Opening Statement by Peter S. Williams


Do angels such as Gabriel, Michael and Satan exist?

Christianity teaches that there are finite bodiless persons, spiritual, non-corporeal beings , created by God. Some of these bodiless persons are sinless, and some are (very) sinful. Like humans, these beings have free will; but unlike humans they have already chosen whether to serve God for eternity without sin, or not to serve God. The wholly good bodiless persons are called angels; the eternally sinful bodiless persons are fallen angels or demons.

The name angel, from the Greek angelos, denotes a messenger, the function most frequently predicated of angels in the Bible. As Augustine noted, angels are spirits by nature and messengers by function. Dallas Willard describes spirit as non-physical energy (it does work and so has power) with the capacity to think, value and will (three properties that seem impossible to account for in merely physical terms):

spirit is unbodily personal power. It is primarily a substance. . . To understand spirit as substance is of the utmost importance in our current world, which is so largely devoted to the ultimacy of matter. It means that spirit is something that exists in its own right. . . Thoughts, feelings, willings and their developments are so many dimensions of this spiritual substance, which exercises a power that is outside the physical.

I can think of several reasons that may be proposed for doubting the literal existence of angels, none of which impresses me.

The first is the belief that all Biblical accounts of such beings are metaphorical, and that their literal existence is therefore an unnecessary hypothesis. This is an application of Occams razor, which states that we should accept the simplest adequate explanation to account for our evidence.

However, the Biblical data seems to indicate that such an approach, while simple, would be inadequate. It is implausible to take all Biblical references to angels and demons as metaphorical.

Some suggest that the very idea of an immaterial person is incoherent: An incoherent concept is a concept that does not make sense or cannot possibly be instantiated or realised, like the concept of a square circle. The problem with the concept of a square circle is not that none happen to exist, but that none could exist. Unlike the concept of a unicorn, which (as far as anyone knows) isnt instantiated but which could be instantiated, a square circle couldnt exist because it is a contradiction in terms. Likewise, the person who objects that the concept of a bodiless person is incoherent is suggesting that there couldnt be any angels or demons.

P. F. Strawson argues in his book Individuals that for any concept of a thing to be coherent we must be able to uniquely identify or refer to that thing; That is, we must be able to pick it out among all other existing or even possible things so that there is no confusion about which thing we are referring too. This is easily enough done with material things (even non-existent ones), says Strawson, since reference can be made to physical properties. When it comes to immaterial things, such reference is clearly unavailable to us. Hence, it is alleged, the concept of angels and demons (indeed, the idea of anything immaterial, such as God, or ideas themselves) is in trouble.

However, as Stephen T. Davies points out, the number six is an immaterial thing and can be quite happily and coherently talked about so why not angels and demons? The number six, says Davies, is surely an immaterial object the number six does not weigh anything or reside anywhere or take up space. But whether you think the number six is a separately existing thing or just an idea in our minds, the concept of it is obviously a coherent concept and can be uniquely referred to. Take the words the only composite number between four and eight. Wont that description refer uniquely to the number six?

There are plenty of ways to uniquely refer to angels: by definition, or by their actions. Besides, why think that empirical reference is a requirement of identification? Such a rule is simply an arbitrary piece of anti-metaphysical bluster.

The description of an angel or demon as a purely spiritual being, an incorporeal substance, a mind without a body created by God certainly seems to refer to a unique class of possible beings (nothing here is obviously contradictory as is the case with square circle). As Mortimer Adler says, An incorporeal substance is a possible mode of being. . . The self-evident truth of the foregoing statement lies in the absence of self-contradiction in the conjunction of substance with incorporeal. The term substance does not mean a material thing, but simply a thing that is not a property:

A substance is an entity like an apple, an acorn, a carbon atom, a dog, or an angel. . . substances are particular, individual things. . . a substance is a continuent it can change by gaining new properties and losing old ones, yet it remains the same thing throughout the change. . . substances are basic, fundamental existents. They are not in other things or had by other things [as are properties].

A more general response to this objection is simply to point to the arguments in favour of immaterial things, such as the human mind, God, or angels and demons! I will present several arguments for belief in angels and demons in a little while.

If the concept of an immaterial thing is coherent, what about the concept of an immaterial agent? Some have argued that the notion of immaterial agents is incoherent because what we can dub agent words (such as loving, cruel, aggressive, forgiving and so on) lose their meaning in the absence of a body: what would it be like to be, say, just without a body? To be a person, to act justly he has to behave in certain ways. . . But how is it possible to perform these acts, to behave in the required ways without a body? However, as Davies replies, It is simply not true that agent words must lose their meaning in the absence of a body. . . there is no reason why a disembodied thing cannot behave kindly or cruelly. . . With Davies:

I suspect that most atheists understand the sentence God spoke to Moses, even though they think it is false. Using ones vocal cords is of course the normal way that one [human] person speaks to another, but those who insist that what can legitimately be called speaking cannot happen in any other way and that sentences like God [an immaterial thing] spoke to Moses are meaningless are caught in an overly rigid view of language.

What if the critic proposes that the problem is not with the concept of an immaterial thing, or even with the concept of an immaterial agent as such, but with the concept of an immaterial agent who produces effects in the material world? Well, given that God exists and can produce physical effects (after all, God is the creator of the physical universe), one can see that it is indeed possible for an immaterial agent to cause physical effects. If God can survive this criticism, so can angels and demons. Then again, as will be seen later, we have evidence that finite immaterial agents do produce effects in the physical world; hence, it must be possible.

One can argue that the human mind cannot be reduced to nothing but the human brain, and that the immaterial human mind is clearly capable of causing physical effects. If the human mind is an immaterial cause of material changes in the world, then there is nothing incoherent about the concept of immaterial angelic or demonic minds unconnected with bodies similarly acting on matter.

The most common reason to doubt the existence of angels and demons is simply the presupposition of naturalism, which would exclude the existence of anything spiritual or incorporeal, such as the human mind, or indeed God.

This objection will likely be couched in terms that accuse belief in angels and demons of being unscientific.

To formulate this objection into an argument would require a premise that proposed being scientific as the arbiter of rational acceptability. However, is the proposition that whether or not a belief is scientific should determine its rational acceptability itself a scientific proposition? No. It is an arbitrary philosophical assertion. Hence the belief that scientific justification is a pre-requisite of rationality is self-defeating. This shouldnt be too surprising, since science depends upon several metaphysical presuppositions, such as the uniformity of nature across all time and space, which cannot be scientifically verified.

Besides, science is incapable of disproving the existence of supernatural agents. Science, by its very nature, cannot rule out what Richard Swinburne calls personal explanations. This fact can be recognized in such mundane and down-to-earth situations as cooking something in a microwave: Why is the potato getting hot? Answer, because the microwaves are causing the water molecules to vibrate. Thats a scientific explanation in terms of natural cause and effect among natural entities. But why is this happening? Because I want my lunch! This is an explanation in terms of the desires and purposes of an agent. To rule out the existence of angels and demons (or God) by reference to science would be just as implausible as refusing to acknowledge that my purpose to have a potato for lunch has anything to do with the potato getting hot.

There are many things that the natural sciences dont deal with, such as purpose, such as moral and aesthetic values, such as angels and demons, but that doesnt mean these things dont exist. How could it be proven scientifically that only scientifically knowable entities are objectively real? The person who declares that science disproves the existence of God, or any other spirit, is like a person who declares that windows disproves the existence of wind! Perhaps we need to open the window a bit

If naturalism is rejected (and I have briefly mentioned some reasons to reject naturalism) it seems that we have no good reason to think that the existence of angels and demons is impossible. Moreover, as Alvin Plantinga has argued: if one concedes the existence of at least one supernatural spirit being, God, there is no logical basis for denying the possibility that other spirits, albeit of a different order, may exist. To justify such a denial would require some argument to the effect that God could not create finite spiritual agents. Given Gods omnipotence, the chances of producing such an argument would seem to be slim.

For the Christian, the primary reason for belief in angels and demons is trust in the Bible coupled with the conviction that at least some Biblical accounts of these creatures demand to be read literally.

It need not be an exercise in begging-the-question to argue from the Bible to the truth of some particular Biblical assertion, such as the existence of angels and demons. The authority of the Bible can be supported by arguments from historical and textual reliability, fulfilled prophecy, and so on. One can also argue for Jesus divinity and stamp of authority on the writings of the apostles from the Bible considered purely as a reliable source of historical data.

There are other reasons for belief besides Biblical authority:

1) Common Consent

Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Taoist, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Pagan and New Age believers all recognise the existence of finite supernatural agents. This means that over 65% of the current world population believe in the existence of finite spirit beings.

Historically, Angels appear in almost every culture and religion in the world, from ancient Sumeria, Egypt and Assyria to contemporary civilizations. A straw poll of what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead would find overwhelming support for the existence of angels and demons. As Carl Sagan admitted: Despite successive waves of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim world views, despite revolutionary social, political and philosophical ferment, the existence, much of the character, and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod to the Crusades.

Either this majority of past and present humanity is right, or deluded. If it is less plausible to believe that they are deluded than that they are correct, it is more plausible to believe that they are correct, and that angels and demons exist.

2) Authority

The list of intellectuals (past and present) who believe in angels includes the following impressive names: Aquinas, Augustine, F.C.Copleston, William Lane Craig, William A. Dembski, Locke, J.P.Moreland, Occam, Alvin Plantinga, Plotinus, Richard Swinburne and Dallas Willard. If anyone has the right to say whether or not immaterial beings exist, it is surely philosophers; and the majority of the acknowledged great philosophers have believed in the existence of immaterial agents.

3) The Occult and Occams Razor

The power and deceitful nature of demons may provide a simple, unifying, adequate explanation for occult phenomena such as spiritualism, ghosts, poltergeists, ouiji boards, etc. Assuming the phenomena in question is real and resists naturalistic explanation, the demonic explanation is to be preferred by Occams Razor over a multiplicity of alternative supernatural explanations each linked to a specific occult phenomena.

4) Extrapolation

A mode of scientific thought that has paid great dividends is extrapolation.

For example, Mendeleyevs periodic table was based on the symmetrical arrangement of known elements by their properties. The resulting table contained several blanks. It was eventually possible to fill in these blanks as new elements were discovered. The blanks predicted that there were other elements to be discovered.

Considering the pattern of successively higher orders of existence, from subatomic particles to God, we see every possible level occupied except the gap between God and humanity, and reasonably conclude that there exists some order of being intermediate between these two. As F.C.Copleston summarizes the argument:

We can discern the ascending order or ranks of forms from the forms of inorganic substances, through vegetative forms, the irrational sensitive forms of animals; the rational soul of man, to the infinite. . . God: but there is a gap in the hierarchy. The rational soul of man is created, finite and embodied, while God is uncreated, infinite and pure spirit; it is only reasonable, then, to suppose that between the human soul and God there are finite and created spiritual forms which are without body.

God is pure, incorporeal, infinite spirit. Humans, who are finite, are both material and spiritual. There certainly seems to be a tailor-made gap for some sort of beings who are spiritual, like God, but finite, like us. As Locke argued: That there should be more species of intelligent creatures above us than there are of sensible and material below us, is probable to me from hence: that in all the visible corporeal world, we see no chasms or gaps.

This argument from extrapolation can be seen as an extension into metaphysics of the scientific Principle of Plenitude. As physicist Paul Davies writes:

That which is possible in nature tends to become realized. It has generally been the experience of scientists that there are few rules or processes consistent with the laws of nature that fail to be instantiated somewhere in nature. . . Physicists find that if there is a place for the description of a certain sort of particle in [the mathematics of particle physics], then the actual physical particle is found to exist in suitable circumstances.

Given that nature is the creation of God, this Principle of Plenitude gives us reason for thinking that God is not minimalist in His creative tastes. There seems to be no reason to think that Gods taste suddenly changes at the limits of the natural world. This being so, we have reason to expect that God has created in the realm of the purely supernatural.

The nub of the issue is belief in the existence of God. Once Gods existence is granted, belief in the existence of angels and demons becomes reasonable.

5) Experience

As Hope Price discovered: Hundreds, possibly thousands, of men and women living today in Britain are quite certain they have seen angels. Time Magazine discovered that 13% of American believe they have seen or sensed the presence of an angel. Is it really likely that each and every one of these people are either lying or deluded in this matter? If not, then it is likely that angels exist.

It is hugely implausible to question the reality of so much experience; the only question is how best to interpret it. The principle of credulity encourages us to take experience and testimony at face value unless we have reason for doubt. Things that might incline us towards doubting the validity of angelic encounters include judgements about the mental or moral unreliability of the witnesses, the availability of simpler but equally adequate interpretations of the experiences in question, or the presumption of naturalism. The first of these possibilities is implausible relative to the number of people involved and the general tone of their reports. The presumption of naturalism is a question-begging assumption there is ample reason to reject. As to the remaining reason for doubt, we must take each report on a case-by-case basis and draw our conclusions.

From my own reading of purported angelic and demonic encounters I would say that while many strike me as being open to question, there is nevertheless a hard core of reports by otherwise sober-minded, sane and intelligent people that seem to be best explained by the finite spiritual person hypothesis. (Of course, the fact that an experience is open to question does not mean that one of the proposed alternative explanations must be true.) Some testimony to the existence of finite spiritual beings is more impressive than others. Particularly impressive is the testimony of a reasonable man convinced against his prior beliefs on a matter falling within his field of professional expertise. The following description of demon possession comes from Christian psychologist and pastor David Instone Brewer (all quotes are from Brewers paper Jesus and the Psychiatrists, in Anthony N.S.Lane ed., The Unseen World):

I once went to interview a patient but found that he was asleep. He was lying on his bed, facing the wall, and he did not turn around or respond when I walked in. I sat in his room for a while thinking that he might wake up, and after a while I thought I might pray for him. I started to pray silently for him but I was immediately interrupted because he sat bolt upright, looked at me fiercely and said in a voice which was not characteristic of him: leave him alone - he belongs to us. Startled, I wasnt sure how to respond, so we just sat and stared at each other for a while. Then I remembered my fundamentalist past and decided to pray silently against what appeared to be an evil spirit. . . because I was aware than an hysterical disorder could mimic demon possession. If the person felt that I was treating them as if they were possessed, this would exacerbate the condition and confirm in his mind that he really was possessed. I also prayed silently in case I was making a fool of myself. I cant remember exactly what I prayed but probably rebuked the spirit in the name of Jesus. Immediately I did so, I got another very hostile outburst along the same lines. . . I realised then that I was in very deep water and continued to pray, though still silently.

An onlooker would have seen a kind of one-sided conversation. I prayed silently and the person retorted very loudly and emphatically. Eventually (I cant remember what was said or what I prayed) the person cried out with a scream and collapsed on his bed. He woke up a little later, unaware of what had happened. I was still trying to act the role of a medic, so I did not tell him anything about what had happened. His behaviour after waking was quite striking in its normality. He no longer heard any of the oppressive voices which had been making him feel cut off and depressed, and his suicidal urges had gone.

Brewer is a trained psychologist who, until this event took place, felt fairly satisfied that the Gospel accounts of deionisation can be dealt with in terms of modern psychiatry or medicine. He is careful to distinguish between what he can and cant remember; his report bears all the marks of a trained observer giving a careful account of something surprising. He wasnt expecting these events. Nor does he leap to conclusions:

I have personally been persuaded away from [a sceptical viewpoint] by a series of events which occurred while I was studying psychiatry, and during my time in pastoral work. . . When I was dealing with the strange personalities which spoke out of [a] person I was always careful to speak silently, even if the person appeared to be asleep. If these personalities were part of a multiple personality syndrome or an hysterical reaction, it would have been counter-productive to speak out loud anything which might make him believe that these personalities were distinct from himself. These voices answered specific questions such as What is your name?, When did you come? This gradually convinced me that I was not dealing with a purely psychiatric disorder.

Brewers experience finds corroboration in the experience of other educated and rational people:

Reading back to myself what I have written above, it seems like the rambling of a rabid fundamentalist or the paranoia of someone who needs urgent psychiatric help. I can only invite you to assess this in the way in which I present it - as a report of experiences which I have been reluctant to air in public in case they provoke ridicule or condemnation. I have heard similar stories (though not in such detail) from other ministers who are also reluctant to mention such things in public.

I am prepared to take Brewer at his word. Given that his experiences cannot easily be given a naturalistic explanation (and if one were possible it seems that Brewer would have known it and have preferred it) then a supernatural interpretation becomes a plausible response to his testimony.

Conclusion

There would seem to be no reason to shy away from belief in angels and demons that would not also force one to abandon belief in God. Once the presupposition of naturalism is abandoned, a sufficient cumulative case can be provided to motivate a rational belief in finite spiritual agents. In other words, once God is accepted, there is insufficient reason to reject the possibility that angels and demons exist, and sufficient reason to accept their existence. As John Locke wrote: We have ground from revelation, and several other reasons, to believe with assurance that there are such creatures.

Steven Carr's First Response

Peter Williams's First Response

Steven Carr's First Response

Peter William's Second Response

Peter William's Final Response

Debate Page


Comments to Steven Carr

General messages (not for publication) can be sent to me using Not for Publication