Inklings of Truth


Flights about Angels

By Audrey Stallsmith

Although Shakespeare coined the phrase “flights of angels,” I plan to address a few of the modern flights (fancies) about angels. As I didn’t get to watch Highway to Heaven when it debuted back in the ‘80’s, I recently ordered a few episodes through my Blockbuster account. I was disappointed to discover that, in this Hollywood portrayal as in many others, angels are assumed to be humans who have died.

"The whole point of an angel,” as Charles Williams writes in Witchcraft “was that he was not a man, and in that sense no man ever could or can be an angel.” But I can understand why filmmakers prefer to portray the heavenly messengers that way. 

Viewers understandably have a difficult time identifying with beings that aren’t human. So the media has attempted to turn angels into pillow-y and protective presences that are there to support, but make no demands. Even people who would rather not deal with God Himself have welcomed this fluffier version of the supernatural!

In one episode of Highway to Heaven, for example, Smith seems to imply that a woman’s affair with a married man was okay since she loved that man. He reproves the woman’s minister father for remaining estranged from his daughter because of her illegitimate child. 

Granted, the father shouldn’t have broken off contact. But it bothered me that the daughter never showed any sign of the repentance she would have to exhibit to receive God’s forgiveness. 

In the end, the minister’s new softness of heart apparently softened his head as well, because he began to preach that we shouldn’t judge other people’s methods of worship. (Any more, apparently, than we should judge their immoral choices!) I have to wonder how he would condone cultures that ripped the hearts out of their human sacrifices or threw their babies into the fire--all as methods of worship.

Sorry, people, but adultery is still a sin whether or not there is any love between those who commit it. Heresy is still heresy. And good angels don’t make their own rules.  They just enforce God’s.   

In fact, in Scripture--as C. S. Lewis points out in the preface to The Screwtape Letters--“the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’” In other words, when God’s messengers appear with no effort to disguise what they are, they basically scare people silly. 

Having come from His presence, they channel His purity and power, and must be searing to imperfect beings such as ourselves. It’s probably something like the glare of sunlight off of snow that reveals dinginess we hadn’t been able to see before. A visitation of this sort, rather than reassuring, can leave humans feeling small, dirty, and inadequate.

“The Victorian angel,” on the other hand, as Lewis points out dryly “looks as if it were going to say, ‘There, there.’”  And the “there, there” version is the one most of us prefer--for obvious reasons!

But most of the angels portrayed in the Bible come as messengers, not as comforters. (Angelus means “messenger” and the Old Testament malak interprets as “delegate” or “ambassador.”) Their dispatches are frequently shocking rather than reassuring to the recipients. 

Moses obviously wasn’t thrilled over being sent to rescue his people from Egypt. Gideon also appeared less than enthusiastic about being “knighted” to lead the Israelites into battle. Both men, in fact, hastily pointed out how unqualified they were for those dangerous assignments.

The angels often seemed impatient about this obtuseness on the part of men. As beings constantly in the presence of God, they have no difficulty believing in His power. They don’t understand how humans can be so slow to trust it. 

These supernatural envoys seldom reveal their names when asked, however. They probably don’t want humans worshipping them rather than their Master.

As Chesterton put it in his famous quote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” They don’t see themselves as being of any importance, but their Master is of ultimate importance.

Their service to Him seems to be entirely voluntary, however, since it is obviously possible for them to defy God as Lucifer did. At no point, however, have any of them ever been equal to God--in power or omnipotence.

“Devil is the opposite of angel,” Lewis notes in his preface, “only as bad man is the opposite of good man.  Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is not the opposite of God but of Michael.”

In certain cases the good angels can be downright hostile rather than just confrontational. The one who stood in Balaam’s path, for example, obviously intended to kill, if God’s message wasn’t heeded. And death angels were sometimes sent out to slaughter entire armies. So our pictures of sweet winged females obviously lack something!

In fact, being spirits, angels have no gender. A few theologians, quoting Genesis 6, believe that some of them fell through being attracted to women. That doesn’t make sense since, as genderless and bodiless beings, they would have felt no sexual desire. Although angels frequently appear in the guise of persons or even animals, their forms are simply an illusion assumed for the benefit of those they have come to help.

“The angels,” Lewis points out, “have no senses; their experience is purely intellectual and spiritual. That is why we know something about God which they don’t. There are particular aspects of his love and joy which can be communicated to a created being only by sensuous experience.”

Angels seem to lack our ability to repent as well. Perhaps because they are all intelligence, all choice? Lucifer and others apparently decided that they would rather be God than serve God. So they were expelled from His presence and reduced to taking their revenge on his creation.

Any lust they may have for human bodies is, therefore, only the desire to use those bodies as a dwelling place.  "The fallen angels," Williams writes, "are pure spirit. It is not enough for them. Good angels may properly desire, and be permitted, to influence men’s bodies. . .But the essential body they cannot enter, either as a part of it or as a quality of it. . .Nor will the angelic powers seek to outrage those holy limits. . .but it is not so with the evil angels. . .they desire to incarnate.”

After being expelled from God’s presence, after all, they became homeless. So demons, as Scripture makes clear, are always looking for a habitation. This may also be attributable to their constant envy of God, who was incarnated in a real, not an illusory human body. But, even when it appears to go against their interests, devils apparently can’t resist destroying what they inhabit.   

Good angels, on the other hand, have their abode with God--and apparently beside humans as well. Rather than trying to possess and annihilate us, however, they act as our advisors and protectors. The Bible gives some indication that each believer has his/her own guardian.  (“Beware that you don’t look down upon a single one of these little children. For I tell you that in heaven their angels have constant access to my Father.” Matthew 18:10)

We have a hard time understanding how an angel can be in the presence of God and with us at the same time. That probably is because we still envision heaven as a physical place located somewhere above us.

In reality God is omnipresent (“in all places at all times”), except in those humans and fallen angels who choose to keep Him out. But the emptiness of the former is, as Scripture points out, very attractive to the latter. (Luke 11:24-26)

Chesterton once said that the best way to deal with the unconscious was to be unconscious of it. Perhaps it is also best for humans if we remain largely ignorant of the unseen beings that wage a constant struggle over the souls of men. People who dabble in the spirit world, after all, tend to get themselves in serious trouble. 

But we should also refrain from trying to turn angels into our own personal pets. Yes, we can ask God to send them to help us. However, His representatives are going to aim at the same goal He does--our repentance and purification. 

So, in some cases, their presence may be more racking than reassuring. But we need to remember that the company of good is always painful to evil. (Remember how the demons often begged Christ not to torment them?)

So we shouldn’t be surprised if the angelic message we receive isn’t the one we wanted to hear. Would God really be good if He told us that the evil remaining in us is okay? No, with our permission, He and his messengers will work hard to eradicate it instead. But we can rest assured that they are motivated, always and only, by the ultimate love.

As for Highway to Heaven, do I still watch it? Certainly. I prefer any shows which attempt to address the subject of God over those that choose to ignore His existence altogether. And Smith's habit of referring to Him as the Boss may serve to remind us that God is always the One--and only One--in charge.