What do people believe about angels? When you imagine these heavenly beings, images of wings, halos, and cherubic babies likely fill your mind. That's what we most often see when angels are depicted in artwork. These images of angels have become so common they're generally accepted as biblical "truths," despite the lack of evidence to support such characterizations.
In truth, many of the most popular beliefs about angels are nowhere to be found in the Bible, similar to beliefs about hell. Myths about angels dominate our collective consciousness, but angel facts from the Bible tell a very different story. Instead of ethereal, graceful, innocent spirits with wings and flowing robes, angels are often described as either fearsome or entirely normal beings.
Facts about angels are very different from our romantic notions. Biblical descriptions fail to align with our expectations, and a close examination of angelic beings in the Bible clears up popular beliefs that are based on conjecture rather than biblical truth.
While the word "cherub" often evokes images of young babies, the cherubs mentioned in the Bible have little resemblance to chubby newborns. Ezekiel 1:5-8 describes the cherubim angels, a fearsome group who guard God's glory on Earth and in heaven:
And in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings.
The image of cherubs as chubby babies stems from Cupid, the god of love in Roman mythology. During the Renaissance, artists changed Cupid's appearance from a young man with a bow to a chubby baby to match artistic themes of the time. Because these images depicted love and romance, people connected the cherubim's protection of God's heavenly glory with God's love, declaring them one and the same. They began to refer to both the biblical angels and the depictions of Cupid as cherubs, creating a link between the two that still exists.
Not all angels in the Bible have wings. Some angels even appear as normal humans, with no distinguishing features. In Genesis 18 and 19, three men visit Abraham and Sarah. Although their appearance is normal, Abraham recognizes the men as angels who reveal the intended destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Later, in Hebrews 13:2, the Bible makes it clear angels can be anyone: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it."
The myth that all angels have wings most likely stems from artistic depictions. During the early days of the church, angels were drawn and painted similar to humans in form. During the fourth century, artists began to distinguish the heavenly creatures by providing wings, connecting the angels to their mission as messengers.
The change was likely linked to the spiritual significance of birds, which were often used as messengers. Angels, described as true messengers of God, earned their wings as a natural artistic addition.
The Bible mentions nothing about rings of light around the heads of angels. The closest the Bible gets to describing halos is the characterization of Moses as shining with light after seeing God, or the description of Jesus in Revelation 1 as shining with a glorious light. Neither of these accounts, however, describes a round ring of light above their heads. And the Bible never uses these descriptions of shining light when describing angels.
Once again, the myth that angels have halos originates in art. A halo, also called a nimbus, was used in ancient art to surround the head of a holy person. Pictures of Roman emperors and gods often included this crown of light. Although it started as a pagan tradition, Christian emperors in the fourth century used halos to signify their high status. As the practice became more common, artists began using the halo on portrayals of Christ.
During the Middle Ages, the popular depiction of Christ with a halo spread to the angels, creating a link between angels and the glowing crown of light that's so familiar today.
Although angels are heavenly beings close to God, the Bible makes it clear they're not to be worshipped. Revelation 19:10 outlines this principle when John falls to worship at the feet of an angel:
At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, "Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus."
The Bible itself, however, is partly responsible for this myth. When an angel appears to a man, the man tries to worship the heavenly being. Although the angel puts a stop to this behavior, that element of the passage is often overlooked. Other biblical figures, like Daniel and Zechariah, refer to angels as "my lord." Although these terms and actions simply express reverence, many people think they mean that angels are to be worshipped along with God.
Angel worship is also supported in Gnosticism, which found its way into the church in the first century. This tradition taught that angels are intermediaries between humans and God. As such, they deserve worship on a level similar to reverence of God. This idea, however, is not supported in the Bible.