When our loved ones die, we naturally want to think that they are in a better place, happier, and enjoying a life free of all the heartache and loss that punctuate our fleeting years in this world.
No longer are they children who succumb to leukemia.
No longer are they parents who wither from Alzheimer’s.
No longer are they friends whose hearts wear out and give in.
Very often, part of the mental image we form of the blessed life they now enjoy is that they have “moved up.” Our loved ones are no longer merely human. They’ve got their wings. They’re angels. Flying through the celestial paradise. Swooping here and there in joyful rapture.
While I understand this sentiment, I am very happy that it is not true. It would be a huge disappointment if our loved ones became angels when they died. Because if they did, they would be downgraded from God’s highest and best creatures to something below them.
A supposed advancement to angelhood would be a demotion for humanity.
Our Lord did not choose to tell us when he created the angels, but he did tell us why. They serve as armed guards (Gen. 3:24); form the heavenly choir (Isa. 6:2-3); fight the devilish dragon and his minions (Rev. 12:7-9); and serve as messengers from God to people (Luke 1:11). One passage in particular sums up their vocation well: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14).
The Greek for “ministering spirits” is λειτουργικὰ πνεύματα. We get our word “liturgy” from λειτουργικὰ. One might say that part of the liturgy of the angels – how they worship God – is to provide service (διακονίαν) to us, the heirs of salvation.
In that respect angels are like everything else in this world: when God’s hands fashioned them, he had his eyes on us. For us, his children, the Father formed the heights of the mountains, the depths of the seas, the light of the sun, the fruits of the trees. As young parents spend months preparing everything for the birth of their child, so God spent five days preparing the heavens and the earth for the sixth day, when he brought us forth as those who bear his image and share his likeness, who serve as his co-regents on earth. Indeed, at the consummation of all things, we will even “judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:3).
One Small Step for Jesus
Since angels seem so much higher and mightier and more majestic than we are, it may be hard to believe that they are actually beneath us in God’s plan of creation and salvation. That’s probably because we look at ourselves just as we are and not as who we are in Christ. Let me explain. Or, rather, let’s let Hebrews explain.
The opening two chapters of Hebrews go to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of the Son of God to angels. The angels worship him, not he them (1:6); Christ sits at the Father’s right hand, not angels (1:13); the world to come is not subjected to angels but to Jesus (2:1-8). We do not see this yet. What do we see? “We see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9).
Jesus did not do this for himself but for us, “for everyone,” as the verse says. As the author of our salvation, Christ endured even death so that through him the Father might bring “many sons to glory” (2:10). In other words, the glory, the reign, and the enthronement of Christ at the Father’s right hand are also ours! What happened to the head happens also to the body. That’s why Paul can make the astonishing claim that God not only made us alive with Christ, but “raised us up with him and [let these words soak in!] seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).
Already in Christ we are raised. Already in Christ we are seated on the Father’s throne. Already in Christ we are regal rulers over the universe. One small step for the man Jesus, one giant leap for humanity.
God Did Not Make a Mistake
Now, let us imagine for a moment that our loved ones do become angels when they die. What an everlasting disappointment that would be! No longer would they be humans with whom Jesus shares the intimate bond of flesh and blood. No longer would they be those who reign with him. No longer would they be the judges of all. No longer would they be kings and queens created in the image and likeness of God. Indeed, no longer would they be the apple of the Father’s eye, the ones for whom Jesus was willing to die.
In God’s plan of creation and salvation, for humans to become angels would be an egregious comedown. No longer could they say, “Christ died for me.”
It is, therefore, the best of news that when Christians die, heaven does not “get another angel.” We cannot become angels any more than we can become giraffes or ocean waves or stars. We are people and will remain so after this present life. God did not make a mistake when he made us human.
When believers in Christ die, we will go to be with our Lord, to enjoy paradise, and to await the time when he will return with us to establish the new heavens and new earth, raise the dead, and give us our bodies back—renewed and glorified bodies. Then, we will live and rejoice in the new creation that will have no end, reflecting in our glorified human bodies the glorified human body of Jesus, to the everlasting joy of the ministering angels around the throne.