Table of Contents
Among the Abrahamic religions, Death often comes as an unspecified messenger from God. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this angel either assists in the death of individuals or eradicates entire populations of sinful people. But the idea of the Angel of Death has also spilled over into secular culture and has morphed to become a symbol most known in the modern sphere as the “Grim Reaper”. Let’s take a closer look at the concept of angels of death and what they really are.
What is the Angel of Death?
The Angel of Death is an ominous being, typically sent by God to smite the wicked and collect those souls slated to die. Several angels, particularly ones that come from the class of archangels, are often the ones God chooses for this specific bidding.
But there are a few who are part of the company of Satan and his Fallen Angels. Regardless of their disgrace, they seem to hold a special place under God’s command and wield death by His design.
Is the Grim Reaper the Same as the Angel of Death?
Before we explore the angels of death as mentioned in religious texts, it’s important to note that the modern interpretation of the angel of death is somewhat different.
In this modern context, there is an understanding that death is its own force. It bestows ultimate doom onto whomever it wishes; none can know who it will select next.
But the Angel of Death in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam does not act of its own accord. It only carries out the orders of God. So, there’s a disconnection with equating the Grim Reaper to the Angel of Death; albeit the Grim Reaper does have roots in the Angel of Death.
It’s also important to understand there is no one angelic being of obliteration in any Christian text. Because of this, the concept of an Angel of Death is a post-biblical figure.
Christian Overview of the Angel of Death
According to Christians, God bestows temporary powers of death to a messenger. So, although the Angel of Death isn’t mentioned by name, there are many stories and anecdotes to suggest it. These winged messengers of doom commit acts of desolation but only upon God’s command. To the Christians, the Archangels are most often the ones who execute these missions.
For instance, Exodus 12 details the deaths of the firstborns of both people and animals in Egypt appear to be the work of an angel. 2 Kings 19:35 tells the story of how an angel sends 185,000 Assyrians to their ultimate demise as a result of invading Israel. But neither of these stories pinpoints the name of which angel is responsible. Other places in the Bible that reference an Angel of Death are:
- Proverbs 16:14, 17:11, 30:12
- Psalms 49:15, 91:3
- Job 10:9, 18:4
- Samuel 14:16
- Isaiah 37:36
- 1 Chronicles 21:15-16
Jewish Overview of Angels of Death
Although there is no solid figure for the Angel of Death in the Torah, Jewish texts, like the Testament of Abraham and the Talmud, indicate Satan as the equivalent. Here, Death is an angelic messenger with 12 wings that collects mortal souls while bringing doom and gloom to joyous celebrations.
Older Jewish folk customs dealing with burial, mourning, and medicine are traditional acts of defiance against such an angel. There are many prescriptions and curses to keep it at bay. This is because, since God can only bestow the power of death, a mortal can try to bargain, control, or trick the Angel of Death.
Islamic Overview of Angel of Death
The Quran doesn’t mention an angel of death by name, but there is a figure known as the ‘angel of death’ whose job it is to collect the souls of the dying. This angel of death removes the souls of sinners in a tortuous way, ensuring that they feel pain and suffering, while the souls of the righteous are removed gently.
List of Angels of Death
- Archangel Michael
Michael plays an important role in all three Abrahamic religions. Of all the archangels in God’s sacred company, Michael most notably takes on the role of the Angel of Death. According to Roman Catholic teachings, Michael has four main roles, of which being the angel of death is his second. In this role, Michael comes to those at the hour of their death and gives them the opportunity to redeem themselves before their death. His third role is that of weighing souls after their death, much like the ancient Egyptian ‘weighing of souls’ ceremony.
In the Testament of Abraham, a pseudepigraphic text of the Old Testament, Michael is depicted as a guide for departing souls. After Abraham’s many attempts at tricking, defeating, or averting Death, it eventually gets him. Michael grants Abraham’s last prayer in wishing to see all the wonders of the world so he can die without regret. The archangel prepares a tour that ends with him helping Abraham prepare to die.
Azrael is the Angel of Death in Islam and in some Jewish traditions, who acts as a psychopomp, which is a person or being that transports the souls of the deceased to the realms of the afterlife. In this regard, Azrael is depicted as a benevolent being, who carries out his thankless task. He isn’t independent in his actions, but simply follows the will of God. However, in some Jewish sects, Azrael is viewed as the epitome of evil.
In both Islam and Judaism, Azreal holds a scroll on which he erases the names of people at death and adds new names at birth. Azrael is portrayed as a being with 4 faces, 4000 wings, and 70,000 feet, and his entire body is covered in tongues and eyes, equal to the number of human beings.
Azrael’s description in the Western world is similar to that of the Grim Reaper. He is mentioned in several literary works.
- Malak al-Mawt
In the Qur’an, there is no outright name for the angel of death, but the phrase Malak al-Mawt is used. This Arabic name translates as Angel of Death, and correlates to the Hebrew “Malach ha-Maweth”. This figure corresponds with Azrael, although he isn’t named.
Similar to the other Abrahamic religions, the Angel of Death doesn’t choose who lives and dies but only carries out the will of God. Every soul receives a fixed expiration date which is unmovable and unchangeable.
- Santa Muerte
In Mexican folk Catholicism, Our Lady of Holy Death, or Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, is a female deity and folk saint. Her name can be translated as Saint Death or Holy Death. She bestows protection, healing and a safe passage into the afterlife for her followers.
Santa Muerte is depicted as a skeletal female figure, who wears a robe and holds objects such as a scythe or a globe. She has been associated with the Aztec goddess of death, Mictēcacihuātl.
Although condemned by the Catholic Church, her cult has grown exponentially since the early 2000s. In fact, it’s well known that many people involved with the drug cartels and human trafficking rings are avid adherents of Santa Muerte.
Often personified as an Angel of Death, Samael is linked to several Jewish texts. His name means “Poison of God,” “Blindness of God”, or “Venom of God”. He’s not only a seducer and destroyer, but also an accuser, being a symbol of both evil and good.
In the Talmud, Samael is the equivalent of Satan. He symbolizes the evil forces responsible for Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. He lays waste to all Adam’s descendents and acts on his own initiative in coordination with the will of God’s orders.
Similar to the story of Malak al-Mawt, the Talmudic midrashim tells the story of how Moses chastises Samael when he comes to collect his soul. Since God promised Moses that only He would come to take him to the kingdom of Heaven, Moses lays his staff before the Angel of Death which causes the angel to flee in horror.
Throughout Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Satan is the ultimate Angel of Death. This point is significant in many religious texts. Satan is often equated with the Angel of Death since his fall from grace. He also commands his fallen companions to do his bidding, making them also Angels of Death when called upon to be so.
In Muslim and Christian belief, it is Satan who will lead his army in the great battle between good and evil during the Apocalypse. In the Jewish Talmud, it’s interesting to note that Lucifer, the “Light Bringer”, is Archangel Michael’s twin. When Lucifer defied God, his name changes from Lucifer (Light Bringer) to Satan, translated as “the great enemy”.
Although modern images of the Angel of Death extend into figures like the Grim Reaper, it’s not the same thing. This is because it’s generally believed that the Grim Reaper acts of his own accord and is not connected to any higher entity, but the traditional Angel of Death only acts in accordance with the will of The Almighty, doing a necessary but unwanted job.