Today's Outlook on Angels
When I first wrote about angels in 1997, I wrote to help people honestly probe their own questions about them. Back then, people were mostly trying to make sense of angel traditions and reports of angels guarding and rescuing people. They were hoping to learn about not only divine angels, but also about the holy God, the Wholly-Other, who cares enough to send such envoys to humans. (Touched By An Angel gently took this hope to TV.) They were asking, "Why angels? And, are they among us?" Yes, there was angel kitsch and trivia. Yes, a few people wrote of angel wars. But there was a refreshing openness and lightheartedness toward the possibility of angels who may well be pretty much as the Biblical writers described them.
But the questions are different today. Today, the world is abuzz with novels and films and 'experts' on TV and the Net and in video games. They use bizarre ideas and imagery to portray what angels do in violent epic battles of spiritual warfare, with the universe at stake. And this has stuck in the public's mind. "Could these things possibly be as the writers say?", many ask. The global recession stripped away the most outlandish kitsch, and down-to-earth concerns have taken their place. Also, a new generation of intellectual materialists dismisses the entire realm of the supernatural, abolishing anything else that's not provably active in the material world. They don't ask, "Why angels?" or even "If angels?". They rule them out from the start, and often think that even entertaining the very idea is unworthy of a healthy intellect.
This site is here to help guide you through your own processes of sorting out angels and other matters of faith, by teaching the Christian faith's view(s) of these matters in a very un-official way. I ask myself, and God, the same questions you do. And I know for sure that I don't really know for sure. Yet I honestly believe in the supernatural. Not as the superstitious do, as something that either manipulates us or can be manipulated by us, but I believe in it nonetheless. And I'm convinced that it underlies all that is. Angels are an important part of that. Through understanding their place, we can better understand ours.
Today's view of angel-messengers is being shaped by media people who don't care enough to handle it honestly. Instead of angels being a real outreach from a real God to an often surreal world, there usually isn't a real God in the picture. In these stories, it's as if angels exist for their own reasons. Those whose type of being means 'messenger' or 'envoy' neither deliver nor represent a real message, and are envoys only for themselves. They're written up like gussied-up space aliens, who in turn are just tricked-up projections of ourselves at our most selfish or noble. This detours our spiritual instincts. Could it be as they say? Not really.
Must We Believe In Angels?
Must Christians believe that angels exist? No. The much more important thing is to believe in the God who is said to send them. Many Christians, whether rationalist Protestants, ex-Catholics, or some of the emerging-churchers, see them as being merely symbolic, just a story-teller's way of telling the story. I myself am convinced they're quite wrong on that, at least on the 'just' or 'mere' part of it. But I can't prove that. I haven't (knowingly) met one. I don't require actual mal'akim to make sense of God, the Bible, Christianity, the world, or my life. God doesn't have to use them to deliver a message or carry out a mission. You can live as Christian as anyone else and not believe in angels. They're not specifically mentioned in the Creeds, nor in most theologies, nor in most formal statements of faith, and only briefly in worship services. (In liturgical services, in the preface to Holy Communion, the minister announces our praise to God, "joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven".) When Jesus said what the core matters of the faith are, belief in angels was not mentioned. Christ rescues you either way. In brief, angels are not a bare-bones requirement of Christian belief, as they are required in most forms of Islam.
But, if angels do exist, and if they do deal with us in any way, then for the sake of being real we would be wise to account for them. If you are convinced they do not exist, then I invite you to climb into their story, their role in God's purposes, because it is by walking through the story with their character that you will learn the lessons of that story. And, whether we do or don't, that's fine with the angels. Their concern is not what humans think of them, but to get done what God sent them to do.
What Are Angels?
What are angels? Lord knows. Many tasks have been assigned to them in Jewish and Christian tradition, in folklore and folk theology. People have been guessing at it for 4000 years, probably longer. One helpful view is that angels are sent by God to bring the truth, especially the big truths, to specific people in critical situations. The biggest truth (the one that Jesus Christ was living, dying proof of) is that God is with us and for us, and an angel is sent here as a part of that. God's message can be a warning, or be a comfort in times of danger and fear. There's more going on than the careless eye can see, so God's messenger points it out. Since God is way too much for us to take, the messenger is sent in God's stead, like a diplomatic envoy. What happens then is between humans and the Lord. God chose this way (among other ways) to keep in touch with us and not be a far-off Deist god.
Part of the Unseen
Angels are from the unseen in the "all that is, seen and unseen" that the Nicene Creed says the Father created. They don't decay or die, since they are spiritual beings. They exist to praise God and to bear the message and task for which God sends them, including to us humans. They can think and hold conversations, and they have their own identity. They even have some sort of rank, such as the archangels and the "angel of the Lord". They appear to people of all religions, even people of no religion at all, when God wants them to listen. We can't prove angels exist, any more than we can prove God exists; they are, after all, spiritual beings and don't fit into material-world rules. Not all religious folks believe in angels (for instance, the Jewish Sadducees, and many modernist Christians). But all over the world, those who have a strong sense of spirituality tend to believe God sends supernatural envoys and heralds, and they sometimes experience their presence. Thus there are many angel reports from India, Malaysia, and other Asian countries. That's no surprise, since God loves them, too.
The ancients couldn't picture anything in the 'pure' world of heaven as being female or neuter, so they called them mostly what they felt was greatest - male. (A possible exception is in Zechariah 5, but the passage is cryptic at best.) Maybe we're getting over such a narrow vision. Angels are often pictured as having feathered wings. The ancients believed the angels flew, so they portrayed it through the only means of flying they knew: the feathered wings of a bird. I suspect this image came in handy. They don't need angel wings to fly (they're supernatural beings), but wings of what would be the necessary size inspire awe in us ground-bound material-type beings. The angel-messengers are often reported and portrayed as glowing with light, especially as they deliver their message.
Are Angels Overrated?
Where big things are happening, angels are among us, at the scene. The ginormous event of God's coming to us, started off with a peasant girl from Galilee talking with the archangel Gabriel. Herald angels sang to a bunch of field-working shepherds on the day Christ was born, and many thousands of us try to sound like that angel choir each Christmas. Angel choirs abound, and will be singing strongly when the Kingdom arrives in full. When Mary Magdalene peered into Jesus' tomb on that first Easter, she saw two angels, one sitting at each end where Jesus' body was laid. Just as an archangel set up the first coming of Christ, so an archangel will mark the final return of Christ. Thus, Christianity's two main holy days, Easter and Christmas, are marked out from the start by angels.
Humans tend to get freaky when an angel shows up. We often quiver in fear or fall down in awe. Not to say they're ho-hum, but angels themselves are not really that big a deal. We're more important than they are. Angels are servants, acting on Someone Else's authority, while we humans make our own decisions, and are responsible to discern God's ways by what the Lord has given us. God made us, not angels, in the image of God. Jesus makes His followers, not angels or even archangels, into God's heirs. Every angel goes by what they know: they personally live in God's great presence and receive God's command. We are made to walk not by sight, but by faith. We're told not to worship angels in Colossians 2:18. (Indeed, any bona fide angel will urge you not to worship them, but to worship the God who sent them.) Nor are we to pray to them, though, like the others in the divine realm, they are praying along with us and in our favor. The apostle Paul even tells the Corinthians that, in the end, we will judge angels, not the other way around.
The angels revel in being in God's presence. How much more will it be so for creatures like us who bear God's image, once the Kingdom comes in full! What's much more important than us or the angel is the One for whom they are acting. The author of the letter to the Hebrews (in chapter 1) takes pains to point out that however awesome you may think angels are, Jesus is far more important.
Why Are There Angels?
Not There to Meddle
Angels are not there to be meddling fix-its, but our helpers in responding to the truth. A divine envoy may guide us in the way God wants us to go in a specific situation, sometimes calling on us to take a specific action. We can just blow them off, but people usually find themselves responding instantly with some amount of trust, comfort, or awe. Angels can celebrate and have joy, and presumably have other emotions as well. They don't negotiate unless God tells them to. They don't argue, either; they let God do the rebuking, like the archangel Michael did against Satan. By sticking to God's given task instead of asserting themselves, they are good examples of humility.
Angels Execute Judgement
Scripture shows that angels have another fierce task: when God passes judgement on injustice, they're often the ones who enforce the sentence. An angel who was sent on this sort of a mission executed the first-born of Egypt, leading to the Exile. The usual image shows them with flaming swords, but the Bible shows how they can execute judgement in other ways as well. When carrying out a sentence, angels are more like a strike force than envoys. You won't find them doing this on a Christmas card!
What Kind of Messenger?
"Angel" in Biblical Hebrew is mal'ak . Its main meaning is "messenger", which matches most well with the announcer-herald angels of the Christmas scene. It's the same name given to the prophetic book of the last of the Prophets. The book's author has no name, just the title of Messenger. He could've been the editor who gathered the Prophetic books together so his people could remember and prepare for what was to come. Some angel-fans think Malachi is an angel, but the book's content and its presence among the Prophets make it certain that Malachi is a human messenger, a prophet. In Islam, Mohammed is called "the prophet" and "messenger of God", but is clearly not in any way a god or an angel. In Greek, the root angelos is found in ev-angelos, the gospel or 'good message'.
But this raises a question: can we always tell this difference, even when we find 'messenger' in the Bible or the traditions? Angels are definitely not humans, especially not dead humans who 'earn wings'. (This idea was not invented by Frank Capra for Clarence in the movie "It's A Wonderful Life". Its roots go back at least as far as *The Martyrdom of Polycarp*, 1:39, early 2nd century AD, and probably even further back.) As spirit-beings, angels don't even have food or sex or marriage, or make baby angels, at least not as humans would recognize it. They're pictured as having earth-type gender and earth-type body forms, mainly so we can relate to them better. Such forms might also translate some aspect of their personality.
It's a fine line between the main task of a divine mal'ak and the main task of a prophet, an evangelist, or a poet or storyteller, or anyone else who brings us a divine truth that's hard for us to take. The Christmas "herald angels" of Jesus' birth and resurrection were certainly supernatural. But sometimes it's not as clear. Their main task is to tell a truth which communicates God's will to some person(s), leaving the results to the people who hear it and the Holy Spirit at work among them. Since Christians are all given the charge of spreading the good report on Jesus Christ to others who don't know or understand, then in a way every Christian and every Christian church is a 'messenger', a mal'ak. Not in the sense of a divine or heavenly being, nor a substitute for them, but as the human bearer of good news from God. The apostle Paul picks up this theme when He calls the Corinthian Christians "our letter" and "a letter of Christ". One drawback: when their plans are ruined by the news, people tend to take it out on the messenger, and a divine messenger can make a better getaway than a human one.
rise back to the heavenlies above