We Shall Be Like Angels in the Resurrection

The Sadducees came to Jesus with a question. Since they did not believe in the resurrection, so Matthew informs us (Matthew 22:23), they posed a query that might make believing in the resurrection seem ridiculous, at least from their point of view. This is often how hypotheticals are used—to make a held to belief appear absurd. Employing the Law of Moses, they cited that if a man died having produced no offspring with his wife, then his next surviving brother was to take her as his wife and produce children for the deceased brother (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5–10). As the story went, the Sadducees suggested that several brothers died having produced no offspring with this woman. She wound up having married all seven of the brothers and yet produced no children with any of them. In the resurrection, they asked, whose wife would she be since she’d been married to all seven of them at one point or another? Jesus answered that they neither understood the Scriptures nor the power of God. In the resurrection, Christ stated, the woman and the brothers neither marry nor are given in marriage because they “are like the angels of God” (Matthew 22:30 NKJV)—something else the Sadducees didn’t think existed (cf. Acts 23:8). This story that Matthew gave us gives us a glimpse of how Christians will be like in heaven, but also insight into the nature of angels. Therefore, these celestial brethren of ours whom we shall be like in the resurrection provoke our curiosity if for no other reason than we shall be like them.[1]

Origen, the third-century theologian, wrote that becoming like the angels meant having ethereal and brilliant bodies.[2] Since this is how we will be, one might wonder what distinguishes us from angels now aside from our bodies being of the flesh while their bodies are described as different. We know that they are spirits (cf Hebrews 1:14), as is God (John 4:24), but vital to understanding the answer to this question is to look at the Incarnation of Christ. The Incarnation is a doctrine that teaches that Jesus existed as God but took on flesh when born of the Virgin Mary (cf. Philippians 2:5–8).

In the Incarnation, Christ was made lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:7–9). Since Christ’s Incarnation made Him as we are, and He was lower than the angels, this can only mean that we are as well. Our resurrection, however, elevates us when we’re granted spiritual bodies (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:35–49) similar to angels; hence, we will no longer be given in marriage. Whether or not we shall be equal to or greater than angels is not entirely clear. The redeemed may say that if any advantage is given to us, it would be that we exist in God’s image and also could obtain mercy whereas the same isn’t said regarding angels. Their lot appears to be fixed, and no scheme of redemption exists for them.

Does this mean that we shall be asexual; that is, without sexual distinction? Whenever angels are referred to in the Bible, masculine pronouns are used to refer to them. Moreover, the term translated as “angel” from Greek is masculine itself, and add to this that the only named angels in Scripture have male names (e.g. Michael, Gabriel). Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth-century theologian, and bishop, wrote in On the Making of Man that the distinguishing of sexes was the result of God’s foreknowing that humanity would sin. God created two sexes so that through procreation, Christ would appear on earth to die for humanity. Therefore, in Christ, Gregory contended, humanity was once again united so that there was no male nor female distinction (cf. Galatians 3:28).[3] Hence there not being a need for marriage in the resurrection.

Augustine, fifth-century bishop and theologian, and Thomas Aquinas, thirteenth-century priest, taught that we would retain our sexual distinctions, but that there would be no exercise of the sexual function. Aquinas stated that food and sex were a part of the natural person, but since we will not be natural but spiritual in the resurrection, the need for sustenance and procreation will no longer exist.[4] This might also imply that marriage, as understood in the ancient church, was for procreation, but that is another study for another time.

Nevertheless, because we shall receive glorified bodies, we mustn’t think too little of how we now appear in the flesh. Since the flesh is often associated with sinfulness, we must recall that God did not intend it to be so. After all, humans are created in the image of God and according to His likeness (Genesis 1:27)—a fact that distinguishes us from angels and that, in extra-biblical literature, became a point of envy in Satan’s mind that led to his rebellion.[5] If the flesh were so horrible, I doubt God the Father would have Incarnated God the Son. Jesus shows us how we are to live in the flesh and so uphold the dignity of God’s image. Gregory of Nyssa, using Trinitarian theology, wrote

The Only-begotten God made man in the image of God, we should in no wise distinguish the Godhead of the Father and the Son, since Holy Scripture gives to each equally the name of God, to Him Who made man [Father], and to Him [Son] in whose image [Father] he [the Son] was made. (On the Making of Man 16.5)

While the flesh is referred to as lower than the angels, the flesh is not without its benefits. In Christ, humanity sees God emptying Himself to take on flesh, to bear His own image—the one He created—in the Person of His Son. According to many early Christian theologians, being an image-bearer of God amounted to be capable of exercising reason, and striving to become more like God was recovering the likeness of God. This meant that we were created to embody God’s qualities and do His work, just as angels do His work. Christ is the measure of bearing God’s image for us, and while He came lower than angels, He performed a deed in the flesh beyond the high standing of the angels so that Christ received all authority not only on the earth but in heaven too (Matthew 28:18).

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“Angel” is a term translated from both Hebrew and Greek that can be defined as “messenger.” Throughout the Old Testament, this is true, and the medium of communicating God’s messages often appears as manifestations or dreams. Angels frequently appeared in human form and delivered messages to God’s people, and they also appeared in a sort of glorified form as well so that when people saw them, they became fearful. When we come to the New Testament, angels continued to communicate the things of God to humanity. This was so much a reality that Paul urged the Galatians to not receive a Gospel contrary to the one he gave to them even if delivered by an angel (Galatians 1:8) since even then fallen angels sought to lead the faithful astray. Angels had, after all, announced Christ’s conception (Luke 1:26–38), birth (Luke 2:9–15), resurrection (Matthew 28:5–7), and ascension (Acts 1:9–11). Their function as messengers of God is simply put, “God sends his angels to live among us and lift our fallen humanity toward Christ.”[6] This, we see from the Bible, they did.

Understanding their function as messengers, despite their sometimes glorified appearance, urge us to avoid worshipping them—something humans are prohibited from doing, but compelled by the angel’s appearance at times to do (cf. Revelation 22:9). Scripture gives enough information about them so that we can have a decent understanding of them. Keep in mind, however, that Scripture’s purpose isn’t so much to give us an excursus about angels, but to inform us about ourselves and God’s plan for humanity. A part of God’s plan for humanity involves angelic interaction with and on behalf of humans.

These beings, we’re told, are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14; cf. Psalm 34:7; Matthew 18:10).[7] They were created, in part, for this purpose. That they were created appears in a psalm:

Praise the LORD! …

Praise Him, all His angels;

Praise Him, all His hosts! …

Let them praise the name of the LORD,

For He commanded and they were created. (Psalm 148:1–5)

That they were created is emphatically stated in this psalm that is one of the most majestic of the psalms. The progression of Psalm 148 begins with the heavens and celestial beings and goes on to earth and humanity. Here, all created beings are urged to praise the God who creates, and among His creation are the celestial beings.[8]

The creation of angels had occurred before the earth was created in this psalm, and it is elsewhere reflected since the angels rejoiced when the foundations of the earth were laid (Job 38:4–7). We discover that God created angels, and when He decided to create the earth, they were present to rejoice at His creative powers. However, we mustn’t think that their reason for existing is solely for humanity, though that is one of their functions—to minister to those who will be saved. They also have divine functions towards God absent any human consideration.

Alongside their ministering function to heirs of salvation, they are also depicted as a chorus of singers praising God and holding Him in reverence (Psalm 89:5–8). Reading Psalm 89, the language of the psalm suggests that angelic creatures, and not humans, are the subject of these verses. Even among those of heaven, God is depicted as superior to the hosts despite the language of this psalm referring to these creatures as “holy”—a detail true of God as well. This tells us not only of their function in some regard but also of their character. These holy ones praise and revere God—something we humans can learn from our angelic brethren. If they are holy and praise and revere God, how much more so should we?

Angels were often depicted as gods in passages of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 6:2; Psalm 29:1; and Job 1:6, the Hebrew phrase is translated as “sons of God,” but it could be rendered as “gods.”[9] In Psalm 82:1, 6, “gods” is translated and accurately represented. It isn’t that they were gods as we might think of Greco-Roman gods or any other polytheistic civilization, but that they constituted a heavenly council, or court, that surrounded God. This will be discussed later on. However, here too they praise God. Interesting from the latter passage I mention is that God and gods are the same words in Hebrew, Elohim. What makes the distinction between “God” versus “gods” are the personal pronouns used of “God” our Father (e.g. “He,” “I”) while of “gods” there appears the plural “you” in verses two and six of Psalm 82.

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Among the hosts in the heavenly court are cherubim—a caste of angels known for attending to God (Psalm 18:10; 99:1). Their appearance is akin to that of griffins and sphinxes, to give a point of reference, and are unlike the round-faced babes depicted in Renaissance art. These creatures were awesome to behold, as Ezekiel suggested. Ezekiel’s four living creatures in chapter one of his prophecy are later identified as cherubim.[10] The appearance and presence of cherubim were to, among their other functions, designate sacred space.[11] When Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, cherubim were placed at the east of the garden to turn people away and guard the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). The point becomes clear that the Garden of Eden was a sacred space because God was there and, before sin, had full communion with humanity. After humanity’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve were driven from the sacred space thus designated by the cherubim guarding it with a fiery sword.

The tree of life that we read was in Eden is depicted as in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7). This paradise is only mentioned three times in the New Testament, each of which suggests it to be a place where the faithful shall go (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:2–4). Heaven,[12] therefore, is a sacred space, and the tabernacle and temple were also sacred spaces as we read in Scripture that cherubim were embroidered on the veil and curtains within the latter two places (Exodus 26:1, 31). This is also not to mention that the Ark of the Covenant had cherubim on each side facing inward over the Holy Seat, where God descended and sat like a king upon a throne (Exodus 25:18–22).

Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple were meant to convey to humanity where God was present. In Eden, humanity had fellowship with God but was driven out and the Garden protected by cherubim. In the tabernacle and temple, cherubim appear there too, but only a select few of humanity were permitted to enter (i.e. priests) where the cherubs guarded due to their having been anointed and chosen for such. In the New Creation, the church (1 Corinthians 3:16) and individual Christians (1 Corinthians 6:19) are the temples, literally the “holy of holies” in Greek, where God resides through His Spirit. We, through Christ, are but one step closer to being as the cherubim have always been.

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Becoming like the angels in the resurrection doesn’t only entail just going to heaven because there’s an entirely different side to the story of angels. Some, like the cherubim and seraphim, remained loyal to God in doing His work as all created beings should. Others, however, did not remain faithful to the purpose for which they were created. As humanity, we stand on the cusp of either being as the cherubim and other angels, or the Devil and his angels. In Matthew 25:41, Christ will say to the cursed, “Depart from Me … into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Here we understand that the eternal fire of damnation was not prepared for humans, but the rebellious of the heavenly hosts. On the other hand, Christ earlier had said to the blessed, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). The eternal fire was created for the devil and his angels, and those who go there with them, do so because they imputed it to themselves.[13] God’s intention for humanity was a kingdom prepared before He created the world, a place where He shares communion with His creation.

To be like the angels in the resurrection amounts to a few traits. First, we will be in God’s presence. There is perhaps no greater depiction of heaven than that. While hell is not necessarily the absence of God’s presence, because His presence will still be there as Creator of all things that exist, it will be another aspect of His presence—divine justice. Second, the flesh will no longer drive us by its desires for pleasure and gratification. Food and sex will no longer be required. The latter of the two is one of the largest reasons for sin, though at the root of all sin is selfishness. Selfishness, the desire to please one’s self above all, leads to a multitude of sins, but in our spiritual bodies, I might argue since we attempt to condition ourselves through our fleshly bodies, will be the absence of such desires and urges. The brutish nature will be no more. Finally, though more could be said on this point, we shall join the angels in designating the sacred space of God among whom we may count ourselves holy because of Him. The flesh often reminds us of our sinful natures, but the spiritual will permit us to be the holiness God poured out to the world through Christ.


[1] See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 38.

[2] Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 14–28 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 153.

[3] Another point to add to this was the ancient Christian belief in the story of Genesis 6 that angels appeared on earth to take wives for themselves—something that will be discussed in another essay.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology: Life in the Spirit, vol. 3 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 408–09.

[5] Cf. Wisdom of Solomon 2.23–24; Irenaeus, On Apostolic Preaching 1.1.16; Life of Adam and Eve 5, 18. More will be said on this point in a forthcoming essay.

[6] Joel J. Miller, Lifted By Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012), 26.

[7] The notion of guardian angels will appear later on.

[8] Robert Alter, trans., The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 509.

[9] Benjamin Sommer, “Angels in the Hebrew Bible”, n.p. [cited 10 Feb 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/angels-in-the-hebrew-bible.

[10] A note for the reader: a cherub is a single angel while cherubim are many. The suffix “im” in Hebrew indicates plurality.

[11] Daniel Bodi, Ezekiel, in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, vol. 4, John H. Walton, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 426.

[12] Heaven and paradise are held by some to be the same place while others hold them to be two separate places. As two separate places, heaven is where God reigns, but paradise is the bosom of Abraham as mentioned in Luke 16:22—a place where the angels carried Lazarus. While our purposes here aren’t to wade into a defense or rebuttal of either position, not because I don’t have a view, I only mention this to the reader in the event they might wonder if I’m aware of such.

[13] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 79.2.

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