Have You Seen an Angel?
Someone wrote recently affirming that they had been visited by two angels and asked if I had had a similar experience. I didn’t have an opportunity to question the person’s claims, so I’m assuming they meant actual angelic visitors in human form as per various scriptural accounts of such. But the question got me to thinking about angels appearing to humans today. Is this possible? Does the Bible hold out hope for such interactions in the present day? What would be the purpose?
First, I would caution that the assertion of angelic appearance must be determined by objective evidence and scriptural foundation, not one’s feelings. There is no doubt that all of us have had someone come into our lives at critical moments and offer advice, money, a job, the restoration of our health or any number of other benefits. Perhaps this occurred out of the blue with no previous indications that we would be so blessed. It might be tempting to think that such may have been the work of an angel. But this is a very subjective conclusion, and the fact is that purely human benefactors (doctors, philanthropists, strangers doing good deeds, etc.) help others every day, and they are not heavenly beings sent from God. We must beware of generalizations and claiming things for which we have no evidence.
Second, no well-read Bible student would deny that angels have come into this earthly realm on divine missions, and in the process have directly communicated with humans. The list is lengthy and includes Abraham, Lot, Hagar, Jacob, Moses, Balaam, Joshua, Gideon, Samson’s parents, David, Elijah, Daniel, Jesus’ parents, Zacharias, the Bethlehem shepherds, Mary Magdalene, the apostles, Cornelius, etc. These appearances often occurred at critical junctures as the scheme of redemption unfolded, and one also notices that the appearances of angels to men are weighted toward the events of the OT. As revelation grows, and as redemption reaches its apex in the sacrifice of Jesus, angelic appearances begin to wane.
Third, we must not assume that because something (or a series of somethings) happened in Bible history it must be happening today. Miracles, living apostles and prophets, the penning of inspired Scriptures, God’s direct speaking to some individuals also fall into this category.
Fourth, such appearances usually left no doubt in the observer that he/she was in the presence of someone “otherworldly.” Whether angels were arrayed in “white apparel” (Ac 1:10; Jn 20:12), or of “awesome countenance” (Jud 13:6), or ascending in flame (Jud 13:20), or wielding a sword (Num 22:31; Jsh 5:13), or delivering a heavenly message (Mt 28:7; Dn 8:15ff; Ac 10:4-6), the one beholding God’s messenger was awestruck and certain that they were not interacting with a mere human.
Fifth, it seems that in modern times the only instances in which people think they’ve seen angels are when something good happens or they are told something affirming, hopeful or unusual. But angels were also sent by God to punish or even annihilate His enemies. David, in fact, was so distraught over the angel’s slaughter in Jerusalem (which he had triggered by his unauthorized census) that he pleaded with God on behalf of the people (1 Chr 21:14ff). Angels could be terrifying creatures to interact with, and no one should lightly make the claim that they have been in the presence of angels. I have seen a couple of presidential motorcades, Air Force One flying George W. Bush to Texas after his departure from office, and Princess Diana up close and personal, and though impressive I did not swoon. Daniel, on the other hand, nearly expired from interacting with a truly heavenly being (“my vigor was turned to frailty in me, and I retained no strength” – Dn 10:8; “As for me, no strength remains in me now, nor is any breath left in me” – 10:17).
So, does the Bible actually say that angels are not appearing to man today? The answer is “no” (at least not that I’m aware of), but that question/answer do not tell the whole story. It would be like asking, “Does the Bible specifically say that spiritual gifts are no longer operative?” The answer again is “no,” but a necessary inference can be drawn from the evidence surrounding those gifts (purpose, method of transmission, etc.). Some cite Heb 13:2: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” for the possibility of angelic visits. But look carefully: “have … entertained” is past tense and is a true observation; it is not a promise of angels visiting today but a reminder that one who shows hospitality is often the beneficiary rather than the benefactor. “The reference to angels does not mean that Christians should practice hospitality with the express hope of entertaining angels. It is instead another way of saying that those who show hospitality to all often gain unexpected benefits from their guests. ‘You never know,’ the author says, ‘what hospitality might bring’” (Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today 247).
Another passage from Hebrews might be cited for angelic appearances: “Are [angels] not ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” (1:14). Once again, the truth conveyed in this verse does not support the visible presence of angels in human form. We must remember that the power of God is operative in many ways other than miracle or angelic visitation. The miracles God has worked in the past were not for His benefit or convenience but to make an impression on the resistant minds of humans. This is why they are called “signs” and “wonders”; they were intended to overwhelm the audience with evidence that the power of God was behind the one speaking and acting on His behalf (cf. Heb 2:2-4; Ac 2:22; Mk 16:17-20; 2 Cor 12:12).
God doesn’t need miracles or visible angelic appearances for His will to be done on earth. The Hebrew writer’s point is valid: angels are operative in the activity of God in this world, especially on behalf of the elect, but this does not require miracles and/or appearances. These served their purpose in history in bringing about the present state of affairs wherein both the revelation and purposes of God have reached maturity, so far as the establishment of the church and its divine mission are concerned. This is often called “providence.” In ways unknown to us God answers prayer, changes political regimes, turns battles, heals the sick, provides for our daily needs, educates and corrects us by other humans as the moment demands. God is active in the world, and angels have a role in that activity, but not in the audible and visible ways of the past. Let’s not let our imaginations run wild, stoked by the exciting prospect of alien visitors.