A few years back, my friend told me that he reckoned he could probably come to terms with believing in a god, but that he didn’t think he could ever believe that angels and demons and all that stuff actually exist. I don’t know how widespread this attitude is, but that sort of thinking really doesn’t surprise me. When you think that angels are either small, pudgy babies with a pair of fluffy little wings, or perhaps a serene figure with a white gown, flowing hair and pristine halo that pops up on one of your shoulders, it could be hard to take them seriously in any way, shape or form. To be honest, I don’t think that modern Christianity helps itself by maintaining some of the non-Biblical stereotypes for angels (and Satan/demons). So to start with, I want to show you what the Bible actually says about what these things we call angels are.
Firstly, the word ‘angel’ comes from the Latin word ‘angeli’ (‘αγγελος’ – aggelos – in Ancient Greek) and translated literally, it means ‘messenger’. This title is certainly true of Gabriel in Luke 1, but the word has become an umbrella term for the heavenly beings that serve God. I don’t have an issue with that; I just want to lay the foundations for how we go about thinking about these beings. In verses like Revelation 12:7, where we see mention of the Greek ‘αγγελοι’ (aggeloi – plural of ‘aggelos’), the Hebrew word is ‘malachim’ which, as far as I can see, doesn’t have any connotations that we need to be aware of. So that’s the general word, now for some more specific examples from the Old Testament that show us what angels actually look like.
When you read the word ‘cherub’, you probably immediately think of a chubby baby with wings. The cherubim (that’s the plural) in the Bible are about as far away from that image as you could possibly get. Here’s some of what Ezekiel 10 has to say: ‘The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far away as the outer court…(under the wings of the cherubim could be seen what looked like human hands)…Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes…Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.’ Wow. Not exactly chubby babies. When was the last time you saw one of them on a stained glass window? Just as a little extra information, these cherubim basically move God’s chariot in Ezekiel 10 and seem connected with the glory of God. If you’re wondering where the baby image came from, well isn’t it funny how the ancients depicted Cupid in almost exactly the same way?
The second type of angel that the Old Testament describes is a seraph (plural, seraphim). These are not so common in modern thinking, and have thankfully not been associated with pudgy flying babies. Here’s what the Bible says about them in Isaiah 6: ‘Above [God] were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.’ Again, that image of six winged beings with voices that can shake a temple isn’t exactly what we modern people think of when we think about angels. Bearing this in mind, you can start to see why Mary was so afraid when Gabriel appeared to her.
Anyway, now you have that information in your head, I’ll return to the issue that I raised in the first paragraph, that of belief in angels (and other supernatural things). To put it bluntly, the supernatural (aside from God) has been taking a beating in England since Medieval times. The idea of the supernatural that the average person has is flawed: warped and bludgeoned by centuries of art and, more recently, films. As a Christian, first and foremost I trust what God says in the Bible about angels and demons and the like. If you believe the Bible, then there’s no getting around the fact that these beings are real. With that in mind, I don’t think that Christians need to get caught up in thinking about these things excessively. Yes, we have some information in the Bible, but not enough to go to town on this topic in the way that we’re sometimes tempted to do. I wanted to write this post because I wanted to show people what the Bible really says about some of these things, and to make it clear that I don’t see any problem with believing that these supernatural beings exist.
If you’re not a Christian and you’re reading this, then I’d imagine it’s unlikely that you’re going to go away thinking ‘Yes! Now I believe that angels exist!’ because that really wasn’t my intention. I’m trying to get across the idea that believing in such things doesn’t have to be such a strange idea. It seems clear to me that if you can believe in God (I’m talking about the Christian God here), then it shouldn’t be a problem to trust what he says about things like angels and demons. Perhaps I’m being simplistic here. If you’re reading this and you don’t think you could bring yourself to believe that angels and demons exist, then please comment and let me know why! I’d love to talk to you more about it.
I’m going to wrap this up with this: as a Christian, I do not think that this sort of topic is a primary issue. I don’t think it’s something that we need to spend hours debating, but I do think that it’s important to at least be aware of what the Bible teaches, as it is with all issues. In my ideal world, all the paintings of ridiculous flying babies and flouncy, feathered oddities would disappear, but hey ho, perhaps that’s just me being anti-cute. I just want to reiterate, this is not something to obsess over, but I hope that in writing this, non-Christians will have had a chance to read a fair representation of what the Bible actually teaches, and Christians will have had a chance to give the matter a chew over as well.
P.S. I could talk about New Age type beliefs that focus completely on angels, but it would probably end up as a not particularly respectful rant, so I think I’ll stay quiet on that topic for now. Suffice to say, I think that worshipping angels and making them the centre of a belief is completely wrong.