Our Beloved Ones Don't Become Angels When They Die
On May 14, 2023, Taiwanese media reported on the first TV appearance of the famous singer couple Yu Tian and Li Yaping since their daughter died of cancer. In the TV program, the couple talked about their mourning and love for their daughter, and the audience was much moved when Li said, "My daughter has gone to heaven. ... She has finally become an angel."
It is not uncommon for people in Taiwan to believe their loved ones become angels (or some other forms of beings higher than humans) when they die. Personally, I have not only heard children say that about their grandparents who passed away but have also seen many internet discussions about "Do we become angels when we die?" Every year during the Qingming tomb sweepings, many people--including Christians--stand in front of the tombstones, telling their deceased loved ones about their life events and praying for blessings. The idea is even taught or implied by some pastors in Taiwan, especially at Christian memorial services.
Influence from pop culture and Chinese religions
But is the belief in our becoming angels after dying consistent with the Bible and orthodox Christian beliefs?
To people in Taiwan, Christianity is a foreign religion. According to a survey published in 2019 by the Academia Sinica of Taiwan's Institute of Sociology, only 5.5% of the Taiwanese population are Protestant and 1.3 percent are Catholic, with the majority of the population following traditional folk religions (49.3%), Buddhism (14%), Taoism (12.4%), or no religion (13.2%). The majority of Taiwanese still understand Christianity through the popular culture of European and American films, television programs, plays, novels, and picture books. Thus, many Taiwanese--Christians and non-Christians alike--believe that good people will go to heaven and become angels after death because that is the impression they get from such (post-Christian) pop-cultural influences.
In addition, the belief about becoming angels after death stems from the influence of traditional Chinese culture. Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional folk religions all believe that "devout" believers become higher beings than humans after they die and can bless future generations. Therefore, Chinese religious logic reasonably deduces that devout Christians will become "angels" (which, for them, is the Western name for sanctified higher beings).
Confucian religion emphasizes joining heaven and earth to promote all things to thrive in harmony. This is done through cultivating one's inner heart and inner nature, starting as a normal person, then becoming a gentleman, a wise man, and finally an eternal sage, teaching and transforming all things.
The Buddhist view of the universe centers on the Six Paths. One ascends level by level through spiritual discipline, going from human to asura to deva and finally liberated from reincarnation, entering nirvana as an eternal buddha and working to deliver all people.
Taoism seeks immortality through practicing Qi, finally becoming one with the Way and flying away as an immortal to bless all people. And traditional folk religion believes that after death one becomes a spirit to watch over one's descendants.
Under the guidance of such religious views, the goal of spiritual discipline becomes that of striving to ascend and become sages, buddhas, or immortals.
However, the Bible contains no teaching of humans becoming angels or higher beings. Humans are humans, angels are angels, and the two are completely different created beings.
Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The Hebrew words, ????? for "the heavens" and ???? for "the earth" show that God created two worlds. The first is a supernatural world invisible to the human eye (commonly known as the spiritual world): the "heavens" (plural in many English versions, although that is not observable in Chinese translations). The other is the world visible to the human eye, the world in which humans live: this "earth."
Psalm 115:16 makes this idea of the difference between heavens and earth even clearer: "The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind." The concept of the heavens is also found in 2 Corinthians 12:2, where Paul refers to himself as being caught up to the third heaven, implying that there are "heavens" invisible to the human eye--the supernatural world.
And the climax of creation on "the earth" was humans. Humans were created in God's image (???) and likeness. The word ??? can also refer to the setting up of royal images. Humans are the most honored and glorious created beings that God has set up on this earth, and they are God's representatives in the created world.
Humans work for six days, reflecting how God created the heavens and earth, and all created things can see God's wisdom and power continued through human work. Human work is a God-glorifying act, and humans are God's representatives in governing this earth. After six days of work comes one day of rest, in which no work is done. On that day, humans are to wholeheartedly remember and honor God, knowing that the world runs because of the Lord, not because of humankind. On that day, humans look back on the work of their hands and thank, praise, and glorify the Creator God for his wisdom, creativity, and brilliance reflected in these achievements.
Other biblical passages show comparisons between human beings and angels. In Psalm 8:4-8, upon looking at the heavens God has made and at the moon and the stars he has set up, the psalmist says, "What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas."
Some Christians believe this passage implies that humankind is a lower creation than angels. However, an increasing number of biblical scholars feel that in this passage "angel" is a poor translation of the Hebrew word ?????. It is usually translated as "God," and other words such as ?? ?? are used for "angels." Newer Chinese Bibles, including the Revised Chinese Union Version (RCUV) and Today's Chinese Version (TCV), translate this verse as "You have made them a little lower than God" because it echoes Genesis 1.
The psalmist praises God's creation and praises God for sending humans to represent him and govern all he has created. How are humans given such a special honor?
Put simply, God created two worlds. Angels, cherubim, and the four living creatures are the created beings of the heavenly world, whereas the sky, the waters, the land, the sun and moon, animals and plants, and humans are the created beings of this earthly world.
Humans and angels are completely different created beings. When this earth passes away and the new heaven and new earth arrive, humans will not turn into angels. Those who believe in Jesus have already become new creations in Jesus. Humans are humans. Angels are angels.
In fact, in the Bible, humans may be given more important status than angels. Angels were not made in the image and likeness of God. Furthermore, when angels fell, Jesus the Son did not become flesh and die on the cross for their salvation.
Implications for spiritual discipline
Our understanding of what beings we become after we die affects our view of spiritual discipline. The purpose of spiritual discipline in Confucian religion is to become a sage, in Buddhism to become a buddha, in Taoism to become an immortal, and in traditional folk religion to become a spirit. Under the influence of religious views on becoming a sage, a buddha, an immortal, or a spirit, many Christians in Taiwan assume that the purpose of spiritual discipline in Christianity is to strive upward: to become an "angel" and perhaps ultimately a god.
Most Christians understand spiritual discipline to generally involve reading the Bible, singing hymns, and praying. But some bring their understanding of becoming a sage, a buddha, an immortal, or a spirit into their practice of spiritual discipline, incorporating practices from various world religions--a form of syncretism.
The Bible doesn't indicate that spiritual discipline is for the purpose of striving to "become a higher level of created being." In fact, the Bible emphasizes many times that humans are created beings filled with God's glory. Reading the Bible, singing hymns, and praying are all for the purpose of learning more about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; of understanding the vastness of God's grace in our lives; of reflecting him in all that we do; and of giving him all the glory.
If we had to state a purpose for Christian spiritual discipline, I would argue that it is to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The purpose of spiritual discipline is to strive for the new self to better understand love than the old self did, to love God and love our neighbors. That is what Jesus came for.
The Holy Spirit, our advocate, helps those who believe in Jesus so that the quality of their character gradually matures. We can be set free from sin's bondage and reflect the righteousness and love of God, because we are created in God's image and likeness.
We need not desire the Buddhahood or immortality because we know that no other creatures--not even the angels--are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, Christians can praise God for creating us as human beings. We do not have to believe that angels are higher beings than we are. We are lower than God alone. He has given us a crown of glory and honor and sent us to rule over the works of his hands. Jesus loved us and died on the cross to save us, not the angels.
Virginia Chen is a Bible professor at a seminary and chief editor at bible.fhl.net. She is studying for an Old Testament PhD at Taiwan Theological College and Seminary. She holds a master of theology in New Testament from Taiwan Theological College and Seminary and a master of divinity from China Lutheran Seminary.
Translation by Christine Emmert and Sean Cheng