Angels: Heavenly Hosts or Trendy Trinkets?

How angels have evolved through the ages

“Every time a bell rings, an angels gets its wings,” is the famous line from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Around the holidays, references to angels are brought up as often as every time a bell rings. But how close is your tree topper to the biblical truth?

Ellen Muehlberger, assistant professor of Christianity in late antiquity at the University of Michigan, says our ideas about angels today have evolved over time. And the Bible, while it names various types of angels, does not define them. Christians worked out what angels did and what they were during the 4th and 5th centuries, according to Muehlberger, who is writing a book on angels in late ancient times, The Huffington Post reported.

"Just as many people today think of pets as part of their families, many people in the first 500 years of Christianity were convinced that angels were part of their lives," said Ellen Muehlberger, assistant professor of Christianity in late antiquity, to the Post.

An author living in Syria around the year 500 came up with a sort of “Celestial Hierarchy” of angels, Muehlberger noted, consisting of Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.

Peter Gardella, author of American Angels: Useful Spirits in the Material World, agreed.

“From very early on, from back with the Puritans, Americans have had an attitude that is very different” than traditional European views, he said in a March 4, 2008, broadcast hosted by Russell Moore on the Albert Mohler program. Moore, dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asked Gardella his thoughts on angels in Christianity.

“Puritans felt very intimate with angels in contrast with previous Christians,” he said, generating sort of an “angel revival” that has only continued through the ages.

“It’s carried right through to spiritualists, Mormons and evangelicals,” he said, and even in the secular world. Gardella said these angels become “useful figures” to provide comfort or guardianship.

Muehlberger told The Huffington Post that this notion emerged in the late ancient era of Christianity that she is studying. In those times, while some Christians assumed that guardian angels protected all human beings, others were convinced that angels were only given to those who had demonstrated their virtue. These were "companion angels," and not everyone had one, she said.

Gardella also noted that angels serve as “geopolitical figures.” That started back in the book of Daniel, he said on the broadcast, with Michael and Gabriel, and nations being assigned angels. Common angels, such as Michael and Gabriel, “unify religions,” he said; many religions name Michael and Gabriel as angels.

Moore noted the prevalence of angels in Hallmark stores, and said maybe Christians are holding a skewed idea of what the Bible says about angels and demons. The items and figures we see at Hallmark stores and Christian book stores “almost function in a way, that say, pagans would have functioned,” Moore said. “Angels are an exception to the second commandment.”

Moore, in his final thoughts in the broadcast, suggested the view that Christians should take toward unbelievers who believe in angels.

“Be grieved by the idolatry but also to say, ‘Hey, you’re thinking about things you cannot see, and let me tell you about angels.”

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