The mention of spirits, angels, demons and other mysterious entities has captured the imagination of mankind from the very beginning. Surely what we see is not all that there is.
The Bible also speaks of many spiritual entities, the greatest and most important being God himself, the creator of all things.
I find the discussion in Christian circles regarding these myriad entities in God’s creation is more speculation and imaginative conjecture than what the scriptures actually teach. For example the idea that the Devil is a fallen angel called Lucifer has no Biblical support (that is for another discussion.) I think the problem with such matters is that we take the wrong approach in how we study what scripture has to say about it.
Tom Wright in The New Testament and the People of God discusses apocalyptic literature. His analysis is particularly useful here because it is mainly in the apocalyptic portions of scripture like Daniel or Revelation that we find the greatest detail about spiritual entities. He observes that the first century Jew believed in theological/ontological duality. This basically means they believed that there were spiritual or heavenly beings other than the Creator. This belief, however, did not take away from their strict monotheism. He also points out that these spiritual agents of the Creator did not mean he was far removed from the world but rather he was intimately involved in its affairs. I think Professor Wright points us in the right direction of the framework we need to use to properly study these things. We need tackle these issues from a philosophical-worldview level.
(Now for the purposes of this study, all angels, demons, seraphim, cherubim, living creatures and other spiritual entities identified in the Bible apart from God from here on I will call “spirits.”)
Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being and the basic categories of being. In the Christian worldview to answer these existential questions we need to turn to Genesis 1 as the principal creation narrative. The ancient Israelites like the rest of the rest of the ancient world, and for most of human history, were theists. The ultimate reality was some kind of deity. What was peculiar about the Israelites was that they were strict monotheists.
Scholars of the ancient Near East have observed that Genesis 1 serves as a kind of polemic against other worldviews. The ancient world believed in multiple gods who were in the world and to differing degrees were synonymous with nature. In Genesis 1 the sun, the earth and other things that other people worshipped were just created things without any divine status. The ancient Hebrews accepted cosmological duality, that is, God is completely distinct from his creation as opposed to pantheism where the gods and nature are to different extents one. Cosmological duality does not mean God is removed from creation as in deism. The Deity is very much involved from moment to moment.
Even with this theological/cosmological duality the creation is still described anthropomorphically. Creation is given human-like attributes. For instance in Genesis 1 God appoints the sun and other celestial bodies “to rule” the times and seasons (Genesis 1:14-19.) In fact God speaks creation into being and it responds. From Life by the Spirit we know this is not merely figurative language. Since God makes and sustains all things by his very breath, the Spirit, the creation is strangely alive.
It is unique personal touches that make a house a home. Similarly, the cosmos bears God’s personal characteristics and features. Paul says in Romans 1:20 that the creation displays God’s attributes. The creator leaves his signature on the creation. He goes further in Galatians and Colossians and talks about the elemental forces of nature which enslave people (Galatians 4:9; 2:8, 20.) The creation has living personal attributes, that is, mysteriously anthropomorphic qualities. These I believe are the spirits spoken of in scripture, the elemental forces of nature that are wrongly worshipped by the nations. Paganism essentially is the worship of these elements that Paul mentioned. Natural forces such as the sun, the earth, the weather, fertility, destiny, fortune, war, sexuality and other primary urges.
We must take note that the Bible does not deny such entities exist, even though it refuses to give a thorough description of them as polytheistic cultures do. What it does say is that they are not divine, that is, they are not supreme beings. They are rather subservient to YHWH who is the ultimate reality, the great I Am. This is how the scriptures derive ontological duality from cosmological duality. That is to say these spirits are not creators but are a part of creation even though they do influence other aspects of the created order.
Since God by his life-giving presence endows the creation with living personal characteristics, these spirits show how God is intimately involved in his creation. For instance when a plague afflicts a people they described it as God sending angels of destruction to slay them (Psalm 78:49-50.) Angels in fact seemed to be named after God (e.g. Gabriel means “Mighty God”.) They somehow personify or represent particular divine attributes. God is like a manager in a factory who is constantly involved with running its day to day affairs. He does not stay away from the work environment, remotely sending instructions to employees. His personal presence is essential for smooth operations. God chooses to use spiritual agents but without his active presence in the world things will certainly fall apart (Hebrews 1:2.)
Having said all these things we must be careful not to view these spirits in fully personal terms. In Romans 1 Paul surmises the reason the world is in disarray is because humans have served the creature and not the creator. The moment we regard these spirits as autonomous personal beings, with the power they possess you will inevitably see them as masters, gods you think should be served. They are meta-personal beings. This means they are personal creatures but not personal in the same way God or humans are. They are intermediate entities somewhere between God and creation. They are humanoid agents through whom the Lord acts from within creation.
God is described in Hebrews as the Father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9.) In the Old Testament they are also described as the sons of God (Job 1:6.) Spirits are created by him and share some divine attributes with him. This accounts for how they can display tremendous powers and abilities but they are irrevocably inferior and subservient to him. They are placed on a far low category than God and can never bridge the gap.
The scriptures often neglect giving us detailed descriptions of these spirits. These largely vague and enigmatic descriptions are deliberate. Since the Bible is fiercely monotheistic, spirits are always described in a manner that is never in the same category with God. They are always seen as created servants of a particular class of being. As in Second Temple Judaism many believers today try to carefully and rank and classify spirits. The scriptures are written in such a way to combat this. For instance the four living creatures in Ezekiel are described slightly differently from those in Revelation. This intentional ambiguity is to discourage his people from developing inordinate interest in them which leads to polytheism and idolatry. Rather the focus of Holy Writ was showing through these entities God’s sovereign majesty. Strict ontological duality was always preserved.
This description of spirits fits the created hierarchy that is portrayed in the scriptures. There are differing ranks of principalities and powers, thrones and dominions (Ephesians 1:20-23.) If God is sovereign over creation it is no surprise that there are different tiers of servants in the cosmic order. Every kingdom has a certain order and structure to it.
There is more to be said than what this post or I can even say. Questions like the difference between angels and demons, and how come there are occult powers among other things still linger. Through the scriptures we can better understand these mysterious phenomena but not for its own sake. We rather strive to understand the biblical worldview and how God wants us to live in this world.