Accept no substitutes
It was in November 1993 that I first encountered angels as a
serious problem. I was in Toronto to give a lecture on postmodern theology
at Trinity College, and the shops seemed to be full of books about angels.
Not theological books, but popular sentimental New-Age-type books in which
the worst excesses of Victorian religious art seemed suddenly to have come
Since then I have become increasingly aware of a whole angel industry
building up on both sides of the Atlantic. As an advertising feature for
last week�s "Everyman" programme on television put it: "Angels are the
biggest thing since near-death-experiences and alien abductions".
That is why I call them a problem.
Most of the stuff about angels doing the rounds at the moment has no
more to do with Christianity than do alien abductions. And Christmas -
with its heavy emphasis on angels - seems as good a time as any to tackle
the issue head on.
The English word "angel" comes from the Greek angelos, which
originally meant simply "a (human) messenger", but in the New Testament
normally refers to an other-worldly messenger from God. The equivalent
Hebrew word, malak, occurs about 200 times in the Old Testament,
and the Authorized Version of the Bible translates it "messenger" and
"angel" in almost equal numbers.
In the earliest biblical usage, the "Angel of the Lord" was a term used
to indicate the presence on earth of God himself. Only later was the angel
treated as a messenger from an absent God, and still it was singular. In
the whole Old Testament the plural "angels" is only used half a dozen
times. It is probably to Persian religion, a late influence on ancient
Israel, that we owe the familiar picture of angels as servants and
soldiers of the heavenly King, numbered in their thousands and their tens
It was the Christian Church, centuries later, that took various
biblical references, which may or may not have referred originally to
heavenly beings, and created out of them an officially recognized
hierarchy of nine orders of angels - these are the �"nine bright shiners"
of the popular song - and divided them into three choirs of three orders
each: Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Dominations, Virtues and Powers;
Principalities, Archangels and (ordinary) Angels.
These mediaeval titles still survive in the hymn "Ye watchers and ye
holy ones", but they are not the focus of interest for today�s angel
enthusiasts. These people are much more concerned with the idea of
The belief that God assigns to each person an angel to guard them in
body and soul was common among both pagans and Jews at the time of Christ.
It is mentioned in Matthew�s Gospel, where the protection is achieved by
the angel�s constantly gazing on God�s face in heaven. Today�s idea of a
guardian angel is much more "hands on", involving decidedly close
encounters. Testimonies in the recent television programme ranged from
someone being swept by an unseen body from the path of a runaway car, to
sightings of an angel followed by the discovery of white feathers about
What, as Christians in the 21st century, are we supposed to make of it
I suggest that we need to distinguish three elements in the angel
business. First, the tradition we have inherited from the Bible and the
Church. Second, the psychology of mystical and paranormal experience. And
third, the spiritual and religious use to which we ourselves may put the
notion of angels.
The first of these I have already touched on, and would only add
three brief points. First, that there is no warrant in either scripture
or theology for images of angels as chubby infants or pale young men
with two feathery wings. Second, that the "heavenly host" of angels in
Luke�s Christmas story probably relates to the stars and planets of the
night sky - a not too subtle hint that all alleged astrological forces
acknowledge, and are subject to, Christ�s kingly rule. (Matthew makes
the same point in a different way by having a star guide the
magi/astrologers to worship the Christ child.)
And third, mature Christian doctrine teaches that angels are pure
spirits, creatures who are to be distinguished both from animals, which
are purely physical, and from humans, who are part physical and part
spirit. There is no way in which any human, dead or alive, could ever
become an angel.
The psychology of mystical experience is an important and complex
subject. There is no time here to delve into it, except to say that
there is no reason to doubt that those who say they encounter angels do
tell the truth as they perceive it. Even so, the descriptions of angel
sightings seem to owe much to certain aspects of Christian art and
little or nothing to the Bible or the Church�s teaching.
Finally, what of the spiritual and religious use to which we
ourselves may put the notion of angels? I have no quarrel with their
symbolic appearance in music and art - and even in prayer - so long as
their role is always and only to direct us to God. But when interest in
angels becomes an end in itself, then Christians should have no part in
In the history of religion, angels have been seen as mediators between
heaven and earth. When God has been thought of as distant, angels have
been more important. When God has seemed close to us, there has been less
need of them.
So the present day obsession with angels is a symptom of religious
decline. It is because God seems distant, because few people have any
sense of God's presence, that they seek substitutes of various kinds. Make
your own list: superstitions, flying saucers, alien abductions, things to
take God�s place, offers to provide a way to him.
But the Christian answer is always the same: accept no substitutes.
We have only one mediator, Jesus Christ himself. He is the Way to God
and in him alone God and humanity are eternally united. And the fruit of
that union is God�s constant presence: the Holy Spirit dwelling in each of
We have no need of angelic go-betweens. At Christmas, of all times, we
cannot forget that we have Emmanuel, God with us.