In my sermon last Sunday, I made the statement that only two angels are ever named in the Bible: Michael and Gabriel. Later in the week, that statement was challenged. “What about Lucifer? And what about Abaddon/Apollyon in Revelation? These are legitimate challenges to my claim, and so I thought it valuable to address them here.
Firstly, I want to address Revelation 9:11, “They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” I admit that I had never considered this particular passage before as identifying the name of an angel. though it is clearly doing just that. “His name is…”
That said, it is not entirely clear to me whether or not we should take this as a literal name, or as a figurative one. First of all, Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which according to the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms:
The writers of apocalyptic literature sought to disclose “heavenly secrets” concerning how the world would end and how the kingdom of God would suddenly appear to destroy the kingdom of evil. Apocalyptic writers made extensive use of visions, dreams and symbols as instruments of revealing what was hidden.Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 13.
One of the greatest challenges in interpreting apocalyptic literature, and the book of Revelation in particular, is rightly discerning which elements are supposed to be taken literally, and which symbolically. Some passages are obvious, like when John sees “great sign…in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1). There’s also a child and a dragon. We are told that the dragon is Satan, but who exactly the woman and the child are is never explained – thus there are many interpretations. This passage we know is symbolic, for it calls it a “sign.” Again, John sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). We know John is talking about Jesus, but what he actually sees is a slaughtered lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. The vision is symbolic – representing Jesus (the representation in some things is obvious, in others somewhat confusing).
Other passages are less clear. For example, is there an actual scroll with seven literal seals on it that no one can open except the Lamb/Jesus? Or does the scroll represent something else? Are there four actual horsemen, each horse a different color, all of whom will bring some kind of calamity upon the earth? Or, are they symbols representing God’s judgment on the world?
So this brings us back to question at hand, Is Abaddon/Apollyon the actual name of an angel or is it a symbolic name? Though it’s difficult to know for sure, the symbolic weight of this name is obvious. Abaddon (Hebrew) and Apollyon (Greek) both mean “destruction.” In various places in the Old Testament, Abaddon is a place, akin to “the grave” or “hell.”
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?Psalm 88:11
Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord; how much more the hearts of the children of man!Proverbs 15:11
Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering.Job 26:6
So, in Revelation 9, John is talking about “the bottomless pit” (presumably the same place the OT calls Abaddon – a place linked with Death & Sheol/the grave). This bottomless pit has an angel who rules over it as King, whose name is Abaddon/Apollyon. Are we meant to take this literally, or symbolically? That would be kind of like saying that the name of the President of the United States is “United States.” Now, it’s possible that the leader of that place took on the name of that place, OR it could be that we are meant to understand it figuratively.
Commentators seem divided on this as well. The Dictionary of Deities and Demons says,
The explicit use of ʾăbaddôn for a demonic being is rare, as it is used mainly as the name of a place. Maybe two occurrences of the word are secondarily open to personification: Prov 27:20 tells us that Abaddon cannot be satiated; this anthropomorphous diction may be a slight hint of Abaddon’s demonic character. Also Job 26:5–6 is to be mentioned once more: In Job’s speech, the shades in the underworld tremble before God and there is no shelter to cover Abaddon. Thus it is perhaps not too speculative to assume that Abaddon is not only a place of destruction but also a demon of destruction. But on the whole Abaddon’s role as a demon certainly does not figure prominently in the Bible—though the OT is aware of such underworldly beings.M. Hutter, “Abaddon,” ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 1.
One commentary identified Abaddon as one of the locusts from the bottomless pit, and not an angelic/divine being, indicating that John is using “angel” in a less formal sense, similar to chapters 2 & 3 (“to the angel of the church…”). Some commentaries identify Abaddon as Satan himself by another name. Regardless, it is unquestionable that Abaddon/Apollyon is a proper name given to “the angel of the bottomless pit,” but it is ultimately unclear who or what this being is, and whether this name is to be taken as this being’s actual name, or merely figurative.
For sake of time and length, I will reserve the discussion of Lucifer for another post.