The Angel of Death

A Religious Perspective

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Throughout recorded history, people from various religious perspectives have spoken of a figure or figures who comfort people when they’re dying and escort their souls into an afterlife, a rough equivalent of the Jewish and Christian notion of the “Angel of Death.” 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 brought ​peace to those leaving life.

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."

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives

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 Angel of Death (Mal'akh ha-Mavet) that 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 Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible), 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."

In Christian tradition, the Archangel Michael supervises all of the angels who work with dying people. Michael appears to each person just prior to the moment of death to give the person a last chance to consider the spiritual state of his or her soul. Those who aren't yet saved but change their minds at the last moment can be redeemed. By telling Michael with faith that they say "yes" to God's offer of salvation, they can go to heaven rather than hell when they die.

The Bible doesn’t name one specific angel as the Angel of Death. But the New Testament 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). The Bible makes it clear that death is a holy event ("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. Traditionally, Christians believe that all angels who help people make the transition into the afterlife are working under Archangel Michael's supervision.

The Quran 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). That angel, Azrael, separates people's souls from their bodies when they die. The Muslim 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).

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 talking about or reaching out to angels. For instance, in his book "Angels: God’s Secret Agents," Christian evangelist 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 helping angels accompany the soul to the afterlife.

Jewish tradition says that many different angels (including Gabriel, Samael, Sariel, and Jeremiel) may help dying people make the transition from life on Earth to the afterlife, or to their next life (Judaism has many varied understandings of what happens after death, including reincarnation).

Jesus told a story that appears in Luke 16 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.