Angels, Demons, Heaven, and Hell: On Christian “Mythology” and the Spiritual Life

My comments for a conversation with Fr. Peter Funk, OSB, Prior of the Monastery of the Holy Cross, sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute

Abstract: Many traditional Christian beliefs and teachings about spiritual realities have become unpalatable to modern sensibilities. Accounts of angelic visitations, demonic possessions, the stain of original sin, and the threat of eternal torment are today considered untrue or irrelevant by non-believers and even many Christians. Why were such “myths” so central to Christian belief and practice for so many centuries? Is there any value in understanding why ancient, medieval, and contemporary Christians believe in such things? Or does Christianity need to be demythologized in order to survive in a post-enlightenment age? In this conversation, Rachel Fulton Brown and Fr. Peter Funk, OSB, will consider the history of these “myths” and their relevance for contemporary spiritual practices.

*****

How many of you believe in angels or demons? Heaven or hell? How many of you think that Christianity would be better off without such fantasies? Writing in 1941, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann thought it would.

(This is a long quotation, but it is important for setting the stage. It is the opening to Bultmann’s essay “New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation”):
The world picture of the New Testament is a mythical world picture. The world is a three-story structure, with earth in the middle, heaven above it, and hell below it. Heaven is the dwelling place of God and of heavenly figures, the angels; the world below is hell, the place of torment. But even the earth is not simply the scene of natural day-to-day occurrences, of foresight and work that reckon with order and regularity; rather, it, too, is a theater for the working of supernatural powers, God and his angels, Satan and his demons. These supernatural powers intervene in natural occurrences and in the thinking, willing, and acting of human beings; wonders are nothing unusual. Human beings are not their own masters; demons can possess them, and Satan can put bad ideas into their heads. But God, too, can direct their thinking and willing, send them heavenly visions, allow them to hear his commanding or comforting word, give them the supernatural power of his Spirit. History does not run its own steady, lawful course but is moved and guided by supernatural powers. This age stands under the power of Satan, sin, and death (which are precisely “powers”). It is hastening toward its imminent end, which will take place in a cosmic catastrophe. It stands before the “woes” of the last days, the coming of the heavenly judge, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment to salvation or damnation. 
The presentation of the salvation occurrence, which constitutes the real content of the New Testament proclamation, corresponds to this mythical world picture. The proclamation talks in mythological language: the last days are at hand; “when the time had fully come” God sent his Son. The Son, a preexistent divine being, appears on earth as a man; his death on the cross, which he suffers as a sinner, makes atonement for the sins of men. His resurrection is the beginning of the cosmic catastrophe through which the death brought into the world by Adam is annihilated; the demonic powers of the world have lost their power. The risen one has been exalted to heaven at the right hand of God; he has been made “Lord” and “King.” He will return on the clouds of heaven in order to complete the work of salvation; then will take place the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment; finally, sin, death, and all suffering will be done away. And this will all happen at any moment; Paul supposes that he himself will live to experience this event. 
Anyone who belongs to Christ’s community is bound to the Lord by baptism and the Lord’s Supper and is certain of being raised to salvation provided he or she does not behave unworthily. Believers already have the “first fruits” or the “guarantee,” that is, the Spirit, which works in them, bearing witness that they are children of God and guaranteeing their resurrection. 
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be easily traced to the contemporary mythology of Jewish apocalypticism and of the Gnostic myth of redemption. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Christian proclamation is faced with the question whether, when it demands faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the New Testament proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of theology to demythologize the Christian proclamation.
Bultmann would of course say, yes, this is the task of theology—and he proceeds to attempt it, with what success you may judge from the fortunes of the modern Church in retaining its congregations.

There are a number of assumptions bundled together in this programmatic assertion:
  1. That modern men and women do not think mythologically.
  2. That Christianity would be better off without mythological talk.
  3. That Christianity is possible without mythological talk.
  4. That Bultmann has the mythology right. 
How many of you have seen a superhero movie recently? I thought so. Bultmann would insist that mythological thinking is impossible for modern women and men “now that all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science,” but every year our entertainment industry bets millions and millions of dollars on that being very much not the case.

Superman, Batman, Ironman, Wonder Woman. As James Papandrea has recently argued (From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films), all are in some fashion savior figures, whether descended from another world (Superman, Wonder Woman) or by adoption to superhuman status (Batman, Ironman). To be sure, they are all heretical from a Nicaean perspective, whether they tend towards Gnosticism (Superman, Wonder Woman) or Arianism (Batman, Ironman). But to judge from the debates that have raged online and sometimes in “real life” over the way in which these characters are portrayed, it is clear that they are in some important sense real, at least as real as the pagan gods and goddesses on which Bultmann implies Christian mythological talk depends.

Bultmann nevertheless insists:
The wonders of the New Testament are finished as wonders; anyone who seeks to salvage their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders, hypnotic influences, suggestion, and the like only confirms this. Even occultism pretends to be a science. 
We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. And if we suppose that we can do so ourselves, we must be clear that we can represent this as the attitude of the Christian faith only by making the Christian proclamation unintelligible and impossible for our contemporaries. 
Dorothy Sayers, writing about the same time Bultmann, would beg to differ. In her view, modern women and men have lost interest in Christianity not because it is too mythological. They have lost interest in Christianity because—as they have been taught (or not-taught) its tradition—it is too dull. Ask the average layperson what the Church thinks of God the Father or God the Son, and what you get is already almost entirely stripped of mythology, not to mention drama.

For example, if you ask “What was Jesus Christ like in real life?”, you are likely to get in answer:
He was a good man—so good as to be called the Son of God. He is to be identified in some way with God the Son. He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He had no sense of humor. Anything in the Bible that suggests another side to his character must be an interpolation, or a paradox invented by G.K. Chesterton. If we try to live like him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead. 
Ask them about God the Father, and you are likely to learn:
He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfillment; he is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favoritism. He likes to be truckled to and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the law or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary. 
Or about the Son:
He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man to God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to him. 
Conversely, show modern Christians the story on which the dogma of the Church depends, as Sayers did in The Zeal of Thy House, her play performed in 1937 about the rebuilding of the choir of Canterbury cathedral in 1179, and they are likely to accuse you—as certain “young men” accused Sayers—of making it up:
That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the eternal word was supposed to be associated in any way with the word of creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth; that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took any notice of sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh—all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. I protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the creeds, to the gospels, and to the offices of the Church [from which in the play, Sayers quotes extensively]; I insisted that if my play were dramatic it was so, not in spite of the dogma, but because of it—that, in short, the dogma was the drama. The explanation was, however, not well received; it was felt that if there were anything attractive in Christian philosophy I must have put it there myself. 
Do you wonder that even flops of superhero movies still make millions and millions of dollars?

Angels play a significant role in the drama of Sayers’s play. They have both the first word and the last. They represent the liturgical voice framing the historical action of the story. They also intervene at the moment in which understanding breaks through into history. In his introduction to the play as published, Laurence Irving reassures readers that “the Archangels who from time to time descend into the arena and direct the destinies of the groundlings need not bewilder the reader or spectator. They represent the Will of God, Fate, Providence, Accident or what you will and, in the final scenes, that bright flash of intuition which occasionally illuminates even the most clouded conscience.”

Sayers offers no comment at this point, but my guess is she would beg to disagree. The angels ought to bewilder—“lure into the wilds”—readers of the story that she is trying to tell. But not for the reasons Irving or Bultmann suggest. On the one hand—and here Sayers would agree—it is possible—as Irving suggests—to think of the angels as metaphors—or, if you will, myths. But on the other, does this make them less real? Here, it seems to me, is the crux of the argument: not whether Christianity would be better without “mythological talk” of heaven and earth, angels and demons, but whether it is possible at all.

How’s this for a myth? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Don’t like Genesis? How about the creed? “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible”—including angels. Note that in neither case does the mythology fit Bultmann’s impossible-for-modern-men-and-women-to-believe caricature. The world picture is not tripartite—no mention of hell—and the creation is not divided into “God and his angels vs. Satan and his demons,” but “visible and invisible.” The angels are not “supernatural,” but “invisible.” As Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) explained in his De sacramentis, the primary division here is not (as Bultmann suggests) between the scientific and the marvelous, but between the created (heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible) and the uncreated (God). In Hugh’s words:
The order of things…is so constituted that after the first follow the next. The first of all things is the will of the Creator, since from it are all things. After it follow those things which are from it…. Therefore, in the first place there are placed in the divine mind the primordial and invisible and uncreated causes of all things to be created, in the second place the angelic nature invisible indeed but created, in the third place human nature visible and created, visible according to something [the body] and invisible according to something [the soul], in the fourth place corporeal creation in toto and temporal in toto. 
Is Christianity possible without belief in the Creator of “the heavens and the earth,” and “all things visible and invisible”? As Sayers shows in her play, it depends on what you mean by “create,” as well as what it meant for the Creator (the eternal Word) to enter into his own creation.

The play revolves around the story of William of Sens, the architect employed by the cathedral chapter at Canterbury to rebuild the choir after it burned down in 1174. According to Gervase of Canterbury (—one of the monks at Canterbury when the fire broke out and latterly sacristan), the chapter hired William because he was known to be “a workman most skillful in both wood and stone,” with “a lively genius and good reputation.” Four years into the work, however, as “the vengeance of God—or the spite of the devil” would have it, Master William was injured while working on the vaults when a beam broke under him and he fell some fifty feet to the ground. William lived, but he did not recover sufficiently to be able to continue to supervise the work. Sayers’s play takes up the reason for his fall and failure to recover physically.

Was it, the play asks, William’s sin to want to make a beautiful building? No, as the Archangel Michael helps him see. It was to see himself only made in the image and likeness of God as Maker and not at the same time of God who entered into his own creation to suffer humiliation and death. In the last act of the play, William is lying on his sick bed, refusing to let another take over the supervision of his work, and the Archangel comes to him and challenges him:
MICHAEL: There where thy treasure is / Thy heart is also. Sin is of the heart. 
WILLIAM: But all my heart was in my work. 
MICHAEL: Even so.  
WILLIAM: What, in my work? The sin was in my work? / Thou liest. Though thou speak with God’s own voice / Thou liest. In my work? That cannot be…. Let Him destroy me, since He has the power / To slay the thing He envies—but while I have breath / My work is mine; He shall not take it from me. 
MICHAEL: No; thou shalt lay it down of thine own will.  
WILLIAM: Let Him heap on more torments yet—  
MICHAEL: He can heap none on thee, He hath not borne—…  
WILLIAM: For all that He can do I will not yield, / Nor leave to other men that which is mine, / To botch—to alter—turn to something else, / Not mine.  
MICHAEL: Thou wilt not? Yet God bore this too, / The last, the bitterest, worst humiliation, / Bowing His neck under the galling yoke / Frustrate, defeated, half His life unlived, / Nothing achieved.  
WILLIAM: Could God, being God, do this?  
MICHAEL: Christ, being man, did this; but still, through faith / Knew what he did… Thus shalt thou know the Master Architect, / Who plans so well, He may depart and leave / The work to others. Art thou more than God? / Not God Himself was indispensable, / For lo! God died—and still his work goes on. 
At which point, William realizes his sin:
WILLIAM: O, I have sinned, the eldest sin of all, / Pride, that struck down the morning star from Heaven / Hath struck down me from where I sat and shone / Smiling on my new world. All other sins / God will forgive but that. I am damned, damned, / Justly. Yet, O most just and merciful God, / Hear me but once, Thou that didst make the world / And wilt not let one thing that Thou hast made, / No, not one sparrow, perish without Thy Will / (Since what we make, we love) for that love’s sake / Smite only me and spare my handiwork. / Jesu, the carpenter’s Son, the Master-builder, / Architect, poet, maker by those hands / That thine own nails have wounded by the wood / Whence thou didst carve Thy Cross let not the Church / Be lost through me… 
At which the angels rejoice: “…the fight is won…the score is paid…the race is run.”
MICHAEL: How hardly shall the rich man enter in / To the Kingdom of Heaven! By what sharp, thorny ways, / By what strait gate at last! But when he is come, / The angelic trumpets split their golden throats / Triumphant, to the stars singing together / And all the sons of God shouting for joy. / Be comforted, thou that wast rich in gifts; / For thou art broken on the self-same rack / That broke the richest Prince of all the world, / The Master-man. Thou shalt not surely die, / Save as He died; nor suffer, save with Him; / Nor lie in hell, for He hath conquered hell / And flung the gates wide open. They that bear / The cross with Him, with Him shall wear a crown / Such as the angels know not. Then be still, / And know that He is God, and God alone. 
The play concludes with a soliloquy by Michael, commenting on the mystery of the Trinity as encapsulated in the creed’s description of God as “Maker of heaven and earth”:
Children of men, lift up your hearts. Laud and magnify God, the everlasting Wisdom, the holy, undivided, and adorable Trinity.  
Praise Him that He hath made man in His own image, a maker and craftsman like Himself, a little mirror of His triune majesty.  
For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.  
First: there is the Creative Idea; passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning; and this is the image of the Father.  
Second: there is the Creative Energy, begotten of that Idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter; and this is the image of the Word.  
Third: there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul; and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.  
And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.  
Look then upon this Cathedral Church of Christ: imagined by men’s minds, built by the labour of men’s hands, working with power upon the souls of men; symbol of the everlasting Trinity, the visible temple of God.  
As you would honour Christ, so honour His Church; nor suffer this temple of His Body to know decay.
What we think of Christian mythology depends on what we think of creation, both God’s and the work of our own hands.


The twelfth-century choir at Canterbury

Sources

Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation,” in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 1-43.

James L. Papandrea, From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2017)

Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma Is the Drama,” in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (New York: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 15-21.

Hugh of St. Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis), trans. Roy J. Deferarri (Boston: Medieval Academy of America, 1951; reprinted Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock).

Dorothy Sayers, The Zeal of Thy House (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937).

Images

The Torment of Saint Anthony (ca. 1487-1488), attributed to Michaelangelo 

St. Michael killing the dragon, London, British Library, Arundel 91, fol. 26v, first quarter of the twelfth century, Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral

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