Called to Be Like Angels

In The Replacements, a 2000 sports comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, substitute athletes—including a washed out college football star—are hired to replace pro players who went on strike.

The movie ends with a climactic playoff game. The on-strike quarterback is brought back to clinch the win. But his return proves a disappointment. The quarterback has all the technical skills as a player but his substitute had more heart. The substitute is brought back into the game one more time to win it—a shot at lasting glory for athletes who normally would never had had the chance.

In his classic work, Cur Deus Homo, St. Anselm suggests that some of mankind is a replacement for the loss of the fallen angels. This is because God, Anselm writes, predestined an exact number of rational beings to honor and render praise to Him. In his words:

We must not doubt that God foreknew the number of rational natures who either are or will be happy in the contemplation of God, a number so reasonable and complete that it is not fitting for it to be greater or smaller. After all, either God does not know the number of such natures that it is most fitting for him to establish, which is false; or else, if he does know, he will establish those natures in the number that he understands to be most fitting for this purpose (Cur Deus Homo, 1.16).

Anselm’s reasoning is simple: God, who is all-knowing, had to know the number of rational natures that would be worshiping him—which is another way of saying that He deliberately ordained that number before the creation of the world.

This is not how we normally think of God as Creator—as some sort of cosmic bean counter, measuring out the exact number of beings to be created. But it does fit with the biblical image of a God who created the world in an orderly fashion, as described in Genesis 1. It’s also consistent with some of the numeric language in the last book of the Bible, where we are given specific numbers to describe those present in the end times, such as the 144,000 sealed in God in Revelation 7 and the twenty thousand times ten thousand horsemen in Revelation 9.

But why does the number of rational creatures matter? For St. Anselm it means no individual being is superfluous.

This means that none of the fallen angels were disposable extras. St. Anselm concludes that when Satan fell and took a certain number of his brethren with him, they had to be replaced. In other words, the number of rational natures that worshiped God had to be restored.

These replacements, according to St. Anselm, are from the human race. As he puts it, “Then they must be replaced with human nature, since there is no other nature by which they can be replaced.”

This idea, that we are replacements for angels, is also consistent with Scripture. In the gospels, Christ says that we will become like angels at the resurrection. Here is the version in Luke 20:

The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise (NAB, Rev. Ed. verses 34 to 36).

Of course, in this life we come across as poor substitutes for angels. We are compounds of both spirit and body, we lack the powers and abilities of angels, and our will, unlike theirs, can be changed one way and then back. But for Anselm this is, intentional:

And human nature, which was weaker, would vindicate God and confound the devil if the devil blamed his fall on his own weakness, since human nature remained steadfast despite being weaker. And even if human nature fell, it would defend God all the more against the devil and against itself, since although it was created very weak and subject to death, in the elect it would rise from such weakness to even greater heights than those from which the devil had fallen … (Cur Deus Homo, 1.18).

In other words, our humility would put to shame the pride of the devil.

But there’s one more twist to all this. It begins with a problem. Anselm worries that if every single saved person was a one-to-one replacement for a fallen angel that their rejoicing would be premised on the fall of another—something he found unsettling. He writes,

[H]ow can the elect be spared this perverse rejoicing? Or how will we say that human beings are taking the place of angels who fell, given that if the angels had not fallen, they would have remained free from this sin—the sin of rejoicing over others’ fall—whereas human beings will not be able to avoid this sin? Indeed, how will they deserve to be happy when they are guilty of this sin? (Cur Deus Homo, 1.18).

Anselm’s solution is to posit that the number of created men and women who are saved exceeds the number of fallen angels. We would not only replace those who are fallen, but we would more than make up for their number. To use a simple example: for every 500 fallen angels, there might be 1,000 men and women who are saved.

That way, no one could be sure whether he was replacing one of the reprobate angels or not—and therefore, there is no basis for rejoicing over the fall of another being. This also affirms Anselm’s principle that no created being—not even a worm, as he puts it—is superfluous. Mankind was not merely God’s backup plan, second-string saints ready to fill in for any seditious spirits. We were destined from the beginning to be in that most perfect heavenly city, to use Anselm’s language.

Of course, there is still a sense in which men and women are replacements for the angels. At least some of the saved are filling in for them, according to Anselm. But given that no one can know for sure, it’s best to think of our role relative to the angels as a calling: we are, in a very real sense, called to be like angels. So, like the substitute football players in The Replacements, we may not have been part of the first string, but like them, we have a shot at lasting glory.

image: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Elizabeth Schmeidler

    I believe we are called to be angels on earth–in imitation of Christ. When we do His will we assist the angels in bring God’s people His mercy and love. I have experienced angels on earth and I hope I have been an angel on earth. I wrote this song to celebrate angels–both earthly and heavenly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAHTq4e9i0U

  • Constance Hull

    We are not called to be angels, we are called to be fully human. The title is not a good representation of the content. It is in fact heresy to equate human beings and angels as becoming the same, which is what the title suggests. Christ in the Incarnation took on our human form and divinized the material. We are body and spirit, while the angels are purely spiritual. We are called to be like Jesus Christ who is God. We are created in the image and likeness of God. And based on the comments I have seen on this post elsewhere, there is a major confusion for Catholics on the distinction between angels and human beings. Human beings are called to be fully human and angels are called to be fully angels. If we equate ourselves with angels then we lose the anthropological center we have in relation to God.

    It would also be wise to explain to readers that this is merely conjecture from St. Anselm and not teaching of the Church. If there is one thing they harp on us in theological studies at the graduate level it is that the precision of language matters. That is evident by the response Catholics who may lack a catechetical knowledge of such subjects. We don’t all have to be theologians, but if we are going to publish something on a popular Catholic site, it should be proper theology. The predestination arguments have been condemned by the Church. From a purely theological standpoint we should be saying that we desire to be like Jesus Christ through the intercession of the angels. My concern is that this type of error on a popular site will confuse those who do not have a clear understanding of Church teaching in relation to the Incarnation, bodily resurrection, and the angels.

    https://swimmingthedepths.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/we-are-not-called-to-be-angels-we-are-called-to-be-fully-human/

  • noelfitz

    Brilliant challenging article, thanks.

    But there is a problem due to the conflict of free will and predestination. If some of us are born as spare parts to replace angels, are we not predestined for this role? God is all-knowing, but I find it difficult to grasp free will if some are predestined to fill a void in creation. It sounds as if God made a mistake and then tried to fill the void made.

  • Stephen Beale

    Thanks Noel. This is definitely a very tricky area. The question you ask could be stated more broadly: How can there be predestination with free will? I do not address this seeming conundrum in the article. That is for another time. As you may know, the Church has condemned double predestination, the false teaching that God actively chooses some for damnation. But we are free to hold predestination in the sense that God actively chooses some for salvation. This is definitely a difficult position to hold, but Scripture talks about predestination, so it is a paradox I personally believe we must accept, as with many other mysteries of faith.

    As far as this idea of a mistake, the mistake is the fallen angels misusing their free will to rebel. No mistake on God’s part to be sure!

    I hope this has been helpful.

    Stephen

  • PA Observer

    Wow, is
    this a bad article from so many points of view. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big
    fan of St. Anselm. But to say that his box of logic as presented here is right,
    and consistent with scripture or with God’s Plan is simply not the case. We are
    never to fall into the trap of thinking that we must be angels, as the Church
    teaches, which leads to all sorts of spiritual problems. The premise behind all
    of this is that angels are superior to man, which is unscriptural. In fact,
    scripture announces just the opposite, that man is for only a little while
    smaller than the angels but ends up crowned with glory and honor. And in
    Revelation, John is told not to worship the Angel messenger, because he is a
    fellow servant of God.

    The truth is, that Man is created at the center of God’s Plan, and while angels
    represent the multifaceted powers of God in all His excellent nature, the human
    race is closer to God’s own perfection in His interior life of the Three
    Persons. The angels, holy and pure as they are, do not reproduce themselves,
    but we do. The angels, as St. Thomas points out, are races unto themselves, and
    their lives represent not only a personal life, but also the life of a race
    unique to itself in imitation of a facet of God’s perfection. The human race is
    a single race, similar to the Godhead itself, and all its individual persons
    are connected in that human life and destiny. It was Man’s centrality in God’s
    Plan that provoked the envy of Satan, and his desire to ruin God’s Plan by
    ruining Man. And it is not true that Man would not have fallen if Satan had not
    been there. Adam had a choice to make anyway, that is the point of the whole
    story of Man.

    Man is not a replacement in any sense. This form of searching out what is
    rational underestimates God, who the Church teaches is above created
    rationality, though His intelligence and Being are not contrary to it, and are
    coincidental with it (in the meaning of substance and form). God’s logic is not
    a box to contain Him, rather it is much larger, at the same time that it is
    smaller, because it indwells all His Creation. Creation is going to be revealed
    as a great perfect reflection of God Himself, we are told, when God will perfect
    it and be seen as being All in All.

    The use of numbers in Revelation is for symbolic truth, not for an actual
    count. That we will not be worried about the life of the body and creating more
    children through marriage in the next life does not mean that we will be angels
    living an angelic life, but that like the angels we will have fulfilled our
    destiny, choosing to love God forever, and our souls, “life-giving
    spirits” as St. Paul calls them, will be entirely oriented toward God, our
    true Love and ground of Truth, the Bridegroom of the Bride He came to find and
    present to His Eternal Father. Christ became Man, by the unchanging Plan of
    God, so that Man could be brought into the Divine Life by grace, our
    introduction into His life here on earth. Since Man then is connected directly
    to Christ’s glory, the salvation of the angels is dependent or connected to
    Christ through Man. The seemingly weaker creature is closer to God by
    representing His humility, and His interior life, while the more powerful creature
    represents God’s exterior life and glory and perfections.

    Another thing that is missed here is that the fallen angels or men are not lost
    from the Plan of God, but only from their eternal true destiny. In the mystery
    of evil and suffering, God has still included them in their roles for good or
    evil throughout their lives here, and will still do so in the tapestry of life
    that transfers into the perfected life grace in the next life, transformed in
    Christ. In this mystery, suffering has taken on a rich role of grace, becoming
    the most sacred thing in human life, and producing the greatest glory of love
    in human living.

    Anselm, as presented here, is off, because he does not start from the center,
    but from the periphery, with an earthy focus, not a heavenly perspective. We
    all must be on guard for this, as Our Lord told the sadducees, “your are
    wrong, because you know not the scriptures nor the power of God.” Most
    arguments about predestination are silly and outdated, a box that caused great misunderstandings
    among usually well meaning Christians, a box and dilemma which requires a more
    transcendent answer. St. Anselm is one of the greats, who taught us to think
    with God’s thoughts, not those of men, but here, he misses the mark.

    There is nothing arbitrary in God’s Plan or Law, nor even among His creatures,
    because it is all centered on Him, as expressed in His Son. His Plan was always
    more flexible than what we have imagined, because of what it requires of us.
    His Creation is more powerful than we think, it was meant to produce
    perfection, and its role will be and is being fulfilled.

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