And of all things, visible and invisible

The Creed not only confesses that our God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, is the creator of heaven and earth. It also adds the phrase that He is the creator “of all things, visible and invisible.” In its original form, the phrase was probably added to hammer yet another nail into the Gnostic coffin. The Gnostics were the ones who asserted that there were many divine powers in the world (one Gnostic system counted forty), each one an emanation leading back ultimately to the one high and transcendent divinity. Over against such nonsense, this phrase makes it clear that whatever invisible powers there might be in the world (such as angels), they were not divine emanations or deities, but simply creations of the one God. As such, these powers had no divinity, and should not be adored. Only God should be adored; nothing created (such as the angels and archangels) should have such worship, however exalted they might be.

In our day, this phrase serves another purpose, one scarcely foreseen by the Fathers who first framed the Creed. That is, it serves as a reminder that the invisible world actually exists, and that it is just as real as the visible world. Such an affirmation was hardly needed in the fourth century, for no Christian questioned the existence of angels and demons. But in our modern materialistic world, many people do question the existence of angels, and even more question the existence of demons, so that now such a reminder is very helpful.

The Christian lives in a multi-layered world. In some sense, everyone in North America, whether religious or not, lives in a multi-layered world, confessing the existence of things they can see with their naked eyes (such as people, animals, and plants) and also things they cannot see with their naked eyes (such as germs and radio waves). The Christian simply confesses that the world is even more multi-layered than most people might think it is, and that it is populated not only by living germs and bacteria, but also by living angels and demons. That is, the Christian confesses that there is a spiritual dimension to life, co-existing with and undergirding the physical dimension. The supernatural invisible world of the spirit does not exist side by side the physical visible world, like oil and water. Rather, the two worlds intermesh; the physical world is shot through with the supernatural. The ancient Rabbis knew this, and said that every single blade of grass had its own guardian angel.

We Christians therefore confess that angels exist in the invisible world, and they exist with the same glorious and rich variety that characterize animals in the visible world. Thus we read not only about angels, but also about archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities and authorities (see Colossians 1:16). Systematizers like the so-called St. Dionysius the Areopagite writing from about the late fifth century (and sometimes called “Pseudo-Dionysius” to distinguish him from his first century namesake of Acts 17:34) arranged the Pauline list of angelic beings into three groups of three. We need not be as wedded to any system as Dionysius was, but certainly St. Paul’s list of different kinds of angels reveals that the unseen world is at least as diverse and varied as the seen world.

Where popular culture accepts the existence of angels (such as in some New Age literature), it views them as essentially bestowers of warm fuzzies—they may not be the cute and cuddly cherubs featured in some Valentine cards, but at least they are comforting friends. As usual, popular culture has it wrong. Angels are creatures of power, and it is significant that in the Scriptural account when they appear to us, the first thing they have to say to us is, “Fear not!” Evidently they can be quite terrifying. A good antidote to the popular portrayal of angels may be found in reading C.S. Lewis’ description of the heavenly powers in chapter 15 of his book That Hideous Strength. One of the invisible bodiless powers was described there as “fiery, sharp, bright and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light.” Those nearby experiencing the descent of the angel were “blinded, scorched, deafened.” This is much more in keeping with the Scriptural portrayal of angels. Not surprisingly, our iconography clothes them in the robes of Byzantine soldiers. And soldiers are not to be messed with; soldiers are armed.

If our popular culture doesn’t quite “get” angels, it doesn’t “get” demons at all. Indeed, admitting that one believes in the existence of demons is a quick way to expose oneself to mockery and to kill whatever credibility one managed to amass. It is true that people talk about “wrestling with one’s demons,” but this is simply meant as a metaphor for dealing with one’s inner psychoses and maladjustments. (One author said, “Well, after all, ‘devil’ is just ‘evil’ with a capital ‘d’.”) Few people today believe that demons and evil spirits actually exist. Even in C.S. Lewis’ day (and he died in 1963), talk about the devil conjured up in people’s minds a comic figure with horns, a forked tail, and red tights, and clearly no one believed in that. Therefore, they concluded, they could not believe in a devil. It seems to have dawned on very few of them that Scripture did not insist on his horns, his tail, or his tights.

Belief in an objective spirit called Satan and in evil spirits constitutes then a great gulf fixed between Christians who accept the teaching of the Scriptures and the Fathers, and those who simply give it lip-service. But there is no getting around it: the teaching is found throughout the New Testament, and a Christian worldview is not complete without it. Christ clearly believed that Satan existed (see Mk.6:7, 13, Lk. 10:17-18, Jn. 12:3, 14:30), and He, if anyone, was in a position to know.

Thus the Creed gives us a salutary reminder that the invisible world really exists, and that it often impinges upon our visible one. And all that exists, including the angels who kept their first blessed state, and the angels who fell from it and became demons, came originally from the hand of God. We live in God’s world, and for all the danger in it, He has not abandoned it. We confess the dangerous and beautiful complexity of this multi-layered world every time we say the Creed.

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Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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