People believe pretty much what suits them. Dogma follows popular opinion more than we like to admit. Such is the current teaching on angels: wings, halo, hierarchies and all.
When the Sadducees challenged Jesus on the resurrection of the righteous, he said that their interpretation of Scripture was wrong, in that an afterlife in which they did not believe was clearly supported in the Torah. They jeered at him suggesting that a widow who marries seven brothers in succession must, at the resurrection, have seven husbands. Jesus replied that they had misunderstood the nature of the resurrection: that men and women after death are not bound in marriage but are like the angels.
Note that Jesus did NOT say that people become angels after death. He said they are like the angels, in that they are no longer bound by marriage. Nonetheless, popular theology has seized on this to perpetuate a sort of ancestor worship in which our loved ones are, upon presentation at the Pearly Gates o' Heaven, equipped with stork's wings and a halo and perhaps even a harp on which to strike hymns of praise, and then hover around us giving aid in times of trouble.
I do not say that we are not surrounded by the messengers of God, or that angels are not helping us in times of trouble. I am only saying that there is scriptural evidence that dead people do not become angels. And certainly there is NO support whatever for the maudlin concept that dead people work their way to the higher echelons of angelhood by the performance of Good Works. Please do not quote ZuZu from "It's a Wonderful Life"! It is to gag....but there is ample evidence in popular literature from the 19th and 20th century to show that people generally think of their departed loved ones as being on the way to becoming angels. In fact, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) claimed that a soul of a man and a soul of a woman who are happy in marriage enter heaven and become an angel. This despite the testimony of Jesus that men and women are not given in marriage after death.
Ezekiel encountered some pretty fearsome creatures in the presence of God. They looked, from Ezekiel's point of view, like giant wheels, like things with six pairs of wings, like animals with four faces on one head, like men. Cherubim, for example, are shown in sculpture as being part cow and with wings. Saint John Chrysostom suggested that angels could be portrayed in art as having wings to show that they are capable of rapid translocation throughout the world. This is not to say that angels are ever considered to be winged human beings. One might just as logically show angels as being equipped with divinely-fueled jet-packs.
Winged supernatural guardians are actually a pagan image. The Goddess Ishtar (she of the Festive Evergreen Tree) was attended by winged genii. These genies became part of Muslim tradition and a cherished part of Western mythology, not to mention vintage television.
There is one odd prophetic vision in Zechariah 5:5-11
Then the angel who was speaking to me came forward and said to me, "Look up and see what this is that is appearing."
I asked, "What is it?"
He replied, "It is a measuring basket." And he added, "This is the iniquity of the people throughout the land."
Then the cover of lead was raised, and there in the basket sat a woman!
He said, "This is wickedness," and he pushed her back into the basket and pushed the lead cover down over its mouth.
Then I looked up—and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings! They had wings like those of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth.
"Where are they taking the basket?" I asked the angel who was speaking to me.
He replied, "To the country of Babylonia to build a house for it. When it is ready, the basket will be set there in its place."
It is one of those Biblical word puzzles. The wickedness that most often afflicted Israel was the secret worship of Ishtar. In this vision, she is taken away for imprisonment by her own ministering genii. This is the ONLY place in the Bible where angels are described as female and having big wings, and they have the specific task of jailers for a pagan goddess.
Cherubim are sometimes confused with putti in popular literature, shown as fat babies with wings. This is because Jesus said that the angels of children are always before the face of God. (Matthew 18:10) Jesus did not, however, say that children BECOME angels who are forever before the face of God; he said not to despise children because there are angels associated with children who are intimately associated with God. This is as clear a reference to Guardian Angels as Scripture ever gets, at least in the Official Canon, except for Psalm 91: 9-12
- If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the LORD, who is my refuge-
- then no harm will befall you,no disaster will come near your tent.
- For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;
- they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."
When Jesus was confronted by Satan during his 40-day fast in the wilderness, the devil used this Psalm to tempt him to test whether God keeps His promises. Jesus replied that one shouldn't test God, implying that the angels have a rather different agenda than what human nature might prescribe for them.
Lots of different cultures believe in angels.
- Latin "angelus" which means "messenger"-
- Greek "angelos" which means "messenger"
- Ancient Greek: ἀσώματοι, the bodiless ones.
- Hebrew and Arabic "Melakh", meaning "messenger"
- there is another Hebrew word used in association with angels: "Gil-Gulim", meaning revolving, like a wheel.
- Taoists pray to angels and offer them veneration in exchange for protection
The various mystical cults of Judaism and Christianity have elaborated extensive genealogies and hierarchies for angels, and the Bible does intimate that there are different kinds of servants of God. However, the Apostles warned about giving too much attention to these theories.
- "Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions."
- "Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth."
Christian tradition has given rise to nine "Choirs" of angels, which categories are derived from words used in various parts of the Bible to describe spiritual warfare, ministering spirits, angels and fallen angels. I am pretty certain this is what Saint Paul was calling "idle notions".
Scripture almost always describes the messengers of God as resembling humanity, although people frequently immediately recognize that these are NOT people, but angels. Sometimes people in Scripture who encounter angels are terrified, and sometimes they invite them to lunch! There is an admonition on hospitality from Hebrews 13:2
- "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."
Buy a homeless person a burger, then, even if he or she doesn't have wings, a halo and/or a harp.