“Do we become angels when we die?”
The short answer is “no.” But in this article I want to explore not only the answer, but how the answer should be given.
A common misconception about human life is that when we die we become angels. You can see this play out in famous movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, where Clarence is a deceased man who is earning his wings as a guardian angel. You can understand the confusion since we believe angels are spiritual beings in heaven and at death our spiritual souls go to live in heaven.
However, we do not become angels when we die.
Angels are a different species from human beings. In the same way, dogs are a different species than us. When a dog dies, it does not become a man. When a man dies, he does not become an angel. This would change each being’s essential nature.
Like the angels, human beings have a spiritual nature in our rational soul. But we are, by definition, body and soul together. Part of what makes us essential human is that we are a unity of soul and body. The angels are spiritual beings without bodies. It is true that in the Bible, angels can take bodily form. We see this when Raphael comes to visit Tobiah or when Gabriel speaks to the Virgin Mary. But in these cases, the body is not the same as our bodies. With us, there is a unity between our body and our souls. If I were to drop a heavy box on your iPhone, you may say “You hurt my iPhone. You iPhone is something you own, but it is not a part of you. If I drop that same heavy box on your big toe, you may say “You hurt my big toe.” But you may also say “You hurt me.” You are essentially connected to your body. With the angels, their bodily manifestations are not necessarily like that. That can be akin to putting on a costume to play the part of a man without being a man.
To be clear, I am not defining the relationship between the spiritual angel and the manifestation of their bodies in Scripture. That is something too complex for this article. My point only is that these embodiments from the Bible are not like how human beings are embodied.
When we die, we do not become angels because we do not change species. Again, we are like the angels in that we will have a purely spiritual existence in heaven. But unlike the angels, we are not complete in this state. This is why at the end of the world, there will be a resurrection of the body. Here we will become like Christ and have a glorified body for all eternity and will be fully human again.
Now, having made the case very theologically clear here, I want to also say that when answering this question to someone who is still learning the faith, that you should be careful.
Even though the idea of humans becoming angels is not something that has ever been taught by the Church, there is a strong impression that this has always been taught. Be careful how you undermine what someone thinks is an essential belief, even if that belief is incorrect. Breaking down a belief that someone thought was essential and foundational may cause great uncertainty in other areas of the faith. To be sure, we need to make the correction, but be sure to give the issue its proper time and care.
Another reason to take care here is a relational one. I have found that when this topic comes up in class, I will usually have a student say something like this: “When my grandma died, my mom told me that she became my guardian angel, looking out for me. Is that not true?”
Again, be very careful how you answer. A person’s whole understanding of the communion of saints can be shaken if not handled correctly. This is especially true when someone they love is taken from them. Many young people today struggle with the belief of a life beyond this one. If they get the feeling that they have been lied to, this could prove a true stumbling block.
In a situation like this, I say something like this:
“What is it that a guardian angel does? A guardian angel watches over you from heaven. A guardian angel prays for you and intercedes for you before God. You guardian angel loves you and brings down graces from heaven in your life. All of those things that a guardian angel does, I’m sure you grandma is doing right now. So when you mom said that she became your guardian angel, it means that your grandma will do all of those things: she watches over you, guards you, and prays for you. My own mom passed a few years ago, and I know she is in heaven acting like an angel on my behalf.”