The Difference Between Angels, Demons, and Ghosts

Whether we believe in them or not, we have all heard of angels, demons, and ghosts; however, most of us would struggle to explain the differences between these beings that are described in every culture and in every period of history. In centuries past, Christians would have known the differences and understood the importance of making distinctions between angels, demons, and ghosts.

As Christian belief has declined, in general, and as modern rationalism has attacked the idea that there are spiritual realities beyond the material world, we have largely come to regard angels, demons, and ghosts as mere metaphors and, over time, we have begun to mix those metaphors.

The Problem of Pop Culture

Modern pop culture has only added to the confusion. Television shows and movies, in particular, draw upon the innate human fascination with the spiritual realm, while playing fast and loose with the traditional understanding of angels, demons, and ghosts. In both film and literature, angels and demons seem all too human (and, conversely, humans may be portrayed as angelic or demonic), while ghosts appear as demonic, more often than not.

Let's examine the traditional understanding of each of these spiritual entities—with a surprise visitor thrown in for good measure.

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What Are Angels?

A marble statue of an angel
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The First Beings Created by God

In the Christian understanding of Creation, angels are the first beings created by God. God Himself, of course, is uncreated; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed, from eternity to eternity.

The angels, however, were created by God and with the creation of the angels, time began. Saint Augustine, in a metaphor, says that time is measured by the beating of angels' wings, which is simply another way of saying that time and creation go hand in hand. God is unchanging, but creation changes through time.

God's Messengers

Angels are purely spiritual beings; they have no physical body. The word angel means "messenger." Throughout human history, God has sent these beings to deliver messages to mankind: the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce the good news that God had chosen her to bear His Son; an angel appeared to the shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem to bring the "glad tidings" that Christ was born; an angel appeared to the women at Christ's tomb to proclaim His Resurrection.

When angels are sent to us, they take on human form—though not, as so many TV shows and movies claim, by "possessing" a human being. While the bodies they adopt are material, they exist only so long as the angels appear to us. When an angel no longer has need of a human appearance—when he is no longer appearing to a man or a woman—his "body" ceases to exist.

Guardian Angels

There are many indications in Scripture that the number of the angels is so great as to be effectively infinite—far more than the number of human beings and all creatures on earth. Every man, woman, and child has a unique guardian angel, a spiritual being whose task is to guard us both physically and spiritually. Tradition holds that both cities and countries have angels assigned to them in much the same way as patron saints.

When Christians use the term angel to refer to spiritual creatures, they normally mean what we might call the "good angels"—that is, those angelic creatures who remain faithful to God. Such angels can no longer sin as humans can—they had one chance to do so, before God even created man, but when they chose to obey God rather than to follow their own will, their nature became fixed.

But what about those who chose to disobey, to follow their own will? 

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What Are Demons?

A gargoyle atop a building overlooking Paris
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Remember the story of the Archangel Michael, leading the legions of the good angels in driving the disobedient angels out of Heaven, and casting them into Hell? Those disobedient angels are the ones who, when given the chance to obey God rather than to follow their own will, chose not to serve their Creator. Just as the nature of the good angels became fixed when they chose to obey God, the disobedient angels became fixed in their evil. They cannot change their ways; they cannot repent.

The Disobedient Angels

We call those disobedient angels demons or devils. They retain the powers that are part of their nature as spiritual beings. But now, rather than acting as messengers to mankind, bringing the good news and protecting us from spiritual and physical harm, demons try to lead us away from the truth. They want us to follow them in their disobedience to God. They want us to sin, and, having sinned, to refuse to repent. If they succeed in that, they will have won a soul for Hell.

Liars and Tempters

Like angels, demons can manifest themselves to us, taking on physical form in order to try to coax us to commit evil. While they cannot make us act against our own will, they can use their powers of deception and persuasion to try to convince us that sin is desirable. Think of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent—a physical manifestation of the Devil—convinced them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil by telling them that they would become like gods.

If we are led astray by demons, we can repent, and through the Sacrament of Confession, be cleansed of our sin. However, there is a more troubling phenomenon associated with demons: demonic possession. A demonic possession occurs when, through continued cooperation with a demon, a person essentially invites the demon in by aligning his will with that of the demon. It's important to note that a demon cannot possess someone against his own will. That is why the demon must use his powers of deception and persuasion, and why the best protection against demonic activity is prayer and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession, which strengthen our resolve to align our will with God's.

An Accurate Portrayal

One modern work of art that properly portrays the action of demons and the method of demonic possession is The Exorcist, both the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty and the 1973 film by William Friedkin. Blatty, a faithful Catholic, accurately portrays the teaching of the Catholic Church by having the young girl, Regan, invite the demon in through dabbling in the occult—in this case, through the use of a Ouija board. Many other films and television shows, however, portray the victims of demonic possession as innocents who are possessed against their will and without their knowledge. Such portrayals deny the essence of human free will.

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What Are Ghosts?

Illustration depicting the ghost of Hamlet's father appearing to him
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Disembodied Souls

Ghosts are perhaps the most misunderstood of all spiritual creatures, and the most consistently misrepresented in literature and film. The word ghost simply means a spirit or a soul (thus the use of the term Holy Ghost as a synonym for the Holy Spirit), but souls belong exclusively to human beings. Humans are the only beings who have both a spiritual nature (a soul) and a physical one (a body); while angels and demons can present themselves to us in physical form, the bodies they adopt are not part of their nature.

A ghost is a disembodied soul—in other words, a soul separated from its body by the death of that body. The Church teaches us that, after death, each of us is judged and, as a result of that judgment, we will either go to Hell or to Heaven. Some of those who will go to Heaven, however, will first spend some time in Purgatory, being cleansed of their sins and being made pure so that they can enter into the presence of God.

The Souls in Purgatory

Traditionally, ghosts have been seen as those souls in Purgatory. Souls in Purgatory may do so precisely because of the reason why they are in Purgatory: they still have "unfinished business," in the sense of atonement for sins.​ That's why ghosts, unlike angels and demons, are tied to a particular place. Those places have something to do with the sins for which they must still atone.

Saints in Heaven do occasionally appear to us here on earth, but when they do, we see them in their glory. As Christ Himself told us in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, souls in Hell cannot appear to the living. 

Ghosts Are Good, Not Evil

Contrary to many portrayals in literature and film, ghosts are never malevolent creatures. They are souls on their way to Heaven, by way of Purgatory. When they have fully atoned for their sins and entered Heaven, they will be saints. As such, they are incapable of misleading or harming those of us still here on earth.

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What Are Poltergeists?

A scene from the movie, "Poltergeist"
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Troublemaking Spirits

So what are those malevolent spirits that look a lot like ghosts in films and TV shows? Well, setting aside the fact that we shouldn't be taking our theology from pop culture (rather, pop culture should take its theology from the Church), we might call those spirits poltergeists.

The problem comes when we try to define what a poltergeist actually is. The term is a German word that literally means a "noisy ghost"—that is, a ghost that moves things around to disrupt the lives of humans, causes disturbances and loud noises, and may even cause harm to human beings.

Demons in Disguise

If all that sounds familiar, it should: those are the kinds of activities that we might expect from demons, rather than ghosts. The best explanation for poltergeist activity is that demons are carrying it out (another sure sign: poltergeists are normally attached to a person, as a demon would be, rather than a place, as a ghost would be).

A surprisingly good portrayal of this reality can be found in the 2016 film The Conjuring 2, a fictional portrayal of the real-life case of the Enfield Poltergeist. While the actual Enfield Poltergeist was almost certainly a hoax, the film uses the material of the case to present a proper understanding of poltergeist activity. What initially presents itself as a ghost attached to a particular houses turns out, in the end, to be a demon that is attempting to harm a family.