Main
Questions

 

 

 



QUESTION: "What do angels look like?"

"We hear a lot today about angels. People have them as figurines; they have calendars with pictures of them; and they watch television programs about them. Some of people pray to them, others give names to them, and still others depend on their guardian angel to keep them out of trouble. I have only one question at this time: are the popular depictions of angels today accurate?"

ANSWER:

The only way we may know whether pictorial portrayals of angels are accurate or not is to consult the Word of God. Isaiah wrote, "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Isaiah 8:20). Paul also knew the importance of knowing the Word of God, for he asked, "What does the Scripture say?" (Romans 4:3a). The Lord Jesus Himself asked, "What is written in the Law?" (Luke 10:26a). What we believe about angels (and every other subject) must come from God’s written revelation!

Scripture says a great deal about the angels of God but we shall confine our remarks to the question asked above. "Angel" comes from the Greek term, angelos, and means a "messenger." These messengers are spirits (Heb. 1:14), thus they are immaterial. However, when they have appeared to human beings, they come in the form of men. For example, after the resurrection, angels appeared to the women at the empty tomb. Matthew refers to "an angel of the Lord" at the tomb (28:2-5) whereas John refers to "two angels in white" (20:12). However, Mark identifies the angel as "a young man" (16:5) and Luke refers to "two men" (Luke 24:4). The angels appeared as men—as males. When Jesus ascended into heaven, evidently two angels present were referred to as "two men in white clothing" (Acts 1:10-11). Cornelius had "a vision" of "an angel of God" but this angel was called "a man" (Acts 10:3, 30).

Even during the time before Christ, angels appeared as men. For instance, when Abraham was sitting by the oaks of Mamre, "he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him" (Genesis 18:1-2). Two of these "men" were later called "angels" (19:1) and one was Yahweh Himself in human form (18:13, 17, 20, 33). We might also recall how Jacob wrestled with "a man" near the Jabbock River (Genesis 22-24). In Hosea 12:4, this "man" is identified as an "angel." Later yet, under the Old Covenant period, angels continued to appear as men. Joshua encountered the "captain of the host of the LORD" who was simply called "a man" (Joshua 5:13-15). Never is an angel called a "woman." Vine remarks, "Angels are always spoken of in the masculine gender, the feminine form of the word does not occur" (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). Therefore, the common conception that angels are feminine or women with long hair (or short hair!) is inaccurate.

Second, these angels or spirit messengers apparently normally appeared in white clothing (Mark 16:5; John 20:12; Acts 1:10). These materialized spirits may often have appeared in splendor. Matthew says that the angel’s "appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow" (28:3). Luke informs us that the two angels were in "dazzling clothing" (24:4). When an angel of the Lord appeared to Peter in prison, Luke informs us that "a light shone in the cell" (Acts 12:7). The angel of God who appeared to Cornelius wore "shining garments" (Acts 10:3, 30). Although angels may have sometimes appeared without great splendor (cf. Luke 1:26-29; Acts 1:10), apparently they often were attended by the Lord’s radiant glory. There was no mistaking that they were angels of God.

Third, there is no indication that when angels appeared they looked any different from human beings. They merely looked like men and not strange creatures. We know of no Biblical passage that says angels had wings! Yet popular religion nearly always depicts angels with wings, complete with feathers! I suppose that this is the only way that people think that angels can fly! Scripture does say that seraphim (Isaiah 6:2,6), cherubim (Ezekiel 10:1-22), heavenly "living beings" (Ezekiel 1:5-14), or heavenly "living creatures" (Rev. 4:6-8) do have wings and strange appearances. (In fact, they may have four or six wings and have four faces!) However, the normal angels of God looked like men when they did appear.

Fourth, the normal response to the angel’s appearance was one of fear. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias in the temple, we read of his response: "Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear gripped him" (Luke 1:12). The angel replied, "Do not be afraid" (v. 13). When Gabriel appeared to Mary, he reassured her, "Do not be afraid, Mary" (1:30). When Cornelius saw a vision of an angel, the text says that he was "much alarmed" (Acts 10:4). When the angel at the tomb appeared to the women, he said, "Do not be afraid" (Matt. 28:5). Mark says that the women "were amazed," and the angel said, "Do not be amazed" (16:5-6). Luke is even more descriptive in saying that the women "were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground" (24:5). In contrast, apparently Mary Magdalene was not at all troubled by the angels’ appearance (John 20:11-13). John the apostle was so impressed with the things he heard and saw that he "fell down to worship" before the angel (Rev. 22:8). Normally, angels were so impressive and filled with splendor that fear was the immediate response.

Finally, Scripture says that angels appeared as adults. There are no "baby" or "infant" angels! Either people must think that angels marry and have baby angels—or, more likely, they are under the mistaken impression that little children who die become little angels! How often have we seen little "cherubs" or winged babies in paintings—but this is a false conception. A cherub (the plural is cherubim) is a creature with four faces and four wings (Ezekiel 10:20-21)—not an infant angel! Moreover, angels do not marry and bear children (Matthew 22:30). A child who dies may go to be with God (2 Samuel 12:23) but he will not become an angel!

This is sufficient for us to see that the popular conception of angels is generally mistaken. Instead of angels appearing as women, they appear as men. Instead of angels appearing with wings, they apparently looked like normal human beings. Instead of angels causing no great effect, people normally were filled with fear and awe. And angels normally appear as adult human beings and never as baby winged angels!

Let our understanding of reality be formed by the truth of God’s holy Word. Paul wrote to Timothy that some will "turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Let us refuse to follow the popular angel "myths" of our age. Instead, let us think of angels and every other subject in terms of the reality of God’s truth!

Richard Hollerman