I get asked about angels a lot. A lot. Probably too much. People have a great interest in ’em. Sometimes it’s unhealthy; namely when they’re far more interested in angelology than in Jesus.

But to a point it’s understandable. I mean, here are these spirit beings, and—from what we’ve been told about ’em—they’re around us all the time. People figure we have guardian angels, who are watching us constantly… and shaking their heads in disapproval every time we sin. Others imagine they have a shoulder angel, who’s constantly whispering correction in their ear (and no, that’s the Holy Spirit, and he’s not on your shoulder either).

Far too commonly, they think angels are dead people. Yep. Ghosts. Usually dead family members; usually beloved dead family members, ’cause they certainly don’t wanna imagine their creepy uncle has become an angel and can now watch ’em shower. Ghosts, but not ghosts; they’ve had an upgrade, and popular art imagines ’em with wings and halo and a bright nightgown, even though we usually figure yeah, they don’t really look like that. But we imagine they look down on us, approvingly or not; and come down to intervene from time to time.

Despite what the Mormons tell you, angels are not dead humans. They were never human. Whole different species. In fact, from the scriptures, there appear to be several species of angel. Medieval Catholics referred to these differences by the Latin word chorus, “character”—which evolved into their word choir, and left most westerners with the false idea angels are bunched into different singing groups. Kinda like the various a capella groups at an Ivy League school. But yeah, that’s why various music pastors insist angels are primarily interested in singing. No; that’s them projecting their favorite form of worship upon angels. Some angels sing. Some don’t.

Our word angel comes from the Greek >ἄγγελος/ánghelos, “agent” or “messenger.” It translates the Hebrew מַלְאָךְ/malákh, which also means “agent” or “messenger.” In the Old Testament, God uses both humans and spirits to share his messages. We tend to call the humans prophets, and we just assume all angels prophesy. ’Cause whenever they appear to us, that’s typically what they do.

There are angels in the bible, and because the bible’s about the LORD and his relationship with humans, it doesn’t go into any detail about what an angel is, how it works, how many eyes it has (for some of them, lots), how many wings it has (if any!), and what they do for fun. Because the bible’s not about angels. They exist, so they’re in there, but most of the “information” humanity has about angels comes from personal experience, if they’ve had any; or fiction. Arguably more Americans “know” about angels from the old TV shows Touched by an Angel or Supernatural than from scripture—and those shows, regardless of how much data they tried to pull from bible (and Supernatural didn’t even try), are fiction.

Angel mythology.

As with most things in Christianity, the Jews started it. In their Enoch stories, they claim the LORD sent a certain species of angel, called a watcher, to come teach humanity his Law. Problem is, the watchers started having sex with the humans, producing nefilim. Enoch told on ’em, and as his reward the LORD took him to heaven Ge 5.24 and transformed him into his head angel, Metatrón. If you’ve never heard this story before, I’m not surprised; Christians tend to dismiss it as ridiculous. But Jesus’s brother Jude knew it, and quoted from it.

Christians tend to dismiss the Enoch stories in favor of our own myths. Paradise Lost, fr’instance, tells of Satan rebelling against God, and the angels which took its side. The Divine Comedy depicts these fallen angels in hell already. Medieval artists loved to mix angels up with ancient Greco-Roman religion, and turned ’em into Greek gods, or dimons, but with wings. And of course Mormons claim they’re dead humans.

Well, let’s deal with the more popular angel myths. The bible may not always tell us what angels are, but we can certainly tell you what they’re not.

DEAD HUMANS. And it’s not just Mormons who claim this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians state, with great conviction, their grandma or dad or not-creepy uncle is in heaven, now an angel, watching over ’em. They take a lot of comfort in the idea. It gives me the willies, but that’s me. Too many dysfunctional relatives, I guess.

Part of this comes from misinterpreting Jesus’s statement about what we’ll be like once we’re resurrected.

Luke 20.34-36 KJV
34 And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: 35 but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: 36 neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.

To their minds “equal unto the angels” means they become angels. No, it’s not what Jesus means. Resurrected—not dead—humans are gonna be like angels, in that we won’t die and won’t marry. Nothing more.

Some of this becoming-angels idea is also proof-texted from when an angel broke Simon Peter out of prison, Ac 12.1-17 and when Peter later showed up at a fellow Christian’s house, the Christians initially wouldn’t believe it was him.

Acts 12.15 KJV
And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel.

“Aha,” they’ll insist, “these Christians thought Peter had been executed already, and became an angel, so now it was Angel Peter visiting them.” No; and since the Law forbade Jews from making contact with the dead, Dt 18.11 this interpretation makes no sense. Far more likely they meant it wasn’t Peter at the door, but Peter’s messenger—which is after all what ánghelos literally means. The servant, they figured, confused Peter’s courier with Peter himself.

Anywho. This idea the dead become guardian spirits, is found all over humanity. It’s in ancient Greco-Roman religion, ancient Chinese religion, ancient American religions; it’s everywhere. Most religions either still teach it, know of it, or adapted parts of it into their own religions. It’s entirely based on wishful thinking. Pagans don’t want their loved ones to be gone! They wanna imagine whatever afterlife they’re in, they still get to look out for their loved ones. But our scriptures indicate no such thing. Jesus did not become an angel after he died, nor when he was resurrected. And the author of Hebrews makes it crystal clear Jesus wasn’t an angel before he was born either. He 1-2 (Despite what various Christians claim about the Angel of the LORD—which I’ll discuss elsewhere.)

ANGELS ARE GOOD! The prevailing myth is angels are always, always good. Demons, not so much. But angels are definitely good, benevolent, truthful beings, which will always lead us in the right direction, so we can always trust ’em.

Both Islam and the Latter-day Saints were founded when angels appeared to their prophets. And both of these prophets uncritically accepted everything these angels told ’em. Now, various Christian apologists insist these stories about angels appearing to ’em are total lies… but I don’t see any reason to think their founding prophets were lying. Those angels, on the other hand, are another thing.

That’s why John taught this:

1 John 4.1 KJV
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

He wasn’t accusing the prophets of being liars; he was accusing them of uncritically accepting everything they were told. Spirits must be tested. Not all of ’em come from God! Some do, but others are only out for themselves, or evilly wanna hurt God by corrupting humans further. (And yeah, I’ll discuss fallen angels later.)

ANGELS ARE HIGHER, BETTER, OR IN CHARGE. Often the reason people will uncritically accept whatever an angel tells ’em, is because they believe—because they were taught—that angels rank higher in the cosmos than we do.

The medievals used to teach there’s a Great Chain of Being in the universe; that some creatures and species are better and greater and more noble and more in charge than others. God’s on the top of this hierarchy; vermin’s on the bottom. Humans are somewhere in the middle. But above us, between God and humanity, there are angels. And we gotta follow this proto-food chain: If angels tell us what to do, we gotta do it.

True, in the scriptures, angels are usually telling humans what to do, or have charge over us, and our churches, and our nations, and so forth. One popular myth is the devil used to be the angel in charge of the planet, and even though it went wrong it’s still kinda in charge; it’s what Paul and Timothy meant by “the god of this world.” 2Co 4.4 But I remind you the devil’s a dirty liar, and any claims it has of ruling the world are meant to mislead us. Jesus conquered the world, remember? Jn 16.33

Now yes, God puts angels in charge of stuff. Same as he puts us Christians in charge of stuff. And we might imagine God has created a giant efficient hierarchy, with angels above us just like the pope’s above his cardinals. It’s how we would arrange things if we were in charge, as demonstrated by the corporations we create which have presidents and vice-presidents and so forth. But it’s not the way God arranges his kingdom. In the kingdom, leaders are servants. Angels are “in charge” in the same way we’re to be in charge: We serve everybody else. Yep, it’s biblical:

Hebrews 1.14 KJV
Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Those “heirs of salvation,” by the way, means us. Us humans. Us Christians. And since we Christians are also to be servants, Mt 23.11 we’re also sent forth to minister to others who will inherit salvation. We’re all servants. All equals, humans and angels alike.

Revelation 22.8-9 KJV
8 And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. 9 Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God.

We don’t serve angels. We don’t worship ’em either. Neither is in charge. We submit to one another and obey God.

In fact Paul and Sosthenes stated humans will someday judge angels. 1Co 6.3 Given the context, probably at the End. What we’ll judge them on, I dunno. Many assume we judge ’em for how well they served God, or us. Certainly we’ll be judged for how well we served God, and one another; stands to reason angels will too.

So let’s not fixate on which angel is mightier, or higher, or rules what, or what they’re in charge of. The important thing is whether they serve God. And they might not be, so test ’em.

ANGELS HAVE SUPERPOWERS! Some Christians have actually put together lists of all the miraculous powers angels have. Which, speaking for myself, I find ridiculous. You do realize the Holy Spirit empowers all of ’em, right? And that he likewise empowers us?—that we can do any miracle an angel can do? But of course humans covet power, so of course they’re gonna be fixated on this sort of thing. Inappropriately.

From what we can tell in the scriptures, angels are spirits. (Although some species of angels might not be. But that’s entirely debatable, and I won’t debate it here.) Spirit means they’re not physical, and therefore don’t share certain characteristics with physical beings: They’re not naturally visible. They won’t die. Some of ’em (the myths claim all of ’em, but we don’t know this) have been around since God created the universe, which means they’re billions of years old and know way more about God than we.

But as far as miracles are concerned, I believe they’re no more supernatural than humans. Which is saying a lot. With the Holy Spirit’s power, humans can do all sorts of supernatural things. And just as a human needs the Holy Spirit before we do these mighty acts, angels need the Spirit for the very same reason. It’s not an inherent power angels have; they can’t do a thing unless God empowers them to do it.

Which is why Satan, lacking the Holy Spirit, has to resort to trickery and deception so it can appear way more powerful than it is.

Angel species.

I already mentioned there’s more than one species of angel. Most of us assume they look like humans, ’cause that’s how various angels are described in the New Testament. They’re not even described as angels; they’re “men in white.”

Acts 1.10-11 KJV
10 And while [the apostles] looked stedfastly toward heaven as [Jesus] went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11 which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.

The Men in White look like humans. They seem to have showed up at Jesus’s resurrection, in Revelation, and various other Old Testament appearances where a prophet didn’t initially realize an angel was talking to ’em. Daniel even describes the angel Gabriel as a man, Da 9.21 so apparently he’s one of them. Now whether this is these angels’ ordinary everyday form, or whether the Spirit’s making them temporarily look human for the sake of passing down messages, we have no idea.

Otherwise the bible describes

SERAPHS, which are six-winged fiery serpents, kinda like Chinese dragons.
CHERUBS, which most ancient cultures depicted as lions with human heads and eagle wings… and which medievals depicted as baby Cupids.
SONS OF GOD, who aren’t literal sons any more than we humans are, but who appear to report to God, and do certain duties for him.
WATCHERS, who only appear in Daniel and the Enoch myths.
ELDERS, 24 of whom are seen in Revelation.
LIVING CREATURES, namely those four-headed beings which surround God’s throne.
ARCHANGELS, which just means “head angels,” which are probably princes over the other angels. Michael’s the only head angel we know by name, and tradition gave a few other angels, like Gabriel, a promotion to head angel… but whether God sees ’em that way is another deal.

And there are titles Paul and Timothy used for authority. Christians, looking for anything about angels or spirit beings in the bible, have presumed the apostles were writing about more species of angel, so they tend to get included in most folks’ lists: “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers.” Cl 1.16 No, these aren’t properly spirits. These are human titles. But certainly spirits can commandeer them.

It’s because we Christians insist on filling in the blanks this way, that we get all the angel myths. And why we have to get back to what the scriptures actually do say.