A good question: What are angels?
One question, four answers
‘The Bible is full of them’
A simple answer is that angels are messengers. Both the Greek word for angel (aggelos – pronounced ang-elos) and its Hebrew equivalent (mal’ak) mean just that: a messenger, a being that conveys a message. The words were used of ordinary human beings who brought a message from one human to another as well as of heavenly beings who brought messages direct from God.
Alongside them are heavenly beings – those who dwell forever in heaven. The Bible refers to various types. There’s the heavenly court whom God consults from time to time, and also the heavenly host which consists of all those who, from time to time, are revealed, just as they were at the birth of Jesus. There are the cherubim who, contrary to subsequent artistic interpretation are not chubby toddlers with wings but heavenly beings who held up God’s throne on their wings. Ezekiel describes them as having a human form but with four faces (human, lion, ox and eagle) and four wings. There are also the seraphim, whose appearance is not described beyond the detail that they have six wings – two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet and two to fly with.
We now use the word ‘angel’ to refer both to heavenly messengers and to heavenly beings (whether they bring a message or not). Intriguingly, the appearance of the two have, therefore, been conflated. The famous stories about messenger angels in the Bible give little description about what they looked like apart from the fact that they often had dazzlingly white clothing – something which, in biblical tradition, indicates that they had come from God’s presence (who likewise is described as wearing white). Contrary to popular artwork, there is nothing to suggest that these angels had wings. Quite the opposite in fact…
Paula Gooder is a freelance theologian
‘Angels are at God’s disposal’
In one sense, angels are a distraction. Especially when we pay too much attention to them. Karl Barth counselled against saying too much about them, as in the ancient mythologies which speculated about, and sought to describe, how heaven should be understood. But Barth also warned against saying too little, as with modern thinkers who might dismiss the angels as nothing more than products of an overactive imagination. How, with Barth’s help, might we avoid both extremes?
It cannot be denied that some might respond to the biblical references by ignoring them. But while these references tell us something about what angels do, they tell us little, if anything, about what an angel is. Indeed, the Bible provides no angelology. It witnesses to God’s self-revelation in history and, particularly for Christians, God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. The Gospel – Christ’s redemption, salvation and liberation of human sin, dealt with by divine justice, righteousness, mercy and grace – comes from God to human beings. We do not discover it ourselves; it is revealed to us by the God who graciously seeks, addresses and saves us. The angels, then, are not leading characters in the biblical drama of salvation. They are neither God nor human; they are neither the subject nor the object of the Bible’s central message. In other words, they do not bring salvation to pass, nor are they saved through God’s acts as recorded in the Scriptures. They occupy no more than a secondary position in the scheme of salvation…
Robert Pope is Director of Studies in Church History and Doctrine at Westminster College, Cambridge
‘I think we can assume they are terrifying’
There are, apparently, ‘nine easy steps’ to find out the name of your guardian angel. These include waiting somewhere lovely and quiet with your shoes off. Alternatively, you can discover your guardian angel using numerology. Because I can’t add up, this method initially revealed that I don’t have one. I blame the angel Jophiel. He has general oversight for creativity and inspiration, but no truck with maths. Apparently, you can call upon Jophiel at any time to ‘beam you positive energy and assist you to finish creative projects’. Excellent!
My evangelical soundness Geiger counter is fizzing hysterically here. Secular angelology is deep in Tarot territory. We need to confine our discussion to biblical angels. Biblical angels are not at my beck and call, like some kind of astral Ocado, poised to help me finish magazine articles when I’m on a deadline. Given that the usual opening line from angels in the Bible is ‘Fear not!’ I think we can assume they are terrifying (and not safely addressed with ‘I can’t wait to work with you. Let the miracles begin!’) They are messengers of God.
Sometimes the distinction between the sender of the message and the messenger seems to collapse. When Jacob wrestles with the angel, for example, he looks back and realises: ‘I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’ The angel embodies the message, the difficult message that must be wrestled with, and clung onto until it yields a blessing. This embodying resonates with our understanding of the incarnation, where the word and the Word are identical. Everything that God wants to say to us is said in Jesus…
Catherine Fox is a novelist and teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest book is Realms of Glory (Marylebone House, 2017)
‘That experience has never left me’
I have three experiences to share about angels. When I was a new Christian, I volunteered in a homeless centre and often felt out of my depth. One evening, a young man came in and sat alone. I was instantly drawn toward him, unnerved by his strange demeanour and the fact that he didn’t look homeless. It was an odd feeling. I can’t remember what we spoke about, but I decided I was out of my depth. This young man then looked me in the eye and told me how great I was doing, how safe he felt and that I was a natural at making people at ease. I left him to find a senior worker. When we went to find him, he was gone, and no one could verify that they had seen the man I described. That meeting has never left me. I’m now an illustrator and a counselling psychologist and have been working with troubled people for decades. I believe that I was sent an angel to encourage me.
Another story is from this very week. Someone shared a story of how in their teens, they had gone seriously astray and got into car theft. One day, he was pulled over by a policeman on a motorbike. The friends in the car disbanded and he was left alone with this imposing figure. ‘This car is stolen,’ the cop said. The young man admitted his crime and said: ‘What next?’ ‘You going to do this again?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then take the car back and go home.’ The policeman then walked away. The man did as he was told, went home, fell on his knees and repented. He now leads a church as an inner-city pastor. ‘No policeman would ever have behaved that way,’ he told me. ‘It’s just not the way policemen behave. I believe I was sent an angel. As preposterous as it sounds, that’s the most rational explanation for me.’…
Brent Clark is an illustrator and counselling psychologist
This is an extract from an article that was published in the December 2018 / January 2019 edition of Reform