God’s Angel Armies
Yet another Hollywood production is depicting God's angels as meek. The Bible proves otherwise.
Amazon is promoting its big-budget, star-studded series Good Omens just about everywhere — from the Web and other digital platforms to old-fashioned commercials and network TV. The show’s premise centers around an angel and a demon working together to prevent Armageddon. What fun! No doubt, hilarity ensues when this oddest of odd couples put their heads — and wings — together. But the purpose here is not to tear down the film’s outrageous premise. Rather, it’s to point out that, yet again in Good Omens, our culture’s depiction of angels bears no resemblance to how these emissaries of God are described by, well, God.
The lead angel in Good Omens is played by Michael Sheen. Predictably, the prim and proper British actor portrays a worrying, fidgety, bumbling, bow-tied, somewhat effete character. And predictably, his foil is a cool and clever demon of hell.
I say “yet again” because this good-equals-weak and bad-equals-cool construct is almost always how angels and devils are depicted in film and television. Even when angels aren’t portrayed as hapless do-gooders in our culture, they’re depicted as baby-fat-covered cherubs lounging on Valentine’s Day cards or dainty and sweet ghostlike figures floating above our manger scenes.
One notable exception to pop culture’s tendency to tame and/or trivialize angels is Christopher Walken’s portrayal of the Archangel Gabriel in 1995’s The Prophecy. There’s a chilling scene when the always-creepy Walken growls, “I’m an angel…I kill firstborns…I turn cities into salt … And from now ‘til kingdom come, the only thing you can count on, in your existence, is never understanding why.”
Setting aside the screenwriter’s rather excessive poetic license, Walken’s depiction of Gabriel is arguably far closer to what the Bible tells us about these celestial beings than what Hollywood tells us. If nothing else, the scene is a sobering reminder that angels are neither bumbling nor covered in baby fat.
To be sure, there’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding angels. As such, some people dismiss or mock their existence, while others focus too much on their existence.
The Bible — which includes some 355 references to angels, cherubim and seraphim — warns against both extremes. Angels, according to the Bible, exist in a realm beyond what we see. We can only catch faint glimpses of that realm. Yet it pays to recall that a donkey saw it in Numbers 22. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego felt it. Elisha sensed it. Jesus serves as a living bridge between it and us. The danger is not in believing there are angels, or having eyes to see the spiritual realm, but rather being more interested in angels than in the One who created them.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s discuss how different the Bible’s description of angels is from what pop culture tells us about them.
The first reference to angels in the Bible is Genesis 2, which obliquely mentions that God created “the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them.”
We soon learn in Genesis 3 that angels serve as God’s guardian-sentries. After the Fall, God deployed a phalanx of angels to protect the entry point of the Garden: “He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”
God also deploys angels to guard His people. In Exodus, God promises, “I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”
“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,” in Psalm 34. “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways,” Psalm 91 explains.
In the Book of Daniel, an angel stands with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, shielding them from the flame. Daniel himself declares, “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.”
Angels also serve as God’s messengers.
They deliver messages to Gideon and David. They provide instructions to Elijah and Joshua, to Philip, Cornelius and Peter. They serve as interpreters for Isaiah and Zechariah, Ezekiel and John. They bring joyful news about unborn children to Samson’s mother, John the Baptist’s father, and of course, to Mary and Joseph.
But they are more than messengers. They are representatives of the Living God. This is most dramatically shown at Christ’s birth and resurrection.
Those who had eyes to see and ears to hear were blessed with a cosmic light show orchestrated by joyful angels: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven.’”
When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome went to anoint Jesus’ corpse, they wondered, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
An angel took care of that. “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow … The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen.’”
At the empty tomb and many other places, the Bible makes it clear that angels are given great power — and wield that power with brutal totality at times.
But to think their work as powerful instruments of justice ended with the Old Testament is to ignore what is plainly written in the New Testament.
“This is how it will be at the end of the age,” Jesus reveals. “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In Revelation, John reports the terrifying news that God has prepared “four angels” who will be “released to kill a third of mankind.”
The Bible’s message in these stories: God and His angels are not tame, and goodness should never be mistaken for weakness. It calls to mind what C.S. Lewis wrote about the Lion of Judah: “Is he quite safe?…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Indeed, these powerful and often-violent beings are good and just.
In the same chapter of Genesis that reports the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the avenging angels also rescue Lot’s family, protect them and are even persuaded to spare a nearby town.
In Genesis 21, the “Angel of God” — which some view as a theophany, as an appearance of God Himself, others as an archangel representing God — tenderly ministers to the physical and emotional needs of Hagar and her son, who have been cruelly exiled into the wilderness.
Similarly, after the spiritual battle and temptation in the desert, an exhausted Jesus is “attended” by angels.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Author of Hebrews calls angels “ministering spirits.”
Instruments of Wrath
Angels may be genderless or perhaps beyond gender, as the consensus within Christianity holds, but they are anything but effete or weak.
Again and again, the Bible depicts angels, by their mere presence, as so overwhelming and terrifying to human beings that they cause us to freeze in fear, turn mute, lose sight, fall facedown, shake or “become like dead men.”
Angels have tempers and don’t appear to possess the patience that God exhibits. Just consider Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s reasonable question as to how he and his aging wife could conceive a child: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words.”
In Acts, an angel summarily executes Herod for allowing the people to call him a god.
In 2 Samuel 24 we learn that an angel, in righteous anger, is let loose “to destroy Jerusalem” and is only restrained by a command from God Himself: “Enough! Withdraw your hand.”
The psalmist tells us there is “a band of destroying angels” that serves as an instrument of God’s “wrath, indignation and hostility.”
The Bible uses words like annihilate, destroy, strike, death, kill and fear in conjunction with angels, which explains why angels often appear in scripture with a “drawn sword,” “flaming sword,” “double-edged sword” or sheathed sword.
The fact that they are so often described as holding a sword suggests that angels are, above all, warriors. They do battle not only in the heavenlies but also here on earth — reminding us that God is not distant and detached, but defending us and fighting for us.
Consider the Exodus story, which tells us that just as Pharaoh’s army was about to overtake God’s liberated people, “the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them.” Then, a “pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel … the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side.”
After the escape across the sea, God sent an angel ahead of His people to guard them, guide them and defeat their enemies.
In 2 Kings 6, Elisha prayed for his servant — and for us — asking that our eyes might be opened to see God’s angel armies all around us: “When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. ‘Oh, my lord, what shall we do?’ the servant asked. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
No matter what Hollywood sneers, those warrior-angels surround God’s people even now — guarding us, defending us, fighting for us, ministering to us — if only we would open our eyes to see.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.