No matter what country we are in, or what culture we live in, a universal image comes to mind when the word “angel” is spoken. Looking back through human history, as evidenced by our art, architecture, literature, and even the names of our children, we can see the influence of the belief in angels.
Angels seem to be everywhere these days. In 1994, a Gallup Poll found a full 72 percent of Americans expressing a belief that angels exist. For those identifying themselves as Christians, that figure rose to 83 percent. A full 89 percent of those professing to follow the Catholic faith expressed a belief in the existence of God’s angels.
But all angels are not the same; the personification of these spiritual beings varies greatly. This is no more evident than when comparing the traditional angels of the Catholic faith with the angels of today’s pop culture.
Angels in the Catholic Faith
Put succinctly, angels are pure spirits created by God. We see evidence of the belief in the existence of angels in the Old Testament. Here the name was applied to a specific type of spiritual being or intelligence who resided in heaven. These angels were essentially employed by God as ministers charged with carrying out God’s will.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word for messenger, angelos. In the Bible, this word is almost always applied to heavenly beings. The Church recognizes angels as creatures made by God; pure spirits that are personal beings. The role of angels is generally to teach or inform humans of the will of God. They were also used as a means to convey commands to humans. Angels could be found functioning in the role of protective spirits or Heavenly warriors doing God’s bidding.
They have traditionally been portrayed as winged humans, usually with white, feathered wings.
As pure spirits, however, angels are immortal spirits, meaning their existence had a beginning but will have no specific ending point. Angels were present at the point of creation and have existed throughout history. They were created as holy beings, without sin, and exist in a state of unblemished holiness.
A few angels fall into a distinct category of angelic spirits. These angels are the principal messengers of God’s will and are considered Archangels. There are three named in the Holy Scripture: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
In traditional Christian faiths, angels could be good as well as bad. Those who succumbed to the voice of evil were considered fallen angels, or demons. These fallen angels disobeyed God and fell from their holy position as a result. They were and still remain an active force in opposition to the works and plans of God.
Angels in Pop Culture
Angels have been a part of human cultures for centuries. European artists began including angels with wings in their paintings and sculptures of the fourth century. Angels have maintained their popularity as decorative figurines and subjects for paintings ever since.
In today’s pop culture, angels seem to be everywhere. We find references to angels in popular songs, in musical plays, and in novels. People display statues of angels on their lawns and top their Christmas trees with them. Tiny angelic figures dangle from necklaces and bracelets, and adorn earrings and clothing.
The name “Angel” is a popular moniker for female and male children. A prevalent character in the Marvel Comic series X-men is named Archangel. Angels are a favorite figurine we use to adorn the headstones that mark our burial sites, and we frequently refer to loved ones as our angels. Those in the medical field who care for us, such as nurses and EMTs, are commonly referred to as angels of mercy.
The concept of angels is not found only in religious settings. There is a wide presence in the secular world. The notion of angels as a manifestation of other-worldly creatures has been pervasive in books, television, and movies. Angels have been compared to extraterrestrial visitors, with many believing they are one and the same. Some have argued that ancient depictions of thrones and wheels of fire, fairly common in ancient artwork, are actually depictions of ancient spaceships that stopped by Earth for a visit. A common theme has these angelic-like creatures warning humanity of the destructive consequences of their actions.
Movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still portray an angel-like extraterrestrial who comes to bring peace to Earth. This angelic figure uses a display of awesome power to frighten humanity into seeing the error of its ways.
Whether in a religious setting or a secular one, angels personify a connection to something that is more than we humans are.