There has been a great deal of interest lately in angels and other spirit beings. Many have speculated that the interest in angels and other "extraordinary" beings is a sign that America is deeply interested in the spiritual world. Some people feel that this is an indictor that there is an intense religious revival going on in this country. Others feel that the interest in angels, coupled with the fact that attendance in traditional Christian churches is declining, is proof that we are searching for a "substitute" religion; one that has fantastic stories of the supernatural, yet has no dogma or austere moral code. What does our interest in angels tell us about our faith? Are angels real? Can they communicate with us, and offer us consolation, direction and encouragement when we need it? Are there good angels and bad angels? If there are, then how can we tell them apart? These are some of the questions which have come to the forefront of American spirituality. We will address them both in the context of the culture at large, as well as from the revealed texts of the different sacred books of popular religion.
Are Angels Real?
Like any other supernatural or paranormal phenomenon, the very existence of angels is something that cannot be proven in a strictly scientific sense. However, it is also equally true that there are many things in the universe that we cannot "prove" yet we take for granted on the basis of the effect that they apparently have in our observable universe. If we took, just for example, a black hole. No one has ever seen one. Nor will anyone ever see one since, by their very nature non-reflective of light. Yet we can logically deduce that they exist, just on the basis of the effect of their gravity on certain star systems. The effect of their existence, although they are "invisible", leaves a very discernible mass of evidence in it's wake. Likewise, when we a talking about angels, their is a discernible effect that they have had in our history. The very foundations of Judaism and Christianity abound with references to various angels. Mormonism owes it's beginnings to an appearance of the angel Moroni. Islam had it's start with the numerous appearances of the angel Gabriel to Mohammed. Hinduism has it's numerous lesser gods which function much as our concept of angels do. Even if we never had a bonafide, verifiable experience with an angel, we cannot deny that the significance that angels have reportedly have had on our culture is very real. With the foundations of much of religion and history being shaped by such angelic appearances, it is something that we cannot ignore, even if we personally give no credence to alleged supernatural events.
This is not to say, of course, that in every instance when someone says that they were visited by an angel is necessarily true, but only that such claims need to be examined with an open mind. Each claim for such experience ought to be examined and judged by it's content and merit. What did the angel say? What did it want? Was it's message consistent with what we know is true about the spirit world and our world? For the sake of having some type of objective standard with which to gauge such experiences, I might suggest that we examine the scriptural texts of the Bible to further our understanding of what angels are, and what their purpose is.
Who Are They?
There have been many different descriptions of angels in western culture over the centuries. Sometimes, we may see them pictured in medieval artwork as young, beautiful, feminine and slender, flying to the aid of the faithful. Another common rendition is almost "cupid like", being shown as a somewhat rotund, gleeful little boy. Although I cannot say specifically what the physique of an angel is like, I would tend to think that many of our renditions may be somewhat misleading. In the Bible, the appearance of an angel is frequently terrifying. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah ( the father of John the Baptist), and then later, Mary, his first words to each of them was that they need not fear. As a matter of fact, all throughout the Bible, people were normally awed and frightened by such appearances. Why? Because angels are beings of tremendous power. When God created them, He imparted to them an unfathomable amount of His spiritual power. They are far superior to a natural human. We are told in II Kings 19:20-35 that when a hostile and blasphemous king of Assyria came to invade Jerusalem, the angel of the Lord went out and killed 185,000 of his troops in one night. There are other instances of angel's abilities. In some cases, to strike Israel's enemies blind, punish wrong-doers, or even to heal ( see John 5:1-9 KJV). Angels then, are divinely-powered instruments of God to carry out His will. The angels are portrayed as fully obedient and capable (excluding Lucifer's angels, of course, which will be mentioned later) in their mission to be agents of God in the earth.
What do angels look like? First of all, the proverbial wings are not an essential part of their appearance. There is one place in the Bible where it is mentioned that two angels appeared as "winged" women. It is in a vision given to Zechariah the prophet (Zechariah 5:9). It must be noted that much of the Book of Zechariah is highly symbolic and written with the clear intent to be understood in symbolic fashion. Likewise, the other mention of winged creatures are contained in symbolic visions to the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the apostle John. The winged creatures are called "cherubim", "seraphim", or just "the living creatures". Otherwise, virtually every other mention of angels either fails to make any mention of wings, or, precludes any possibility that the angel had wings. For example, there are several instances in the Bible when angelic beings interacted with humans ( sometimes with many at one time) and none of the individuals they conversed with were wise to the fact that they were talking with angels. ( See Genesis 19:1-13; Judges 6:1-22). Now, if it was the case that angels had wings, don't you think that those big, plumed wings would have tipped off those who greeted them? I would think so. However, the Bible says in Hebrews 13:2:
It may be true, of course, that angels can take a particular form when dealing with humans an consequently appear with no wings. On the other hand, it may very well be that by merely concealing their glory, they may have an appearance much like us. We must keep in mind, however, that angels cannot truly be human, nor can a human ever become an angel. There is a lot of folklore about how "good" and "decent" people will receive, upon their departure from this life, a harp and a halo, and a "earned" set of wings. This has never had any basis for belief, however, in a revealed text of any religion. I enjoy watching "It's a Wonderful Life" every year, despite the glaring inconsistency of having a previously-expired human (Clarence) climbing the angelic ladder to earn his wings and become a first class angel. The fact is, humans are humans, and angels are angels. Before you get upset with me for dashing your hopes for a pair of wings and a puffy white cloud to park yourself on, consider this: angels have a very structured and demanding existence. They respond to God's commands, and follow those without deviance. I would speculate that they have a very rigid chain of command, with the pinnacle of the hierarchy being the Triune Godhead (Father/ Son/ Holy Spirit) and the Archangels, Gabriel and Michael, being set below them. If we were to search through Talmudic and Apocryphal traditions, we would find that angels are usually described in classes similar to military ranks. In the ancient Jewish tradition of Bab. Berachoth, the Lord numbers the angels in excess of 1.065 quintillion, all arranged in hierarchical structure of generals, captains, legions, and officers. Likewise, in the Bible, we see a similar example when the demon-possessed man says that his name is "legion (a military term), for we are many". (Mark 5:9).
I believe that there was a third archangel, Lucifer, who tried to exalt himself above his appointed position. For that, he was cast down from his position of authority. We are told in the Book of Revelations that when Lucifer (Satan) rebelled and was cast out of heaven, he took one-third of the angels with him. This would support the view that the hierarchy of command is exceptionally rigid, the one-third of the angels which were under Lucifer's control were obliged to go with him. That fallen one-third is presumably now designated as demons.
If we were to contrast angelic existence with ours, we would see that we have been graciously been given free will, and are not coerced into anything. Despite all of our shortcomings, we are offered eternal life in God's presence by receiving the gift of salvation that was purchased by Jesus with his death on the cross. The angels in heaven would love to better understand this demonstration of mercy that God has set forth. The apostles Peter says that they "long to look into these things". ( 1 Peter 1:12) So don't get upset that you will never be an angel. If you have come to Jesus Christ, and received his free gift, then you will occupy a position in the next world that is actually superior to the position that angels now hold. The apostle Paul says that we will even "judge angels" ( 1 Corinthians 6:3). The reason for this is that angels are merely created beings. So are we, of course, in our natural state. When we come to Christ, however, a remarkable transition takes place. We are considered "born-again", but this time, born of God. Many of us have heard the term "born-again" used in reference to an experience of some low-life who just "got religion" and is now professing to be a different person. Being born-again, however, means much more than just how we would reckon a religious experience. The real essence of being born-again is how God has reckoned it. If God has reckoned us as born from Him, then we are given, as His legal children, an inheritance that is far superior to angels. Consequently, angels might be somewhat envious of the position that we enjoy as humans.
What Do They Do?
There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the role of angels today. Many people think that angels serve a personal protectors or "guardians". We sometimes might remark that our "guardian angel" was protecting us if we narrowly avert some disaster. This may be the case, however, we don't want to diminish the role that these divine beings play to just one of a "super-human safety net". In the theology of the great religions, angels have functioned as intermediaries between the spirit world and our world. they have acted as the agents of God Himself with regard to the covenant relationship that God has forged with mankind. If we look at the covenant that God enacted with the Jewish people, one can clearly see that an angel is frequently mentioned as achieving a central role in establishing God's relationship with His people. Even the appearance of the Lord to Moses in the burning bush is clarified as actually being an appearance of an angel ( Acts 7:30). These facts should highlight in our minds the principle that God Almighty is so much more righteous and holy, that a mediator is indeed necessary to act as a go-between amongst God and His creation. For several thousand years, the legends of mythology record such instances when God conveyed a message through angels. It would seem that all of such examples are progressively leading up to the revelation of the ultimate mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. If we were to look at the Bible, we would see that the writer of the Book of Hebrews compares the role of Jesus Christ with the role that angels had played up to that point. It reads in Hebrews 1:1-4:
Now that Jesus has become our mediator, and he has paid the penalty for our sins so we can access to God through Jesus, the role of angels has greatly been altered. I would no longer expect an angel to appear to bring some new revelation about God. Since it is evident that Jesus Christ is the mediator par excellence, and he is the express image of God, then any message that was delivered by an angel ( or any other heavenly being) would have to be tested for it's consistency with Jesus' message. When an angel delivered the visions of the book of Revelation to the apostle John, John was overwhelmed by the awesome vision that the angel delivered to him. He fell down at the angel's feet to worship him, at which time the angel said something very important. The angel said
As we can see, angels are co-workers with us who assist in the proclamation of the Gospel. They do not seek an honor for themselves. More importantly, this text reveals that all prophecy, visions or messages delivered by angels or others, must be consistent with the "testimony of Jesus" which is the spirit of prophecy. If we all heeded that bit of information, we all could have avoided a lot of nonsense from phony psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums, trance channelers and the like.
In conclusion regarding the function of angels, we can summarize by saying that they are directly under God's authority for the cooperative effort with us to spread the "good news" of Jesus Christ. The English word we use for one who spreads the gospel is "evangelist" which is merely the word angel ( which means "messenger") and the prefix "eu" which means "good".
A Note Of Caution.
There is one other serious item of business that must be discussed when talking about angels and their appearances. As mentioned before, angels are under God's authority for the cooperative effort of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. We also mentioned that there were angels that remained under Lucifer's authority when he rebelled against God. Those angels are commonly referred to as demons. Contrary to popular belief, the devil and his demons do not inhabit hell. The Bible says there are some angels that left their positions of authority and are consequently chained in darkness, awaiting the Day of Judgment ( Jude 1:6). But there are apparently other demons that make their domain on this earth. These demons are filled with spite and enmity for mankind. All they want is to see every human suffer the same tormented eternal fate that they are destined to suffer. To achieve their goal, they seek to distract people away from the truth of the gospel. They may appear to people under the guise of being an "angel of light" to deceive individuals into believing a false religion. The apostle Paul warned the church in Corinth about false teachers who would masquerade themselves as apostles. He says in 2 Corinthians 11:15 that it is:
No wonder, for Satan
himself masquerades as
It is imperative then, that we are very discerning regarding the testimony and content of that which is purported to be delivered by angels. Any demon that wanted to deceive an unwary human would certainly appear as an angel or as Jesus himself. The apostle Paul also told the Galatian church that if "even an angel" were to preach to them another gospel than the one they had already received, then that angel would be accursed ( Galatians 1:8). A healthy skepticism and a discerning mind are two essential tools when examining testimonies about angels. The same standards would apply to any other alleged appearances, whether they were reputed to be the Virgin Mary, Elijah, or 400 foot tall Jesus'. Just because they look like they are an "angel of light", and what is reported to be said makes sense, doesn't disqualify them from being a Satanic counterfeit. Even if such an appearance is accompanied by some sort of miraculous demonstration, we ought to be very cautious and slow to endorse such appearances. The Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians says that in the last days, the coming of the antichrist will be marked by the
With this in mind, I think it is understandable if we consider such miraculous appearances dubious, until they have been thoroughly examined and tested. Even for those of us who have faith and are very open to the possibility of such appearances, we must treat such alleged experiences with caution. If the appearance was legitimate, then the event will stand up to scrutiny. If it is not legitimate, then we may be saving ourselves from spiritual ruin.
Why then is there such a craze going on over angels? Perhaps we all have a different reasons for our own interest in them. In an article about angels in the Boston Herald (December 1st, 1994) it was noted that many people interested in angels have a very loose spirituality, that eclectically picks and chooses its beliefs from different and sometimes contradictory religions. Perhaps that is the primary appeal for many people. A smorgasbord spirituality that has no binding dictums, no creeds or doctrine, yet is punctuated by experiences with sacred messengers. The article concluded with a remark by a woman sociologist named Zagano that I would like to repeat here. In voicing her concern over the shallowness of some who have become enthralled by "angel-mania", she says
Anyone seriously engaged
in a spiritual quest will
We hope that is true of all of us. If we can help you in your own spiritual quest, we provide free publications and Bibles. We also can refer you to competent local ministers who can help you find answers.