See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
The notion of Guardian Angels, although often thought of as a distinctively Catholic doctrine in today’s religious marketplace, is actually a belief which the ancient world in proximity to Israelite religion accepted universally. The Catholic Encyclopedia points out:
This belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Eusebius, “Praep. Evang.”, xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and Assyrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an Assyrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: “He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed.”
~Catholic Encyclopedia, Guardian Angel
In the religion of Israel, therefore, we can expect to see the same, and indeed we do find traces of it in the Biblical literature; for example, the psalmist says:
“For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways.”
Auxiliary evidences also appear from time to time, such as the reference in Matthew’s Gospel, or even Acts 12:15. There are a number of other passages as well which hint at there being guardian angels who attend each person individually. This is the common Catholic presumption, and yet, the Church has never taught as dogma that people have individual guardian angels who were created exclusively for the one person to whom they act as guardian angels.
That every individual soul has a guardian angel has never been defined by the Church, and is, consequently, not an article of faith; but it is the “mind of the Church“, as St. Jerome expressed it: “how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.” (Comm. in Matt., xviii, lib. II).
~Catholic Encyclopedia, Guardian Angel
Now, there are several interesting problems arising from the admission of the existence of Guardian Angels, and the question of whether or not there really is one created guardian angel for every single individual human person throughout history. This question touches on a theme about which I’ve been writing and thinking lately: the theological status of counterfactuals of libertarian free will (also called molinist-type counterfactuals). Before I dive into this question directly, however, I will explore various questions related to the topic of guardian angels.
The most obvious preliminary problems to address are whether guardian angels know the fate of the individual human persons of whom they act as guardians immediately by virtue of being outside of time. If Angel ‘Ugluk’ knows that Joey is damned, then what incentive does Ugluk have to take his vocation to Joey seriously? In answer to this question, I think we should begin by saying that angels are not omniscient, and do not, in fact, know who ‘will’ and who will not be saved. Moreover, supposing that angels exist outside of time, their view of ‘Joey’ is going to be in tune with the drama of his life – the knowledge that the newly born child ‘Joey’ will later reject God’s love eternally does nothing to change the angel’s love of Joey, and guardianship of Joey, just as being madly in love with somebody is not dissolved immediately by the disillusionment of their rejection (for instance, a Father who loves his daughter even when and where he knows that she does not, and likely will never, love him). Even should Joey end up in Hell, Joey is perpetually and eternally ‘loved’ in Hell, though he perpetually is in a state of rejection – thus Dante could write the words over the gates of his Hell “me too made eternal love”. One final response which may be worth noting, to which I will return, is that guardian angels may only exist for any and all persons who are predestined to live eternally in the presence of, and communion with, God.
Here comes the real problem; imagine that Ugluk is created before all time to be a guardian angel for Julie, and yet Ugluk, by the act of his free will, falls from the dignity of the angelic host and becomes merely demonic. If God creates each guardian angel to be a ministering spirit to one individual person, and if that angel is created with free will, they can reject the angelic vocation. What then? Does God just create another angel, and possibly another after that, until one decides freely to take the vocation? That seems to run contrary to the mind of the Church manifested in the Fathers. It seems that God’s purposes are most perfectly fulfilled without any troubleshooting. This brings us to three solutions. The first is that position articulated by some (a minority) of Church Fathers, according to which only Christians were provided guardian angels, as though inherited through Baptism;
This may be because of the wording of the New Testament:
Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
However, it doesn’t help the problem to say that angels are only created for those who will actually inherit the kingdom of God, since in order for God to know that they will inherit the Kingdom of God, he would have had to know through scientia visionis (by seeing the whole world, the end from the beginning, in one simple act of understanding). However, if God already ‘knows’, that this or that person will be saved, and knows precisely how, then the guardian angel cannot be created without altering the whole world – since the world is a chaotic moral plenum. It doesn’t even make sense to say that God knows by a sheer act of simple understanding what the world ‘does’ consist of, and then to say that God would change that same world. This first way, then, is not a solution at all, but merely a philosophical confusion.
Now, another option is that of such theses as Molenism which maintain that God has counterfactual knowledge of all things, including (presumably) libertarian free will decisions. Thus if God knows counter factually which of the angels he creates will freely choose to reject communion, he can assign only the angels he creates who he knows will freely choose to accept their angelic vocation, to be guardian angels. God must also know exactly how many human persons exist in order to know how many angels to create. However, if the procreation of human beings is an effect of some causal chain belonging to which there is at least one libertarian free will decision, then God must hold this Molenist-type counterfactual knowledge of each human person’s conception (in this instance they aren’t strictly counter factuals, but I hope the idea is clear). This solution is appealing to me in some ways, and very unappealing in others. I have tremendous difficulty with postulating ungrounded counterfactuals, since it would seem to violate the principle of sufficient reason.
There is a third solution, however. It is possible that guardian angels are assigned the vocation of being guardian angels to more than one person. That is to say, perhaps one guardian angel acts as the guardian angel for a great multitude of persons – though the question of how many such angels there are would be complicated.
Theologically it remains, as far as I can tell, a matter of theologoumena whether we accept the individual creation of guardian angels each for a single individual human being. It seems plausible that angels might be guardian angels to multiple people across time, and perhaps even multiple people at once. This would seem to fit the rough picture scripture provides of angels and the powers of darkness being organized into something analogous to government (perhaps government is an analogy for it, but both are probably analogies for God’s Trinitarian economy).
I’ll have to treat of this subject more succinctly in the future, but the main point I had intended to communicate was about the presupposition of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of the Molinist type for the view that every person has a personal guardian angel who acts as a guardian for them exclusively.