Angels Make No Sense, Even For Believers. Why Does This Notion Persist?
One of the first ways I proved to myself that there was no god was when I tried to touch the angel that my mother insisted stayed with me in my room. When my mother caught me jumping on the bed trying to touch it, she told me that angels didn’t like it when you tried to touch them. “Why?” I asked. “Because they don’t” she explained, and then I was sure that they were not real, as sure as I was that the sun was in the sky.
Angels are actually a pretty complex subject, with a huge number of stories about them in many different religions. For my money, I tend to prefer the Cambodian Apsaras of Angkor Wat, as they are voluptuous and dead sexy dancers. Under traditions taken from Hinduism, Apsaras were created when the sea of milk was being churned by demons and gods. They fly without wings. I am just talking about angels in the Christian-Jewish sense for what follows.
Most Christians I know believe in angels. They are not mentioned in the creation story in Genesis, so there is no real origin for them. But angels play a prominent role in a number of stories, in both the Christian Old and New Testaments. And people believe many things about angels that are not in either Testament, but come from books of the Apocrypha, especially the Book of Enoch, which amongst other things contains the story of the fallen angels.
Maybe we should first sort out what angels are for Christians and Jews. The first reference to angels may come from Zoroastrianism. Angels fulfill the roles of celestial messengers and other functionaries. This can also be found among the minions of the gods in the Canaanite pantheon and most other pantheistic mythos. In a word, they are flunkies or courtiers.
As the “Jewish Encyclopedia” of 1906 (available at Jewish Encyclopedia) notes under the heading Angelology-Postexilic Period:
During and after the Exile, under the influence of Babylonian and Persian systems of belief, a great change becomes noticeable in the angelic lore of the Jews. The more the monotheistic idea took hold of the people—permitting no being to interfere with the absolute supremacy of YHWH—the greater became the need of personifying the working forces of life, and of grouping them in ranks around the throne of God to form His royal court. His transcendent nature demanded a more definite system of heavenly functionaries attending Him and awaiting His commands. Gradually the celestial government was formed after the pattern of the earthly one, as it presented itself, imposing and well organized, at the Persian court.
So, according to the Jews, who should know, since they made all this up, God is bureaucratic.
Maimonides, an influential Jewish philosopher and apologist of the 12th century in Spain, contested that there were 10 types of angels. Other Jewish writers thought that angels only existed for a specific task, then vanished. There are 9 angels mentioned by name in the Testaments. Many more angels are mentioned by name in the Talmud and Midrash, and angels are frequent characters in these works and other Jewish writings.
According to the Talmud, Midrash and related texts, angels existed before YHWH made the world, thus getting around their absence in Genesis. They lived below YHWH in one of the seven heavens. YHWH himself had the entire 7th heaven to himself – why he needs the extra room is not explained, but the “big guy” usually does hog the penthouse suite, even in heaven.
In form, angles can look like humans, with or without wings. Angels in the Hebrew Bible come in some wacky forms: four or six wings, animal and multiple faces, and the oddest form being the “ofamin” or “wheels” which appear in Daniel 7:9 as a beryl-colored wheel-within-a-wheel whose rims are covered with many eyes. The early Christians wrote a tremendous amount about angels, and their classification, etc. A popular one was done in the 5th century by Pseudo-Dionysius, “De Coelesti Hierarchia,” which set out 9 orders of angels. I read on one really bad Christian web site that angels were made of “energy, love and light” (Angel Focus). I suppose they captured one, put it in the blender and then measured the resultant mix. “Bartender! Bring me a double “love” on the rocks, with a twist of lime and a swizzle stick.”
Don’t ask me what angels ate, or if they slept, or even what sex they were. It’s all over the board, and none of it makes much sense. Few, if indeed any, angelologists, agree on things. Jewish references opined that angels don’t shit, which is one thing that differentiates them from demons. But they did like human women, and those “sons of god” took as wives the “daughters of men” (Genesis 6:1-5) and they had children. So I guess angels have DNA and 23 pairs of chromosomes, including x and y variants and the super chromosome 2? This angelic lust for human females was obviously a strongly held belief, because even by the time of St. Paul, some 500 years or so after Genesis was written, people were still worried about those lusty angels: "A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority [a veil] over her own head, because of the angels" (1 Cor. 11:7-10, New International Version). I guess when angels are off duty they lounge around on clouds looking for women with sexy hairstyles….? Boobs and booty don’t seem to enter the picture when it comes to angelic lust.
So, On To Why Angels Are Nonsense
The most common role of an angel is as a messenger, to deliver a message, leave some food, point out the right direction, etc. They do a bunch of useful tasks not really requiring a supranational entity. I mean if god is all powerful, couldn’t he just speak out of the air to these people who need a message? Or if he can read our thoughts, can’t he speak to us in our minds? Couldn’t he have a bush talk, burning or otherwise? Or a donkey? There is a talking donkey in the Hebrew Bible already. Why send an angel? It seems a pretty worthless job for something supposedly as powerful as an angel. It’s sort of like delivering the mail in a Lexus. It doesn’t make any sense why god needs a third party to do this.
Some Jewish writing considers angels to be necessary because if YHWH appeared himself then he would burn up the people he was speaking to with his celestial majesty. Well, that makes perfect sense. You mean he can’t control his own magnificence? Doesn’t he have an “off” switch? I thought he was all-powerful, so surely he can tone down his own brilliance so as not to incinerate his followers. It all sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Zeus and Semele, mother of Dionysus, to me. But in that myth, even Zeus could control his majesty, and it was only when Semele asked to see his full majesty that she burned up. Also, if god is omnipresent, as both Christians and Jews believe, then he is there already beside whomever he wants to communicate with. He doesn’t have to decamp from the seventh heaven and come down to earth, he is already there. So why can’t he deliver his own message? He has to wait for an angel to fly down from one of the six heavens beside him and deliver the news? Lame.
In the Hebrew version of the story, angels supposedly were responsible for the Assyrians being ravaged during the siege of Jerusalem around 700 B.C. (2 Kings 19:20-24). An angel was sent to destroy Jerusalem because David ordered a census of the people, but god really hates a good census. God called him back at the last minute (2 Samuel 24). And of course, angels were responsible for the murder of the Egyptian first born after god hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 11:1-12). This last murderous rampage in the Hebrew Bible is actually being done by YHWH himself, but Christians and later translations have sometimes added a proxy in the form of the “angel of death.” Winged angels with flaming swords guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden like supernatural bouncers so humans can’t sneak back in (Genesis 3:23-24). Angels always seem to have swords, never a Bushmaster, Glock 9mm, or AK-47s, not to mention “swords of light” – as in Jedi lightsabers, or even a muzzle loader. And there is no indication that they know kung-fu, although they may wrestle as in Genesis 32:22-32. I think that the clear language of the text says Jacob/Israel is wrestling with YHWH, but many believers can’t seem to swallow this, and contrive ways to claim the text is really referencing an angel – but they can’t defeat a human except by grabbing his genitals. Many translations miss the typical euphemistic reference (see comment on Genesis 32:25). There are a number of other similar references, as the Hebrews seemed to have some hang-ups about talking about men’s genitals except when it comes to cutting off the top bit.
So, god doesn’t always want to take the blame/praise for his killings, so he sends his hit men. Who is he kidding? Does he think people won’t blame him because the angels did it? He wiped out all humanity except one inbreeding family with a flood, but can’t get his hands dirty with some thuggish Assyrians? He sends the Babylonians to punish the Judeans and take their leaders into exile. He sends the Romans to punish the Jews and destroy their temple to YHWH, but won’t do it himself? Destroying the temple seems like ruining his own fun, since YHWH loves the smell of burning dead animals and grains (hold the yeast) and the sprinkling of blood around the altar. I wonder what he did for fun instead once the sacrificial altar was gone? Maybe he discovered the joys of marijuana or opium instead of sniffing the smoke of burning goat and wheat?
Any if you have a host of sword wielding thugs at your service, what about sending a winged angel with a flaming sword to guard from the rapacious Germans the mass of naked, cowering Jews about to be gassed in an extermination camp? How about the Cathars and Huguenots massacred by the French Catholics? YHWH will spare an angel to guard a garden, Eden, but he lets his chosen people get gassed like cockroaches or termites in an infested house? YHWH seems to spend more time beating up on his own people than he does protecting them with his bully boy angels. And then you have the bloodbath of the American Civil War, where each side claimed to have god on its side. So why not send a sword wielding angel to one side, just to make it clear where god stands on slavery?
Be that as it may, Christians and Jews consider god to be omnipotent, so he basically controls the life and death of everything. So what are the enforcer angels doing then? If god wants you to die, does he send an angel every time, to each one of us? And what is the point? If he wants you dead, you die, right? Does he really need some guy with wings and a healthy sexual appetite for human women with fashionable hairstyles to fly down from heaven and do you in with his sword? I would note that there is a real shortage of “death by sword stroke” cases in the world,. Either the angels are not so active or else they have swapped the sword in for something more applicable, like a biological weapons kit, which would help explain the Black Death and the Spanish Flu. Again, if god does control the world and has your life in his hands, why send an angel with a sword? People die in millions of different ways, but sword wounds do not appear to be one of the more frequent nowadays. Yet even modern visionaries of heaven claim that angels are still keeping their flaming swords (see “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent).
These sorts of angels are not in the Testaments, but they are very popular in the imaginations of believers. These are the angels I tried to touch as a kid. They are ALWAYS beside you, just like god in his omnipresent form. So think about it, you have god and at least one angel beside you at all times. They are there for every instance of defecation, fornication, masturbation, regurgitation, expectoration, urination, and of course every male’s favorites burping and farting.
Why are the guardian angels there? Are they a substitute for seat belts in cars? No, Christians and Jews who don’t buckle-up in cars without airbags go through the windshield face first, same as everyone else. Going into the water without a life vest and the swimming skills of a brick take Christians and Jews straight to the bottom, same as everyone else. OK, so maybe the guardian angels don’t save us from god’s ordained harm to our persons, but what about guarding us from temptation? Can Christians and Jews resist the temptation of illicit sex, of drugs and rock and roll, of homosexuality, of a desire to work on the Sabbath, of the all-consuming hunger for thick sliced, smoke cured fried bacon, because of the presence of their guardian angel? Nope, no evidence of it at all. Christians and Jews engage in these activities, except maybe for the bacon, at the same rate as everyone else.
So what exactly do guardian angels guard us from? Any ideas? Maybe they help us find our lost car keys? But in terms of dangers to our lives, there doesn’t appear to be anything. If they helped with our health, then people would pray to the guardian angel for a cure for their cancer, and avoid the hospital. We all know that this just gets you closer to god, meaning death, and doesn’t help your health at all. And Christians and Jews stub their toes, fall off the ladder, drop dishes, and go through all the other ordinary daily tribulations same as non-believers, so the guardian angels don’t seem to be doing anything except watching and listening.
Someone told me that the guardian angels are there to save you from the perturbations of or possession from demons. OK, so maybe each one of us also has their own demon who is seeking to enter our body and the guardian angel is battling them to keep us demon free. So we have three beings walking around with us; god the omnipresent, the guardian angel and a demon. Don’t they get bored? Again, if this is the case, why can’t god do it himself, or just get rid of the demons in the first place. It should be pretty simple for the creator of the universe. It’s not a question of human “free will” if you have an angel fighting the demon, and you are not aware of either. And if this is the case, then I guess demons are pretty wimpy, since they never seem to beat any guardian angels – except in a few cases when a Hollywood movie deal is on offer. I wonder if guardian angels get days off? Do they work 12 hour shifts? As the number of people increases, does god make new angels to keep up with the growing demand for guardian angels? What do they think about while they watch you sleep, shower, drive, work, etc.? Can you possibly imagine a more boring, mentally deadening job than this? Especially when you never get to do anything when there is some excitement by your guarded human, like a car crash, or falling into a piranha pond, or getting a new selection of odious STDs. Maybe they guard people from a belief in evolution? If so, that would explain quite a bit of the rampant idiocy in certain parts of America.
4. Furniture Or Draft Animals
When Ezekiel meets with YHWH, he sees four angels holding up the throne of god.
“And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings [thus]: their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle. And their faces and their wings were separate above; two [wings] of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; they turned not when they went…” (Ezekiel 1:5-12 American Standard Edition).
Does the creator of the universe really need four, four winged, four faced, calf footed, angels to cart around his throne in the seventh heaven and down to earth for the purpose of awing the local illiterates? How about a helicopter? Of just floating on a cloud? Why does he need angel propulsion? Admittedly, it’s very unclear from Ezekiel just what is going on here, as the whole description sounds like a bad LSD trip. And while we are at it, why does YHWH need a throne? Does his back get sore if he stands up all the time? Does he sit on a cushion? If YHWH appeared today in a vision to some desert living, sheep loving herder, would he be riding a Humvee with angels for tires? Since he sits on a throne, does this mean he prefers kings to the detriment of democracies or republics? He’s god the all-powerful, and he presumably doesn’t need angel powered locomotion to move about.
5. Singing Sycophants
Angels in the Testaments and in popular imagination are always singing god’s praises. If you ask a Christian what are 5 things they will do in heaven, one of them is sure to be singing. It’s the only fun thing that isn’t a sin really. And they encircle YHWH in their multitudes singing his praises in succession, according to many Jewish thinkers. But others claim that they don’t actually sing, they just praise god and occasional shout joyously. You have to wonder about someone who needs to be constantly reminded how wonderful they are.
To which all I can say is: “God, just get an iPod.”
Photo Credits: Francis Mariani