One distinctly Christian subgrene of speculative fiction is angel fiction, of which Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness is the archetype. Other Christian SF novels, while not angel fiction, also feature angels. Given the immovable, and perhaps inevitable, place of angels in speculative fiction, I thought it would be interesting to examine what the Bible says concerning them.
The presence of angels in the Bible is strong, but elliptical. We see them in Scripture, but only in the corner of our eyes. Their fall, beginning, and history are mysteries; we have no idea of what passes for “normal life” among angels, or what kind of relationships they enjoy with each other or with God. Of their work we have some idea, but none of their rest or their play – if they have anything we would recognize as rest or play, which we also don’t know.
Blurry as the details are, a general portrait does emerge from the Bible. Probably most important, good angels are absolutely good – “the holy angels”, Jesus called them, unfallen and sinless. They are also “stronger and more powerful” than human beings (2 Peter 2), and are sometimes called by certain elements of nature: flames of fire, winds, morning stars. Certainly angels are far impressive, far more terrifying, than popular art would lead us to believe. “Don’t be afraid” was how they tended to begin friendly visits. (Unfriendly visits were usually fatal.)
Angels in the Bible often seem to move through what strikes me – conditioned by sci-fi – as a kind of fourth dimension, in which they can intervene at will in our world without our awareness. Their power over matter and nature is obviously much greater than our own: causing chains to fall off and gates to open of themselves, inflicting plagues, closing the mouths of lions, striking people with blindness …
They are also capable of assuming physical bodies. Jesus, when He wanted to prove to His disciples that He wasn’t a ghost, ate in their presence and told them to touch Him: “A ghost does not have flesh and bones.” (Luke 24) By these tests, the angels who visited Abraham and Lot also proved they were, however temporarily, flesh and blood. Hebrews’ famous declaration that some people entertain angels without knowing it means that there have been similar angelic visits, albeit with far less dramatic endings.
Angels relate to humanity as agents of God’s will: as messengers, “ministering spirits”, protectors, executioners. The notion of guardian angels – so widespread, so sentimental that it seems like it ought not to be true – actually is. Although the phrase never appears in the Bible, the concept does. The archangel Michael is “the great prince who protects” Daniel’s people, and Jesus warned us not to “look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
What form this guardianship takes, and with what thoughts or emotion it is carried out, we don’t know. So little is known of angels that all angel fiction inevitably involves a lot of invention, even at the most basic levels of what they are and how they live. Even granting this, you would think that Christian authors would follow Christian teaching as far as it goes, and strictly confine their invention to adding, not subtracting or altering.
And I think that most authors do, or at least try to. The portrayals of angels I’ve read in Christian novels generally conform to the biblical portrait, even if they rarely achieve the sense of holiness or fearfulness angels possess in the Bible. One little thing, though, has come to stand out as very doubtful to me: Everybody calls Satan Lucifer, and I think people believe – really believe – that that was his original name. (I used to believe it, too, until I spent a few minutes with a concordance and realized that whether the name Lucifer appears at all in the Bible is a matter of translation, and whether it applies to Satan is a matter of interpretation.)
What about you? How do you think angel fiction, published by and for Christians, stands up to the Bible’s view of angels?