it is the angels who “evangelize” by proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection.199 They will be present at Christ’s return, which they will announce, to serve at his judgement.200
The Catechism’s references to angels’ having “protected Lot; saved Hagar and her child; stayed Abraham’s hand; … led the People of God” clearly imply that they are capable of moving people and objects. Had they lacked this power, they could not have “stayed Abraham’s hand”; nor could they have saved Jesus “from the hands of his enemies” had they been powerless to move bodies.
Finally, the Catholic Church’s foremost theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), known as the Angelic Doctor, explicitly asserts that angels are capable of moving bodies in his Summa Theologica (I, q. 110, a. 3, ad. 3), when he declares that “an angel’s power is not limited to any body; hence it can move locally bodies not joined to it.” He adds (I, q. 110, a. 3):
…[T]he corporeal nature has a natural aptitude to be moved immediately by the spiritual nature as regards place. Hence also the philosophers asserted that the supreme bodies are moved locally by the spiritual substances; whence we see that the soul moves the body first and chiefly by a local motion.
Below, we will examine more closely how Aquinas believes that angels move bodies. At any rate, one thing should be plain: the Christian Church has always taught that angels are not passive spectators, but that they play a very active part in supporting God’s creation and in carrying out God’s plan in salvation history.
4. How angels are said to move bodies, and why these explanations fail
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Perhaps the most detailed explanation of how angels move bodies was put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). To the best of my knowledge, no alternative explanation has ever been proposed by any Christian theologian, so it is to Aquinas’ account that we now turn.
(a) Aquinas: angels can move bodies by sheer mind power
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Aquinas asserted in his Summa Theologica that angels can move bodies, simply by willing them to move: “angels are stated to be the movers of the heavenly spheres, and to move them according to their knowledge and will” (S.T. I, q. 57, a. 2). In his Summa Contra Gentiles II, ch. 99, para. 4, Aquinas was even more explicit: “Now, separate substances [i.e. spirits – VJT] act and move by their intellect. Hence, they are actually causing whatever is effected by the movement of the heavenly bodies, even as the craftsman works through his tools.” But how did they accomplish this feat?
Aquinas elsewhere explained that the reason why angels are able to move bodies is that: (i) all physical changes ultimately boil down to local movement of some kind (on this point, Aquinas follows the authority of Aristotle), so local movement must be the “most perfect” form of physical change; (ii) whenever bodies are moved by something else, they receive their movement from without rather than within; and (iii) since corporeal beings are lower in the order of things than spiritual beings, and since terrestrial bodies are moved by the heavenly bodies, it is especially fitting that the heavenly bodies (which Aquinas calls “supreme bodies”) should be moved by spiritual substances (i.e. angels):
Now corporeal nature is below the spiritual nature. But among all corporeal movements the most perfect is local motion, as the Philosopher [Aristotle – VJT] proves (Phys. viii, 7). The reason of this is that what is moved locally is not as such in potentiality to anything intrinsic, but only to something extrinsic — that is, to place. Therefore the corporeal nature has a natural aptitude to be moved immediately by the spiritual nature as regards place. Hence also the philosophers asserted that the supreme bodies are moved locally by the spiritual substances; whence we see that the soul moves the body first and chiefly by a local motion. (S.T. I, q. 110, a. 3).
Let us set aside Aquinas’ Aristotelian physics, as it is not terribly relevant here. It is of course true that Newton’s First Law of Motion entails that movement at constant velocity requires no causal explanation as it is not a change but a state, but that still leaves us with accelerated movement, which is caused by a force, so let us confine our attention to this case. Aquinas’ argument then boils down to the premise that bodies don’t accelerate themselves, coupled with the premise that bodies have an aptitude (or tendency) to be moved by spiritual agents, or angels. The first premise is true, but it overlooks the fact that bodies can and do accelerate each other, as occurs when two bodies are mutually attracted. As for the second premise: even if it were true, it would only demonstrate that bodies are capable of being moved by angels. It would not, however, demonstrate that angels are capable of moving bodies. The capacity to be moved is a passive power, whereas the capacity to move something else is an active power. Finally, the two premises, taken together, do not logically imply the conclusion that bodies require angels to move (or rather, accelerate) them. If this is the best argument Aquinas has to offer, then he is going to have to lift his game.
For the time being, two points should be noted: Aquinas needs to explain how angels (which are disembodied spirits) are capable of knowing about the bodies that they move, so that they can decide which way to move them, and he also needs to flesh out his case that the heavenly bodies need to be moved by intelligent beings.
(b) Why angels are incapable of transforming bodies at will
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Although he held that angels can move bodies merely by the power of their will, Aquinas insisted that they are unable to transform these bodies by their will alone, for only God controls things’ forms by virtue of His will (S.T. I, q. 110, a.2). Nevertheless, Aquinas believed that angels are able to transform things indirectly, by moving them in the right way: “The angels, by causing local motion, as the first motion, can thereby cause other movements; that is, by employing corporeal agents to produce these effects, as a workman employs fire to soften iron” (S.T. I, q. 110, a.3). By so doing, angels and demons are able to bring about effects that look very much like magic.
Aquinas also taught that angels and demons are creatures, which means that since they belong to the created order, they are not capable of miracles in the strict sense of the word: these can only be performed by God, the Author of creation (S.T. I, q. 110, a.4).
(c) How angels and demons can perform feats that are practically indistinguishable from magic
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There is a funny little episode in the book of Exodus, in which Moses’s brother Aaron turns his staff into a snake, as a sign to the Pharaoh of Egypt, who demanded to see a miracle before agreeing to let the Israelites leave Egypt in order to celebrate a religious festival in the wilderness. The story can be found in Exodus 7:8-13 (NIV):
8 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”
10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12 Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.
St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine before him, both interpreted this passage literally, as a description of an actual historical episode. God’s ability to work a miracle on Aaron’s behalf did not surprise them at all: after all, God is omnipotent. But how did the Pharaoh’s magicians manage to turn their staffs into snakes? St. Augustine’s answer (and Aquinas followed him on this point) was that the magicians were assisted by demons. But how were the demons able to turn the magicians’ staffs into snakes, if they were unable to transform bodies at will, and unable to work miracles?
Following Augustine (De Trinitate iii, ch. 8), Aquinas believed that both angels and demons were able to use the tiny corporeal seeds of various kinds of living creatures (referred to by St. Augustine as rationes seminales), which had been created by God at the beginning of time and scattered throughout the natural world, in order to produce certain spectacular effects that would appear magical to anyone witnessing them, such as transforming a staff into a serpent – a feat wrought by Moses’ brother Aaron, which the Pharaoh’s evil magicians (assisted, Augustine believed, by demons) were also capable of replicating. Hence, for all practical intents and purposes, angels and demons are capable of doing what we would call magic. Aquinas, who believed in the spontaneous generation of many different kinds of living creatures from dead and decaying matter, believed that the transformation of a wooden staff into a serpent could occur naturally as well (through the process of decay and spontaneous generation), but that demons were capable of accelerating the process and skip the decay stage, making the transformation look virtually instantaneous:
As we have said above (I:110:2), corporeal matter does not obey either good or bad angels at their will, so that demons be able by their power to transmute matter from one form to another; but they can employ certain seeds that exist in the elements of the world, in order to produce these effects, as Augustine says (De Trin. iii, 8,9). Therefore it must be admitted that all the transformation of corporeal things which can be produced by certain natural powers, to which we must assign the seeds above mentioned, can alike be produced by the operation of the demons, by the employment of these seeds; such as the transformation of certain things into serpents or frogs, which can be produced by putrefaction. (S.T. I, q. 114, a. 4, ad. 2)
St. Augustine’s invisible seeds (rationes seminales), and how they help demons perform feats that look like magic
Portrait of Saint Augustine of Hippo receiving the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645-1650. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In his De Trinitate (iii. ch. 8, para. 13), St. Augustine elaborates upon the nature of these “hidden seeds” (rationales seminales) which God created at the beginning of time. They are, he says, invisible and far tinier than ordinary seeds. God created these seeds at the beginning of time so that on the third day of creation in chapter 1 of the book of Genesis, the land would spontaneously “bring forth” vegetation at God’s command; and on the fifth day of creation, the waters could spontaneously bring forth sea creatures and the air could bring forth birds; and finally, on the sixth day, the land could bring forth creatures that crawl upon the earth. It is these invisible seeds, Augustine believed, that allow living things to be spontaneously generated from decaying matter, even today. God has scattered these invisible seeds throughout the natural world, in places known to angels and demons; the latter can use this knowledge to their own evil advantage, to produce spectacular effects which look miraculous to human beings, by accelerating the growth of these seeds in order to generate living creatures:
Nor, in truth, are those evil angels to be called creators, because by their means the magicians, withstanding the servant of God, made frogs and serpents; for it was not they who created them. But, in truth, some hidden seeds of all things that are born corporeally and visibly, are concealed in the corporeal elements of this world. For those seeds that are visible now to our eyes from fruits and living things, are quite distinct from the hidden seeds of those former seeds; from which, at the bidding of the Creator, the water produced the first swimming creatures and fowl, and the earth the first buds after their kind, and the first living creatures after their kind… As therefore we do not call parents the creators of men, nor farmers the creators of grain — although it is by the outward application of their actions that the power of God operates within for the creating these things — so it is not right to think not only the bad but even the good angels to be creators, if, through the subtlety of their perception and body, they know the seeds of things which to us are more hidden, and scatter them secretly through fit temperings of the elements, and so furnish opportunities of producing things, and of accelerating their increase. But neither do the good angels do these things, except as far as God commands, nor do the evil ones do them wrongfully, except as far as He righteously permits.
How demons can fool people into thinking they’ve witnessed feats that God alone can perform, such as raising the dead
Guided by St. Augustine, who had taught that visible matter “obeys God alone” when it comes to its form, St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that certain physical transformations were beyond the power of the demons to bring about – “for instance, that the human body be changed into the body of a beast, or that the body of a dead man return to life” (S.T. I, q. 114, a. 4, ad. 2). These miraculous changes can only be effected by God. Nevertheless, demons can sometimes make people think that they have witnessed even these fantastic feats – either by directly acting on their imaginations, by “by the local movement of animal spirits and humors,” especially during dreams (S.T. I, q. 111, a. 3) or by clothing “any corporeal thing with any corporeal form, so as to appear therein,” thereby creating an illusion (S. T. I, q. 114, a. 4, ad. 2). Aquinas went on to explain that “that the demon, who forms an image in a man’s imagination, can offer the same picture to another man’s senses.”
In the same article (S. T. I, q. 114, a. 4, obj. 3 and ad. 3), Aquinas acknowledged the objection that it was practically impossible for ordinary people to tell the difference between God’s authentic miracles and the devil’s fake miracles. In reply, Aquinas, quoting Augustine, pointed out that evil magicians perform these feats for their own glory, while holy men perform them for God’s glory: “When magicians do what holy men do, they do it for a different end and by a different right. The former do it for their own glory; the latter, for the glory of God: the former, by certain private compacts; the latter by the evident assistance and command of God, to Whom every creature is subject.”
To sum up: there can be no doubt that Aquinas believed demons to be capable of performing feats that were, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from magic.
(d) How angels know about bodies: through concepts infused into them by God
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Angels and demons would not be capable of moving bodies unless they knew about the various kinds of bodies that exist, and where they are located. How can angels, as incorporeal spirits, know about such things? Aquinas was certainly aware of this problem, judging from what he wrote in his Summa Contra Gentiles II, ch. 100, para. 5: “Moreover, if, as the philosophers say, the heavenly bodies are moved by the separate substances, then, since separate substances act and move by their intellect, they must know the movable thing which they move…” In a nutshell, Aquinas’ answer is that God allows the angels (and demons) to participate in His own knowledge of bodies, as the Author of Nature, but only to a limited degree.
Aquinas declares that angels’ knowledge of bodies, along with their knowledge of themselves and other spirits, is infused into them by God from the first moment of their existence – in other words, angels’ knowledge is “hardwired” into them from the get-go, although the only knowledge that they naturally possess is self-knowledge:
… God impressed upon the angelic mind the images of the things which He produced in their own natural being. Now in the Word of God from eternity there existed not only the forms of corporeal things, but likewise the forms of all spiritual creatures. So in every one of these spiritual creatures, the forms of all things, both corporeal and spiritual, were impressed by the Word of God; yet so that in every angel there was impressed the form of his own species according to both its natural and its intelligible condition, so that he should subsist in the nature of his species, and understand himself by it; while the forms of other spiritual and corporeal natures were impressed in him only according to their intelligible natures, so that by such impressed species he might know corporeal and spiritual creatures. (S.T. I, q. 56, a. 2)
Unlike human knowledge, the knowledge of the angels does not involve reasoning from premises to a conclusion, “because in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them.” (S.T. I, q. 58, a. 3)
Aquinas also believed that angels have a very abstract understanding of bodies – indeed, he even asserted that “all material things pre-exist in the angels more simply and less materially even than in themselves, yet in a more manifold manner and less perfectly than in God” (S.T. I, q. 57, a. 1). So it might be presumed that angels’ knowledge of bodies is purely general, and that they know nothing of individual objects. Aquinas, however, rejected this notion as not only contrary to the Catholic faith, which teaches that each of us has a guardian angel and that all “lower things are administered by angels,” but also “contrary to the teachings of philosophy, according to which the angels are stated to be the movers of the heavenly spheres, and to move them according to their knowledge and will” (S.T. I, q. 57, a. 2). Obviously, angels could not move the heavenly bodies unless they knew about individual bodies. Nor is their knowledge of bodies merely computational – for if it were, then it would not be direct and immediate. Rather, angels know individual bodies according to the manner in which their existence is ordained by God, their Ultimate Cause:
“…[A]s things proceed from God in order that they may subsist in their own natures, so likewise they proceed in order that they may exist in the angelic mind… And for as much as He [God] causes, does He know; for His knowledge is the cause of a thing, as was shown above (I:14:8). Therefore as by His essence, by which He causes all things, God is the likeness of all things, and knows all things, not only as to their universal natures, but also as to their singularity; so through the species imparted to them do the angels know things, not only as to their universal nature, but likewise in their individual conditions, in so far as they are the manifold representations of that one simple essence” (S.T. I, q. 57, a.2).
Aquinas maintained that angels do not, however, possess a perfect knowledge of the future, for such knowledge belongs only to God, Who from all eternity sees past, present and future in a single sweep. Angels, unlike God, are not outside time, for their intellects can move or progress from an understanding of one concept to that of another. However, just as we can predict future events, so too can angels, to a much greater degree, as they “understand the causes of things both more universally and more perfectly” (S.T. I, q. 57, a. 3). In this way, angels are capable of foretelling future events which happen of necessity, or in the majority of cases, but not casual or chance events.
As I see it, the main problem with Aquinas’ account of angelic knowledge is that the various concepts of different kinds of things in the world which are infused by God into the minds of angels at their creation possess contradictory attributes: they are said to be purely formal, and on the other hand, they include detailed information about individuals, which are composites of form and matter. Aquinas attempts to resolve this tension by suggesting that angels know individuals as “manifold representations of that one simple essence” whose form they instantiate (S. T. I, q. 57, a.2). However, his statement that each form infused by God into an angel’s mind contains “manifold representations” is clearly incompatible with his earlier statement that “all material things pre-exist in the angels more simply and less materially even than in themselves” (S.T. I, q. 57, a. 1). Aquinas really cannot have it both ways.
A second (and related) problem with Aquinas’ account is that on the one hand, it views angels as essentially simple beings, whose essences are composed of form alone, without any matter, and on the other hand, it insists that these simple angelic minds are nonetheless capable of containing a multitude of different forms corresponding to the various kinds of creatures that inhabit our world, as well as details about each individual being instantiating these forms. In other words, the kind of knowledge Aquinas ascribes to angels requires them to be internally complex, rendering his theory unworkable.
To be fair, I should point out that some medieval philosophers, including Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, believed that angels were internally complex, being composed of form plus something they called “spiritual matter.” But even if we accept their account, we are still faced with the problem discussed in section 1 above: how are angels able to move bodies by willpower alone? As far as I am aware, no medieval theologian ever addressed this question, or even considered it worthy of addressing. Why not?
The answer, I would suggest, is that all of them were victims of what I will call scala naturae thinking. That is, they all took for granted that since angels, being spirits, were higher in the natural order of things than mere bodies (as shown in the picture above), that alone was enough to explain how angels could move bodies, if God deemed it appropriate that they should. I respectfully submit that this is not an explanation: it is tantamount to saying that something can happen because it ought to happen. The point I am making here is that final causality is incapable of explaining efficient causality – especially when the kind of final causality we are dealing with here is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. In other words, what I am suggesting is that Aquinas and his medieval contemporaries were blinded by their metaphysical prejudices. Whether they are higher in the natural order of things or not, the mechanism of spirits’ interactions with bodies still needs to be explained – especially when they appear to share no common attributes that would enable them to interact.
A fork bent by the magician James Randi. All very impressive, but can you do this with your mind alone (no touching allowed)? And why not? Image courtesy of Jud McCranie and Wikipedia.
Another profound philosophical truth which many ancient and medieval philosophers (especially disciples of Plato and Aristotle) were prone to overlook is one that I shall call the inefficacy of the mental. Put simply: thoughts don’t move things. To see what I mean, look at an object in front of you, and try to will it to move. You might want to try and levitate a pen, or bend a spoon, with the power of your mind alone (no touching allowed!) Now, focus on that object with all your mental strength. I want you to really concentrate now, on moving it in the way you want. The blood should be pulsing in your temples, as you try with all your might to move the object. Mmmmmph! There! Did you succeed? Of course you didn’t. And why not? Because you weren’t trying hard enough? Because your mind wasn’t strong enough? No. The reason is that the whole notion of “mental force” makes absolutely no sense. Minds alone move nothing. Mere acts of will – human, angelic or demonic – are powerless to bring about changes in the world. If “acts of will” were enough to make things happen, then there would be no such thing as paralysis. “Mind power” is a childish notion: you can’t get what you want simply by wishing for it. And since angels are said to possess no powers but thought and volition (or intellect and will), it follows that they are incapable of doing anything at all.
(Note: I have purposefully bracketed the question of how God moves objects, as a topic for another post. Suffice to say here that God stand to the world in a completely different relation to that of angels, demons or humans: God is the Creator and Author of Nature, while we are creatures.)
(e) Aquinas’ argument for the existence of angels, and why it fails
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Aquinas, however, thought that he had a strong argument for the existence of angels. This was his “trump card” – or so he believed. Unlike most of his medieval Catholic contemporaries, Aquinas believed that he could demonstrate on purely rational grounds, and to a high degree of probability, that angels exist. He elaborated his argument in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapter 91, paragraph 9, First, he argued that that the heavenly bodies must have incorporeal movers that move them, given that these bodies are incapable of moving themselves (on this point, Aquinas was clearly influenced by the pre-Newtonian arguments put forward by Aristotle in his Physics, Book viii), and given that the movements of these bodies are:
(i) non-terminating, or endless (which for Aquinas means that they cannot be moved by some internal natural principle, as an internal principle cannot supply endless motion);
(ii) continuous, regular and unfailingly uniform (which points to their having an entirely unmoved mover which must be incorporeal, as every body is moved in some way or other); and
(iii) multiple, as there are many celestial bodies that move in different ways (indicating the need for a plurality of incorporeal movers).
Next, Aquinas argued that the incorporeal movers of the heavenly bodies must also be intelligent, which led him to conclude that there are multiple intelligences that move the celestial bodies:
Again, in Metaphysics XI  Aristotle reasons as follows. Movement that is continuous, regular, and in its own nature unfailing must be derived from a mover which is not moved, either through itself or by accident, as was proved in Book I of this work. Moreover, a plurality of movements must proceed from a plurality of movers. The movement of the heaven, however, is continuous, regular, and in its nature unfailing, And besides the first movement, there are many such movements in the heaven, as the studies of the astronomers show. Hence, there must be several movers which are not moved, either through themselves or by accident. But, as we proved in that same Book, no body moves unless it is itself moved; and an incorporeal mover united to a body is moved accidentally in keeping with the movement of the body, as we see in the case of the soul. Hence, there must be a number of movers which neither are bodies nor are united to bodies. Now, the heavenly movements proceed from an intellect, as we have also shown. We therefore conclude to the existence of a plurality of intellectual substances that are not united to bodies.
Finally (and on this point, Aquinas’ opinion diverged from that of his teacher, St. Albert the Great), Aquinas argued that the intellectual substances that move the heavenly bodies could be identified with angels. Albert had considered these intelligences to be distinct from angels, on the grounds of their very immobility: by contrast, angels in the scriptures come and go all the time (think of the angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven in Jacob’s dream, in Genesis 28). Aquinas countered this argument by citing the authority of St. Augustine, who declared in his De Trinitate 3.4.9 that all corporeal creatures are governed by mediating spirits, which in turn are governed by God Himself: “And so it comes to pass that the will of God is the first and the highest cause of all corporeal appearances and motions.” In other words, for Augustine, God uses spirits to move bodies. Additionally, Aquinas pointed out in his Responsio de 43 Articulis 4-5 (Editio Leonina 42:328, lines 78-116) that the movement of the celestial bodies by spiritual creatures had never been denied by any authors that he remembered reading, whether saints (such as Augustine) or philosophers (including Platonists and Aristotelians). In fact, there was one medieval theologian who believed that the movement of the heavenly bodies was purely natural, and that they were moved from within and not from without: the Dominican Robert Kilwardby (ca. 1215-1279). However, Kilwardby was a solitary exception: virtually all of Aquinas’ contemporaries (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) shared his belief that the heavenly bodies were moved by intelligent agents.
Aquinas concluded his demonstration by arguing that the view that the heavenly bodies were inanimate objects that were moved by angels was a lot more plausible than the idea that they were living things that were moved by souls, as Gregory Doolan explains in his article, “Aquinas on the Demonstrability of Angels” (in A Companion to Angels in Medieval Philosophy, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition (Book 35), 2012, ed. Tobias Hoffmann, p. 28, footnote 52):
In article 6 of his De Spiritualibus Creaturis, Editio Leonina 24/2:69, lines 186-231, Thomas writes that one cannot demonstratively prove whether the heavens are animated and moved by souls that are united to them or whether they are inanimate and moved simply by angels. He notes that both opinions have the character of probability, but identifies the latter probability as more fitting, and hence more likely. This is a position that he adopts throughout his writings.
It should be noted that Aquinas did not think that all angels move the heavenly bodies: he taught that some angels occupy an even more exalted position. To quote Doolan again:
In the same article, Thomas presents a twofold order of angelic movers: some are united to the celestial bodies as movers to the moveable (rather than as souls), whereas others act as ends of these movements (24/2:69-70, lines 232-43). (2012, p. 28, footnote 52)
Aquinas, in his Disputed Questions on Spiritual Creatures, Article 6, describes angels falling into the latter category as “wholly abstracted and not united to bodies.”
From the foregoing, we can see just how far Aquinas’ mindset, and that of his medieval contemporaries, was from our own. Aquinas was (through no fault of his own) empirically mistaken in believing that the movement of the heavenly bodies is everlasting; he was also philosophically mistaken in supposing that an everlasting motion required an external, incorporeal agent to explain it. The Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft readily admits as much, in his best-selling book, Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), where he rejects the belief that angels move the heavenly bodies, as an outdated medieval notion.
The question that confronts today’s Christians is: given what we now know about how the universe works, is there still a role for angels, or should we wield Occam’s razor and dispense with them altogether? Quite clearly, we no longer need them in order to explain how bodies move, and in any case, it appears to be impossible in principle for incorporeal spirits to move bodies, for reasons argued above. So what remains for angels to do?
Some Christians might argue, however, that even if angels are incapable of moving bodies, they are still able to influence us spiritually and thereby act as our guardians. It is to this question that we now turn.
5. How theologians explain angels’ ability to influence our minds, and why these explanations also fail
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In his book, Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? (Ignatius Press, 1995), Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft addresses the question of how angels can influence our minds (emphases are mine):
65 How do angels affect our minds?
As we affect each other: freely, by suggestion, not by force.
We can affect each other’s minds and wills (though we cannot force them) by teaching, counseling, praising, blaming, exhorting, and commanding. We do this in bodily ways, unlike angels, but also by suggesting things to the imagination. (The imagination is the inner sense that makes images.) Angels can also suggest or inspire our imagination.
Now this is not direct mental telepathy. Angels teach each other by direct mental telepathy, but this is not the way they teach us. Rather, they “inspire” us; they suggest things to our imagination.
Evil spirits do the same. Demons tempt us in the same way as guardian angels help us. Tempting is not forcing. A spirit or soul cannot be forced….
But we can influence (not compel) each other’s choices through the mediating channels of imagination and emotion. So can angels. They can’t put judgments in your mind or choices in your will, but they can put images in your imagination and feelings in your heart. (Feelings don’t compel you either; your will can choose whether to follow your feelings or not.) …
What Kreeft overlooks, however, is that in order to influence our imaginations, angels need to be capable of manipulating our brains. And if they are incapable of moving bodies, then the same objections that were raised in section 1 and section 4 above to the notion of spirits moving bodies will apply here, as well. We are back at square one again.
What is more, in order to manipulate our imaginations, angels would need to have a very detailed knowledge of the human brain – otherwise their manipulations could have other, unwanted side-effects, which would render their interventions hazardous to human beings.
6. Why the arguments for the existence of angels fail to convince
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In his well-argued online article, Do Angels Really Exist?, Professor Peter S. Williams presents a cumulative case for the existence of angels. The arguments he puts forward are briefly as follows:
(i) Common consent: across human cultures, most human beings believe in angels and demons. This is admittedly not a very strong argument, but it shifts the burden of proof back onto the skeptic;
(ii) Authority: the weight of Church tradition supports the existence of angels (a fact which should sway Christians, at least) and there are many prominent philosophers who continue to defend their reality, in the present day;
(iii) The authority of Jesus and the Scriptures: the Bible clearly teaches the existence of angels, and Jesus refers to them several times;
(iv) Extrapolation: “Given that an infinite God exists, and that he created human beings with naturally embodied immaterial finite minds, it becomes plausible to think not only that there could exist, but that there might well exist, naturally un-embodied finite minds: angels”;
(v) Experience: many people in the present day, as well as many notable people in the past, have had angelic encounters. In her PhD thesis on angel experiences, agnostic Emma Heathcote-James reports that “people from all cultures, backgrounds and faiths report fundamentally the same types of experience [with angels]… agnostics and atheists have the same kinds of experiences as believers in orthodox religions.” She also acknowledges: “psychological and medical theories have not provided answers that could explain away every experience I have investigated.”
Argument (i) is, by Williams’ own admission, unconvincing: “Arguments from common consent are a relatively weak form of argument for any hypothesis.” I might add that the definition of “angels” employed here by Williams is a very broad one: “nonphysical beings” and “finite spirit beings” are among the definitions listed. Would the Hindu devas qualify as angels? What about the ancestral spirits of the Dreamtime, in Aboriginal Australia? How about the kami (nature spirits and ancestral spirits) of Japanese Shinto? A vague definition of “angel” will inevitably yield a vague and unsatisfying answer to the question of how widespread belief in angels is, among the world’s various peoples.
As this article is part of a series presenting objections to Christianity, we can set aside arguments (ii) and (iii), as these will only impress people who are already committed Christians. If, for instance, the Bible teaches that angels exist and reason shows otherwise, then so much the worse for the Bible. I would, however, like to express my agreement with Williams regarding the factual question as to whether the historical Jesus and the authors of the New Testament actually believed in the existence of angels and demons: the evidence is overwhelmingly strong that they did. For further details, I refer the curious reader to Thomas Farrar’s 2015 online paper, ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person’: An Assessment of the Accommodation Theory of Demon Possession and Exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels, who writes: “A survey of the literature shows that biblical scholars are in wide agreement that Jesus and the Synoptic writers did in fact believe in demons.” (See also Farrar’s paper, Satanology and Demonology in the Apostolic Fathers: A Response to Jonathan Burke, Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 83 (2018): 156–91.) The question we need to ask ourselves is: were they correct, or were they mistaken?
Argument (iv) only works if we are prepared to grant the possibility not only of disembodied spirits but of disembodied agents – for the real question that confronts us is how angels are able to influence events going on in the world. However, as we have seen in section 1 and section 4 above, there are formidable philosophical reasons for thinking that such disembodied agents cannot exist.
That leaves argument (v), which is admittedly impressive. In her book, Angel Encounters (Belfast: Ambassador International, 2008), which is cited in Dr. Peter Williams’ article, Cindy Mackenzie relates the story of ‘Keith’, a young man jailed in 1990 for killing another young man, ‘Steven’, in a gang-related knife fight. Keith heard that Steven’s stepfather had threatened to kill him in revenge. During the second year of his sentence, however, Keith became a Christian. Finally, after serving nearly five years of his sentence, Keith was given parole:
One day, in the middle of crossing a busy road on his way to the Lost and Found Office in Edinburgh, a man tapped him on the shoulder, and as Keith turned to him the man said, ‘What you’re looking for isn’t in that building.’ He told Keith where he should go instead to find what he was looking for. Keith did not know this man, nor had he told anyone where he was going. Still trying to register what he’d been told, he looked up to find the stranger gone. In that moment Keith knew an angel in the form of a man had come to warn him of some danger. He did not understand what or why, but was absolutely positive that God had saved him from something. The tears ran down his face as he stood in the middle of the road. Several weeks later Keith found out that if he had gone into the building as he’d intended, he would have come face to face with Steven’s stepfather, the very same man who’d threatened to kill him. (p. 55)
This is a deeply moving testimonial, but the question I would ask is: even assuming that the details in the story turn out to be correct in every way, does it prove the existence of angels, or the existence of God? For what is there to prevent God Almighty from appearing to human beings in angelic form, if He so wishes?
I might add that in many places in the Bible, the distinction between God and the angels is a blurred one. For instance, the angel of the Lord (a term which appears no less than 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and several times in the New Testament), appears to be a theophany, or manifestation of God. It is the angel of the Lord who appears to Abraham in Genesis 22, telling him not to slay his son Isaac, and who appears to Moses in the burning bush, in Exodus 3. What are we to make of this?
I conclude that the cumulative case for the existence of angels is not strong enough to overcome the cogent philosophical arguments against the possibility of disembodied spiritual agents who are able to interact with bodies.
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7. What is the best evidence for the existence of demons?
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(a) Dr. Richard Gallagher: the Yale-trained psychiatrist who diagnoses cases of demonic possession
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By far the best evidence for the existence of demonic agents comes from the testimony of Dr. Richard Gallagher, a board-certified psychiatrist in private practice in Hawthorne, New York, and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at New York Medical College. Gallagher is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University, who graduated magna cum laude in Classics, and trained in Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. Gallagher’s testimony, which is reported in a Washington Post article (July 1, 2016) titled, “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. And, sometimes, demonic possession” begins as follows:
I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether [a self-styled Satanic high priestess] was suffering from a mental disorder. This was at the height of the national panic about Satanism… So I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed...
Most of the people I evaluate in this role suffer from the more prosaic problems of a medical disorder. Anyone even faintly familiar with mental illnesses knows that individuals who think they are being attacked by malign spirits are generally experiencing nothing of the sort. Practitioners see psychotic patients all the time who claim to see or hear demons; histrionic or highly suggestible individuals, such as those suffering from dissociative identity syndromes; and patients with personality disorders who are prone to misinterpret destructive feelings, in what exorcists sometimes call a ‘pseudo-possession’, via the defense mechanism of an externalizing projection. But what am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?
Dr. Gallagher goes on to describe the unique features that set possessed individuals apart from other mentally disturbed people:
A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.) He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things — like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.
(b) Why Dr. Gallagher’s chief critic, Dr. Steve Novella, is not impressed with Gallagher’s evidence for the demonic
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At first blush, these abilities look like pretty convincing evidence for the existence of demonic agents, but other experts in Dr. Gallagher’s field are not impressed. One of Dr. Gallagher’s most trenchant critics is Dr. Steve Novella, a clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine, who takes apart Dr. Gallagher’s claims in an article on his Neurologica blog, titled, “A Psychiatrist Falls for Exorcism” (July 5, 2016). Commenting on the self-styled Satanic high priestess’s ability to reveal secret information about people, Dr. Novella writes:
Mentalists do this on a regular basis – on demand, even. If you think guessing how someone’s mother died (actually just giving the illusion that you did) or that someone is guilty of the sin of pride, then you really need to see a good mentalist in action.
More telling are cases of being able to speak rare languages, such as Latin, but Dr. Novella warns that we need to ask critical questions, in cases such as these – in particular, how reliable are the eyewitnesses’ memories, and was the allegedly possessed individual actually able to hold a conversation in the language which they spoke:
Speaking languages they did not previously know – that is an extraordinary claim. All Gallagher has to offer as evidence is stories. Perception and memory are incredible (sic) flawed, especially so in a highly emotionally charged situation. How long had those attending the allegedly possessed kept their vigil before the interesting stuff started to happen? How sleep deprived were they? How willing to believe?
It’s also possible that a patient might memorize Latin phrases to throw out during one of their possessions. Were they having a conversation in Latin? Did they understand Latin spoken to them? Or did they just speak Latin?
The question Dr. Novella poses here is especially pertinent in the present day, when very few people, even among the Catholic clergy, are capable of holding an actual conversation in Latin. Dr. Reginald Foster, a priest who used to write papal encyclicals in Latin, estimates the number of fluent Latin speakers in the Catholic Church today to be no more than 100. Think about that: just 100 Latin speakers, in a Church which includes 1.2 billion members and about 415,000 priests. Was Dr. Gallagher fooled?
Dr. Novella is particularly scornful of Dr. Gallagher’s statement that although he has not personally witnessed a levitation, he knows six people who swear they have. Novella comments:
Here Gallagher makes his most embarrassing statement, a “friend-of-a-friend” claim for levitation. He has never seen it, but other people have? What did they see, exactly? Was the person just arching their back and bouncing off the bed?
Finally, Dr. Novella weighs in with a general remark which illustrates why we should take claims of exorcisms with a very large grain of salt: they tend to be utterly unremarkable affairs, where nothing happens:
I have literally watched dozens of hours of exorcisms on video. They are all incredibly boring. Nothing interesting happens. No levitations.
(c) A Modern-day Exorcism: The Case of “Julia” – and why it fails to convince
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A 14-year-old domestic servant, Therese Selles, experiences poltergeist / spontaneous psychokinetic activity in the home of her employer, the Todeschini family at Cheragas, Algeria, as featured on the cover of the French magazine La Vie Mysterieuse in 1911. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In his online essay, “Do Angels Really Exist?”, Dr. Peter Williams also cites Dr. Richard Gallagher’s article, Among the Many Counterfeits, a Case of Demonic Possession (New Oxford Review, March 8, 2008). In this article, Dr. Gallagher discusses the case of a middle-aged woman named “Julia” (a pseudonym), who requested exorcism. Below is a selection of the evidence cited by Dr. Gallagher, purportedly showing that “Julia” was possessed:
Because of the complexity of this case, we assembled a team to assist. At varying points, this group comprised several qualified mental-health personnel, at least four Catholic priests, a deacon and his wife, two nuns (both nurses, one psychiatric), and several lay volunteers. We made a number of phone calls to arrange gathering together to help Julia. Julia herself was not in on these phone discussions; she was far from the area at the time. Astonishingly, Julia’s “other” voice — again sometimes deep, sometimes high pitched — would actually interrupt the telephone conversations and somehow come in over the phone line! The voice(s) would espouse the same messages: “Leave her alone,” “Leave, you idiots,” “Get away from her,” “She’s ours.” Julia, again, said later that she was unaware of any such conversation. And yet this speech was heard distinctly by several of the team on a number of occasions.
As mentioned, even outside her trances, Julia unmistakably displayed “psychic” abilities; put another way, her presence was clearly associated with paranormal events. Sometimes objects around her would fly off the shelves, the rare phenomenon of psychokinesis known to parapsychologists. Julia was also in possession of knowledge of facts and occurrences beyond any possibility of their natural acquisition. She commonly reported information about the relatives, household composition, family deaths and illnesses, etc., of members of our team, without ever having observed or been informed about them. As an example, she knew the personality and precise manner of death (i.e., the exact type of cancer) of a relative of a team member that no one could conceivably have guessed. She once spoke about the strange behavior of some inexplicably frenzied animals beyond her direct observation: Though residing in another city, she commented, “So those cats really went berserk last night, didn’t they?” the morning after two cats in a team member’s house uncharacteristically had violently attacked each other at about 2 AM…
Julia also exhibited enormous strength. Despite the religious sisters and three others holding her down with all their might, they struggled to restrain her. Remarkably, for about 30 minutes, she actually levitated about half a foot in the air.
My own brief comments on this case are as follows:
(i) Dr. Gallagher does not claim to have personally witnessed the 30-minute levitation of “Julia,” or any incidents of psychokinesis; nor does he name any of the people who witnessed these extraordinary events. In the absence of signed and sworn testimony, or photographic evidence, it would be foolish to place credence in second-hand reports;
(ii) Dr. Gallagher does not claim to have heard any demonic voices on the telephone. Once again, he appeals to anonymous second-hand testimony, which is not supported by any hard evidence, such as recordings;
(iii) the only specific instance of supernatural knowledge displayed by “Julia” which Dr. Gallagher actually cites is a vague comment about cats fighting: “So those cats really went berserk last night, didn’t they?” No dates, no times, no locations and no names are given. This is hardly what I would call convincing evidence.
I have spent some time on the evidence cited by Dr. Gallagher, because the man himself is a highly qualified individual. If even he cannot produce good evidence for the demonic, then I think it is fair to say that no-one else can.
(d) Fr. Gabriele Amorth, “the Dean of Exorcists”: did he really do battle with Satan?
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Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not mention the case of Fr. Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016), known as “the Dean of Exorcists,” who was accompanied by William Friedkin, director of the 1973 Hollywood classic, The Exorcist, as he conducted an exorcism of an Italian woman in her late thirties named “Rosa.” Friedkin narrated his hair-raising experiences in a December 2016 article in Vanity Fair magazine titled, The Devil and Father Amorth: Witnessing “the Vatican Exorcist” at Work. Allow me to quote a brief excerpt from the scene of the exorcism itself:
Without warning, Rosa began to thrash violently. The five male helpers had all they could do to hold her down. A foam formed at her lips.
“RECEDE IN NOMINI PATRIS!” (Leave in the name of the Father.) Rosa’s features slowly altered into a mask of despair, as her body continued to writhe. She was trying to rise and, clearly, to attack.
“SANCTISSIMO DOMINE MIGRA.” (Let him go, O God Almighty.) Rosa did not speak or understand Latin, but she thrust forward and screamed in Father Amorth’s face: “MAI!!” (Never!!)
A low buzzing sound began, like a swarm of bees, as the others in the room prayed quietly. “SPIRITO DEL SIGNORE. SPIRITO, SPIRITO SANCTO SANCTISSIMA TRINITA.” (God’s spirit, Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity. . . . Look after Rosa, O Lord, destroy this evil force so that Rosa might be well and do good for others. Keep evil away from her.)
Then Father Amorth called out the satanic cults, the superstition, the black magic that had possessed her. She reacted, growling, and screamed “MAAAAAAIIIIII!!!” The scream filled the room.
Another voice from deep within her shouted in his face: “DON’T TOUCH HER! DON’T EVER TOUCH HER!!” Her eyes were still closed. Father Amorth yelled, “CEDE! CEDE!” (Surrender!)
She reacted violently: “IO SONO SATANA.” (I am Satan.)
How much Latin did Rosa speak? Just one word: “Mai!” (Never!) And even that’s not very impressive, as the Italian word for “never” is also “mai.” At no point did Rosa attempt to converse with Fr. Amorth in Latin. Most of the conversation in which Rosa engaged was in Italian, including her utterance: “Io sono Satana” (I am Satan). It was Fr. Amorth, not Rosa, who spoke in Latin. This is hardly convincing evidence for the demonic.
As for the fact that it took five men to hold her down: Fr. Amorth should talk to police officers who have had to forcibly subdue individuals under the influence of drugs. I should also point out that adrenaline can do amazing things to the human nervous system, giving individuals unusual strength.
Finally, Friedkin admits at the end of his article that Fr. Amorth’s exorcism was unsuccessful: the woman is still exhibiting the same symptoms, and sadly, Fr. Amorth, at the age of 91, has passed away.
Fr. Amorth was the Catholic Church’s most famous exorcist, who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms during his lifetime, although these numbers have apparently been inflated. If this is the best evidence he can produce for the reality of demonic agents, then I respectfully submit that we should reject it, as it is clearly insufficient evidence for such a remarkable claim.
8. The enormous harm caused by belief in demons, and why that should make us skeptical of their existence
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Imagine that you are sitting on a train, and that next to you, a friend of yours is reading a tabloid newspaper. The headline is an eye-catching one: “IT’S OFFICIAL: GOVT ADMITS ALIENS ARE REAL!” After perusing the article, your friend lets out a long, low whistle. “So it’s true after all,” he says. “We really are being contacted by other civilizations. What do they want, I wonder? Do you think they intend to destroy us? Should I go into hiding, before it’s too late?”
At this point, you cannot ignore the offending tabloid any longer, so you decide to set your friend straight. “Listen,” you say. “Even if aliens were real, do you really think the government would tell the public about them? Of course not – precisely because people would start panicking, as you are already beginning to do. What’s more likely: that the government would publicize the existence of aliens, or that the tabloid headline is a sensationalist fake?” That shuts your friend up, quick smart.
What I’d like to argue here is that we should be skeptical of religious teachings that demons exist, on similar grounds. Philosophically, it is impossible to logically disprove the existential claim that demons are real: the arguments I have mounted above against the existence of angelic and demonic agents are certainly powerful, but not airtight. But even if we grant the logical possibility of demons, we can still mount a very strong argument for the claim that belief in demons is epistemically unwarranted. In other words, it is unreasonable for anyone to believe in the existence of demons, regardless of whether they actually exist or not. The argument goes like this:
1. The claim that demons exist is a supernatural claim.
2. We ought not to believe in supernatural claims unless God has revealed them to us.
3. Since God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, it follows that God would never reveal a supernatural claim to us unless the foreseeable benefits of doing so outweighed the harms caused by such a revelation.
4. However, history clearly shows that in fact, the harms caused by belief in demons far outweigh the alleged benefits.
5. We may therefore conclude that God has not revealed the existence of demons to us.
6. Therefore we should not believe in the existence of demons.
There are some Christians who might contest step 3 of the above argument, by denying that God has foreknowledge of the harms and benefits of revealing supernatural claims to human beings, which is independent of our free choices. For example, open theists (such as Gregory Boyd) deny that God knows our future free choices, while Christians (such as C. S. Lewis) who adopt Boethius’ account of Divine foreknowledge and liken God to someone standing on a high hill, timelessly surveying past, present and future, maintain that God’s knowledge of the future is caused by our free choices – which means that the only way He could know the benefits and harms caused by a supernatural revelation is by actually revealing it, and watching how we respond to the revelation. However, even these Christians would still accept a modified version of step 3 (call it 3a):
3a. Since God is wise and omnibenevolent, it follows that God would not reveal a supernatural claim to us if there was a strong possibility that the harms caused to human beings by revealing that claim would far outweigh the benefits.
Step 3a might be described as a supernatural version of the Precautionary Principle, encapsulated in the maxim, “Safety first.” All that one would then need to argue is that a wise God could easily foresee the possible harms caused by making people aware of the fact that Satan and his demons are real, making any revelation of this fact to the general public unsafe (and therefore unwise). In other words, the foregoing argument can easily be adapted to accommodate either open theism or the Boethian account of Divine foreknowledge.
The critical step in the above argument is therefore Step 4: the historical claim that in fact, the harms caused by belief in demons far outweigh the alleged benefits. Is this true?
During the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, about 40,000 to 60,000 people of both sexes were put to death for being witches. That might not sound like a very large number. What is often overlooked, however, in contemporary discussions of medieval, Renaissance and Reformation witch trials, was that a far larger number of people – perhaps millions – were suspected of being witches by people around them, and that hundreds of thousands of people were put on trial, including Katharina Kepler, mother of the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler, who was imprisoned for fourteen months on a charge of witchcraft. (Johannes Kepler was eventually able to secure the release of his mother, by defending her in a public trial; other accused witches were not so lucky.) In short: belief in the existence of demons who are able to possess witches and wizards and work magic through them has caused untold misery to millions.
Now, ask yourself: supposing for argument’s sake that demons are real, what are the benefits of God revealing this fact to us? As far as I can tell, the benefits are very limited. One might argue that the knowledge that demons are real might serve as a spiritual wake-up call, by making us aware of what spiritual powers we’re up against, and motivating us to pray fervently to God for the grace to resist the snares of the Devil. But the same spiritual benefits (an increase in prayer and a turning away from evil) could also be achieved by God simply revealing that any of us might suffer eternal separation from God in Hell, some day, unless we repent, turn to God, and live the kind of life that Christ commanded us to live. (And with the doctrine of Hell, too, one could argue that the belief in literal Hellfire has caused untold harm, and should therefore be rejected, on similar grounds to those I am urging against belief in demons.) In short: there is little (if anything) to gain from the additional revelation that demons are real.
Since the harm caused by belief in demonic agents is great while the benefits of such a belief are very limited, it follows that the world would actually be a much better place if we lived our lives in blissful ignorance of the existence of Satan and his demons.
Now, put yourself in God’s shoes for a moment, and imagine him asking Himself: “Should I reveal to human beings that demons are real?” We have argued above that even if demons are real, the benefits of knowing this fact (which are practically nil) are far outweighed by the costs (mass paranoia, resulting in millions of innocent people being falsely suspected of being witches). A wise and benevolent God would therefore decide not to reveal to human beings the existence of demons, on account of the alarm it would occasion in the general population. But if that is the case, then the revelation that demons exist cannot have come from God. It follows, then, that we no longer have any good reason to believe in the existence of demons, which in turn means that we should reject the existence of demons as a fable.
In order to refute the foregoing argument, one would need to show that the benefits to society of belief in the existence of demonic agents are greater than the costs. Indeed, one would need to show more than that: one would need to show that in most or all possible worlds containing both human beings and demons, the benefits to society of people believing in the existence of demonic agents are greater than the costs. To me, that sounds like a pretty tall order, and for the life of me, I cannot think of anything that would tip the scales, as it were. It therefore seems likely that God would not reveal the existence of demons to us, even if they existed, which means that we should reject the belief.
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9. Why there probably are (or have been) a vast number of alien civilizations beyond our observable universe
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In this section, I shall endeavor to explain why both the leading theory of the origin of our universe, cosmic inflation, and its main scientific rival, the ekpyrotic model, both entail the likelihood of a vast number of alien civilizations existing beyond our observable universe. As we’ll see, the theory of cosmic inflation predicts the existence of a multiverse, while the ekpyrotic model is a version of the cyclic universe theory, according to which our current universe is simply the most recent phase in a never-ending cycle of expansions and contractions that has been going on for an indefinitely long time. Both theories have a startling implication: the number of planets that exist, or have existed, is vastly larger than the number of planets in the observable universe (which is about 1025). Even if it turns out that we are the only intelligent life-forms in the observable universe, the fact that countless other universes exist out there somewhere in the multiverse (if the theory of cosmic inflation is true), or that our universe has undergone countless cycles before the present one (if the ekpyrotic model turns out to be correct) means that the number of intelligent life-forms in other universes, or in previous cycles of this universe, is likely to be very, very large as well. For all practical intents and purposes, we can treat this number as countless.
Let me begin with the theory of cosmic inflation.
(a) The theory of cosmic inflation, and why it’s the best game in town
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The term “cosmic inflation” refers to the explosively rapid expansion of space-time that is believed to have occurred, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. This expansion subsequently slowed to a more leisurely pace that has continued up to the present day, but is now accelerating.
The theory of cosmic inflation was proposed by cosmologist Alan Guth in 1979, in order to account for three strange facts that the highly successful Big Bang theory was unable to explain by itself:
(i) Why does the universe have virtually the same temperature in all directions, when they haven’t had time to mix?
(ii) Why don’t we observe any magnetic monopoles and other peculiar particles that we’d expect to find, if the universe had once been infinitely hot and dense?
(iii) Why is space flat, when we’d expect it to be curved, since on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, mass bends the fabric of space-time?
The theory of inflation answers these questions by positing that in the universe’s very earliest moments, the fabric of space and time (which is not bound by any speed limit) expanded faster than light, ironing out any “wrinkles” or irregularities, which meant that even parts of the universe that are now far-flung were once in close contact, and were therefore able to exchange heat. That’s why the universe is so thermally uniform today. However, the universe was never infinitely hot; its maximum temperature was reached when the very brief inflation phase ended, and the energy belonging to space-time was converted into matter, antimatter and radiation. That’s why there are no leftover, high-energy particles. And during its inflation phase, the Universe expanded so rapidly and was stretched so large that it became indistinguishable from flat.
Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel provides a highly readable summary of the evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation in his article, Ask Ethan: How Well Has Cosmic Inflation Been Verified? (Forbes, May 11, 2019). Dr. Siegel lists the main predictions made by cosmic inflation theory:
In brief, the six most generic predictions were:
1. There should be an upper-limit to the maximum temperature the Universe achieves post-inflation; it cannot approach the Planck scale of ~10^19 GeV.
2. Super-horizon fluctuations, or fluctuations on scales larger than light could have traversed since the Big Bang, should exist.
3. The quantum fluctuations during inflation should produce the seeds of density fluctuations, and they should be 100% adiabatic and 0% isocurvature. (Where adiabatic and isocurvature are the two allowed classes.)
4. These fluctuations should be almost perfectly scale-invariant, but should have slightly greater magnitudes on larger scales than smaller ones.
5. The Universe should be nearly, but not quite, perfectly flat, with quantum effects producing curvature only at the 0.01% level or below.
6. And the Universe should be filled with primordial gravitational waves, which should imprint on the cosmic microwave background as B-modes.
According to Dr. Siegel, the reason why the theory of cosmic inflation is so popular with scientists today is that these predictions have been so strikingly successful, with four of them being confirmed and the fifth looking very solid:
It’s now 2019, and the first four predictions have been observationally confirmed. The fifth has been tested down to the ~0.4% level and is consistent with inflation, but we haven’t reached the critical level. Only the sixth point has not been tested at all, with a famous false-positive detection appearing earlier this decade owing to the BICEP2 collaboration…
But the best test — and what I’d call the most significant confirmation of inflation — has come from measuring the spectrum of the initial fluctuations.
Inflation is very particular when it comes to what sorts of structure should form on different scales. We have a quantity that we use to describe how much structure forms on large cosmic scales versus smaller ones: ns. If you formed the same amount of structure on all scales, ns would equal 1 exactly, with no variations.
What inflation generically predicts, however, is that we will have an ns that’s almost, but slightly less than, 1…
As of today, ns is approximately 0.965 or so, with an uncertainty of around 0.008. This means there’s about a 4-to-5 sigma certainty that ns is truly less than 1, a remarkable confirmation of inflation…
Inflation has literally met every threshold that science demands, with clever new tests becoming possible with improved observations and instrumentation. Whenever the data has been capable of being collected, inflation’s predictions have been verified. Although it’s perhaps more palatable and fashionable to be a contrarian, inflation is the leading theory for the best reason of all: it works.
Inflation entails a multiverse
In a separate article, titled, This Is Why The Multiverse Must Exist (Forbes, March 15, 2019), Dr. Siegel explains one very important rconsequence of the theory of cosmic inflation – it entails that our universe is but one of countlessly many in a giant multiverse:
In all cases where inflation gives you predictions that match the observed Universe, we grow new Universes and newly inflating regions faster than inflation can come to an end.
If you have an inflationary Universe that’s governed by quantum physics, a Multiverse is unavoidable. As always, we are collecting as much new, compelling evidence as we can on a continuous basis to better understand the entire cosmos. It may turn out that inflation is wrong, that quantum physics is wrong, or that applying these rules the way we do has some fundamental flaw. But so far, everything adds up. Unless we’ve got something wrong, the Multiverse is inevitable, and the Universe we inhabit is just a minuscule part of it.
So there we have it. According to the best cosmological theory in town, the multiverse is real, which means that there are zillions of other universes out there – perhaps an infinite number.
(b) The ekpyrotic universe: the leading rival to cosmic inflation
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Not all astronomers are convinced that the theory of cosmic inflation is correct, however. One of the theory’s most forceful critics is Paul Steinhardt (pictured above), who helped originate the theory in the first place. (Steinhardt doesn’t like inflation theory’s bizarre metaphysical implications, as well as the fact that it requires considerable fine-tuning, in order to create the right kind of universe.) In an article in Spiked (August 9, 2020) titled, What If the Big Bang Was Actually a Big Bounce?, Charlie Wood provides a handy layperson’s summary of Steinhardt’s rival ekpyrotic model, which he has developed with Anna Ijjas:
Steinhardt and company imagine a universe that expands for perhaps a trillion years, driven by the energy of an omnipresent (and hypothetical) field, whose behavior we currently attribute to dark energy. When this energy field eventually grows sparse, the cosmos starts to gently deflate. Over billions of years a contracting scale factor brings everything a bit closer, but not all the way down to a point. The dramatic change comes from the Hubble radius, which rushes in and eventually becomes microscopic. The universe’s contraction recharges the energy field, which heats up the cosmos and vaporizes its atoms. A bounce ensues, and the cycle starts anew.
In the bounce model, the microscopic Hubble radius ensures smoothness and flatness. And whereas inflation blows up many initial imperfections into giant plots of multiverse real estate, slow contraction squeezes them essentially out of existence. We are left with a cosmos that has no beginning, no end, no singularity at the big bang, and no multiverse.
The original ekpyrotic model developed back in 2001 by Paul Steinhardt, Neil Turok, Bert Ovrut and Justin Khoury relied on a host of questionable assumptions such as string theory, branes and extra dimensions. Today, however, most contemporary ekpyrotic and cyclic models use the same physical ingredients as inflationary models: quantum fields evolving in ordinary space-time. As Wood explains in his article, Steinhardt and his collaborators have recently discovered that the ekpyrotic universe can reproduce the predictions made by inflation theory, without the need for any fine-tuning:
… Steinhardt and his collaborators recently teamed up with researchers who specialize in computational models of gravity. They analyzed how a collapsing universe would change its own structure, and they ultimately discovered that contraction can beat inflation at its own game. No matter how bizarre and twisted the universe looked before it contracted, the collapse would efficiently erase a wide range of primordial wrinkles…
In a recent Arxiv article titled, A new kind of cyclic universe (April 18, 2019), Anna Ijjas and Paul J. Steinhardt summarize the appealing features of the theory they are proposing:
First, the new cyclic theory resolves the homogeneity, isotropy, flatness, and monopole problems and generates a nearly scale-invariant spectrum of primordial adiabatic, gaussian density fluctuations without requiring special initial conditions or triggering the kind of quantum runaway that leads to the multiverse effect. Second, the density perturbations are generated without producing a primordial spectrum of tensor fluctuations, a combination that is in agreement with current observations. Third, the evolution of the universe is described to leading order by classical equations of motion at every stage. Consequently, the theory’s outcomes are true predictions in the conventional sense, meaning the theory is testable – making predictions about density fluctuations, cosmic gravitational waves, dark energy, and the stability of the vacuum. Fourth, the new cyclic theory evades some of the foundational problems of cosmological models based on having a big bang. The cosmic singularity, cosmic quantum-to-classical transition, and transplanckian fluctuation problems of earlier theories are avoided. There may even be intriguing implications for black holes, cosmic censorship, and the quantum measurement problem.
While some cosmologists are intrigued by the new model of the cyclic universe proposed by Ijjas and Steinhardt, they point out that a lot more work needs to be done before it can be ranked on an equal footing with the inflation theory. The following quote from Wood’s article sums up the current state of play:
While interest in Ijjas and Steinhardt’s model varies, most cosmologists agree that inflation remains the paradigm to beat. “[Slow contraction] is not an equal contender at this point,” said Gregory Gabadadze, a cosmologist at New York University.
(c) Why both inflation and the cyclic universe imply the likelihood of alien civilizations beyond our observable universe
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Let us review the current state of the scientific evidence. Since there’s good scientific evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation, which entails the existence of a multiverse, and since the most promising rival to the multiverse is the ekpyrotic cyclic universe theory, which proposes that our universe has gone through an indefinitely large number of cycles (ending not in a big bang, but a big bounce) before the present one, and that it may even be eternally old, it follows that the cosmos may well be infinite in size and/or duration, and that if it is not infinite, it is at least very, very large and/or very, very old.
Since the number of planets that exist, or have existed, is vastly larger than the number of planets in the observable universe (which is about 1025), it is therefore overwhelmingly likely that even if we happen to be the only intelligent life-forms in the observable universe, there will still be (or have been) alien civilizations in some other universe in the multiverse (if the theory of cosmic inflation turns out to be true), or in a cycle of our universe before the present one (if the ekpyrotic model is correct, instead). Moreover, the number of intelligent life-forms in other universes, or in previous cycles of this universe, is likely to be very, very large as well.
It is therefore highly likely that there are, or have been, countless races of aliens (or embodied intelligent beings), in addition to the human race. And that, as we shall see below, creates real problems for Christianity.
10. Why countless alien civilizations beyond our universe pose a threat to Christianity
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(a) The line in the sand: only one incarnation of God the Son
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In this section, I shall try to explain why the (past or present) existence of countless races of aliens poses a mortal threat to Christianity. I should like to point out that I am not arguing here that aliens as such would falsify Christianity. On the contrary: for hundreds of years, leading Christian thinkers have been prepared to countenance the possibility of other intelligent races in the universe. Indeed, as far back as 1440, the German theologian, philosopher and astronomer Nicholas of Cusa (who was later promoted to cardinal by Pope Nicholas V) proposed the existence of extraterrestrial intelligences. And before him, the medieval bishop and philosopher Nicole Oresme (1320-1382) hypothesized the existence of other inhabited worlds in space.
What renders the existence of countless races of extraterrestrial intelligences so threatening to Christianity is that it is overwhelmingly likely that at least some of these alien races have fallen from the state of innocence in which they were originally created. That means that these races would stand in need of a Redeemer too, just as our own race did after the Fall of Adam (on the Christian view of things). Would that mean that God became incarnate and died on other planets, too? Writing in the fifteenth century, the French philosopher and theologian William Vorilong (1390-1463) thought not:
As to the question whether Christ dying on this earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world, I would answer that he is able to do this even if the worlds were infinite. But it would not be fitting for him to go unto another world that he must die again. (See also here. Cited by Grant McColley and H. W. Miller, ‘Saint Bonaventure, Francis Mayron, William Vorilong, and the Doctrine of a Plurality of Worlds,’ Speculum 12 (1937): 386-389, at 388.)
During the 1800s, a number of prominent thinkers, including clergyman Thomas Chalmers and scientist David Brewster, took a similar view.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Oxford mathematician, astrophysicist and Christian E. A. Milne’s work, Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952) was posthumously published, shortly after his death from a heart attack in Dublin, in 1950. In his book, Milne addressed the possibility of multiple races of extraterrestrial beings. Although more than willing to countenance the possibility of an infinite number of planets in our cosmos, Milne firmly believed in the uniqueness of the Incarnation. When addressing the question of whether the Incarnation may have “been re-enacted on each of a countless number of planets,” Milne answered that a Christian would “recoil in horror from such a conclusion.” One could not imagine, he wrote, “the Son of God suffering vicariously on each of a myriad of planets.” (1952, p. 153.) (He also suggested that interstellar radio communication might make it possible one day for Earthlings to share the Good News with aliens.)
This, then, is the “line in the sand” that Christian theologians have (traditionally) been unwilling to cross. Multiple races of Intelligent beings? No problem. Multiple incarnations? No way.
William Vorilong’s view that the incarnation of God the Son on Earth is unique, but that Jesus’ death on the Cross had transcosmic redemptive effects has recently been defended by Professor John Jefferson Davis, in his article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Christian Doctrine of Redemption (Science and Christian Belief (1997), Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 21–34). Davis defends his argument that the once-and-for-all incarnation and death of Christ on the Cross was transcosmic in scope, by appealing to the Christological hymn in Colossians 1:15-20:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Commenting on the significance of this hymn, Davis writes:
It is evident that in the Christological hymn of Colossians 1:15–20 redemption is cosmic in scope. The fact that in the space of six verses there are seven occurrences of the words ‘all’, ‘all things,’ or ‘everything’ is a clear indication that the redemptive effects of the atoning death of Christ are not limited to humanity, but extend in some way to the entire created universe. The apostle stresses in the most emphatic way the absolute supremacy of Christ in every realm of space, time, and human experience. This supremacy of Christ is asserted in creation (vv.15, 16), providence (v.17), incarnation (v.19), reconciliation (v.20), resurrection (v.18b), and in the church (v.18a).
(b) Did Christ die on Earth for aliens in other universes?
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However, Davis’ irenic proposal, which he claims is “consistent with the earlier opinions of Aquinas, Vorilong, Chalmers, and Milne, but is based on a more developed exegetical argument from biblical theology,” suffers from one major defect: its failure to define the term “cosmos.” It is one thing to assert that Christ’s death on the Cross redeemed not only humans but also Alpha Centaurians and even inhabitants of distant galaxies which are unobservable to us; but it is another thing altogether to argue that Christ’s death redeemed inhabitants of other universes having no causal connection with our own (on the cosmic inflation scenario), or civilizations that lived during previous cycles of our own universe but died out aeons ago (on the cyclic universe scenario). In the absence of a well-defined notion of “cosmos,” William Vorilong’s scenario of a single event on Earth (i.e. the saving death of Christ on the Cross) having transcosmic redemptive effects is too vague: it needs to be fleshed out. What exactly counts as a cosmos?
A more fundamental problem with Vorilong’s proposal is that it fails to answer the question: why did God the Son choose this planet on which to become incarnate, when He could have chosen another one? In this case, God’s choice can only be described as an arbitrary one, as there is nothing special about planet Earth, if countless other intelligent civilizations exist (or have existed). The philosophical point I’d like to make here is that appealing to agency (human or Divine) as an explanation of an arbitrary state of affairs is always a bad idea. For an arbitrary choice is a random act; it is not a choice worthy of a rational agent. And for God, the problem is especially acute: God, being a pure spirit (i.e. intellect and nothing else), is incapable of making an arbitrary choice. Humans, who are embodied beings, have all sorts of built-in biases (e.g. right-handedness, or a preference for the color purple) that nudge us in one direction or another, in situations when we have no rational grounds for choosing between the alternatives. The stage magician who invites members of the audience to “pick a card, any card,” knows that most of us will pick one near the middle. And in real life, Buridan’s ass never starves: somehow, it manages to choose between two identical bales of hay. My point, however, is that God, being a pure spirit, has no such built-in biases. He cannot, for instance, “pick a planet, any planet,” any more than He can “pick a card, any card.” God cannot act without a reason; that is why He cannot make an arbitrary choice, even if He wants to. It follows that any form of theological speculation which requires Him to make an arbitrary choice should be rejected. If God became incarnate on one fallen planet, we should therefore expect that He became incarnate on others, too.
(c) Crossing the line: Christians who have proposed multiple incarnations
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In his above-cited article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Christian Doctrine of Redemption (Science and Christian Belief (1997), Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 21–34), Davis notes that the first Christian theologian to suggest the possibility of multiple incarnations was the Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall, who endeavored to rebut E. A. Milne’s objections to the idea:
In his Bampton Lectures of 1956, published under the title Christian Theology and Natural Science, E. L. Mascall responds directly to some of the theological points made by Milne in his earlier lectures. If for Milne the crucifixion of Christ is an event of unrelieved horror, how can we tolerate the idea of God ordaining it even once, asks Mascall. On the other hand, if the horror is not unrelieved, ‘. . . but is changed into victory and glory, why cannot the change happen again elsewhere?’28
Mascall concludes somewhat tentatively that there are no conclusive theological reasons to exclude other incarnations and atonements. If the Incarnation involved no diminution in deity, why could not the Son of God, in principle, assume other created natures? For Mascall, there would seem to be no compelling reason why ‘other finite rational natures should not be united to that person too.’29 This raises the somewhat bizarre image not of the historic ‘God-man,’ but of a ‘bionic Redeemer’ who unites to his divine nature not only the nature of Homo sapiens but the natures of many other sentient, embodied creatures as well.
Davis’ observations about a ‘bionic Redeemer’ highlight the sheer oddity of the “multiple incarnations” proposal – a point to which we will return below. In the meantime, I’d like to examine another, more recent attempt to make multiple incarnations palatable to Christians.
Multiple incarnations: possibility of a reconciliation, after all?
In an online article titled, On Multiple Worlds and Multiple Incarnations: Some Speculation Following St Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis (October 10, 2009), Catholic author Henry Karlson defends the possibility of multiple incarnations, citing the authority of two prominent Christian thinkers: St. Thomas Aquinas and C. S. Lewis. As it turns out, Karlson is quite right in saying that C. S. Lewis believed that multiple incarnations could be reconciled with Christianity, but he is mistaken in his interpretation of Aquinas’ position.
Multiple incarnations: what did Aquinas really believe?
Aquinas did indeed argue that God was able to incarnate himself in multiple human natures, in his Summa Theologica (III, q. 3, a. 7):
What has power for one thing, and no more, has a power limited to one. Now the power of a Divine Person is infinite, nor can it be limited by any created thing. Hence it may not be said that a Divine Person so assumed one human nature as to be unable to assume another. For it would seem to follow from this that the Personality of the Divine Nature was so comprehended by one human nature as to be unable to assume another to its Personality; and this is impossible, for the Uncreated cannot be comprehended by any creature. Hence it is plain that, whether we consider the Divine Person in regard to His power, which is the principle of the union, or in regard to His Personality, which is the term of the union, it has to be said that the Divine Person, over and beyond the human nature which He has assumed, can assume another distinct human nature.
In the same passage, Aquinas explained how this could happen:
For a man who has on two garments is not said to be “two persons clothed,” but “one clothed with two garments”; and whoever has two qualities is designated in the singular as “such by reason of the two qualities.” Now the assumed nature is, as it were, a garment, although this similitude does not fit at all points, as has been said above (2, 6, ad 1). And hence, if the Divine Person were to assume two human natures, He would be called, on account of the unity of suppositum, one man having two human natures.
However, Karlson is badly misreading Aquinas when he suggests that Aquinas would have countenanced the possibility of multiple incarnations of God the Son, on multiple planets. What Karlson fails to grasp is the distinction between (a) absolute possibility and (b) possibility, given the fact that God has already decided to make the kind of world that He has. For Aquinas, multiple incarnations are possible only in sense (a): had He wished, He could have made a world in which He multiply incarnated Himself. But the point is that for Aquinas, Jesus Christ is, by God’s decree, “one person in two natures” (as defined by the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon); hence, in the world in which we live, multiple incarnations are simply not an option.
A single parallel case will suffice to illustrate my point. Aquinas attracted considerable notoriety in the thirteenth century for arguing that God could have made a world that existed from all eternity (S. T. I, q. 46, a. 2), had He wished to do so; but at the same time, he believed as a matter of Catholic faith that the world that God made actually had a beginning. Likewise, Aquinas was perfectly free to maintain, as a theologian, that God could have become multiply incarnate, had He wished, while at the same time insisting that in fact, He became incarnate only once.
For the record, here’s how Aquinas expressed the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the Incarnation in his Summa Contra Gentiles, (Book IV, ch. 39, para. 1):
From what has been set down above it is clear that according to the tradition of the Catholic faith we must say that in Christ there is a perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature, constituted by a rational soul and human flesh; and that these two natures are united in Christ not by indwelling only, nor in an accidental mode, as a man is united to his garments, nor in a personal relation and property only, but in one hypostasis (=person – VJT) and one supposit (=individual – VJT). Only in this way can we save what the Scriptures hand on about the Incarnation.
Multiple incarnations in The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
In his essay, Karlson also cites the work of C. S. Lewis, who depicted a second incarnation of God the Son, in his series, The Chronicles of Narnia:
C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series has provided to us a different way to understand the question. Here we see the Son of God has incarnated himself in the form of a lion. In Narnia, it is his form, that of the king of beasts. The children who came to help Narnia saw him as Aslan, but also learned that it was not his only form – in our world, of course, it is that of the God-man Jesus Christ. Because the form Aslan was known in Narnia was that of a lion, the children saw him, with the rest of the Narnians, as a lion.
Karlson explains that what Lewis is defending in his Narnia Chronicles is the possibility of “multiple incarnations, where one experiences the form of the Son of God according to their disposition and expectations: for Narnians, they see him as a lion, for humans, they see him as Christ.” Later on, after the twin destinies of our Earth and Narnia have merged in eternity (the world to come), Aslan’s appearance undergoes a further transformation:
…[A]t the end of The Last Battle Lewis tells us that, after the end of Narnia, in the afterlife, the children were to see him in a new form: “And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but things that begin to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them down.”
For Karlson, the scenario proposed by Lewis offers a satisfying resolution to the question: “When we get to heaven, will we see God [as] billions of forms, all speaking to us at once?” Karlson thinks this is “rather unlikely,” and suggests that Lewis provides a useful way to understand multiple incarnations without the need for a multitude of bodies: “The incarnation can be experienced and seen differently, even though it is one and the same body which is being encountered.” Surely, though, it defies sense to say that one and the same body can be in two places, let alone two universes. (Nor does the example of the Eucharist help here, as Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist is generally held by Catholic theologians to be non-spatial.)
(d) Why multiple incarnations pose a mortal threat to Christianity
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Finally, Karlson explores the implications of multiple incarnations for three different religions – Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism – and argues that we can best appreciate this possibility by an intellectual synthesis of the best insights of the three religions. He draws on the teachings of Yogācāra Buddhism, according to which a Buddha can be experienced in one of three “bodies”: the historical, normative form; the form of glory; and finally, the real, and ultimate, form of the Buddha. Karlson also calls for further dialogue with Hinduism, which holds that the Ultimate Reality (which could be Vishnu, Shiva or Kali) creates the world and incarnates himself or herself into it as many times as necessary, to keep it in proper order. Hindus do not, however, believe that God incarnate ever underwent suffering on our behalf, as Christians do. Summing up, Karlson argues that we can understand the possibility of multiple incarnations by combining the wisdom of the three religious traditions:
What would differentiate Christianity from Hinduism is in the reality of the incarnation itself; for Hinduism, it is more docetical, while for Christianity, any incarnation would be real, definitive, and eternal. But, as with Buddhism, there is a sense that an aspect of the Gospel, perhaps an aspect we have not yet picked up on, is being prepared for us through the Hindu tradition, and its proclamation of multiple incarnations. Buddhism explains well how we would experience the form of one who might have multiple incarnations, providing the means by which Lewis’ Narnia is explicable; Hinduism, in its affirmation of theism, provides us the other key in a way which negates the weakness of Buddhism’s non-theism. Combine the two together, with Lewis’ inclinations, and we have a means by which we can understand and appreciate how multiple incarnations could be experienced…
Karlson’s conclusion speaks for itself. We are not in Kansas anymore; and the vision that Karlson presents here is, I respectfully submit, no longer a recognizably Christian one.
The crux of the problem
As I see it, the crux of the problem relating to multiple incarnations is this: if God the Son is hypostatically united to not only a human nature (that of the man, Jesus of Nazareth) but also the nature of an Alpha Centaurian (say), and countless other rational natures as well, then God the Son begins to sound a lot more like Vishnu than the God of Christianity. That is why the existence of countless races of aliens poses such a threat to Christianity. A God of many faces (one for each alien race) simply doesn’t fit with the God of the Old and New Testaments, a God Who created “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, NIV), and Who became incarnate in order to “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20) – two Scriptural quotes that aptly express the centrality of the human race in God’s cosmic drama. A multiply incarnate Deity is simply too weird, and too wide, to be identified with the Christian God.
I conclude that the existence of a vast number of alien civilizations in the past or present would pose a real threat to Christianity.
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As readers of this blog will know, I am a Christian, and I therefore share the belief of Christians down the ages, that angels exist and watch over us. I am, however, largely agnostic as to what these beings are – as I think Christians should be. I do not believe that angels are mind and will and nothing else, as Scholastic philosophers have maintained; rather, I am much more inclined to believe that they are in some way embodied (even if they are invisible to us), which is why they are able to act on our behalf. If I had to choose from among the four possibilities I canvassed in part (d) of section 1 above, I would be inclined to opt for possibility (iii): angels are embodied agents living in the multiverse, but outside our universe. I may be completely wrong, of course, and I am naturally well aware that from a scientific perspective, such a belief is massively ad hoc and extremely difficult to defend, for it requires us to suppose that there are “hidden tunnels” from the multiverse into our universe, enabling bodies in our world to be manipulated (and, on occasions, protected) by intelligent beings who are living and acting from outside it. I might add that even if this scenario turns out to be correct, I do not believe angels are able to manipulate any other bodies, apart from our own, on the very rare occasions when they need to protect us. But at least my proposal is not as metaphysically crazy as the traditional notion that bodies can be moved by “mind power” alone – a belief which I really do consider to be every bit as absurd as belief in magic. At any rate, I hope I have conveyed to my readers the enormous difficulty of rationally defending belief in angels, in the modern age. Christian apologists who continue to maintain that a strong case can be made for their existence strike me as very gung-ho, and I have written this essay with a view to bringing them back to earth.
While I consider it entirely possible that some of the angels created by God chose to rebel against Him at the dawn of time, I do not believe that a just or rational God would allow such beings to disrupt the world He had created, by doing such ridiculous things as rushing into a herd of Gadarene swine (a fanciful tale, if ever I heard one) or throwing a boy into a fire, in a case that displays all the symptoms of epilepsy. This raises the vexed questions of what we are to make of Jesus’ exorcisms, and what Jesus himself believed about the people he went about healing. I wish I had some good answers to these questions, but I don’t. All I can do is point out the obvious fact that the earliest Gospels were written over thirty years after Jesus’ death. Whatever happened is therefore overlain by multiple layers of tradition. One thing I am certain of: the notion of demons possessing an individual’s body is an utterly nonsensical one, which has caused untold harm down the ages, as has the belief that some individuals (witches) are in league with the Devil, and able to inflict injuries on other human beings, simply by invoking his assistance. If demons exist, they have no power to harm us, as it makes absolutely no sense to suppose that a benevolent God would allow them to do so.
I have argued above that the existence of large numbers of alien civilizations constitutes a real conundrum for Christianity, as it raises the troubling possibility of multiple incarnations. But there is a way of evading this conundrum, which I did not mention above: perhaps cosmic inflation is true, and countless universes will be spawned in the future, as proponents of eternal inflation suggest, but this universe happens to be the very first of infinitely many. Or perhaps the ekpyrotic model is correct, and the universe will expand and contract in a never-ending cycle, but the present cycle happens to be the first one. In other words, the cosmos is future-eternal but not past-eternal, and the universe we find ourselves in happens to be the first. If such a suggestion is correct, then there would be no need for any future incarnations: the death of Christ, who died “once [and] for all” (Hebrews 9:26), “to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself,” would suffice to redeem inhabitants of future universes, as well.
The scenario I am proposing here at least has the merit of being consistent with everything we know. In a recent post, titled, “How Physics Erases the Beginning of the Universe” (Forbes, August 18, 2020), astrophysicist Dr. Ethan Siegel explains that cosmic inflation, by its very nature, wipes out all information regarding what happened before it:
In many ways, inflation is like pressing the cosmic “reset” button. Whatever existed prior to the inflationary state, if anything, gets expanded away so rapidly and thoroughly that all we’re left with is empty, uniform space with the quantum fluctuations that inflation creates superimposed atop it. When inflation ends, only a tiny volume of that space — somewhere between the size of a soccer ball and a city block — will become our observable Universe. Everything else, including any of the information that would enable us to reconstruct what happened earlier in our Universe’s past, now lies forever beyond our reach.
The silver lining in this cloud is that the Christian scenario of just one universe, with a finite beginning, has not been ruled out, and that it really did begin with a mysterious creative act of God. But as Siegel observes, scientists will never know for sure:
It’s possible that inflation lasted for only that duration [i.e. 10-33 seconds – VJT], or for far longer. It’s possible that the inflationary state was eternal, or that it was transient, arising from something else. It’s possible that the Universe did begin with a singularity, or arose as part of a cycle, or has always existed. But that information doesn’t exist in our Universe. Inflation — by its very nature — erases whatever existed in the pre-inflationary Universe.
To sum up: modern scientific theories of the origin of the cosmos, such as inflation and the ekpyrotic universe, create severe tensions for Christianity, but do not invalidate it. It is still possible that our universe began 13.8 billion years ago, and that we are the only “bent” civilization in the cosmos, but if I were a scientist, I certainly wouldn’t want to bet on it. As for angels and demons: such beings have no place in science, and I don’t expect to see any scientific evidence for their existence, in the future.