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.