A History of Angels

By Tim Lambert

Angels are intermediaries between God and human beings. (The word angel is derived from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger). The study of angels is called Angelology.

Angels in the Bible

The Bible often mentions angels. Angels are mentioned 273 times. The Bible says that human beings were made a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5). According to the Bible angels are powerful (Psalm 103:20). They are also wise (2 Samuel 14:20) although they don’t know everything. The Bible also says there are a vast number of angels (Daniel 7:10).

However, the Bible forbids the worship of angels (Revelation 19:10) Worship of angels was called angelolatory.

Only two angels are mentioned by name in the Bible. They are Michael and Gabriel. In the Bible Michael is the only angel called an ‘archangel’ (Jude verse 9).

According to Christian tradition, Satan was once an angel but he rebelled against God and was cast out of Heaven. (Although it doesn’t specifically say in the Bible that Satan was once an angel). About one-third of the angels went with him (Revelation 12: 1-9). The Bible says that Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) although it also says that one day God will punish the Devil and his fallen angels (Matthew 25:41).

Angels are pure spirits without physical bodies (although angels sometimes appear to and interact with human beings). According to the Bible, angels were created before the material universe and they were present when it was created. (Job 38:1-7 says sons of God (angels) sang for joy when God created our universe.) Angels also worship God (Psalm 148:2). Jesus said that angels do not marry (Matthew 22:30). They also do not die (Luke 20:36).

According to the Bible angels sometimes helped individuals. Two angels saved Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family before the city of Sodom was destroyed (Genesis 19:15-16). An angel provided Elijah with food and drink (I Kings 19: 5-8) Daniel was thrown into a den of lions but God sent an angel to shut the lion’s mouths and save his life (Daniel 6:21-22). Psalm 34:7 says that angels protect those who fear God.

In the New Testament Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and the Devil tempted him but afterward, angels cared for him (Matthew 4:1). While Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane in mental anguish because he was about to be crucified an angel came and strengthened him (Luke 22:43). An angel rescued Peter from prison (Acts 12:6-10). Hebrews 1:14 states that angels are ministering spirits. Furthermore, Jesus said that angels rejoice every time a sinner repents.

Some churches believe that each person has a guardian angel. Jesus said that children’s angels see the face of his Father in Heaven (Matthew 18:10). The Catholic Church has a Feast of the Guardian Angels on 2 October.

According to the Bible, angels acted as messengers from God to human beings. In the Bible, an angel appeared to the father of John the Baptist and told him he was going to have a son. The angel identified himself as Gabriel and told him he would be dumb until the child was born as a punishment for not believing the message. (Luke 1:13-20). The same angel appeared to Mary and told her she would give birth to Jesus. Angels announced the birth of Jesus to a group of shepherds (Luke 2:8-16). An angel also announced the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28: 1-7).

The appearance of an angel is called an angelophany. Angels also appeared in people’s dreams. In the Old Testament, Jacob dreamed of a ladder from Earth to Heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28: 11-12). (The artist William Blake made a famous painting of it in 1800). In the New Testament while Paul was asleep onboard a ship an angel appeared to him in a dream and warned him that the ship would be wrecked but everyone on board would survive (Acts 27;23-24).

According to the Bible, angels can take on human form and can even be mistaken for human beings (Hebrews 13:2). When two angels went to Sodom to rescue Lot and his family the inhabitants of the city mistook them for human beings (Genesis 19: 4-5). However, Isaiah saw angels called Seraphim with wings (Isaiah 6:2). 

Normally angels were invisible. In the Old Testament, a prophet called Elisha was staying in a city and the king of Syria sent an army to kill them. Elisha’s servant was terrified but Elisha asked God to open his eyes. Elisha’s servant then saw they were surrounded by horses and chariots of fire, in other words, an angelic army (2 Kings 6:17).

However, angels did not always bring comfort. In the Old Testament, an angel destroyed an Assyrian army (2 Kings 19;35). In the New Testament, an angel killed King Herod (Acts 12:23). The book of Revelation describes angels as pouring out God’s judgments on the Earth.

In the Middle Ages, people continued to believe in angels. In the 13th century, the theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote a great deal about them.

Angels in Art

For hundreds of years, angels were depicted in art. In the Middle Ages, they were depicted as human in form but with wings like birds. Among the most famous paintings of angels are The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (c 1400-1455) and The Dream of Joachim by Giotto (c 1266-1337). More recently angels appear in a painting called The Angel Standing in the Sun by J.M.W. Turner and one called When the Morning Stars Sang Together by William Blake. He also wrote a poem called The Angel.

Angels appeared in sculptures. In 1495 Michelangelo carved an angel from marble. The great 17th century sculptor Bernini carved statues of angels. The Angel of the North, a steel sculpture by Anthony Gormley erected in 1998.

Angels also appeared in literature. In the play Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe there are two angels, one good and one evil. They give Dr Faustus conflicting advice. William Shakespeare wrote ‘I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.’ (Henry VIII, III:2). Angels also appear in Paradise Lost by John Milton. 

Angels also appeared in two famous films, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947).

In the 21st Century belief in angels is still common. 2 October is Guardian Angels Day.

Last revised 2023

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