Images of angels surround us all the time, and especially during the holidays. They appear in paintings, figurines,T-shirts, and just about everything else. Angels appear in several religions; in Islam angels are said to be made of light. Early versions of angels had no gender, though later Christian angels were tall, slender males with soft features, often dressed in flowing robes specially tailored around their large white wings.
The word "angel" can be traced back to the Greek word "anglos," which means "messenger" in Hebrew. Angels can take many forms, usually appearing as human or a glowing light or aura. Often—especially in cases of averted tragedy or disaster—angels will not be seen at all, but instead recognized by their actions. If something good, unexpected, and seemingly inexplicable happens, it's often assumed to be the result of angelic intervention. [Pareidolia: Seeing Faces in Unusual Places]
The angels most people are familiar with today are the Christian angels, which originated from the Hebrew Testaments. The Catholic Church has devoted considerable effort to describing and developing an extensive hierarchy of angels. There are nine different types of angels within three groups or choirs — seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels — with an official census of 496,000 angels.
In Christianity and Islam, angels function mainly as God's messengers (mostly announcing births and deaths), but in modern times they function more as guardians. Indeed, the word "angel" has come to describe any hero or benefactor. Angels are said to appear to people in times of need; other times they are sensed as comforting but unseen presences.
Despite centuries of theological speculation about angels — from their number to their duties to how many can dance on the head of a pin — no one knows if they exist outside of stories and legends. Many people believe they do: Polls suggest that nearly 70 percent of Americans think angels exist. In their book "Paranormal America," sociologists Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker note that "Angels pervade popular culture in books, television shows, and movies.... Believers exchange informal testimonials in newsletters and interpersonal conversations about the potential power of angels to influence the world, and more than half of Americans (53 percent) believe that they have personally been saved from harm by a guardian angel." [Senator Claims Angels Visited Him in Hospital]
A 2007 Baylor Religion Survey found that 57 percent of Catholics, 81 percent of Black Protestants, 66 percent of Evangelical Protestants, and 10 percent of Jews reported having a personal experience with a guardian angel. Curiously, 20 percent of those who identified themselves as having no religion also claimed having encountered an angel.
In one famous 2008 angel encounter, a North Carolina woman named Colleen Banton claimed that an angel miraculously healed her daughter. While in a hospital's waiting area, Banton noticed that a patch of sunlight appeared through a nearby window and shone in the hallway outside her daughter's room. Her daughter soon got better, and Banton attributed the recovery to the angelic visit. (While everyone was glad at the girl's recovery, others noted that the patch of sunlight regularly appears in that spot, at the door of patients who both do and don't recover.)
Though angels are said to dwell in heaven, their visits to the earthly realm are not always benevolent. The most famous angel is Satan, who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven. Biblical angels wage warfare, lay siege to cities, and kill people. The archangel Michael, for example, is often depicted as the leader of God's Army, destroying armies with his terrible powers and flaming sword. These avenging angels seem to have disappeared in modern times; it would be strange indeed to hear the victim of an accident or disaster blame an angel for their misfortune.
Whether real or fictional, angels have been with humans for millennia; their mythology will evolve and their presence will continue to comfort.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.