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Throughout the biblical narrative, God often chose to reach out to human beings through His special messengers—the angels. Both the Hebrew and Greek words (malak and aggelos) we often translate as “angel” literally mean just that: “a messenger.”
While they so frequently appeared to the various biblical characters, in what way did they appear? Do angels have bodies of some type, or are they completely immaterial and unembodied?
Well, there seems to be two streams of thought on this: the biblical view, and an alternative perspective put forth by those who claim to follow the biblical view. There is what the Bible describes, and then there is what many people take from that. The Bible presents us with beings who have bodies and physically appear to human beings, while a sizeable number of interpreters present us with just the opposite.
Let’s begin by looking at just a few of the more notable times that angels appeared to people in the Bible.
Two angels appeared to Lot, prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-29). They even ate dinner with him. Strange . . . how would an unembodied being eat solid food?
An entire army of angels appeared to Elisha and his servant, with flying vehicles no less (2 Ki. 6:15-17)! Were immaterial beings piloting material vehicles? (And yes, this was essentially a UFO event, which I discussed in the last blog)
An angel appeared twice to the prophet Elijah, shaking him each time to wake him up (1 Ki. 19:5-7). Can an unembodied being physically touch others? It is worth noting that Elijah would later be carried off to heaven by a whirlwind, accompanied by yet another angelic vehicle (2 Ki. 2:11-12). (This was also a UFO event)
The angel Gabriel appeared to both Zechariah (Elizabeth’s husband) and Mary, prior to the births of their incredibly important sons (Lk. 1:5-38). As we know, Elizabeth would give birth to John (“the Baptist”) and Mary would give birth to Jesus (the Son of God). In both instances, Gabriel physically appeared and spoke to them as one person would to another.
On the evening of Jesus’ birth, the shepherds who were tending their flock received an incredible shock, as an angel appeared before them with a blinding light (Lk. 2:8-9). Afterwards, an entire group of angels appeared and proceeded to shout praises to God (2:13-14).
An angel appeared to Peter while he was imprisoned (Acts 12:6-11). The angel proceeded to loose Peter from his chains and sneak him out of his cell to safety.
Obviously, there are many other examples that could be mentioned. By my personal count, there are at least twenty unique events in the Bible where angels physically appeared to individuals. This does not count the numerous other examples that might qualify, but may also be visions of some sort. In all of these instances, the angel/s arrived in physical form. They spoke to, touched, and even sometimes ate with the human beings they were visiting.
While this is what the Bible presents us with, many Christian thinkers have taken this information in a much different direction. The complete opposite direction, actually.
Take William Lane Craig—perhaps the most influential Christian apologist of our time—for example. He had this to say concerning the angels and their role as God’s messengers:
“What is described here is this higher order of spiritual beings that dwell in the very presence of God and then serve his purposes . . . we are talking here about incorporeal beings (beings without physical bodies) or minds, as it were, without bodies (unembodied minds) who serve the Lord.”
You may be trying to figure out what an “unembodied mind” actually is. I have never figured it out myself. More than that, you are probably questioning how angels could be incorporeal and unembodied, when they always show up with bodies in the Bible. Not to worry—there is standard response for this too. The following explanation comes to us via the well-known apologist, J. Warner Wallace:
“Angels are immaterial, spiritual beings. But when they appear to humans, they typically take on our form. Why would they do this? Perhaps it is because they love us and want to connect with us as created beings.”
Well, it could be because they love us and want to connect with us. Or, it could be that angels appear to us with bodies because they, well . . . actually have bodies. But Wallace’s explanation is far from new, of course. The almost deified Christian thinker, Thomas Aquinas, made similar comments almost 800 years earlier:
“Consequently, since the angels are not bodies, nor have they bodies naturally united with them, as is clear from what has been said (Article 1; I:50:1), it follows that they sometimes assume bodies.”
According to these sources, the angels only take on physical form when they interact with us in our world. They do not really possess bodies or have physical appearance. This is all a good show for us humans. After they materialize to us, they leave and return to their good old immaterial, unembodied, incorporeal selves. But is that true? Is that even a conclusion one could rightfully reach from the biblical accounts?
If you ask me, all of this amounts to what philosophers call “special pleading.” This occurs when someone cites an example as an exception to an otherwise general rule, without providing sufficient reason why that is the case. In these instances, angels are considered to be unembodied beings, even though the Bible consistently describes them as having bodies.
The reason why a plain reading of the text is rejected in all of these instances is almost entirely a philosophical (rather than a biblical) matter, one which I do plan on discussing at another time. Essentially, it boils down to an obsession with immaterial things and a disdain for material ones. For now, suffice it to say that viewing heavenly beings as immaterial and unembodied has more to do with Plato than it does with Paul.
It’s good Greek philosophy, but crummy biblical theology.
It is important to note that if you were only considering the Bible, and allowing it to speak for itself, you would very naturally come to the belief that angels have bodies. I am thoroughly convinced that so many have come to believe differently not based on Scripture, but on the outside influences of certain philosophical and theological perspectives.
It is equally important to remember that the Bible was written by two categories of people: 1) Those who personally experienced the events described, and 2) Those who knew the people who personally experienced them. With that in mind, ask yourself a very important question: how would the biblical characters have understood their interactions with angels?
Perhaps Lot thought to himself, “It only seems like those two angels are eating with me.” Perhaps Elijah said, “It only felt like an angel touched me, and that whole ‘chariot of fire’ thing was just a good show.” Perhaps Jacob believed he was wrestling around with a hologram: one that happened to physically dislocate his hip. Perhaps they all believed that what they were seeing was a temporary illusion of some sort.
Perhaps . . . but it would really strain credibility.
But it could be that the simplest answer makes the most sense of these events. Maybe it really is just as the biblical writers understood things, and the angels appear to us in physical form because they actually have bodies. The apostle Paul very carefully described the types of bodies they have (and we will someday have) in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49, and they are most definitely not completely identical to our own. However, they are bodies of some form or fashion nonetheless.
Based on the biblical descriptions, it is fair to say that the angelic form is not so radically different than our own that they are unrecognizable. They are at least somewhat human in appearance. In fact, angels are even called men at times! This relationship is consistent throughout the entire Bible, and is even true of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. He didn’t look quite like the Jesus of old, but he also didn’t look like some other type of creature altogether. He was still human-like in certain respects.
As I have touched upon before, one day we will also have the type of body that both Jesus and the angels possess.
In the end, it seems much more logical to accept the multitude of biblical accounts about angels as they were written and as they would have been understood by the biblical characters, rather than turning each one of them into some type of heavenly mirage.
Angels are not immaterial beings; they have bodies.
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Craig, William Lane. “Doctrine of Creation (Part 20)”. Reasonable Faith. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-20/
Thomas Aquinas. The Summa Theologica, 1:51:2. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP/FP051.html
Wallace, J. Warner. “Why Did God Create Angelic Beings?” Cold-Case Christianity. June 6, 2014. http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/why-did-god-create-angelic-beings/