Our third grade teacher at Battle Creek Academy warned us to keep our eyes closed during prayer because sometimes our guardian angels became visible during prayer and shone so brightly that we could be blinded. I believed her, sort of. Then one day I opened my eyes during prayer because a couple of the other boys in the class were jostling each other and making noise. There were no angels--at least visible--and no blindness. Moreover, it was pretty obvious that these boys had regularly had their eyes open in the past and they didn’t seem to be having any vision problems because of it. I don’t think that affected my religious faith at the time; I was only in the third grade. But it did affect my confidence in what my teacher told me, which was more important, perhaps.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we were expressly forbidden to go to movies, which clearly constituted a sin. Moreover, perhaps to drive the idea home, we were instructed that our guardian angels (we each were assigned one who looked out for us in times of peril) would not accompany us into a movie theater. We would strictly be on our own. If there were a fire, say, there would be no angels there to help us find our way out. I used to imagine that there were all these invisible guardian angels hovering around outside every movie theater, waiting for their charges to come out at the end of the movie. I suppose the same principle was deemed to apply to other sinful venues, such as dance halls and taverns, but I don’t recall being told that, probably because it was unlikely that as kids we would find ourselves heading into a nightclub or dance hall. I think by the time we were old enough to get into those places, we no longer believed the guardian angel story.
So who are these angels anyway? We were taught that they were created by God (as was everything else in the universe) and, unlike present-day humans, were created to be immortal, unless, of course, God should change his mind about their immortality (which he supposedly has with respect to the angels that cast their lot with Lucifer and have turned “evil.”) The Old Testament speaks of at least two kinds, cherubim, which have two wings, and seraphim, which have six. Presumably, angels are sexless, and when I was growing up most depictions of them envisioned them as slightly larger than humans, dressed in white robes, and having androgynous faces. They are normally invisible to humans but can make themselves visible to interact with humans. There are good angels, who help us to make the right decisions and who protect us from harm (unless, of course, we are in a movie theater), and there are the evil ones, who are there to temp us to sin.
Do people still believe in angels these days? Angels seemed to be popping up all the time in the Bible, both in the Old and in the New Testaments, as a convenient medium by which God communicated with humans, from Abraham in the Old Testament to announcements of Christ’s birth in the New. My sense is that angels have gone out of favor. People still thank God for watching over them and sometimes make reference to a guardian angel. But generally, I think, they are using angels simply as a metaphor for saying that God is looking out for them personally. Do angels just have less to do these days? Hardly, I would say. Or is it that, like with the other superstitious trappings of classic religion, such as miracles, scientific advances have provided explanations and eliminated the need to posit any sort of divine intervention.
© 2013 John M. Phillips