The following is my summary of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III.3: The Doctrine of Creation; Chapter XI: The Creator and His Creature; Section 51: The Kingdom of Heaven, the Ambassadors of God and their Opponents; Subsection 3: The Ambassadors of God and Their Opponents (translated by G. W. Bromiley and R. J. Ehrlich, 1960).
3. The Ambassadors of God and Their Opponents (477).
“The kingdom of God coming to us on earth is the kingdom of heaven” (477). When God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, this is both a divine and a heavenly event. It is a divine event primarily because God is its source, norm, and goal. But it is also a heavenly event, though secondarily, because, whenever God speaks and acts on earth, his angels always accompany him.
How might we experience angels? The question is badly put. Whenever God comes to us, his angels come with him; conversely, wherever we find angels, God is there first and foremost. We do best, then, to keep our focus on Jesus Christ and “not to speak of any experience of angels at all” (477).
To define the nature of angels and their ministry to us, we begin best by affirming their relationship—not with us, nor with the demons they oppose—with God. First, angels never speak, stand, or act alone but always as angels of the Lord.
“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Ps. 34:7). “‘The Lord, the God of heaven…will send his angel before you’” (Gen. 24:7). “‘For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done’” (Mt. 16:27) (479).
Angels always, as such, are holy. Angels are not emanations of God. They are like us in that they are creatures. They are unlike us, as heavenly creatures, in that they belong to God exclusively. “They are His, and they are, as He takes them with Him on His way from heaven to earth as His precursors, companions and followers, giving them a share in His own speech and action on earth. They are, as they are given this share” (480). “They do not exist and act independently or autonomously. They have no history or aims or achievements of their own. They have no profile or character, no mind or will of their own. They have all these things, yet not as their own possession, but wholly and exclusively as God is so rich in relation to them…The lowliest creature of earth has an advantage over even the highest of angels to the extent that while it belongs to God it may also belong to itself. But conversely even the least of the heavenly hosts is more than the most perfect of earthly creatures to the extent that it belongs so fully to God and in no sense to itself” (480).
“Where an angel appears and is and speaks and works, God himself appears and is and speaks and works. The angel derives no benefit at all from being a creature and different from God, although he is this, and is indeed an exemplary and perfect creature in the fact  that he belongs so fully and exclusively to God. He would be a lying spirit, a demon…if he were to try to profit from his nature and position, deriving any personal benefit, cutting an individual figure, playing an independent role, pursuing his own ends and achieving his own results…He has his honor, dignity, and joy, and all that earthly creation has in its autonomy, in the fact that he has these things only in dependence, that he only stands before God and is at his disposal…that he has himself only as he participates in Him, and exists for himself as he is there for Him, He triumphs and exults in this absolute humility before God” (481).
“And wherever the being and action of an angel are perceived, there the Word of God is heard, the doing of His will is contemplated, and gratitude, faith and obedience to Him are awakened or confirmed or rekindled. The part of the angel, then, has merely been to serve, to give his witness, to help. Although he is a creature, and an exemplary and perfect creature, his task as such has simply been to come and then to go again, to pass by…The work which he accomplishes will always consist in the fat that the majesty and mercy of God are better, more seriously and more gladly seen and acknowledged by man…He can himself be honored only as he causes man to look away from himself to God” (481).
“We now turn to the positive fact that angels are God’s pure witnesses, beside whom there is none to compare on earth, who are therefore needed on earth, and who by the goodness of God are given to us in their reality” (483-4). Angels “lack the autonomy of earthly creatures. Instead, they see the face of the Father…in heaven (Mt. 18:10); the face which cannot be seen by any earthly creature. They can thus give pure witness to God” (484). “When an angel acts, for all the infinite difference between God and heaven or God and the angel, it is God who acts. To the apparent ontological weakness of the angel there corresponds the fullness…of his functional reality. The angel is not merely an emissary; he is a plenipotentiary. He is the kind of emissary which no man can ever be, even though he be a prophet or apostle. The witness of the latter is also genuine witness…But like all earthly witness to God, it draws its strength directly or indirectly…from the fact that before, above or beside it there is the pure witness to God which it can never be even as the best earthly witness” (484).
“All genuine witness to God lives by the witness and therefore the ministry of angels. For by this it becomes in a sense technically possible and real that God is genuinely present and may be genuinely known as God in the earthly sphere…In their so utterly selfless and undemanding and purely subservient passing…heaven comes to earth” (484-5). “And this means that even here the dimension is opened and perceptible in which God exists and in which alone He can be made known and feared and loved as God. In the being and work of angels, whether notable and noted as such or not, there lies the basis of the fact that the mystery of God can have a place on earth” (485). “Without angels God Himself would be revealed and perceptible. Without them He would be hopelessly confused with some earthly circumstance, whether in the form of a sublime idea or a golden calf. But by means of His holy angels He sees to it that this dimension is always open and perceptible” (485).
Angels alone are God’s pure witnesses. “As such, although creatures as we are, they stand over against us at the side of God” (486). “To deny angels is to deny God Himself. For it is an implication of His greatness and condescension that He comes to us in His angels. Although in the smallest no less than the greatest matters He keeps the reins in His own hands, the angels represent Him to us with the plenary authority appropriate to them as pure witnesses” (486).
One of the most challenging angelic figures in the Bible is the one referred to, not as an angel, but as the angel of the Lord. To begin with, this angel seems to represent personally God’s radical commitment to his people Israel. The angel of the Lord traveled in front of the people of Israel during their exodus from Egypt, yet also went behind them when needed to protect them from the pursuing army of Pharaoh (Ex. 14:19-20). He protected Israel by dissuading Balaam from cursing Israel (Num. 22:21-35). He announced to Manoah and his wife the coming birth of Samson in response to forty years of oppression by the Philistines (Jdg. 13:1ff.). He refreshed a discouraged Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:5). He smote 185,000 Assyrian soldiers laying siege to Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 19:35). He served as an advocate of Israel and an opponent of Satan before the Lord (Zech. 1:12, 3:1f.). “In all this it is natural to think of the position and role of Michael in Dan. 10 and 12. The angel of God is very obviously the angel of God for Israel, the heavenly form in which God turns to this people of His. He is called the angel of God because Israel is His chosen people” (487).
It seems to be this same angel acting on behalf of God’s New Testament community, even though he is not referred to as the angel. In the Book of Acts, he releases the apostles from jail (5:19). He sends Philip down the road to Gaza where Philip will meet with and proclaim the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26ff.). He tells Cornelius to contact Peter (10:3f.). He again frees Peter from jail (12:7f.). He strikes Herod, enemy of the community, dead, for accepting praise as a god (12:21-23). This is also the angel that announced the birth of Jesus Christ to shepherds (Lk. 2:9f.). This angel, then, in both Old and New Testaments, is the witness to the history of salvation in God’s election of Israel and the Church.
In these passages, the angel of the Lord serves as a pure witness to God. We see this with special clarity in the story of the announcement of the birth of Sampson. “Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you.’ The angel of the Lord replied, ‘Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the Lord.’ (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the Lord.) Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the Lord, ‘What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?’ He replied, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.’ Then Manoah took a young goat, together with a grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the Lord. And the Lord did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground” (Jdg. 13:15-20). The angel of the Lord does not call attention to himself but points always to God. And he does, unmistakably, call attention to God. That is his service. “What we are told by the intervention of heaven as God’s witness as revealed in these passages is that the covenant of grace, the election and calling of Israel and the Church, the Gospel, are not historical events like others on this earth of ours, and that they do not establish ordinary historical relationships, with well-planned theologies, well-intentioned systems of piety, well-run institutions, well-weighed conclusions of assemblies and commissions under the well-meaning oversight of a wisely invisible supreme God” (489).
The book of Genesis contains more complicated passages in which the angel of the Lord appears. These include the stories of Hagar (16:7f. and 21:17f.), the visit of three “men” to Abraham near the great oaks of Mamre (18:1f.), the rescue of Lot from Sodom by two angels (19:1f.), the angel calling to Abraham with Isaac on Mt. Moriah (22:11f.), the appearance of the angel in a dream of Jacob (31:11f.) and, in Exodus, the angel at the burning bush (Ex. 3:2ff.). In all these passages, “the angel of Yahweh can hardly be distinguished from Yahweh himself” (489). The angel appears, but the speech and action are God’s; or conversely, God appears, but the speech and action are those of his angel (489). The point: the angel of the Lord places due emphasis on God’s objective and concrete encounter, during the course of everyday life, with a person. The angel makes God’s objective and concrete encounter with a person unmistakably clear. These stories occur also at the beginning of God’s history with Israel. They serve to emphasize the uniqueness of Israel’s God and of the history of Israel with this God: “Something very different might have stood at this beginning: perhaps a God without mystery, with no real attestation of His deity; perhaps a mystery without God, a powerful impression and claim which were only accidental or links in an earthly causal series” (491). “Everything depends on the fact that…at the calling of Israel God and His angel, His angel and God, are both genuinely present” (491).
We have spoken of angels as God’s pure witnesses. We shall now reflect on what this means in relation to Jesus Christ since it is here that finally all angelic action must be understood. Note: “It is in the relationship to Jesus Christ—that all the things are true which we have said about their presence, their speech, their might, their operations under, before, with and after that of God, their ministering but perfect witness as a movement of the heavenly world consequent upon the divine movement, their greatness and their limitation both above and below” (500).
We start with a “surprising negative fact” (500). We find angels active at the beginning of Christ’s life, at the beginning of his public ministry, and at its end, but nowhere in the broad middle of it. Mention is made of angels ministering to him following his forty days and temptations in the wilderness (Mt. 4:11, Mk. 1:12). Luke alone tells us of an angel strengthening Jesus in Gethsemane (22:43). No elaboration of the type of help offered is given. “Since both passages emphasize the tempted humanity of Jesus, we have to think of a special attestation of the presence of God” (501). Jesus could have asked his Father for twelve legions of angels to prevent his arrest, but didn’t (Mt. 26:53). Curiously, Jesus tells his initial disciples that “you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn. 1:51), but no further mention is made of them. Why not? Because here, with the full revelation of God in Christ, they are present—but only as spectators (501). With God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, their ministry is temporarily eclipsed, just as with Christ’s definitive return their service as witnesses will be definitively concluded. Even at the beginning and end of Christ’s earthly ministry, they never appear, except to briefly offer help as noted already, with Jesus Christ. Thus is their holy dependence, which is both their greatness and limitation, revealed. “Place is found for them in the Bible where the consummating action of God Himself is not yet or no longer visible to man directly” (502). Where we know God’s consummating action directly, their light is outshone like a candle’s at noon. For the final goal of God’s action in our midst is our corresponding human witness to God. For God in Christ did not become an angel but a man. That is why we honor angels best by focusing our attention, not on them, but on Jesus Christ and on his word and action in our midst by the power of his Holy Spirit.
So, prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, Gabriel announces what God has chosen to accomplish decisively in our midst (Lk. 1:5f., 26f.). Gabriel serves God and man as the herald of God’s accomplished decision and coming action. In response to the always surprising Word of God which Gabriel brings, both Zechariah and Mary are troubled (Lk. 1:12, 29) and must be told to fear not (1:13, 30). But Gabriel’s mission is fulfilled when both break out in praise of God’s mercy (1:46f, 68f.) (503). In what does their praise consist? In the fact that both affirm God’s word in obedience even though its accomplishment will require a miracle. Both affirm the mystery of God: God’s decision to be with us and for us, to fulfill his covenantal relationship with us and to fulfill our covenantal relationship with him, in Christ. The difference between the two is that Mary is content to obey the word simply, whereas Zechariah does so only after what appears to be a punitive sign. Either way, God fulfills—without delay—the Word pronounced by his angelic herald. In this way Gabriel’s heavenly ministry finds its fulfillment in their earthly ministry. It was God who called them to this ministry. It was Gabriel who announced it. We may apply this same understanding to the appearance of an angel to Joseph (Mt. 1:20f.).
Soon enough the events announced by Gabriel take place and, with the birth of Jesus Christ, “the time is fulfilled, the last time has come, the will of God has begun on earth as it is in heaven, the calling of Zechariah and Mary has found its meaning and content, and these two are shown to be the head of the people of God of the last day” (504). Note that the angel announcing Christ’s birth does not bear that message to Zechariah or Mary. They don’t need it repeated. Hence the announcement does not come where artists enjoy rendering it—above the cradle in Bethlehem. Instead the angel goes to those outside Bethlehem—to shepherds who soon will join those first called by God. Just as Gabriel surprised Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, so too an angel of the Lord comes unexpectedly to shepherds in the normal course of their nightly routine. With the coming of this angel, “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Lk. 2:9). They were terrified—but they need not have been. “For in truth it is the light of God which in this form breaks into the darkness of earth and illumines them. And it is not to blind but to enlighten, not to crush and destroy but to liberate, that the glory, majesty and power of God are revealed to them” (505). So, with them too, the angel declares, “‘Fear not!’” (Lk. 2:10). “[T]he whole people of the last time [are] already called and sanctified by this happening” (505). Once again, this angel serves as a herald of the great good news of God’s merciful fulfillment of the covenant: “‘Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’” (Lk. 2:11). Now has come the meaning and goal of Israel’s long history; now the promise of the Old Testament has become a reality. And it is this angel’s service, not to freeze the shepherds in fear like deer in headlights, but to send them hurrying on their way to the child so that they too may become witnesses to him. And now the whole host of heaven, here alone in the Bible, join the angel in his task. All the angels witness to the peace on earth which has dawned with the birth of this child. All heaven proclaims God who, in his mercy, has taken all earth to himself (505). And all heaven summons all people in witnessing to this event.
We turn now to the presence of angels during the forty days of Christ’s earthly ministry between his resurrection and ascension. Again, angels are present before he is seen, absent during his presence, then are present once more immediately following his absence (506-7).
Beginning with the appearance of angels on Resurrection Day, all four gospels affirm that angels are present in some way early that morning. As participants in its events, Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1); Mark: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (16:1); Luke: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women (24:1, 10); and John: Mary Magdalene alone (20:1). In Matthew (28:2) and Luke (24:4), the scene is outside the tomb while in Mark (16:5) and John (20:11f.) events take place inside it. In Matthew, the two women meet an angel of the Lord who, with a violent earthquake, rolls away the stone blocking entrance to the tomb and sits on it (28:2). In Mark, the women see a “young man” (16:5); in Luke, two “men” (24:4); and in John, two angels (20:11). All four gospels speak of these personages as dressed in white or radiant clothes. In Matthew, the women are told that Jesus is risen and that, to the disciples, they are to say Jesus is risen and they will see him in Galilee (28:5-7). They are told the same in Mark (16:6-7). In Luke, they are told that Jesus is risen as he said he would be (24:5-8) while, in John, Mary Magdalene is told the same thing with the question, “‘Woman, why are you crying?’” (20:13).
It is angels, then, who in all their heavenly radiance first proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ to these women—who then become the first earthly witnesses to it. The empty tomb is a sign; the angels herald its significance to humans. The angels do not cooperate in raising Jesus from the dead but they are the first to point it out.
After doing so, their task as witnesses is complete, and they withdraw—but not before sending these women on their way as witnesses. In Matthew, the women run from the tomb, fearful yet joyful, to tell the disciples (28:8). In Mark’s shorter ending, the women, frightened and confused, tell no one (16:8); in his longer ending, Mary Magdalene, after seeing Jesus himself, tells the disciples but they do not believe her (16:9-11). In Luke, the women tell the disciples, but are dismissed by them for speaking nonsense (24:10-11). In John, Mary Magdalene shares the good news with the disciples (20:18). The angels, then, both witness to the resurrection and send out the women as witnesses in their turn. “Their introduction into the close of the history intentionally awakens in the reader the twofold impression that, by the appearance and announcement of the angels and the presence of heaven with God Himself, he is both set at an appropriate distance and also placed in a meaningful relationship to the event recorded” (508).
Once the risen Christ reveals himself to his disciples, we find no mention of angels. Only after his ascension do angels serve once more as witnesses: “After [Jesus] said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. [The apostles] were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11). Just as angels appeared first to announce God’s decision to become flesh, so too angels mark the conclusion of Christ’s ministry.
Not only that. They mark the beginning of the ministry of Christ’s body on earth: the Church. Those who would soon be its first members numbered 120 and included the apostles, Mary the mother of Jesus, his brothers, and other believers. They gathered in the upper room well known to them in Jerusalem to pray together (Acts 1:12-15). They did so as “the little flock to whom, according to Lk. 12:32, there will be given the kingdom, i.e., the presence and grace and power of their Lord, i.e., the Spirit” (509). The witness of the angels to them, then, is both retrospective and prospective; retrospective, pointing to Jesus Christ who ministered, died, was raised, and ascended to heaven; prospective, in that “it claims those who are addressed for waiting upon God and for willingness and readiness for His future” (509). Yet this waiting and readiness differs from that announced by Gabriel to Zechariah and Mary. Then, they awaited the fulfillment of God’s covenant; now, they await their participation in that covenant by the power of the Holy Spirit as witnesses to the ends of the earth. Jesus Christ has died and been raised from the dead. He had liberated all people from the powers of sin and death. Soon they too would participate in this victory and, through their witness, God would call and enable others to do so as well. This is the testimony of the angels here, a testimony which epitomizes that of all angels in Scripture.
How, then, are we to understand the meaning of the word angel? The word itself means messenger and they most certainly are that—and that from God in heaven to us on earth. Indeed, we rightly understand angels when we do so exclusively in terms of their purpose, presence, speech, and action as heavenly messengers. This means leaving gently to one side questions of their nature, mutual relationships, and internal order considered apart from their service as God’s messengers.
When thinking of them as messengers, heralds, and witnesses of God, we rightly consider angels as such with all seriousness. “When as heavenly beings, coming with God Himself from above, they act and speak in the service of God, their speech and action is that of very special messengers, supremely confident, authorized and powerful, and quite incomparable” (512). In a word, they come into our midst as God’s ambassadors. When they do come to us with and from God, they come because God himself sends them with specific words to say and work to do. They come with the full authority, power, and glory of God in all they say and do. They come wholeheartedly. And we can rely on them. “The same cannot be said of any prophet or apostle. If in certain situations a man is the messenger of God with this supreme authority, we can only say that it is an angel who speaks and acts through this man” (573).
We may say this on the basis of several passages in Scripture. In the Old Testament, a wise woman from Tekoa tells David, “‘May the word of my lord and king bring me rest, for my lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil’” (2 Sam. 14:17). In the New Testament, we are told that “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently on Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). At one point Paul reminds his readers, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself” (Gal. 4:14). We also are told, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).
Thirdly, if we rightly emphasize that angels are messengers of God, we must also rightly emphasize that they are messengers of God. They do not announce just any news or share information in general. They don’t gab. Nor are they some kind of spiritual postal service delivering news from anywhere. They exist only in relation to the God of Jesus Christ and the messages they bear relate always to the history of that God’s covenant with man (514).
As a way of clarifying this, we may briefly explore the relationship between angels and world history as well as our own individual histories. We may begin by recalling that the history of the covenant, beginning with Abraham, centered in Jesus Christ, and concluded with the apostles, is not frozen in the past. All history, including our own, is centered in Jesus Christ and derives its meaning solely from him. “The history of the Christian community especially, as the movement of the inner circle around this center, proceeds from and hastens toward it to the extent that it recognizes the goal of all occurrence in the revelation of the validity of what took place then and there” (515). “But all creation unwittingly does the same in a wider circle around the Christian community…Where, known or unknown, Jesus Christ is present, living and powerful by his Holy Spirit, there, known or unknown, the ministry of angels is also executed. It is clear that this cannot be grasped and expressed as a generally known or recognizable truth. But the same is true of the existence and kingdom of God and His presence, like and power in Jesus Christ” (515-16).
In Scripture we are told, “If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the Lord, who is my refuge—then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:9-12). This, of course, was the psalm misused by the devil when tempting Jesus. And it continues to be misused “when it is thought that the angels are present to give man sensational help in his own plans by sending things which are pleasant and warding off those which are not. They are indeed present, but in such a way as to make known to him the help from God. They serve him, but in such a way that they set his history in relation to the history of the covenant of grace as this applies to him and embraces him” (517).
We may say a word here about angels and organized social groups such as nations. In Dan. 10:12-13, we read, “Then [the angel] continued, ‘Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.’” Clearly this prince of Persia is not an angel but a demon (517). Angels do not represent nations, or their governments, before God; it is God who sends angels as his representatives to earth. But as God’s representatives, we may “understand the service they render to the different historical groups and their development in the following sense—that, always in the context of the history of the covenant as the guiding thread of the whole, they are witnesses to his mystery in the course of political history and its various combinations” (518).
As to the idea of individual guardian angels, a handful of biblical passages seem, at first glance, to be supportive. “A man may be chastened [by God] on a bed of pain with constant distress in his bones…Yet if there is an angel on his side as a mediator, one out of a thousand, to tell a man what his right for him, to be gracious to him and say, ‘spare him from going down to the Pit; I have ransom for him’—then his flesh is renewed like a child’s” (Job 33:19, 23-25). Yet this passage does not say that God permanently assigns one angel to each person. Jesus tells us, “‘See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven’” (Mt. 18:10). Certainly, our Father in heaven stands in a special relationship with these little ones and this special relationship is mediated by angels. But again, this passage does not say that each little one has one guardian angel permanently assigned to him. We stand on firmer ground biblically when we affirm that God himself watches over each of us and that, as Ps. 91 indicates, he freely sends any and all angels to our assistance as he pleases. And their most helpful assistance is that “by their witness to God they keep those committed to them in fellowship with God, and therefore genuinely keep and secure them” (518).
Demons are a “sinister matter” (519). We shall look at them, but only for a moment. Studying them in too much detail, or too systematically, only pleases them and threatens us. They long for us to find them captivating or to ignore them altogether. A quick look is all that is needed and legitimate (519).
To begin with, and most importantly, demons are not angels—fallen or otherwise. “Between heaven and hell, between that which comes from above and its opposite which meets and resists it from below and would like to be above, there is nothing in common” (520).
We may begin by noting some ambiguous biblical passages. Jesus tells us, “‘Then [the Son of Man] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Mt. 25:41). Paul says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, an angel of Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor. 12:7). John adds, “There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Rev. 12:7-9). But we may rightly understand the word angel here to mean simply messenger and not regard the messengers of God to belong as it were to the same species as do the messengers of Satan. The Bible always understands the angels of God to be in radical conflict with those of Satan. In Job 1:6, we are told that “One day the sons of God [angels] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.” Satan is neither a son of God nor an angel; he came with them. He used the opportunity to do what he always does: to make an accusation; in this case, against Job. But, as we learn from Rev. 12:7-9, with the incarnation of God in Christ, with the perfect fulfillment of God’s covenant with humankind, there was no room left in heaven for any accusation, so Satan and his demonic messengers were permanently excluded.
“Angels and demons are related to us as creation and chaos, as the free grace of God and nothingness, as good and evil, as life and death, as the light of revelation and the darkness which will not receive it, as redemption and perdition, as kerygma and myth” (520). God is the Lord of the demonic sphere, and it derives from Him, just as in a wholly different way he is the Lord of the angelic sphere and it too derives from Him. But we cannot see or say too clearly that it is in a wholly different way” (520-1). No truce will ever occur between the angelic and the demonic. The demonic is subjected and pressed into service, but it is never recognized and never ceases to be demonic. We look at it quickly and only with aversion and never with a secret respect or acknowledgment or curiosity. We do not believe in the devil. That would suggest some kind of positive relationship. We believe in God and his angels and, on that sound basis, resolutely deny any faith in demons (521).
We note the demonic only when speaking of the opposition of God and his angels to it. We are set on our guard against it by being called away from it by God toward God and his angels. When the Church has failed to do this, “the result was that all Christianity, even when there were no witch-hunts and the like, acquired a more or less pervasive odor of demonism, becoming something which from this dark chamber seemed to spread abroad, and did actually spread abroad, menace, anxiety, melancholy, oppression, or tragic excitement. And this had the consequence that when in the light of witch-hunts a protest was made against this chamber…it necessarily led to the Enlightenment and thus to a protest against the whole Christian message” (522).
The origin and nature of the devil and demons is nothingness (522). “This is the element of contradiction and opposition which exists on the left hand of God and is thus subject to his world-dominion, but which constitutes a threat to His creation” (523). Just as nothingness exists, so do they; but in their own peculiar way. They are not divine but anti-divine. God did not create them, so they are not creaturely. They are, but only as God says No to them. God never willed them. They exist but only improperly, and so “can only stand to all eternity under His non-willing, on His left hand, condemned by him and hastening to destruction” (523).
As Scripture sees it, God has taken up the problem of nothingness and made it his own. God’s kingdom confronts it and, in doing so, limits it. Thus Scripture does not treat it lightly by speaking of it theoretically. Nor does Scripture respond to nothingness with fear. Scripture sees it as God sees it: as a false god opposing him but which, for all its desperate assaults on creation, is characterized as weak and futile and doomed to destruction (524).
In itself, nothingness is falsehood. In that falsehood, it pretends to be similar to the kingdom of God. It pretends to have substance. It lives by pretending it can weaken God’s grace and therefore should be respected or feared. “It lies by assuming form and power for a particular purpose…It lies in its representation of itself as a kingdom with a leader and subjects…It lies by opposing its own messengers, the demons, to the angels of God, attempting to give them the same name and appearance and activity” (525). But “nothingness lies also and supremely by trivializing and concealing itself, spreading abroad a carefree optimism” (526).
“Nothingness is falsehood. It exists as such, having a kind of substance and person, vitality and spontaneity, form and power and movement. As such it founds and organizes its kingdom. And demons are its exponents, the powers of falsehood in a thousand different forms. Its kingdom is indeed very similar to the kingdom of heaven with its angels. And this imitation of the kingdom of heaven and its angels, the uncanny resemblance to this very different sphere in which it dares to present itself, is the crown of its existence as falsehood. It, too, is an invisible and incomprehensible kingdom. It, too, is undoubtedly superior to man and the whole earthly creation. It, too, has in its midst a kind of throne and ruler. It, too, has powerful messengers who attest and proclaim a kind of mystery, who do this with a kind of humility and objectivity, and who obviously stand in its service…It constructs a false heaven with a false God, a false throne from which false messengers are dispatched, to proclaim a false mystery with all the humility and objectivity of falsehood. There is no other word for it—it is all a mimicry” (527).
“But we must not overlook or deny the fact the performance is real and constantly successful…They are there in the depths of the soul which we regard as most properly our own. They are there in the relationships between man and man, and especially between man and woman…They are there in the concern and struggle for daily bread, and especially for that which each thinks is also necessary in his case…They are there…in the great common ventures of what is called culture, science, art, technics and politics, in the conflict and concord of classes, peoples and nations, in the savage discussions and beautiful agreements and tolerances in the life of the Church” (527-8).
“Yet it is as well not to consider this without recognizing that they are only the powers of falsehood. As falsehood they are really powerful…They are powerful indeed, and yet they are only the powers of falsehood” (528).
“The truth of God dispels them as and because in confrontation with it they are disclosed, unmasked and stripped as the powers of falsehood. This is the insight which is even more important in relation to demons than the fact that they exist always and everywhere where the truth of God is not present and proclaimed and believed and grasped, and therefore does not speak and shine and rule. This is the limit and destruction of demons. This extinguishes them as lies and therefore as forces” (528-9). “It shows that they are accusers who falsely charge us when, in spite of all that speaks against us, we see ourselves set with quiet consciences on the right way by the Word and work of God. It shows that they are tyrants who falsely pretend to have the right and power to make us their prisoners and slaves, puppets who must dance on their wires, when we are really placed in the freedom of the children of God by His Word and work. It shows that they are spirits of complaint which falsely depress us and rob us of our humor by persuading us that the natural limits of our physical and psychical existence are a constriction, curse and misfortune, when we are really born, sustained and even uplifted by God within these limits. It shows that they are poltergeists which falsely alarm us when we may really have a total and radical peace on the basis of the Word and work of God” (529).
“In Jesus Christ Himself this triumph is won only in the history of that conflict. Our celebration of it, our liberation from demons, can take place only as we participate in that history. And as the angels were witnesses of this history, encountering demons as witnesses of that history, they are always present as described when it is a matter of summoning men, and making them able and willing, to participate in this history, in this conflict and triumph. They witness for the truth which…will continually be revealed and known in the light of that conflict and victory. And in the genuine power of this truth they are for us continually the counter-witnesses to the lying messengers of the kingdom of falsehood” (530).
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