A podcast for new atheists, lifetime atheists, ex-evangelicals, truth-seekers, and free-thinkers
Episode 67: Angels – More Popular Than God?
Angels – for those extra-trying times when one imaginary friend just isn't enough. Or, to be fair, for those times when shit gets just a little too real for god to handle or care about...
And tonight, in case it isn't obvious, yes, we're talking about angels. The good, the bad, and the literally ugly. The doctrine, the folklore, and the alarmingly widespread belief that they enjoy. Angels are more popular than god, people. It's true. We have some stats to share that will blow your mind. But first... our CBB segment tonight deals with sex abuse that is surprisingly catholic church-free, but no less infuriating. So, a little trigger warning if that's a touchy subject for you. We'll also be hearing a bit about another topic I personally find triggering, but I'll shut up right now and hand things over to my cohost. Shelle, what've ya got?
In “is anyone surprised” news, Hemant Mehta writes in the Friendly Atheist blog “Southern Baptist Leaders Shut down system wide investigation into sexual abuse”. The southern baptists are having their annual meeting where they decide how much they are NOT going to respond to racism or sexual abuse within their ranks. These two problems have been sticking points for the Southern Baptists, the largest protestant denomination, for years. While they've recently announced that they've hired an outside firm “Guidepost Solutions”, they're only going to investigate “certain allegations” which are “not comprehensive.” It's worrying that the committee was put in charge of investigating itself.
A group of sexual abuse victims have gone public with their stories, and are urging the Convention to investigate these allegations. But of course, there are some within the leadership who do not wish to have this “investigation” at all: (quote from Friendly Atheist blog).
Anyone who has been following any religious sexual abuse claims will know that this idea is laughable. We know churches aren't safe. It's obvious churches aren't safe!
Another leader offered a financial objection “that the original proposal was comprehensive enough. Otherwise, he said, “This will never end. Monetarily, where does it end?”
[here's where it ends, since you asked... it ends when the victims are made whole. It ends when none of the victims have to worry about paying for the lifetime of therapy it's going to take to deal with what happened to them. It ends with you doing the right thing and doing it with an attitude of penitence, not the signature evangelical arrogance you seem to think appropriate. Does that answer your question?]
Much concern. Wow.
While the post on the Friendly Atheist was written on 6/15, ABC news has an article dated the 16th that says:
“Delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to create a task force to oversee an independent investigation into the denomination's handling of sexual abuse.
The resolution calls for the newly elected SBC president, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, to appoint the task force, which will head up a review of allegations that the denomination's Executive Committee mishandled abuse cases, intimidated victims and advocates and resisted reforms.”
“It was a sharp turn of events for the SBC's largest gathering in decades.
The SBC’s business committee had planned to refer the proposal to its Executive Committee — the same entity alleged to have failed in its response to abuse cases — but church representatives voted in the morning to put the matter before the convention floor and then approved it later in the day against only token opposition.
The task force was proposed by Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines following leaked letters and secret recordings purporting to show some leaders tried to slow-walk accountability efforts and intimidate and retaliate against those who advocated on the issue.”
It seems that the delegates to the Annual Meeting of the SBC show far more compassion and concern for their fellow Baptists than their leadership does. I hope they really hold their feet to the fire.
[Hold them upside down by the ankles and shake their pockets empty, more like]
And in “these people are the asshats of the week” department:
You know, I don't mind if parents homeschool their kids in general. Especially if one or both parents has taught school before, understand what their children need to learn, and know how to make the information needed into interesting and comprehensive lessons.
[still not school – still not learning social skills – still not learning how to function in anything that resembles a community]
Unfortunately, most Christians don't meet those expectations or don't care to. They focus more on religious indoctrination than math, history and science, leaving their children without the variety of education provided in the public schools. ON the Friendly Atheist blog, I found the story of one girl who was told to make up her own grades and high school transcript.
While I found this story on the Friendly Atheist, I followed the links to her blog, which is Cynthia Jeub dot com. Despite her struggles to find the holes in her education she seems to write very well.
[It's weird, but that IS one thing that seems to be common with homeschooling – good handwriting and written communication skills]
Cynthia, her parents, and her fifteen siblings were featured – say it with me-- on a TLC show called “Kids by the Dozen”. You know, I think TLC has some fuckery to answer for. Did anyone need to watch the antics of people whose only real goal is to have as many kids as possible?
In her blog, she describes the process:
“I was taught primarily for religious and political purposes, not to prepare me for independence in adulthood. My high school transcript, and the fact that I wrote it myself, demonstrates how little I was taught. For me, being homeschooled meant that my access to information was severely limited by what my parents thought was true. It meant that I was expected to teach my younger siblings at times. It meant such ignorance that I could not identify the subjects I had and hadn’t been taught. There was nothing to measure my knowledge against but my only teachers, my parents. They believed they could teach their children everything they would need to know, which is an arrogant thing for any one or two people to assume. The result is that I entered adulthood with incredible ignorance, naivete, and bigotry.”
At her parents' request, she went on google, found a template for a school transcript, and set about deciding how well she did in each of her classes. She'd taught herself math, but didn't think she'd done very well at it so she gave herself Bs. Since she'd never gotten a grade in anything at all, and her parents encouraged her to get as close to a 4.0 as possible, she gave all of her other classes As.
These were classes like “bible, debate, sewing, piano, and hunter’s safety.” Those were her first year classes.
“In my junior year, I wrote that I did a “publishing internship.” This meant that my dad decided to demote me from a paid position in the family business to an unpaid intern. That summer, several other high school students became unpaid interns, too, and my dad’s reasoning for demoting my sister and me was “so my kids don’t get special treatment.” I also wrote in my senior year that I had been a volunteer child counselor, which meant that I’d worked briefly at a Christian day camp in the summer to help children with performing tricks while riding horses.
Ultimately, what I was learning was how to be overwhelmed with too many responsibilities around the house. I worked for my dad and my mom, who each had to-do lists for me. I wrote this transcript to try and show that I had done schoolwork I hadn’t done. Most of my work was spent looking after the family and family business. So it was that I got into college making a poor case for my k-12 education. Once in college, I failed in many ways because my education had been inadequate. It would take several more years for me to gain the experience necessary to look back on my education with some perspective.”
I can't even imagine trying to deal with college with those huge gaps in my education. I can't even imagine dealing with the anger for being cheated out of a decent education just because my parents were scared to put me in public school where I might meet a non-Christian.
SO we're talking about angels this time and we're going to look, as we always do with things like this, at what the bible says about them and the things that people choose to believe and latch onto about them. Moreover, we are going to look that the psychological elements that drive belief in angels even among people who aren't 'particularly religious.'
There are a large number of books, both traditionally- and self-published that are either titled the truth about angels or have that phrase in the title. What I figured out in the course of researching this episode is that there are as many interpretations of what angels are and the purposes they serve as there are storefront fortune tellers who think they can look at a deck of cards and pull meaning for your life out of them.
Hell, sometimes these things show up together. I remember getting a reading once from a medium who used angel cards instead of the traditional tarot. And that's as creative as the name for them is: Angel Cards.
But angels aren't just for charlatans, sermon illustrations, and false comfort. Oh no...
“Angelic characters are as much of a primetime trope as the wacky neighbor or the wisecracking best friend. From Michael Landon’s soul-saving Jonathan on the 1980s drama Highway to Heaven to Roma Downey’s spiritual guide Monica on Touched by an Angel to the goofy denizens of the afterlife in NBC’s new comedy The Good Place, heaven seems to have been on Earth (or, at least, primetime) for ages. However, it seems like they’ve gone from being divine messengers of God to bitter, petulant teenagers.” Source: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/evolution-angels-tv-shows-938103/
Angels on TV:
And some of these shows have long lifespans. Supernatural, for example, is in its twelfth season and although FOX decided that another show, Lucifer, had finished its run, the fans disagreed and convinced the producers to continue the series for Netflix.
As for movies that deal with angels, I would love to have a full discussion just on this one, but instead, I'll just give a quick nod to one of the best lampoons of Catholic doctrine surrounding angels I've ever seen: a little movie called Dogma. I feel like the timeliness of this movie was significant. It was basically Kevin Smith telling the world to lighten the fuck up about all the supernatural bullshit that the Catholic church tries to sell people. The Golgathan Shit Demon that can be taken down with air freshener was a nice touch, as was George Carlin as a priest. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you need to watch this movie, like... today. But enough about Dogma...
The vast majority of movies about angels over the past several decades have been the feel-good, rom-com variety, but more recent ones do also have some pretty dark themes. I thought immediately of movies like City of Angels, Angels in the Outfield, and Michael, all of which now go back quite a ways. But it also occurred to me that The Prophecy movies came out around the same time so there was plenty of point/counterpoint in popular media then, too. You had John Travolta for the feel-good crowd and Christopher Walken bringing the creep factor for those who like their supernatural storytelling about angels a little darker.
The depiction of angels onscreen was, for a long time, much less sinister and often revolved around the helping and problem-solving aspects of their missions. Touched By an Angel and Highway to Heaven come quickly to mind as examples. And let's not forget good ol' Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life.
The Satanic Panic in the 1980s and 90s seems to be where the shift from benevolent guardian angels to malevolent monsters with both righteous and unrighteous intent began, with demons being in the forefront of a lot of people's attention. Authors, screenwriters, and TV producers began capitalizing on the newfound interest in supernatural topics and steered the perception of angels and demons in the direction of the sinister. And it wasn't all about popular secular media either. Frank Peretti and Roger Ellwood were two christian authors who took the concept of Angels vs. Demons and made it evangelical mainstream.
As people in general, we love good versus evil stories and when these concepts dip even a little into the realm of the supernatural, we eat it up even more. Of course, evangelicals in particular hate these kinds of interpretations of angels. They want to keep our thoughts centered on the common positive stereotypes about angels, specifically that they are humanoid in appearance, insanely beautiful but also terrifying to the eye (“don't be afraid” is a common opening line for angels, particularly in the NT). They have huge, majestic wings, wear white, flowing robes, etc. We've all seen this depiction more often than we ever wanted to.
Another thing that depictions of angels in Evangelical circles have in common is that their descriptions are very New Testament in nature. Angels exist to lend aid, give guidance, save lives, and solve problems for humans. But what does the Old Testament say about them?
In many instances where an angel shows up in the OT, they're there to wreak havoc or establish an intimidating presence. In Genesis 3, God places an angel (a cherubim with a flaming sword) as a sentry guarding the entrance to Eden so Adam and Eve can't get back in. In Exodus 12, God sends a “destroyer” to wipe out the firstborn sons of Egypt that many interpret and refer to as the “angel of death.” In Numbers 22, it's an angel waiting to kill Balaam that his DONKEY has to warm him of.
There are also examples of angels providing guidance and comfort, though. One of the examples that had an impact on me back in the day was the story of Hagar's flight from Sarai (give synopsis here). It might not have been the best advice, but at least the angel didn't kill her...
The “Angel of the Lord” Device/Trope – a term used a lot when an angel shows up in the narrative. Some think that every mention of this applies to the same angel. I think it's just a common moniker for when they need an angel in the narrative.
To be honest, researching this was a chore. Why? Because there are so many varying answers to the question “how many different types of angels are there?” that it's difficult to find commonalities. In some instances, there are two classes. In some there are three, six, eight or nine. Some of the sources I found seemed to want to rank angels like they were characters in RPGs.
Oh here's a trustworthy URL... “compellingtruth.org”
According to them, there are three types of “good” angels: Cherubim, Seraphim, and archangels. The first two seem to only exist in the OT, while the archangel model seems to appear in both the OT and NT.
Seraphim – Serve god directly. Made me think of Snoke's guards in TLJ. They're described in Isaiah 6 as having six wings. Two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet, and two for flight.
Cherubim – Multiple faces, possess both human and animal features, and, of course, wings.
Archangels – Two archangels are named in the Bible: Gabriel and Michael. Such wonderfully european names for creatures that predate europe! (yes, I know they had more appropriate names in “original” texts - it still gives me a chuckle that we have people with names like Michael, James, Peter, and Elizabeth in a book that takes place long before these names were even a thing).
There are also only 3 angels in all of scripture who are ever referred to by name: Gabriel, Michael, and Lucifer
The only four, however, that seem to show up everywhere are the ones we've already mentioned, plus fallen angels (aka daemons). Ezekiel's Ophanim (the wheel within a wheel) seems to only show up in Ezekiel 1 and possibly in revelation, although the descriptions of multi-eyed angels in both are way different. Probably because Ezekiel only had canna-bosem and John the revelator found some shrooms. There is no non-chemical explanation for either description.
Now, I gave just a snippet of what non-humanoid angels look like a minute ago. Grunge.com explains the less-talked-about aspects of angels in a marvelously vernacular sort of way, so let me defer to them in explaining this.
Christianity, throughout its history, has painted very rosy, idyllic pictures of things when the biblical accounts are far different and far less desirable. This is particularly true in how the Bible describes cherubs and how WE define them based on popular depictions in art and media.
“One of the most vivid descriptions of angels in the Bible comes from the prophet Ezekiel's inaugural vision, found in Ezekiel 1. It describes two main types of angels. The first are the cherubim (which is plural; singular is cherub). Per Medium, cherubs have been assigned a variety of tasks by God, one of the most important of which is to guard the Garden of Eden.
“Now, if you've heard of cherubim before, you probably don't think of them as the scary guard type; today, cherubs are typically depicted as chubby little babies. But the Bible disagrees. According to Ezekiel's vision, every cherub "had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle." If the combined faces of four different species aren't frightening enough, cherubs also have two sets of wings; one for flight, and the other to conceal their bodies. Additionally, per Medium, cherubs have straight legs and shiny bull hooves.
Ophanim comes from the Hebrew word for "wheels." It's a fitting name, because Ezekiel's vision suggests that some of God's angels are actually floating, eye-covered wheels. Per Ezekiel 1, "Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel... Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around." Further, the ophanim are said to "sparkle like topaz," and to hover in the air as they mimic the motion of the cherubim. Per Ezekiel, both the cherubim and ophanim help to guard the throne of God himself. (Given their frightening description, they're certainly good picks for the job.)”
So, in the OT, angels often appear as militaristic or adversarial. They don't always have a human or even distinctly corporeal form. In most popular contexts, though, we are supposed to believe that they are allies. We are also conditioned to think of them as both visible and invisible. Some people claim to have seen them, most treat them like unseen powers like their god. This leads to the concept of guardian angels and it is one that a downright scary number of people seem to believe in.
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
“An ICM poll shows that one in three people questioned believe in guardian angels, and one in ten report seeing angels. In another survey, for the think-tank Theos, 21% of those who never worship in church confess they believe in angels, along with (in a different study) seven per cent of atheists.” This according to Peter Stanford in his article One in three of us now believes in guardian angels. What's going on?
In the same article, Stanford also comments on the many disparities that exist within Christianity as to what angels are and how they interact with people. It's another case of “they're going to act however people want them to because said interaction only exists in the mind of the individual.” And lots of individuals have very individual takes on angels.
Stanford refers at one point to angels as being “celestial intercessors” in many flavors of Christianity and he's right. He goes on to say that, “that same teaching has long insisted that angels do not have bodies: Augustine in the fourth century said they were made of light, while Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth preferred compressed air. So how can 10% of us be seeing them? It defies both the laws of nature and of religion.”
So when I pull a computer apart and blast it with compressed air I'm using angel power? I always knew that Tommy was an airhead but I really had no idea about this.
Stafford also points out that faith is on the decline in the west and yet this fascination with angels and out and out belief in angels remains. When looking at the western world on a whole, not just here in the U.S., it becomes clear that only about a quarter of people out there describe themselves as devoutly religious. And I love what he says here: “By such measurements angels are doing rather better than God in retaining our allegiance.” And I love the reason he gives for this. I was actually thinking it as I was reading:
“...part of the answer has to come down to the shortcomings of institutional religion,” he says, citing the church's long history of suppressing science and insisting on the literal truth of the Bible in every word and detail. Well, fewer and fewer people every year are buying that bill of goods but they still have the need to feel comforted, especially in moments of crisis. They know in the depths of their intellects that God, at a bare minimum, doesn't care about their problems, but they don't want to discount the existence of supernatural forces in the universe. They aren't fans of god, but they're fans of super-beings, so they create other imaginary celestial friends or allies to fill the void. “[People look elsewhere] in that yearning that seems hard-wired into humanity when faced by the great challenges of life – suffering, grief, death – for something transcendent, less visible, less easily verifiable, but above all consoling.”
And this, he says, is where the concept of guardian angels takes a real foothold. Guardian angels have a very unique appeal and this, according to Stanford, is true for several key reasons.
Angels don't require allegiance
They don't care if you go to church
They don't lend deference to anyone on earth let alone people who claim to speak for a god
They are generically religious and lend themselves well to the term “spiritual”
They can be inserted into anyone's life situation and have positive circumstances tied to them
In a lot of ways, those points all lead to an oddly secularized view of angels. I also think that's why secular media can get away with selling movies, TV shows, and more that revolve around the existence and actions of angels. Far too many people still have a vague enough belief in god that an at least partly-secular (or at least non-committal in the eyes of any religion) higher power seems both plausible and pleasing to them. Then there's the overlying message in the movie Angels in the Outfield: People, by nature, have an innate need to believe in something supernatural; they're just not picky about what they call it... ...and they are becoming less so by the day.
Angels can also be molded to the individual's personality, so darkness and light are both fair game when deciding how to portray angels onscreen. Take your pick: Christopher Lloyd helping a bad baseball team win, or Christopher Walken delivering an uber-dark interpretation of the angel Gabriel and stirring shit up.
Some also believe that Jesus actually says at one point that children have guardian angels. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven (Mt. 18:10).”
Stafford also thinks, and I agree, that concepts like angels gain more appeal when society is in turmoil. People find personal empowerment in angels, largely because they've been taught to think about angels in more human terms than they realize.
“When the artists of the Renaissance wanted to give expression to new notions of how every individual could have a one-to-one relationship with the divine, rather than be treated as part of a collective endeavour, they painted and sculpted and wrote about disarmingly human angels, who were like us in every way, save that they had wings.”
So, long before there was any such thing as evangelical doctrine, people from all walks of life were being taught and conditioned to believe in things, angels being just one, but it definitely was, and is, one. And it's one that evangelicalism uses as a very effective marketing tool.
I went to our old save-money-on-our-textbooks go-to: Christian Book Distributors (formerly known as CBD but can't be anymore because CBD means something else entirely now) to see how many books there have been on the topic of angels in just the past couple years and, let's just say there's a lot. And there is a message for every individual itching ear. Topics for every mood or situation. You can solve all your problems with angels! Angels are great protectors! Angels can fix your marriage. Angels can fix your finances! Angels can cure you of THE GAY! And boy are angels interesting! Let's see some of those interesting titles now...
Lots of Christmas movies. Angels are good fodder for Christmas movies... and how many of our “unsaved” friends had angels on top of their Christmas trees? We're conditioned for this.
In Pentecostal circles, it always felt to me like the general rule of dealing with angels was to basically order them around. I saw it more than a few times and, obviously, it wasn't for much beyond dramatic effect.
“I call upon the angels to be with us in our worship...”
“I'm calling on all warring angels to encircle and encamp around this place!”
“Lord, send your ministering angels to comfort and heal...”
“I call forth legions of warring angels to destroy every demonic, evil spirit that has been sent against me and my family!”
“We rebuke the power of the devil in this place and command every angel in the heavenly realm to stand between us and the forces of darkness! All things of evil be GONE in Jesus name and by the power of his angels!”
I was told that the presence of angels was a common perk when someone gets baptized in the holy spirit. “You can see their light, you can feel their feathers brush against you, you can feel their hands on you and the heat energy that emits from them is very real and impossible to ignore...”
Angels are used as surrogates when God is taking too long to heal someone - “Send your healing angels, Lord. Let them touch your servant and make him whole...”
...or whenever God is too busy to do anything, like being present in worship, at bible studies, with your kids as they sweat out their SATs... you name it. They won't admit it, but lots of pentecostals pray to angels like they're praying to God and for reasons we've already discussed – god doesn't feel real enough, so they make their own little gods as stand-ins when their god fails to hear them or act on their behalf.
Oh, and if you're Paula White, you can choose the ethnicity of your angels, too! After all, as part of her little tantrum over the election she called specifically on angels from Africa and South America to help change the election results.
One of my favorite aspects of this as a young evangelical was the notion that we sometimes entertain angels without knowing it. The concept comes from Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Mom's bible study “angel”
The “decade of harvest” angel
Jesus is Coming by DeGarmo and Key
So, what's the point of all of this? What message am I trying to convey tonight? Simply put, angels are a convenient component of Christian faith in general. And while I've never been specifically told to pray to angels as either a Catholic or an evangelical, it's plain to see that people pick up on this concept well on their own (and yes, there are, particularly in Catholic traditions, prayers to angels that many people pray, just like they do to Mary and the saints – it's just that there's a lot less emphasis on it than there is with Mary and the saints). They are also conditioned to see angels as sources of power, comfort, and help through the words of hymns and worship songs.
Evangelicals might be just careful enough to not elevate angels to god status, but mark my words: they know just precisely how effective angels are in their efforts to market the “power of god” to the masses. They know the allure of the concept of angels and they encourage people to believe in them and the powers they possess.
When people are desperate and they know that there are things in their lives that are beyond their control, they look for solutions, reinforcements, and things to cling to so they can feel a little better about their situation and have something to which they can attribute unexpected successes or solutions to problems. The solution couldn't possibly have come from the doctor who completed the surgery, or the medicine that knocked out the cancer. If you truly believe in God, these things come from him, or, by proxy, his angels.
I believed for a LONG TIME that we survived our car wreck in '93 because angels rushed to our aid. I used to have an image in my head of angels completely covering the outside of the car, creating a cushion so that we would be spared from the full impact of the crash. Our crazy landlord at the time even quoted Psalm 91 at us as we were being lifted into the ambulance.
We all want to feel safe. We all want to feel protected. We all want to know that someone has our back. Angels are a good solution for these things in people's minds, but the same questions arise when angels fail to act as they do when god fails to act.
All children have guardian angels, if you interpret Jesus' words that way and yet, a shocking number of children around the world died of starvation just during this conversation. Where was their help and protection? We already know god can drop manna from heaven, right? Can he give an angel a loaf of bread and some clean water?
People died of suicide while you listened to this episode, too. If angels are real and can appear to people corporeally, where was the comfort for those people in the hour of their worst despair? Why were none of their lives worth a little supernatural intervention?
As I've said many times before, we are on our own. There is nothing “out there” poised to intervene in our time of need. But it might surprise you to learn that, in a purely humanistic way, I DO believe in angels... but not the supernatural kind.
They come in the form of people witnessing a terrible accident and chasing down a pickup truck on foot to get a license plate number when they attempt to hit and run. They come in the form of two guys approaching a bad car wreck not knowing if the whole thing is about to explode because, “we've got to disconnect the battery – there's people alive in there!”
They come in the form a small crowd on top of a mountain when a middle-aged man slips on a wet rock and falls. They take the form of a doctor, a massage therapist, and an EMT all in the right place at the right time.
They come in the form of men who step up when a young boy needs a positive male role model in his life.
They come in the form of someone who loves you unconditionally and keeps your mind centered on your own value as a human being.
It's those things that happen where we find ourselves at a point of need, when our own strength fails us and there are other people – people – there to see us through places of struggle, difficulty, pain, and fear that we truly see what most people setting their sights on angels rarely do: the power of things like love, courage, compassion, and empathy. We don't need supernatural forces to see us through times of trouble. We need each-other and we need to be rational, reasoned, and proactive when it comes to solving our own problems. Moreover, we should have enough empathy and compassion for each-other to chase down a pickup truck to help a stranger once in a while.
Be the angel in someone else's life when you can. Be one of “the helpers.” Give selflessly and care genuinely. You have way more power than any angel to do anything people give them credit for, and you might just help someone see past the foolishness of belief. And in showing them where real help, love, support, and human compassion actually come from, you could wind up giving them a gentle nudge that sends them one step further toward getting and staying unbound.