Dead people become angels?

I was hoping for some mention in the angel column (http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mangels.html) about what I think is a relatively recent belief, that normal people who die somehow turn into angels (as in It’s a Wonderful Life). It seems to me that many, if not most, people who believe in angels (that is, most modern day Christians) actually believe this, and I can’t figure out why. I haven’t found anything in the bible about it. It would be interesting to find out how the belief came about, if anybody has any ideas.

This passage might be related:

(bolding mine, Luke 20: 34-36, from the conversation between Jesus and the Sadducees)

… so only virgins become angels?

Dammit, I knew I was screwed somehow.

The belief that the dead become angels is certainly not a belief held by any small-o orthodox version of Christianity, Judaism, or (to the best of my knowledge) Islam.

That “equal unto the angels” translates a Greek word found nowhere else in the Bible. For what it’s worth, if it were to be taken directly into English from Greek, it would probably be rendered “isoangelic”.

Just in case the “so only virgins become angels?” line was serious, no. In Jesus’ time, opinion was split among Jews as to whether there was a life after death. (Harry Kemelman to the contrary, there still is such a division.) Jesus is responding to a questioner from the no-life-after-death party, who tells the story of a multiple widow who kept remarrying, and asks whose wife she’ll be in the future. What He’s saying is the afterlife isn’t just the same old life over again, and not to be such a smartass.

The New International Version translates it as “. . . for they are like the angels.” It appears from some verses (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:3, Heb. 1:14) that ultimately, angels will be servants of the resurrected church.

Excellent summation! You get a smiley-face sticker.

Maralinn, regarding the “people die and become angels” you mention, Kat brought up the only thing in the Bible which might be contrued to support that belief, and it seems pretty obvious to me that it would be a misinterpretation. I know that some people believe it, but I don’t know anyone personally who does. I’m as curious as you are as to where it gained what popularity it has.
RR

I don’t believe people become angels when they die. Angels are a different order of creation than humans. Being equal to the angels or like them doesn’t equate with being one. I just don’t see this teaching in the Bible at all.

Well, besides It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s the Family Circus cartoons, in which the dead grandparents often look down from heaven and also show up (transparent-looking) on earth, too.

There’s been a sort of explosion in the popular press over the last 5-10 years, and angels have suddenly become very popular. I’m sure that Billy Graham’s book, and others by respected theologians, don’t say that dead people become angels. But I’m equally sure others do explore that, at least as a possibility. I haven’t read them, but I’m just going by the general milieu here. :slight_smile:

I do find websites that refute the belief – this one calls it a “common myth,” in fact : http://incolor.inebraska.com/stuart/angels4.htm

Some of the confusion obviously comes from the notion that dead people go to heaven and are given harps, halos and wings and so become angel-like.

I was hoping for a kazoo.

I have heard a Jewish interpretation that the angel Metatron is the prophet Elijah. I don’t know how widespread this idea is, and Elijah is kind of a special case, anyhow. He didn’t die, but was carried off to Heaven. Elijah turns up in all sorts of folk stories, as well as appearing at Passover seders and every brit milah.

Chava

Most of the references about angels come from the books of Enoch. Enoch was the other Old Testament character who didn’t die, so it was no surprise that there are books attributed to him. They were all rejected from the canonical bible, though – both Jewish and Christian bibles reject Enoch as apocryphal (apocryphal of miracles). The books are very apocalyptic (oh, lord, apocryphal and apocalyptic) about end of time, and full of wildly mystic imagery.

However, Elijah is not viewed as an angel by any reference I could find.

One other relevant Bible passage is in Acts 12.

Peter’s in prison, and is set free by an angel. When he realizes what’s happened - that it wasn’t a vision, as he first thought,

Apparently the people in the house think it far more likely that Peter is dead than that he’s out of prison. By “his angel” they presumably mean some sort of after-death manifestation of Peter that sounds (and looks?) like Peter, but is separate from his physical body.

Since the Bible (both Old and New Testament) is pretty clear that angels are a separate race of beings, and not dead humans, this was a rather doctrinally unsound view for the group in the house to have. Since the group probably included at least some of the Disciples, I think this seems a bit surprising at first glance. But: (1) The Gospels make it clear that the Disciples were often on shaky ground doctrinally. Jesus taught them a lot, of course, but I think it’s reasonable to think that, even after his death and resurrection, they weren’t all 100% clear on everything. (2) These people were under an awful lot of stress at this point, and I think it’s fair to cut them a bit of slack.

(I’ve also heard suggestions that there was at the time a belief in something like “guardian angels”, and that a person’s guardian angle would look like that person, and that that was what they were referring to. I’ve never run across any historical evidence that such a belief was common, but I’ve never really looked for it, either.)

It’s actually a pretty funny scene, I think. It’s quite likely that the people in the house were there to pray for Peter. God hears, answers, effects a miraculous rescue of Peter, and when Peter walks right up to the prayer meeting, he gets left on the front porch while they say “Nah, he’s dead…”

I picture Peter standing there, kind of surprised at them but chuckling to himself - he’s got a great story to tell them about God’s grace and power, and it’s worth a bit of delay while he waits for his friends to finish being weird and come open the door.

[quote]
It’s actually a pretty funny scene, I think. It’s quite likely that the people in the house were there to pray for Peter. God hears, answers, effects a miraculous rescue of Peter, and when Peter walks right up to the prayer meeting, he gets left on the front porch while they say “Nah, he’s dead…”

I picture Peter standing there, kind of surprised at them but chuckling to himself - he’s got a great story to tell them about God’s grace and power, and it’s worth a bit of delay while he waits for his friends to finish being weird and come open the door.[/quote[

I had sort of the same image, and we have had fun talking about it in our Sunday School class, although I figure Peter, as an escaped prisoner, might have preferred to be safe inside while they figured it out.

RR

You are right, C K Dexter Haven. It was Enoch who was supposed to have become Metatron, not Elijah. My memory was faulty.

Chava

An ancient Jewish notion that a man’s guardian angel looked like him is usually invoked in glossing the passage in question, and this is done by many authorities who ought to know what they’re talking about. I cannot at the moment find any source directly backing it up, though. It also appears to be possible that the notion that dead people become angels may have been current in Judaism at the time, though, to the best of my knowledge, it was never a belief taken seriously by Jewish thinkers.

So where did the notion of dead souls (or spirits, or whatever the appropriate word it) being given harps and wings and robes come from? I mean, if the manifestation of whatever is left is given wings, it seems pretty easy to confuse whatever that is with an angel, a being often described as having wings.

It seems to me the confusion could be much more organic, and not nearly so reliant on a misinterpretation of any particular bible passage. You have the essence of a person (soul, spirit, whatever name is appropriate) that goes to heaven to be with God and Jesus. Duh, that’s an angel. So what if that’s not really what the bible says? Weren’t there a few centuries in there when the common person couldn’t even read the bible? How would they know or care? Given a little bit of info from the priest, they cobble the rest together on their own.

As evidence that there are people who do believe that dead people become angels, consider stories such as “The Littlest Angel”. The littlest angel is small, dead boy.

I would presume it is a belief along the lines of “good people - those that follow the rules - go to heaven”, which is not, to the best of my knowledge, the theology of any “small o orthodox” church, either. (I’m sure John W. Kennedy can correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe the Catholic Church ever taught exactly that, even during the time of the Protestant Reformation.) More of a folk theology than a “real” theology.

I’m not sure where you’re going. If you’re talking about the “justification by works or by faith” argument, that’s veering rather off topic. On that, I’ll just say that, yes, indeed, the RC Church has never officially taught a straightforward “follow the rules and you’ll be saved” doctrine; the gap between them and Protestantism isn’t that elementary.

Big-O Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity generally believes in “soul sleep” – that those who die “sleep” until the General Resurrection. I am not altogether clear on how this is to be reconciled with the invocation of saints, on which their practice is largely the same as Rome’s.

At any rate, leaving aside questions of temporary status, and the exact nature and means of redemption, Heaven is regarded as the ultimate destination of those who are redeemed throughout Christianity.

I think the point I was trying to make is that there is much in folk theology that is not part of any official theology. The good go to heaven being one example. Scholars being scholarly, it is much easier to trace the development and genesis of official doctrines than it is folk beliefs. I suspect the best we can do is come up with reasonable sounding explanations, such as some of those above.

The best analogy I can think of is “the Earth is flat”. It seems pretty obvious where that belief came from, but I can’t imagine that we can prove anything. I’ve been told that there is no evidence that “any thinking man” ever believed in a flat Earth, and it is certainly possible to find ancient Greeks proving that the Earth was round and accurately measuring its (“it’s”? I never know!) radius. Thus it is easier to trace the development of the scholarly view - that the Earth is round - than it is the folk belief.

Bah. I wonder what’l happen when I die seeing as I’m a atheist…