In an age of skepticism and aversion to the supernatural, angels are big players and much in demand in many obituary notices.
They are on bestseller lists, on prime-time TV and even in the outfield.
Angels have become a hot item. And why not? Our post-modern culture has shrugged off the arrogant assumption that humanity represents the top of the chain of being, that there is nothing greater than ourselves.
We seem to be opening our minds again to the possibility of the supernatural.
But a cultural fad is not enough to foster belief. Aren’t we justified in dismissing angels outright?
No. Those who dismiss the possibility of the existence of the angels, the most ardent materialists, do so because they believe that giving existence to anything non-material is a contradiction of terms, much like a square circle.
But, while the concept of a square circle is a contradiction of terms and unimaginable, angels are not unimaginable. And, while that does not prove their existence, it does not allow us to dismiss them outright as impossible.
In art, they have been depicted as buff warriors of the stratosphere and as chubby little babies with dove wings.
Poets have given them features both glorious and grotesque.
Over time, many have taken these artistic visions literally, leading to many misunderstandings about angelic nature, rather than understanding the artist’s figurative representation of something unseen.
Angels have been painted with bodies beautiful and corrupt to reflect the moral quality of different spirits.
They have been given wings to depict their role as messenger (“angel” literally means messenger). A glow is often added to depict their spiritual quality.
An artist often works to make a concrete representation of the abstract, but the artist does not expect us to mistake the representation for the thing represented.
Angels are purely spiritual beings, essentially minds without bodies.
The concept of angels was first introduced in the Old Testament and, later, in the New Testament.
In the book of Genesis, God is credited with creating the earth (or corporeal objects) and the heavens (things purely spiritual) with the creation of the angels occurring before the creation of man and woman.
So, what about all the cool, Twilight Zone parts of the Bible, with people seeing wheels within wheels, angels with six wings and creatures with four faces?
Some of the angelic visions in the Old Testament are just that — visions.
Daniel is visited by an angel in the form of a man, but with a body made of crystal and arms and legs of bronze. His face was like lightning and his eyes were like shining torches.
But Daniel is very clear that this was a vision of revelation sent to him by God. The angel is still acting as a messenger, but not physically present.
At other times, angels are physically present.
When three angels came to tell Abraham he was to father a son in his old age, the angels talked openly with him, ate a meal he prepared and were seen by others.
The same is true of the angels that led Lot out of Sodom and Gomorrah. It would seem that an angel can assume a body, human and otherwise, when the need arises.
But these bodily manifestations are temporary. The angel returns to its invisible nature.
An angel is finite. Its attention and its power can only be focused on one point at a time. Only God has an infinite scope, taking in all creation instantly and being able to act everywhere at once.
Then there is the famous question of medieval theologians everywhere: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
In fact, this was not an all-encompassing medieval debate.
They had better things to talk about and knew angels had better things to do with their time than hold square dances.
The question’s real origin is modern. It was invented by contemporary detractors of religious faith.
There are two questions that angels help us to explore. The first is about our own nature. There appears to be four stair steps in the chain of being:
• humans or physical beings with spirit;
• angels or finite spiritual beings;
• and God, the infinite spiritual being.
Since we are a mixture of two natures, we can learn something about ourselves by looking at the
animals below us and the angels above us.
The second question deals with death.
If the material universe is all there is, then death really is an end for each one of us and all that we are is wasted.
Sure, we may try to comfort ourselves with the assurance that we will live on in the memory of others, but that hardly compensates for the loss of our existence as a conscious person.
Most of us wouldn’t trade identity for a handful of eight-by-ten glossies. While our desire to maintain some significance beyond the grave is not enough to prove the existence of the supernatural, it should be enough to make us want to explore the possibility.
Thus the interest in angels in all ages.
Narayan Mitra is a volunteer chaplain at Thompson Rivers University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. KTW welcomes submissions to its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words in length and can be emailed to email@example.com. Please include a very short bio and a photo.