Do we become angels after we die?

Henry Travers as the angel Clarence Odbody in It’s a Wonderful Life. PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN
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BY MSGR. STUART SWETLAND

Dear Father: When someone dies, I often hear expressions such as “heaven gained another angel” or “Grandma received her wings.” When people die, do they become angels? What happens to our souls and bodies?  — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: Angels do not become humans, and humans do not become angels. This is an important truth concerning the orderliness of God’s creation. God created all things, visible and invisible, and everything has its own nature, purpose, and being. However, there is much confusion on this topic today due to many factors — not the least of which is the horrible “theology” present in much of pop culture, especially Hollywood’s “false angelology.”

I am not alone in my criticism of Hollywood in this matter. The movie critic Roger Ebert, relying on the strong catechetical formation he received at St. Mary’s School in Urbana, Illinois, as a child, wrote when reviewing City of Angels, the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster involving a human-angel romance:

Angels are big right now in pop entertainment, no doubt because everybody gets one. New Age spirituality is me-oriented, and gives its followers top billing in the soap operas of their own lives. …

When there’s a trend toward humility and selflessness, then we’ll know we’re getting somewhere on the spiritual front. That time is not yet. City of Angels hits the crest of the boom in angel movies — and like most of them, it’s a love story. Hollywood is interested in priests and nuns only when they break the vow of chastity, and with angels only when they get the hots for humans. Can you imagine a movie in which a human renounces sexuality and hopes to become an angel? …

What I did appreciate is that City of Angels is one of the few angel movies that knows one essential fact about angels: They are not former people. “Angels aren’t human. We were never human,” observes Seth [an angel in the movie played by Nicolas Cage]. This is quite true. Angels are purely spiritual beings who predate the creation of the physical universe.

Photo: UMB-O/Shutterstock

I had the honor of meeting Roger Ebert when I was a chaplain at the University of Illinois. I had just attended, along with hundreds of others, one of the shows in his film festival held in conjunction with the university. He asked me from the stage to confirm the truth that humans never become angels. I happily confirmed his theological insight, but I am not sure the audience knew what we were talking about that day.

Ebert is correct: Angels are pure, spiritual beings. They do not have bodies but can miraculously appear to humans in a way that makes them “visible” to us. This is either through assuming a body (Catholic author and scholar Peter Kreeft states that these “bodies” are to angels what costumes are to us) or by appearing to our imaginations so as to appear “real” to us.

Conversely, humans never become “angels.” Although it is almost everyone’s favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) has a story line where Clarence is a human soul from heaven who is trying to “earn” his wings. Humans do not die and then “earn their wings” to become angels. Humans are bodily beings. We will be bodily beings for all eternity. We are made of both body and soul. But every part of us is both body and soul, apsychosomatic unity.

No part of us is “just” body, or “just” soul. Every part of us is a whole, or composite, of body and soul. This orthodox Christian understanding of the make-up of a human person (a proper “theological anthropology”) stands in contrast to two false ideologies very prevalent today: dualism and materialism.

Dualism holds that the body and soul are two distinct realities unrelated to each other (or at least not totally related to each other). They are only related accidentally. The real “you” is an immaterial “spirit” or “ghost” that inhabits the mechanism of your body. In this view, the body is accidental, “the property” of the spirit, and can be changed at will, much like one may change the make or model of one’s automobile or one’s wardrobe.

Materialism denies the existence of the soul and reduces everything to the order of physical processes. In this philosophy, humans are just another species in the animal kingdom evolved with different abilities, advantages, and disadvantages in a world accidentally formed by evolving processes. All we are, in this view, is a body alive only while certain bodily parameters are met. In this view, humans cease to exist when their bodies die.

Neither dualism nor materialism are true. Each and every one of us are both body and soul.

But what happens, then, when we die?

In death, our soul separates from our physical bodies, but we are always in relation to our physicality. We know that Our Lord rose bodily with what theologians call a glorified body. We know, also by faith, that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. At the end of time, when Our Lord comes, escorted by the angels and saints, to end time, all the saints will experience a resurrection like Our Lord’s, and they will be united with their now-glorified bodies.

In the meantime, between now and the second coming of Christ, the best theological speculation is that the saints in heaven are separated souls awaiting their glorified bodies. Until the second coming of Christ, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught us, they work for the completion of the mystical Body of Christ by interceding for us. They long for the Body of Christ to be completed and made perfect. They also, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his day as a theologian, wait for the experience of the “new heaven and new earth” (see Revelation 21:1), which will include all the saints united in their glorified bodies.

For us as humans, we long and hope for total fulfillment, bodily and spiritually, in the kingdom of Christ. This kingdom is described in our liturgy on the feast of Christ the King as “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” For this we pray, for this we hope, and in Christ our King we place our faith and trust.

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