1. Religion & Spirituality

Who is the Angel of Death?

Dying People May Encounter the Angel of Death (or a Group of Angels)

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Angel sculpture in Bonaventure Cemetery
Joseph Shields/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Many people struggle with fear when they approach death, or even when they simply think about dying. The fear of death is so common, in fact, that it has a name: thanataphobia. A variety of research studies have shown that the fear of death is universal among human beings worldwide. People are afraid of the suffering they may have to endure when they die, and they fear what will happen to them after death, wondering if they may go to hell or even not exist at all anymore.

But what if there’s nothing to fear about death after all? What if there is one or even a group of angels who comfort people when they’re dying and escort their souls into an afterlife?

Throughout recorded history, people from various religious perspectives have spoken of an “Angel of Death” who does just that. Many people from all walks of life who have had near death experiences have reported that they’ve encountered angels who helped them, and people who have witnessed loved ones die have also reported encountering angels who gave their dying loved ones peace. Sometimes dying people’s last words describe the visions they’re experiencing. For example, just before famous inventor Thomas Edison died in 1931, he remarked: "It is very beautiful over there."

Religious Perspectives on the Angel of Death

The Angel of Death’s personification as an evil creature wearing a black hood and carrying a scythe (the Grim Reaper of popular culture) originated from the Jewish Talmud’s descriptions of an evil Angel of Death (Mal'akh ha-mavet) who represents the demons associated with the fall of mankind (one consequence of which was death). However, the Midrash explains that God does not allow the Angel of Death to bring evil to righteous people. Also, all people are bound to encounter the Angel of Death when it’s their appointed time to die, says the Targum (the Aramaic translation of the Tankah), which translates Psalm 89:48 as: "There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand."

The Muslim Qur’an also mentions an Angel of Death: "The Angel of Death who is charged with taking your souls will take your souls; then you will be returned to your Lord." (As-Sajdah 32:11). The Hadith tells a story that illustrates how reluctant people can be to see the Angel of Death when he comes for them: The Angel of Death was sent to Moses and when he went to him, Moses slapped him severely, spoiling one of his eyes. The angel went back to his Lord, and said, You sent me to a slave who does not want to die. (Hadith 423, Sahih Bukhari chapter 23).

The Christian Bible doesn’t name one specific angel as the Angel of Death. But it does say that angels are "all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation" (Hebrews 1:14) and makes it clear that death is a holy event for Christians ("Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints," Psalm 116:15), so in the Christian view it’s reasonable to expect that one or more angels will be present with people when they die.

The Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead (also known as the Bardo Thodol) describes how people who aren’t yet ready to enter God's presence when they die may find themselves in the presences of bodhisattvas (angelic beings) after death. Such bodhisattvas may help and guide the deceased souls in their new state of existence.

Angels Who Comfort the Dying

Accounts of angels comforting dying people abound from those who have watched loved ones die. When their loved ones are about to pass away, some people report seeing angels, hearing heavenly music, or even smelling strong and pleasant scents while sensing angels around them. Those who care for the dying (such as hospice nurses) say that some of their patients report deathbed encounters with angels.

Caregivers, family members, and friends also report witnessing dying loved ones talk about or reach out for angels. For instance, in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, Christian leader Billy Graham writes that immediately before his maternal grandmother died, "the room seemed to fill with a heavenly light. She sat up in bed and almost laughingly said, 'I see Jesus. He has his arms outstretched toward me. I see Ben [her husband who had died some years earlier] and I see the angels.'"

Angels Who Escort Souls to the Afterlife

When people die, angels may accompany their souls into another dimension, where they'll live on. It may be just one angel who escorts a particular soul, or it may be a large group of angels who make the journey alongside a person’s soul.

Muslim tradition says that the angel Azrael separates the soul from the body at the moment of death, and Azrael and other angels who help him accompany it to the afterlife.

Jewish tradition says that there are many different angels (including Gabriel, Samael, Sariel, and Jeremiel) who may help dying people make the transition from life on Earth to the afterlife.

Jesus Christ told a story in Luke chapter 16 of the Bible about two men who died: a rich man who didn’t trust God, and a poor man who did. The rich man went to hell, but the poor man got the honor of angels carrying him into an eternity of joy (Luke 16:22). The Catholic Church teaches that the archangel Michael escorts the souls of those who have died to the afterlife, where God judges their earthly lives. Catholic tradition also says that Michael may communicate with dying people near the end of their lives on Earth, helping them find redemption before they pass away.

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