An Introduction to Angels
Time magazine recently noted, “If there is such a thing as a universal idea, common across cultures and through the centuries, the belief in angels comes close to it.”
Angels do indeed make one of the most intriguing subjects one could study. We agree with leading philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and architect of The Great Books of the Western World series, who stated that angels were more fascinating than either science fiction or the concept of extraterrestrial beings. Why is this?
According to the Bible, angels have helped to shape the course of human history and continue to do so today. Consider the fallen angel in the Garden of Eden who slyly engineered the moral fall of the entire human race (Gen. 3). Angels mediated the Law of Moses, which altered the course of the Western world (Acts 7:53; Heb. 2:2). And there have been thousands of angelic encounters throughout history—good and evil—in the lives of ordinary and famous individuals, including Abraham Lincoln, boxer Evander Holyfield, and rock stars like George Harrison of the Beatles and renowned rock guitarist Carlos Santana, who invokes the presence of angels before each concert. Noted mystic William Blake said he was under the guidance of angels night and day.
Terrifying angels fill the book of Revelation. Their power over nature and humanity is so awesome that it is difficult to comprehend (Rev. 8:6-12; 9:15). Angels helped Jesus Christ in His wilderness and Gethsemane temptations, and they assisted the early church (Matt. 4:6, 11; Luke 22:43; Acts 10:22; 12:7). Clearly, the world is quite literally alive with angels. Directly or indirectly, angels have appeared in nearly every civilization and culture. They have played a role in almost every world religion and are more active in human affairs than people may at first suspect. The “Angel Gabriel,” for example, gave Muhammad the anti-Christian revelations in The Qur’an, which now influence over a billion Muslims. So who can ignore the subject of angels?
Until recently, however, angels have been ignored in most quarters, even by the church, in whose Scripture angels play a vital role. When Billy Graham wrote his bestselling book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, he was surprised at how few books existed on the subject. He said that he had never once heard a sermon preached about them.
Even when the Syntopicon was published (a topical volume on 102 great ideas or themes covered in The Great Books of the Western World), the subject of angels came close to being omitted. Despite the influence of angels throughout history, and though angels are a recurring theme in the writings of world religions and history, the publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Senator William Benton, and Robert Hutchens, president of the University of Chicago, along with other members of the advisory board, were either incredulous that such an idea should be considered, or they voted it down. Only the insistence and perseverance of one of the great philosophical minds of our own century, Mortimer Adler, prevented the idea from being omitted. As a result, angels became the first subject discussed in the Syntopicon.
Adler’s lecture on “Angels and Angelology,” which was given at the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, drew a larger audience than any he had experienced in 30 years. That lecture became the impetus for his 1982 book, The Angels and Us.
Today, angels are no longer ignored. In theater, television, literature, film, art, and music, angels are back in the popular mind, even among skeptics, who sometimes can’t seem to help themselves!
We think this is to the good for at least three reasons. First, angels inherently remind people of God and of their responsibility to Him. Second, the very subject of a race of spiritual beings brings to mind some of the deepest personal questions man has asked throughout history. If angels exist, then there certainly are higher forms of life in the universe; and perhaps people may think we didn’t evolve naturalistically from primordial interstellar gases. If angels exist, then a spiritual universe exists, which logically carries us back to profound questions about God as Creator and related questions such as “Who am I? Where did I come from? What is the purpose of my life? Where am I going when I die?”
A third reason why angels should not be ignored is because not all angels are good. People need to know this today more than ever before. The Bible reveals the number of evil angels is very large (Rev. 12:3-4, 7-9); one out of every three may be malicious (Rev. 12:4).
The Bible tells us there were rebellious angels in heaven. They chose to follow Satan and were cast from heaven with him. In the future, they will once more wage “war in heaven” against the good angels. But once again, “they [will not be] strong enough,” and “Satan… [will be] thrown down to the earth, and his angels… with him” (Rev. 12:7-9 NASB).
For most people, however, the idea of an evil angel is a self-contradiction, like dry water or cold heat. Aren’t all angels good just because they’re angels? But what if all aren’t good? Given their numbers and influence, if we don’t take time to consider at least the possibility of evil angels, any of us may suffer for it.
When human history is over, and all is said and done, the influence of angels in this world—despite their invisibility—will probably be more obvious and certainly more profound than we suspect. As noted theologian J. I. Packer recently commented, “Both as communicators and as guardians their work is ordinarily unnoticeable, and not until we get to heaven shall we know how much we owe to it.”
Today, however, there is an increasing popularity in angels and angelic encounters. In 2006, seven million teens claimed to have encountered an angel, demon, or some other supernatural being. The same study revealed that 89% of American teenagers believe in angels, reflecting a growth from about three-fourths of teenagers just a few years earlier.
These beliefs are also found among the parents of today’s teenagers. An August 2007 Pew poll found that 68% of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” In a separate survey by Baylor University in 2008, a poll of 1,700 respondents found that 55% of Americans, including one in five of those who say they are not religious, believe that they have been protected by a guardian angel during their life.
Recent television shows, such as Supernatural, Saving Grace, and TNT’s Angel continue to popularize angel themes in popular culture. From the classic It’s a Wonderful Life to the latest hit films, angels often appear in roles that fascinate cause imagination in the minds of many.
There are several reasons for this popularity. First, this generation has witnessed a dramatic spiritual awakening, which includes everything from Christianity to the New Age Movement to the darker forms of the occult. This has undoubtedly increased interest in the subject of angels and spirits in general.
Second, there is an associated fascination with the subject because of its larger implications, such as through the questions we raised previously. Third, a preexisting belief system for angels is already in place from Christian, pagan, and almost every other religious tradition. For example, most Roman Catholics are brought up to pray to their guardian angels, and holidays like Christmas and Easter recall angel stories year after year.
Fourth, as people are searching for answers and meaning to life, angels are thought to play a vital role in providing those answers. There is even a growing movement which teaches that angels reside within us and are waiting for us to use them to tap our human potential, enhance creativity, provide psychological fulfillment, and spiritual self-enlightenment. Thus promoters of angel contact offer people what they want and need in troubled times: assurance, love, and guidance. For example, “The angels hold the answers to many of our questions,” and “spiritual help is always available from the angels.” Or, “The angels want us to become enlightened…” and they “are the caretakers of our souls…. Their wonderful love [is] everywhere.”
Fifth, angels by definition can interact with us. The purpose of the good angels is to help us, and the goal of the evil angels is to deceive us.
Sixth, in many people’s minds, there exists a prior assumption that angels are only good, and therefore, contacting them is also only good and without risk. If angels really can be contacted, why not? Could there be a greater spiritual adventure?
- Nancy Gibbs, “Angels Among Us,” Time, December 27, 1993, p. 58.
- In Marilynn Carlson Webber and William D. Webber, A Rustle of Angels: Stories About Angels in Real Life and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 19.
- Angels II: Beyond the Light, NBC special, 30 October 1994, 7:00 p.m., host, Stefanie Powers.
- cf., John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Facts on Islam (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1992).
- Billy Graham, Angels: God’s Secret Agents (Dallas: Word, 1975), p. 17.
- In Webber and Webber, A Rustle of Angels, pp. 9-10.
- cf., M. Cameron Gray, ed., Angels and Awakenings: Stories of the Miraculous by Great Modern Writers (NY: Doubleday, 1994), pp. xv, xvi.
- cf. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Facts on Creation vs. Evolution (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993).
- Timothy Jones, Celebration of Angels (Nashville: Nelson, 1994), p. xii.
- “Most Americans Believe in Guardian Angels,” ABC News, September 18, 2008. Accessed at http://abcnews.go.com/US/Story?id=5833399&page=1.
- David Van Biema, “Guardian Angels Are Here Say Most Americans,” Time, September 18, 2008. Accessed at http://abcnews.go.com/US/Story?id=5833399&page=1.
- Terry Lynn Taylor and Mary Beth Crain, Angel Wisdom: 365 Meditations and Insights from the Heavens (NY: HarperCollins, 1994), February 3, 13, 23; May 18; November 16 and passim.