How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?
OHO! A CLASSIC!
OK, I’ll bite – but first let’s get the quote straight, shall we? It was originally, “How many angels can dance on the point of a very fine needle, without jostling one another?”
Although this phrase has been used to point out the fruitlessness of bickering over fiddly theological points, its original intention was not this at all.
Thomas Aquinas was the original question-answerer. Unfortunately, in his day, computers had not quite been invented, so he wrote a book, Summa Theologica (which means Theological Summary) with all his answers in.
One of the subjects he tackled was the -ology of Angels, trying to codify all the information that the Bible gives us, not only that which is explicitly stated, but also that which we can deduce from the first lot if we think hard enough. (I DO love using my brain in theology!)
So one of the questions he tried to deal with was the relationship between Angels and the physical world. Did they live IN the physical world or not? If they did, how much space did they take up? Could they travel from here to there in a flash, or did they have to go through all the places in between? And so on.
Why is this important? I hear you cry!
Well, two things.
First of all the Bible does talk about angels as if they interact pretty well with the physical world when they want to. We see them appearing to people, and coming here and going there just like people do. We see them going into houses, but we also see them right up in the air, or disappearing altogether. Daniel’s angel was held up for three weeks in travelling to Daniel by an opposing evil angel which he called the “Prince” of the Persian kingdom” (Dan 10 13). So here is a wonderful paradoxical situation crying out for thought.
We might say: Angels are spirit beings. They do not take up physical space, yet do have an interaction with the physical world which allows them to be “at a place”.
Let me digress a bit here and say a bit about paradoxes. If you had just arrived from Mars, what would you think of the following statements: “Phil Gregg lives in Rugby” Phil Gregg lives in Lancaster Road”?
One reaction would be to say, “But that’s a Paradox! It’s impossible! He can only live in one place! He EITHER lives in Rugby, OR he lives in Lancaster Road. They cannot possibly both be true! You are either mistaken, or lying!”
You and I, of course, being Earthlings, can easily resolve the paradox. We know that places called ROADS are often inside places called TOWNS. So if our visitor from Mars asks us, we will explain to them that it’s not an impossibility after all; the Paradox is capable of Resolution.
Can you see what has happened? The Martian thought there was a Paradox, but when he went and learned more about the circumstances behind the two impossible sentences, he could resolve it. So the Paradox has INCREASED THE SUM TOTAL OF THE MARTIAN’S LEARNING.
Now, for us, put in Freewill and Predestination; what about the Trinity; how do you feel about Jesus being fully man and fully God at the same time; how can the Bible tell us that one day we will rise from the grave and simultaneously come with Jesus on the clouds?
And loads more than that. For each subject, studying, thinking, praying, enquiring, will help us to understand how the apparently incompatible things can all be true at once.
Back to the subject.
The second reason we need to understand about angels and the physical world is so we know more about our evil spiritual opponents – fallen angels – and satan himself, who commands them.
For example, we do not believe that satan shares the God-Characteristic of being “Omnipresent” i.e. everywhere all at once. That is clearly taught about God in the Bible, but not at all about satan. We say of satan that he is “ubiquitous” – which means he keeps cropping up in lots of different places, but he cannot be in two of them at the same time. He is not God’s equal.
No, I’m sorry, I need to say that again, HE IS NOT GOD’S EQUAL!!!!!!!!!
There, that’s better.
Now, where was I? Oh yes. Angels cannot be in two places at the same time. Aquinas also deduced that two angels couldn’t be in the same place at the same time.
It was trying to demonstrate this which brought about the idea that if you held up a needle, then at the point of it, which is a very tiny place, you could not have more than one angel at a time.
This sheds light on some Bible stories which show evidence of “Territorial spirits”. Though some would dispute this, I think we have evidence that the ‘gods’ of the ancients not only existed as lifeless idols, but in many cases were also actual fallen angelic beings whose human worshippers constructed images to represent them.
So, for example, “Dagon” was probably the name of an evil spirit as well as the Canaanite idol. And so on with many other demonic names in the Bible, and possibly the names of Greek, Roman, and Norse gods, not to mention those of modern religions such as Hinduism, which actually claims that some of the spirits worshipped are pretty nasty, Kali, for one. So evil spirits are seen to have associations with peoples, or areas. This understanding is helpful for us who oppose them.
So that is what Thomas Aquinas was (very correctly) trying to reason out.
By the way, the quote doesn’t, after all, come from Aquinas himself; rather it was Isaac D’Israeli (father of the 19th Cent Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli), who was commenting on Aquinas’s work and made a humorous reference to Thomas’s deliberations, so the words in the quote right at the beginning are his.