First Response by Peter S. Williams


Do angels such as Gabriel, Michael and Satan exist?

'There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.' - C.S.Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

I echo Stevenís hope that our debate will be productive, entertaining and useful, and am grateful for the invitation to debate him.

The proposition for our debate is: 'Is there evidence for the existence of angels such as Gabriel, Michael and Satan.' I took it that the individuals listed were mentioned only as examples of the type of being the existence of which we were to debate, and that our debate was on the existence of the type 'angelí rather than any particular token thereof. My main reason for believing in these tokens of angelhood is the authority of scripture (e.g. Gabriel appears in Daniel 8:16, 9:21, Luke 1:9 & 26). This is an authority I accept, with what I take to be sufficient warrant, as legitimate and strong. However, it is not an authority that Steven accepts, and a diversion into a discussion of biblical authority would be too scenic a route to take here. Instead, I will confine myself to our discussion of the angelic type per se and to the extra-biblical evidence for their existence.

Steven attempts to argue that: 'the very authorities Peter cites seem to deny the possibility of the creatures Peter claims exist.' He alleges that: 'If William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga believed that there were wholly good created beings, then these two philosophers could hardly claim that it was possible that all creatures are partly evil - at least not without contradicting themselves.' Not so. They can hold that it is possible that all creatures are partly evil while denying that this state of affairs is presently actual. Hence Craig says: 'Plantinga has defended the possibility of transworld depravity - that every creaturely essence is such that, if exemplified, its exemplification would have committed moral evil.' (my italics.) Dallas Willard says that while he thinks God could have created beings with free will that always choose right, he also thinks (with Plantinga et al) that humans are in fact morally depraved at present so that we can freely develop our moral characters.

All Christians believe that while human beings are presently sinful, in heaven we will be sinless. God has created humans so that we can exercise our free will in forming our characters either in openness to God or the self-centeredness that leads to rejecting God. Once someone has chosen to accept relationship with God on Godís terms (being forgiven by grace rather than through our own goodness) then, in heaven, God causes that person to be without sin. Christian tradition suggests that this self-same process applies to angels, but that unlike humankind, angel-kind have already chosen for or against God: 'Just like man, the Angels had to undergo a period of probation during which they were free to choose between good and evil. . . The Fathers and the theologians are unanimous in admitting a period of probation for the Angels.' Those spirits who rejected God are now demons. Those who did not reject God are called angels: 'If an angel chose a good character, that was fixed for ever. If an angel chose a bad character, that too was fixed for ever.' It seems to me impossible even for God to know which spiritual beings would freely chose to reject/accept him before they existed to make the choice, in which case it was not possible for Him to create only those who would choose to serve Him.

Steven asks: 'Where these angels wholly good, when God created them?' I think that logic requires us to answer in the negative, for as Steven says: 'If God created angels which were wholly good, why would they even need to choose good? How could a wholly good being chose evil?' I donít believe that a wholly good being can choose evil, so I donít think angels were created wholly good.

Only those who freely chose to serve God were transformed into the wholly good beings angels are today. Those who did not choose to serve God thereby became demons. As Mortimer J. Adler reports: 'According to Aquinas, the angels were not created in a state of bliss, which consists in being confirmed in goodness by the gift of grace; for if that were the case, no angel could have turned away from God. 'The fall of some angels,' he writes, 'shows that the angelic nature was not created in that state.' However, 'Once established in grace and admitted to the Beautific Vision, the Angelic will, no less than the human will, can no longer choose between good and evil. . . In the eternal possession of the Supreme Good they can still choose what they please, but their choice is always. . . a choice between good. . .'

Dallas Willardís definition of spirit as 'non-physical energy' is not 'self-contradictory' as Steven alleges, because 'non-physical' qualifies 'energy' in an analogical manner that Willard carefully spells out: '(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).' Physical energy is convertible with matter, but spiritual 'energyí is not. 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 circleí). As 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.' 'Substanceí does not mean a material thing, but simply a thing that is not a property: 'A substance is an entity like an apple. . . 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. . .' Hence: 'As pure spirits the Angels are created intelligences, altogether above matter and free from any essential relation to it, both in their existence and their operation.'

The point quoted from Stephen T. Davies about the number six was used only to falsify an objection made against the possibility of non-physical existence, and was not intended as close analogy for angelic ontology (i.e. taken as either a platonic idea or as an idea within an immaterial mind the number six is an example of an immaterial object that can be referred to). However, it may be that some Biblical references to angels and demons can be interpreted as abstract objects. Theologian Walter Wink argues that: 'we can reinterpret ['the powersí]. . . as symbolic of the 'withinnessí of institutions, structures, and systems.'

Wink regards angels and demons as symbols for 'the spirituality of actual entities in the real world.' This seems to me to be a possible reading of the 'authorities' and 'powers of this dark world' mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 6:12. However, a distinction would seem to flow from the text between the 'powers of this dark world' (my italics) and the 'spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.' Some Biblical references to angels and demons are read most naturally as intending the ascription of particular actions to literal beings of a non-divine, but spiritual kind.

Steven asks me to produce examples 'of an intelligence and personality that can exist without a body.' Well, angels and demons are examples of intelligences and personalities that can exist without a body! As a dualist I believe that humans have intelligence and personality that can exist without a body. As a theist I believe that God is an intelligent personality who exists without a body (once again, if Godís existence is possible then so to is the existence of angels).

Steven agrees that there is no scientific reason not to believe in angels: 'Peter is quite right to say that science cannot disprove supernatural agents.' Various sciences (like archaeology and cryptology) can certainly accommodate personal explanations. I never said science canít deal with personal explanations. Indeed, proponents of Intelligent Design have cogently argued that the fields of cosmology and biology, previously classed, at least methodologically, as natural sciences, should admit the legitimacy of reference to personal explanation. My point, with which Steven concurs, was that no science can rule out personal explanation: 'scientific explanations of gravity do not disprove the [medieval] idea that planets move because angels push them. . . provided the angels are motivated to push the planets in a way that mimics Newtonís Laws, then science cannot disprove them.' In the end, as Mortimer J. Adler says, 'any philosopher who, on rational grounds, affirms the real existence of God can affirm, not the actual existence of angels, but the possibility of their existing.' Again, to argue for the possibility of angels by arguing for the actuality of God is too scenic a route to take here.

I hope this takes us to the same position as Steven when he says: 'I am quite open to the idea that angels and demons are possible.' As Adler affirms: 'the denial that angels exist and the further statement that they are impossible is sheer dogmatism on the part of materialists.' Nevertheless, as Steven says: 'I want to see some evidence for them before I believe in them.' After all, the fact that 'science cannot disprove. . . angels' is not evidence for angels. So letís look at the evidence, noting as we do so that each piece of evidence contributes to a cumulative case.

Common consent and authority overlap, so I will deal with them together. Steven says 'Peterís claim of common consent is. . . hardly convincing.' Why not? Steven cites several beliefs that were at one time a matter of common consent (including the consent of intelligent people) but which he expects, rightly, that I do not accept (e.g. astrology, phlogiston, etc). He then makes the revealing comment: 'I would not expect Peter to regard this list as evidence.' Sorry to confound expectation, but I do regard this list as evidence. Itís just that I regard them as very weak evidence that is defeated in my estimation by other, stronger evidences. Unlike phlogiston, the existence of angels has not been falsified. Common consent is very weak evidence for a truth claim, but it is evidence. 'Two heads are better than one.í 'One million Frenchmení can be wrong, but it is less likely than one hundred being wrong.

In the absence of a sufficient defeater the weight of common consent and authority (we should place more trust, all things being equal, in the latter than the former, doing so in proportion to our estimation of the authority in question) should incline us to belief. The list of legitimate authorities, past and present, who believe in angels, is as impressive a list as one could hope to produce, including: Mortimer J. Adler, Aquinas, Augustine, Gregory A. Boyd, F.C.Copleston, William Lane Craig, William A. Dembski, Norman L. Geilser, Etienne Gilson, Gary R. Habermas, Peter Kreeft, Leibnitz, C.S.Lewis, John Locke, Peter Lombard, Terry L. Miethe, J.P.Moreland, Plantinga, Duns Scotus and Dallas Willard.

Steven made no attempt to rebut the argument from extrapolation, of which Peter Kreeft writes, 'itís not a proof, but itís a reasonable argument.' 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.'

Perhaps Steven will respond to this argument in his second response.

Finally, Steven allows that: 'Peter does have something which may be evidence, if he could get better documentation of it.' He is talking about the argument from experience. What does Steven mean by 'better documentation?' He means 'a genuine case of demonic possession in the Lancet or the British Medical Journal.' I wonder what evidence Steven or the Lancet would accept as evidencing 'a genuine case of demonic possession'? I suggest that asking for a case published in a secular publication amounts to begging the question, since one suspects that no secular publication would accept any case of possession as genuine a priori!

In my opening statement I presented David Instone Brewerís experiences with demonic possession. Steven derides this evidence as 'a committed Christian interpreting something in his world view.' (Does this mean that a materialist should never be trusted when reporting experience of material objects?!) I think such a rebuttal doesnít take seriously enough the fact that although he was a Christian, Brewer was not a believer in literal demons before his experience (he 'demythologisedí them). More seriously, Stevenís criticism implies that Brewerís experience has a simpler and/or more adequate alternative explanation than explanation in terms of the demonic. However, as a trained psychologist who was sceptical about the existence of literal demons it seems to me that if such an explanation were available Brewer would know about it and would have preferred it!

Simply to say, as Steven does, that: 'The human mind is very powerful, and can produce amazing effects' is to say little more than that there must be some naturalistic explanation even while failing to suggest what that explanation might actually be. Here we see that we cannot escape the importance of our world-view presuppositions. As a theist I believe in an immaterial, spiritual being capable of creating immaterial creatures and of revealing this fact. Indeed, I believe that both these possibilities are actualities. Steven does not even accept the actuality of God upon which these further possibilities, let alone the actualities, rest. It is therefore hardly surprising that what I consider to be an impressive piece of testimony to the reality of the demonic is dismissed by him as 'a committed Christian interpreting something in his world view', because this is Steven interpreting something in terms of his worldview!

The Revíd James LeBar, as Time Magazine recently reported, 'is chaplain at a psychiatric hospital and is well aware of the danger of mistaking psychological symptoms for spiritual ones.' Hence he calls in a psychiatrist and a medical doctor before any exorcism, but notes 'there comes a point, when somebody is. . . [for example] talking a language theyíve never studied, when its harder to put it in the 'psychological-problemí bin.'

If the question is simply whether there is any evidence for angels and demons, the answer is certainly 'yes'! Of course, it is quite understandable that this evidence is unlikely, at one step remove, to convince anyone with an a priori bias against anything supernatural. However, for anyone who is an agnostic or a theist, I think the evidence is sufficient. Unfortunately, to dig down to our relevant world-view presuppositions would take a whole different discussion. Is our debate thus doomed to being entertaining, useful for readers, but ultimately unproductive? I hope not. I think the very fact that two people with different worldviews can hold a civilized debate is in itself productive or mutual respect and understanding, and that there are productive points of agreement already reached and still worth striving for: We already agree that: 'science cannot disprove supernatural agents', that angels cannot have been wholly good when first created and that well documented experience offers the strongest independent warrant for belief in angelic beings (although this warrant is insufficient for Steven). I hope we might also agree that no final resolution on the question of angels can be reached independently of worldview presuppositions, that the evidence for angels is insufficient on its own to overturn a non-theistic worldview, and that the evidence makes belief in angels at least rational for anyone who is an agnostic or a theist. In the end, I agree with C.S.Lewis:

'I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies of God and, as a colollary, to us. These we may call devils. They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved. Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man. Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael. . . [This belief] seems to me to explain a good many facts. It agrees with the plain sense of Scripture, the tradition of Christendom, and the beliefs of most men at most times. And it conflicts with nothing that any of the sciences has shown to be true.'

Peter Williams Opening Statement

Peter William's First Response

Steven Carr's First Response

Peter William's Second Response

Peter William's Final Response

Debate Page


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