From medieval art and centuries-old churches, to gift shops, jewellery, and New Age festivals; angels are everywhere. But what does the Bible have to say about them and how should we understand their relationship to us? These are some of the questions Tim Chester seeks to answer in his new book, Angels, by Christian Focus Publishing.
Christian Today speaks to Tim about his new book and the enduring popularity of angels, what a biblical understanding looks like, and the opportunities he sees for the Church.
CT: What got you interested in angels?
Tim: I remember talking to a young woman in my church who was describing how a relative was obsessed with angels, whether it was pictures or figurines. I asked her if she was a Christian or went to church and the answer was no. She had no interest in Christianity as a religion; she just loved angels. The question in my mind was 'why?' What was driving that? Because it's not just her. For example, a Bible Society survey found that around one in three people in Britain believe they have a guardian angel. We may hear a lot about Britain having a post-Christian secular culture, but one in three is a lot of people. I really wanted to understand what it is that draws people to angels.
CT: It's interesting that people might not be so open to the Church but they are to angels. Have you been able to uncover in the course of your research what's driving that curiosity towards angels?
Tim: I think there are a couple of things going on and one of them is that people have a sense that there's more to life and the world than what we can see and touch. Even when you think about the language of soul - we speak of soul music, for example - the soul is the dimension of oneself that is more than flesh and blood. It's not an organ in the body you can point to. I think it's the same with this interest in angels. There is this world that we can see and touch and put under a microscope, but angels are not in that category. People have this sense that there is more than that and it manifests itself in this interest in things like angels.
But I think there might be something else going on. Life is scary and we are not in control and I think that for some people, the thought that there is a being or someone who is looking after them is a comforting thought. The real question of course is, why are they not drawn to God the Father in the same way? Perhaps it's easier to believe in angels because they don't require anything of us or make any demands on us.
CT: Do you see an opportunity for the Church in that?
Tim: There's undoubtedly an opportunity for the Church to connect with this interest in angels and say, yes, the world is scary, but there is something more and the world is more than what you can see and touch. There is a spiritual realm and a heavenly realm and angels are a part of that, and that is lovely and charming but there is a Father who cares for us. It's an opportunity for the Church to point people to God the Father and to the Lord Jesus Christ.
CT: What do you think popular culture gets wrong about angels and how can we separate what is true from the myth and magic and New Ageism?
Tim: One big difference is that almost everyone who has an encounter with angels in the Scriptures falls down in terror. That is why quite often the first words of an angel to human beings in the Bible is "do not be afraid", because when people see an angel they are afraid.
We're all familiar with the cute cuddly cherubs flitting around on our Christmas cards but for anyone who saw an actual angel in the Bible, there's nothing cute about angels!
The other thing to be aware of is that angels are servants of God. They have agency and are personal beings, but they see themselves as servants of God. The book of Revelation looks to the future but more than that, it sees history and this world from the perspective of Heaven. In John's excitement over all that he's seeing, he worships an angel and the angel is horrified and tells him not to do that because angels are simply servants.
Angels are not interested in being worshipped. They would want us to ultimately look to God himself.
CT: Are there any other parts of the Bible that you would recommend for someone if they really want to know more about angels?
Tim: For me, the key passage is the opening chapter of Hebrews. There are lots of stories of angels dotted around the Bible and Acts has some very striking accounts of angels getting involved with people's lives. But the longest and most sustained passage is in Hebrews where the writer draws a number of comparisons between angels and Jesus and each time demonstrates that Jesus is better and more important than angels. I don't want to be dismissive of people's interest in angels because they really are amazing and there is a genuine interest there, but ultimately angels are there to lead us to the Lord Jesus.
CT: How do you think angels interact in our life and the world around us?
Tim: At the end of Hebrews, it talks about how some have entertained angels unawares, which is probably an allusion to the three visitors who come to Abraham and he prepares food for them. There is this idea that we can be entertaining angels without realising it. Angels are spiritual beings, they do not have physical bodies in the way that we do and when they appear to people they are adopting the form of a body so that we can see and interact with them, so it is entirely possible that angels are interacting with our lives on many occasions without us realising it.
In some ways, that's not important because it's not so much that angels are helping us, but rather God helping us through angels. So even though angels might save us from an accident or provide some practical help in some way, what we ought to remember is that it is God who is helping us. We pray to God to help us and sometimes God will do that through natural causes or supernatural causes like angels. Whichever way, what matters is that when we pray to God, He helps us and in return, we give thanks to Him. The focus always has to be on Him.
CT: Is your book aimed at believers or non-believers?
Tim: Both. It's suitable for curious Christians who want to know about angels but also non-believers who might have an interest in the subject and so it explains some of the language that Christians would take for granted.
CT: In the course of researching your book, did you find out anything about angels that surprised you?
Tim: Angels don't play harps! There is nowhere in the Bible that speaks of angels playing harps. In one place, both angels and harps are mentioned but the text states that it is humans playing the harp. We are also never explicitly told that they sing. The Bible speaks of them saying something or sometimes even shouting. Angels are communicative beings and they clearly celebrate, which might involve some form of celestial singing, but it doesn't explicitly say that they sing.
The other thing is about guardian angels. This is based on Matthew 18, where it says that "their angels in heaven always see the face of my father in heaven". But there's no promise that a specific angel has been given the job of looking after me as an individual - a guardian angel. But if anything, the idea is bigger than a single guardian angel: God uses His angels to look after His people - and that's a wonderful thought.