Americans are talking about angels. More than ever, it seems, people entertain stories of the odd and remarkable:
• “The angels are opening to us as never before,” exult the authors of Ask Your Angels, a book published and promoted by Ballantine, one of New York’s biggest houses. “Something profound is on the move.” The authors present the channeled wisdom of Abigrael, a genderless being they claim was sent to instruct them. They also lead New Age-flavored workshops on getting in touch with “celestials” and aligning with “angelic energy fields.” Conversing with angels, they write, is another “divination tool.” Knowing that many readers face major decisions, the authors give instructions on making a deck of “Angel Oracle” cards.
• In the movie Grand Canyon, Kevin Kline plays a Los Angeles businessman on his way to a meeting on Wilshire Boulevard’s “Miracle Mile.” Worried, absorbed, he stepped off the curb when, he tells a friend, “a stranger grabbed me, yanked me back, just as a city bus went flying by my nose.” Turning around, he thanked the young woman who saved him from becoming “a wet bug stain on the front of the bus.” Then he noticed that she wore the cap of his favorite baseball team since childhood—the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Was that a real person,” Kline’s character muses, “or was that something else—you know, sent from somewhere else?”
• Angel artifacts have become big business with “heavenly profits,” asserts the Los Angeles Daily News. What with books, “angel catalogs, angel seminars, angel pins, angel newsletters and angel sightings, … it looks like the winged ones have left the cosmic back lot for the forefront of popular consciousness.”
A culture once prone to dismiss the supernatural as superstition is thinking twice. Erstwhile secularists make room for “spiritual forces.” Skeptics wonder if the cosmos is friendly after all. Across the spectrum, Americans wonder: Should we expect heavenly messengers and guardians to grace our daily lives?
The twentieth-century church may be caught off guard by the question. For all of our culture’s sometimes weird fascination with the topic, Christians have remained oddly silent. Angels may play well in venues of popular piety, but they do not inspire much serious theology. Few pastors preach on them. (In Angels, Billy Graham wrote that he had never heard a sermon on angels, despite having heard or read of “literally thousands” of personal accounts.) Millions do pick up Frank Peretti’s novels, where brawny angels slug it out with demons, but readers must sort out fact from fiction on their own. Indeed, fallen angels—Satan and his minions—excite more curiosity in the church than do those of the heavenly, wholesome variety. And while an occasional church member confides an angelic experience, it is usually done tentatively, in a quiet corner of the church.
A society bent on contact with the supernatural is threatening to outdo the church in asking and talking about angels. Who provides Christian guidance? To wrestle with angels raises three questions.
1. Why is our culture becoming fascinated with angels? Why all this “aerial commotion”?
Herbert Muschamp, writing on the “return flight” of angels in Vogue magazine, suggests that “maybe it’s an attempt to retain altitude at a time when culture is short on thrust.”
Maybe so. Jack Simms of Baby Boomers Consulting in California predicted a few years ago that the “quest for spiritual meaning” would be among boomers’ greatest concerns in the nineties. “They want to get in touch with the supernatural, and they will get in touch with it—somehow.”
Teenagers tell a similar story. Gallup polls reveal that teen belief in angels has increased steadily from 64 percent in 1978 to 76 percent in 1992. That three out of four young Americans now believe in angels says something about a coming generation and its search for something beyond self to believe in.
This helps explain why Sophy Burnham’s A Book of Angels, replete with story after story of angelic encounter, soared onto bestseller lists. Just as striking, hundreds of people, young and old, sat down to write Burnham of their own encounters. She gathered an assortment for her sequel, Angel Letters. Here stranded motorists tell of quiet figures appearing to help, only to vanish mysteriously. A woman writes of a prized, lost necklace reappearing under inexplicable circumstances. The accounts evidence a marked determination to believe. Letter writers are quick to credit not chance or good fortune, but, oddly, angels. They long for the assurance that the cosmos is inhabited by forces that provide “loving protection,” as Burnham says. They want to believe, in this lonely era, that beings exist who befriend and communicate.
Even among intellectuals, the notion of heavenly visitors strikes a responsive chord. Mortimer Adler, philosopher and editor of the Great Books series, tells how he gave a lecture under the auspices of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. His topic? Angels and angelology. “The announcement,” he wrote, “drew an audience larger than any I have ever enjoyed in the last thirty years.” The experience so moved him that he wrote a book on the philosophical significance of angels.
But this cultural fascination has a dark side. Books like Ask Your Angels, with its immersion in the occult and New Age, demonstrate that not all that purports to be angelic is necessarily Christian. Why else would we be warned that “Satan masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14, NIV)? Why else would Paul caution the Galatian believers against “even an angel from heaven” coming to preach another gospel?
Angels too easily provide a temptation for those who want a “fix” of spirituality without bothering with God himself. Some prefer shuffling a deck of “Angel Oracle” cards over reading the Bible or listening to sermons. They prefer God in celestial soundbites.
And the pragmatist in us likes to harness mystery to personal ends. We want help from an angelic companion when pinned behind the wheel in an auto accident, perhaps, but get restive at the thought of opening up to the Sovereign who drew near in the Incarnation. Americans reach out to friendly spirits, not the Wholly (and Holy) Other. We want tamer divinities.
Yet our culture’s angelic fascination opens a window of opportunity for the church, which leads to a second question.
2. Just what are angels?
The Bible has much to say about angels, and, as significantly, not to say.
Angels poke their celestial heads repeatedly into the scenes of Bible stories. Scriptures for Advent and Easter are filled with their appearances. So are the stories of the Exodus (where God sent an angel to lead Israel out of Egypt) or the conquest of Canaan. Angels receive special attention in the books of the Bible that narrate the great acts of God (Genesis and Exodus in the Old Testament, for example, or the Gospels and Acts in the New). A majority of New Testament books mention them in some way, and the word angel or its derivatives appear in Scripture almost 300 times.
Historic Christianity continued the biblical tradition with a flourish. “Angels [became] a fundamental topic,” writes Mortimer Adler, for “such Christian theologians as Augustine, … Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal and Schleiermacher.”
Angelology also flowered among seventeenth-century English Christians, Anglican and Puritan. In the late 1600s, when Puritan preacher Richard Baxter detected growing skepticism about the existence of angels and demons, he wrote The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits.
The church’s interest in angels informed much of the great poetry of the Judeo-Christian tradition—Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. And angels captured the eye of a host of medieval and Renaissance artists.
But while historic Christianity assumes that angels weave unmistakably in and out of the fabric of the world God has created, the Bible never aggrandizes them. The most common biblical terms used for angels in both Hebrew and Greek mean simply messenger. Angels are sent, and there is never any sense that the messenger is more significant than the Sender. Their task is to carry the message or do the will of the God who sent them. Twice the angel messenger made clear to John in Revelation, “Do not do it [worship me]! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (Rev. 19:10; 22:9, NIV).
That angels appear more in the narrative books of the Bible, as opposed to the more didactic or pastoral, suggests that the Bible cares more about what angels say or do than what they are. Even in the case of the mysterious winged beings called seraphim and cherubim in Ezekiel and Isaiah, we learn more about their function (guarding God’s throne and communicating to mortals) than about their essence. Indeed, while the the intertestamental period saw an explosion of speculation about angels under Persian and Greek influences, the New Testament kept its reporting restrained, manifesting little interest in detailed hierarchies. Christ was always center stage; angels performed only supporting roles.
The Bible is notable in another way in its treatment of angels: Often they seem surprisingly everyday, especially in the Old Testament. With centuries of artistic and literary embellishment in the back of our minds, we may think of chubby-cheeked, ethereal, and haloed beings. But the Bible often depicts them in the guise of ordinary people. Consider the story of Abraham’s three angelic visitors in Genesis 18: Three “men” show up while he sits at the entrance to his tent. The distinction between God’s action and the angels is blurred to the point where they seem almost synonymous.
Early Christian artists took their cue from the Bible. In Christian art before the fifth century, angels look like everyday people. You know them as angels only by their role in the painting or icon. Here art imitates theology, for God never intended angels to be freelances, or anything but servants.
Angels may strike awe and fear, as they did in their appearance to shepherds at Jesus’ birth. And they speak with heavenly authority. But angels can never become a stand-in for God. Karl Barth once wrote that it is inappropriate for people to talk of angels independent of their experience of God in Christ. While God may send angels, gratitude must always be directed to God, the God we know in Christ.
The greatest danger of the new wave of angel interest rests here. The title of Ask Your Angels, for example, is no accident. “When you Ask Your Angels,” the authors write in obvious allusion to Jesus’ teaching about praying, “you can be sure that you will be answered.” Where is the Sovereign of the universe in such vague attribution? God becomes but a shadowy, sideline figure; the real action is angelic.
Thus Paul’s severe words to the Colossians apply: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.… Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen.… He has lost connection with the Head” (Col. 2:18–19, NIV). Paul faces off here against an incipient heresy that would allow the majestic God to be worshiped only in the form of angels he had created. A full-blown version of this heresy, called Gnosticism, later developed a list of spirit beings through whom God had to be approached. Paul would have none of it.
When people suggest relating to angels instead of God, they repeat and yield to the medieval Catholic temptation to multiply mediators. “There’s Mary, the saints, now the angels,” explains theologian J. I. Packer. “In the end, the glory of Christ is diminished.”
3. Do angels still grace our daily lives? “Are there really forces,” as Sophy Burnham puts it, “that dive, invisible, into our petty affairs?”
Scripture clearly stands on the side of those who believe angels move among us. All the cultural fascination is not false. All our longing to see God enter our tragedies and flat stretches is not vain. Angels may deliver a message from the realms of glory. Or they may work, unsung, unseen, in ways we can only begin to think about. Why else would the writer to the Hebrews tell first-century Christians to welcome strangers, for by so doing, “some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2, NIV)? And, he earlier asked, “are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14, NIV). We cherish the Pauline insistence that no mediator stands between us and God, save Jesus. But we need not thereby conclude that God cannot use angelic means to accomplish his will.
A friend of mine, a prominent publishing executive, believes this. Several months ago, his uncle’s wife of 50 years died. The family was worried about the elderly man’s possible depression, and my friend felt he had better make a visit.
When he arrived, he found his uncle in the best of spirits. Surprised, he coaxed out the explanation. “I was in a black hole of despair,” the uncle told him. “I couldn’t sleep nights, and one night I was startled to find my bedroom blazing with light, emanating from a human-sized being standing by the foot of my bed. The light radiated from its face, hands, and garments. And then I felt the angel communicating to me. It conveyed a message of personal peace. Calmness overwhelmed me. I fell asleep knowing it was going to be all right.” The uncle, a fervent evangelical believer, has been fine—and convinced about angels—ever since. So has my friend.
The editor of a leading magazine for church leaders, LEADERSHIP, tells how his young daughter lay comatose one night, on the edge of death. A hospital staff worker went by the room and saw angels “hovering” over the bed. The woman told the child’s nurse that she wanted to renew her commitment to God in response. By morning, the daughter revived. The editor—whom associates know as no sentimentalist—does not hesitate to believe that angels showed up.
Some will object, however, that most contemporary accounts contradict the biblical accent on angels as message bearers. These stories major on angels as guardians. Calvin Seminary New Testament professor Andrew Bandstra suggests a solution: The Spirit’s presence in Christians, along with the Bible, makes less necessary the need for angels as messengers. “That is why,” he argues, “most people now experience angels as ministers of God’s providential care.” Also, the stories of the prophet Elijah finding help from an angel as he fled Jezebel’s wrath or Peter’s angel-assisted prison break in Acts support the notion that angels do more than speak.
It will be argued by others that God usually employs “ordinary” means. Angelic visitation must be the exception. True enough. But if God has some cosmic “preferential option” for the unspectacular, he can still employ the extraordinary. Scripture is standing proof of that.
While we reject society’s faddish sentimentalism surrounding angels, we must acknowledge that God sometimes intervenes in ways that beggar the imagination. He can break through our routines in ways that leave us awestruck. That may be through a still, small voice, or it may happen more dramatically. “One part of the created reality is the hosts of God,” theologian Packer reminds us, “which include any number of angels.”
Their appearances may be rare, but angels are no endangered species. They move and work still. And they have not stopped guarding us, as the psalmist says, “in all [our] ways.”
A Job Description For Angels
One theologian has suggested that when we speak of angels we should do so only “softly and incidentally.” He meant that Christ, not angels, stands at the center of the biblical message.
I suggest, “softly and incidentally,” that the Bible describes the work of angels in five ways:
• Angels are God’s messengers. The original Hebrew and New Testament Greek words for angel simply mean “messenger.” The same words can designate human or divine messengers. We use the context to decide which is intended in a given passage.
Angels are God’s messengers. That is why, in the Bible, the usual human reaction to angels was to be terrified—as were the shepherds in Luke—or to fall to one’s face. Thus, the first words of the angel messenger were often, “Fear not.” Angels terrify because they bear God’s glory. Yet angels are not to be worshiped, a point made insistently in the Bible.
• Angels praise God. We often think of angels as singing praise to God. Yet the Bible never explicitly says that. The New International Version does translate Revelation 5:11 as “in a loud voice they [angels] sang.” But the Greek text literally says, “In a loud voice they said.”
I know of only two possible exceptions. One is Job 38:7, which says that “the morning stars sang together.” The verse may be using morning stars to refer to angels. The other exception may be Revelation 5:9, which says the 24 elders and the four living creatures “sang a new song.” Theologians allow for the possibility, but by no means agree, that the creatures and elders could be angelic beings.
• Angels exercise God’s providential care. Guardian angels protect us. Psalm 34:7 affirms God’s care through his angel, and Psalm 91:11 is familiar: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (NIV). This verse is familiar in part because the Devil quoted a portion of it in his temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:6). But while he rejected how the Devil used the verse, Jesus did not reject the truth of Psalm 91. In his obedience, Jesus did experience God’s presence through the ministry of angels (Matt. 4:11).
Though they are our guardians, there is scant support in Scripture for the notion that each believer has her or his personal guardian angel. The two main texts, Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15, hardly warrant such a view. Yet it seems appropriate to think that God cares for us through angels. John Calvin maintained that God does so not because God needs angels but because we need them. We need them because they assure us that God exercises personal and powerful care over each one of us.
• Angels encourage Christian obedience. Hebrews 13:2; 1 Corinthians 11:10, and Matthew 6:10 all suggest in different ways that the presence of angels encourages Christians to obey God. Matthew 6:10 says, for example, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” According to the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 49), this request means, in part, “Help everyone carry out [his or her] work … as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.” The willing, faithful service of the angels should inspire us as we seek to carry out our work for God.
• Angels cany out God’s justice. We sometimes think of angels as goody-goodies who are more interested in sentiment than justice. According to the Bible, that is not the case. Rather, angels carry out God’s judgment (Matt. 13:41; 25:31). Furthermore, the New Testament declares that angelic beings were the ones who “spoke,” “ordained” (RSV), and “put into effect” the law of God on Sinai (Heb. 2:2; Gal. 3:19; Acts 7:53).
God promised to send an angel before the Israelites to lead them out of Egypt, and then he warned them thus: “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him” (Exod. 23:21, NIV). Here the angel clearly represents not so much God’s mercy as God’s law, order, and justice.
By Andrew J. Bandstra, professor emeritus of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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