Walking through Mumbles a few weeks ago I glanced up at the noticeboard on the Christadelphian ecclesia (Mount Zion Hall) advertising the topic for the next meeting. Normally the wording takes the form of ‘What does the Bible say about x?’, where ‘x’ is a current concern, like adultery or climate change or the colour purple. On this occasion I was surprised to see a very different question, starkly put: ‘Are angels real?’ I’ve been thinking about the question and how to answer it ever since.
It never occurred to me to come back and find out what the Christadelphians had to say about the subject. In my sheltered existence I’ve not met many practising members of the sect. In fact, only one, and that was thirty years ago and more. But I do know that they’re unitarian and fundamentalist in inclination and take the contents of the Bible to be the literal words of God. So I imagine at least part of the discussion in church would have been taken up with combing the books of both testaments for instances of angels. Positive sightings, being the word of God, would presumably count as ‘real’.
Now I have to admit that I may be misrepresenting the Christadelphians, and you may think it was unenterprising of me not to take up their invitation to come to their meeting and receive enlightenment. Just as I’ve never visited the Baptist church at the other end of Mumbles to find out who’s responsible for dreaming up the famous punning posters that greet passers-by turning into Langland Road. But the benefits of joining the congregation are probably outweighed by the hazards, especially the danger of raising hopes about my persuasion or even conversion.
But to return to the question. If it had read ‘Are unicorns real?’ I’d have registered mild surprise, passed on, and forgotten about it. But angels are rather different. I don’t harbour any doubt about the unreality of God, but for some reason I started to wonder whether angels might exist, or whether they should exist, and if so, what form they might take.
Old Testament angels, usually acting as messengers, don’t give us a very promising start. Too often they appear as the hitmen of an angry, vengeful and sadistic God, descending from the skies like US Army drones to deliver acts of extreme violence. In Exodus the angel of death kills all the first-born of Egypt, humans and animals. 185,000 Assyrians are obliterated by an angel on a single night, according to the Book of Kings. The avenging angel becomes an unattractive image in Christian art, usually equipped with a long sword and a grim expression.
Things get even worse with the idea of the ‘fallen angel’, led by no less than Satan himself. His starring role, of course, came in Paradise lost, where the republican Milton’s admiration for the heroic revolutionary and rebel against high-handed authority can’t cancel out the brute fact of the angel’s pure wickedness.
When we reach the New Testament angels seem to become more appealing. It’s true that they still act as spokespersons and spin doctors for the Almighty, as in the announcements of the imminent births of John the Baptist and Christ. More interesting is their role as comforters. Jesus on the Mount of Olives, in doubt about his fate, is visited by an angel. But the angel is really more of an ambassador than a comforter, sent to put steel into Christ’s resolve. Later another angel rouses Peter and magically frees him from Herod’s prison (Acts 12), but immediately reverts to aggressive form by striking down Herod, who is eaten up by worms and dies.
Occasionally a Biblical angel acts as an intercessor or advocate for sinning man, arguing with God for leniency and a second chance, as in Job 33 and in the Peter story, where someone, incredulous that Peter is standing outside, says that it must be his guardian angel. Guardian angels become common, and sentimental, in the later Christian tradition. But do they have some use in a not necessarily religious context, as an inner psychic support or invisible friend? Thomas Browne puts this well in Religio medici, when he approves of belief in a guardian angel as ‘an opinion of a good and wholesome use in the course and actions of a man’s life … an hypothesis to salve many doubts, whereof common philosophy affordeth no solution’. I suspect many people, secretly or openly, feel that they are attended by an angel who watches over them and tries to protect them from errors and accidents. When I was a child I had an imaginary friend. I called him Leonard – the name was borrowed from a farmer who lived up in the village – and I would hold long conversations with him as I wandered in the woods and fields near our home. I would listen to what he had to say, and take his advice. My parents were in on the secret and must have been amused by Leonard, though they probably hoped that he would grow up and leave – as he did, in the end. I don’t seem to have had an angel since, but on reflection it wouldn’t be a disaster if one wandered into my life at this late stage.
Curiously, whatever private uses they have, angels have largely dropped out of public life today. I can’t think, for example, of many recent novels that feature them. The ones that come to mind, maybe significantly, were written, ostensibly at least, for children: David Almond’s Skellig and Philip Pullman’s His dark materials. Pullman’s angels, Balthamos and his lover Baruch, in rebellion against the Authority, are gentle souls who help Will in his search for the captured Lyra; both of them die, but they achieve their goal. But throughout the books there are other, inner angels, whom Pullman calls ‘daemons’ (a term borrowed from Socrates’ inner voice), creatures physically attached to the main characters who act as a conscience or adviser at times of crisis.
Almond and Pullman’s angelic beings are secular and psychological. They aren’t agents or messengers for a deity, but rather expressions in the personal imagination of alternative sources of wisdom or advice, or a moral compass. I wonder whether they reflect a not uncommon phenomenon in the lives of many people, little spoken of – but real enough?