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The question of angels: Winged truth or fiction?


Belief in angels has been around since recorded history. In most religions, angels are viewed as spiritual, bodiless, immortal beings that are limited in knowledge and power. However, although they may be limited in power, angels are believed to possess far greater power than humans; and although they may be limited in knowledge, they have been around for eons and possess much greater knowledge than humans.

Emphasis on these beings is strongest in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, records that “Early Christians inherited the Jewish understanding of angels, which in turn may have been partly inherited from the Egyptians.” Additionally, according to the Encyclopedia Americana, “Islam adapted many practices from Christianity, including a belief in angels.”

Theologians generally rank angels above humans, but there is much disagreement on this point. The difference stems from what some believe is a misreading of Psalm 8:5 in the Bible, which states: “For You have made him (man) a little lower than the angels.”

Hebrews 1:14 says that angels are “ministering spirits” sent to serve man, who is made in the image of God. While it is generally agreed that angels are servants of God and messengers between God and man, their duties, among other tasks, are to protect men and nations. Also, the Apostle Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 6:3 that Christians would judge angels. And, rabbinic texts tend to agree that in spite of man’s physical body, he is ranked above angels, and not the other way around.

The idea that angels serve gods is well established in various religions. Many major gods in Hinduism and Buddhism are “accompanied by a band or court of spiritual beings,” according to the World Book Encyclopedia.

“Zoroastrianism, founded in the fifth century B.C., held that six archangels guarded the presence of Ahura Mazda,” the supreme god of the ancient Iranians, says the Encyclopedia Americana. And Wikipedia notes that the “concept of angels is best understood in contrast to demons and is often thought to be influenced by the ancient Persian religious tradition of Zoroastrianism, which viewed the world as a battleground between forces of good and forces of evil, between light and darkness.”

Christians are taught that devils, or demons, are angels that rebelled against God and, thus, are fallen.

References to angels abound in Christianity. “The New Testament includes a number of interactions and conversations between angels and humans,” says Wikipedia. The angelic hierarchy is generally ranked in descending order as seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels. Although lowest in order, the generic name “angel” is used to apply to all the other rankings.

However, given this ranking, such revered and powerful spirits as Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, who are identified as archangels, appear much lower on the scale of importance than is generally thought. In Islamic theology Gabriel holds the highest position.

In Christianity, each class of angels has a particular function. Some do nothing but worship God.

Others are messengers. Some guide humans. Some are protectors of humans, while others engage in combat with devils. But all carry out God’s commands. Although angels are bodiless, at least some apparently have the capacity to take on human form. Islam, Judaism and Christianity agree on this point. In most depictions, angels are made to resemble humans, although with wings, which artists have employed to signify their roles as heavenly messengers.

Wikipedia reports that “Daniel is the first biblical figure to refer to individual angels by name. The writer includes the names of Gabriel (God’s primary messenger) in Daniel 9:21 and Michael (the holy fighter) in Daniel 10:13. These are part of Daniel’s end-time visions and are an important part of all apocalyptic literature.”

Many other individuals from antiquity to the present-day have recorded encounters with angels. Gabriel is said to have appeared to Muhammad, Islam’s founder, in the year 610. Joseph Smith, who founded the Latter Day Saints movement, based much of his teaching on an encounter with an angel named Moroni. Jacob, Daniel and Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as other biblical figures are said to have encountered angels.

The belief that people die and become angels has been perpetuated by both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Baha’i faith, which believe that angels were once human.

However, this doctrine clashes with other doctrines, which teach that angels are a class of created beings separate from humans. Whatever the truth, there are many cases of unexplained appearances by mysterious beings in times of distress.