Although the existence of angels and roles or functions of angels are attested to in biblical texts, many other topics concerning angels are left up to the imagination. Writers of fiction have stepped up to fill in the gaps left by biblical narratives and to offer additional ideas about angels’ origins and development, if angels can falter and be rehabilitated or injured and healed, when their identities may be apparent or ambiguous, and what may happen if an angel is encountered not only unawares, but also unwelcomed.

This essay does not claim that fiction writers necessarily base their ideas on biblical texts or that they are aware of the biblical texts from which their writing can be seen as a development or departure. Rather, this essay will address biblical themes involving angels and provide examples of fiction in which a connection with the biblical theme can be made and how the fiction builds on or departs from the biblical theme. Themes addressed are the origin and development of angels; angelic occupations; and encountering angels unawares.

The Origin and Development of Angels. The Bible does not describe the creation of angels, and heavenly beings are not included in either of the creation accounts in Genesis. However, two texts point to angels’ place in the order of creation and their creation by the Deity. In God’s response to Job from the whirlwind, we hear that “when the world was created, all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:7; interpreting “sons of God” as angels or heavenly beings); in this account, angels exist prior to the creation of the world. Colossians 1:16 is a text that supports the idea that angels were created by God, specifically through the second person of the Trinity (“for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers”). However, what may be described as a lack of interest among biblical writers in how angels came to be and whether angels are fully formed, unchangeable creatures, or mutable creatures who develop and change over time has been amply filled by writers of fiction.

Humans Turning into Angels after Death. One theme in fiction that explains where angels come from is that humans turn into angels after death. In Mark Twain’s short story “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” the narrator finds himself in heaven and being outfitted with harp, hymnal, wings, and a halo. In Twain’s story, humans-turned-angels get to choose their ages and circumstances, and it may take some adjustment before angels find their happiness in heaven. More recently, authors of books for children and young adults have used the theme of angels originating as humans who have died. For example in Kissed by an Angel, the first book in Elizabeth Chandler’s trilogy, the protagonist’s boyfriend is killed in a car accident and becomes an angel who watches over her. In Annie Dalton’s series Angel Academy, a teenager killed in a traffic accident attends a school for angels; she must return to earth during different time periods and carry out assignments. The theme of Dalton’s series overlaps with another genre, angels-in-training or angelic development.

Angelic Development. Can angels change? Biblical texts refer to the revolt and fall of angels, for example, see 2 Peter 2:4, which refers to angels who sinned, and in Luke 10:18 Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Some have interpreted the “Day Star, son of Dawn” in Isaiah 14:12–20 as referring to Lucifer or Satan, who is brought down to Sheol after presuming to ascend to heaven and make himself “like the most high.” The pseudepigraphical text 1 Enoch 6–9 has been seen as a commentary on Genesis 6:1–4, interpreting the “sons of God” as angelic Watchers who rebelled against God. But what about angels who are not engaged in rebellion—but are not yet fully formed or whose full identity as angels has not yet been conferred on them? Several works of fiction engage this theme, with successful completion of assignments as the criterion for gaining their full status as angel. For example, in Donna Jo Napoli’s series for children Angelwings, young angels earn wing feathers by undertaking assignments that challenge their abilities but benefit humans. In Sharon Creech’s novel for children The Unfinished Angel, an angel is uncertain about its abilities and mission until it meets a girl who gives it a purpose.

Angels Rehabilitated. Several biblical narratives include interaction between humans and angels. Angels come to bring comfort to people. For example, after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, angels come and serve Jesus (Matt 4:11). Several fiction writers have added the twist that the interaction fulfills a double purpose—helping humans and rehabilitating an angel. Bernard Malamud’s short story “Angel Levine” provides an example. The angel discloses to the protagonist that he is on probation and that the outcome of his interaction with the protagonist will determine the length of his probation. The protagonist must overcome his prejudice about the angel’s appearance and activities in order to receive the help the angel has to offer and which he desperately needs.

Angels Physically Rehabilitated. In biblical stories angels appear in physical form and can be seen by people. While their physical appearance is most often not described, sometimes they inhabit what appear to be bodies such as humans have. For example, in Genesis 19, two angels visit Lot in Sodom. Their appearance is such that Lot offers to wash their feet and offer them shelter. Lot prepares a meal for them that they eat. The episode ends with the angels rescuing Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:1–26). What happens when, in the course of interaction with human beings or the physical world, it is the angel that gets hurt? In Howard Fast’s short story “The General Zapped an Angel,” an angel is shot down and killed by American fire over Vietnam, resulting in debate among military personnel, religious chaplains, and the press about what should be done with the angel’s body and what the consequences might be for killing a heavenly creature. The angel comes back to life and flies away, but not before shaking its head at humans’ folly. In Allan Gurganus’s story “It Had Wings,” the occasion is more mundane: an angel lands in the backyard of an elderly woman, apparently hurt from its fall to earth. The elderly woman has compassion for the angel and finds that when she touches him her aches and pains enter the angel and she gains relief. Through taking on her ailments the angel gains strength and health and is able to fly away.

In some of the examples cited under the theme of the origins and development of angels, the subject of offering help to humans is critical to the narrative. In biblical and related works of fiction, angels encounter humans through occupations other than providing help as well.

Angelic Occupations. In the Bible angels serve as messengers and revealers, guides, and agents of judgment. Next, we look at examples in each of these categories of biblical texts and treatments of these themes in fiction.

Angelic Messengers and Revealers. As shown in the Hebrew and Greek words often translated as “angel,” which mean “messenger,” an angel’s primary role in the Bible is to convey a message of the divine to a human or group of humans. For example, an angel appears to Hagar and tells her that she will give birth to a son, that she should name him Ishmael, and that he will have countless descendants (Gen 16:7–12). The angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus (Luke 1:26–38). An angel appears to Joseph and tells him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (Matt 2:13). In the Revelation to John, angels figure prominently among the visions making revelatory pronouncements and performing actions that lead to the unfolding of more aspects of the vision (e.g., see Rev 16 in which seven angels pour seven bowls of the wrath of God upon the earth).

Several works of fiction feature angels who give messages and provide for revelations to humans. One popular example of this theme is seen in “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern, better known from the movie based on this story, It’s a Wonderful Life. Van Doren Stern’s story has a stranger who grants the main character’s wish, that he had never been born, and through this device, the stranger/angel helps the man realize the goodness of his life despite his difficulties.

Angels as Guides. Angels accompany the people of Israel in Exodus, going before and behind them as they make their way on dry land in the midst of the sea (Exod 14:19) and to guard and lead them to the land God would give them (Exod 23:20; 32:34). In works of fiction, Dante’s Divine Comedy has been cited often as an example of an angelic guide providing safety and knowledge. A more recent example and variation on the theme of angel as guide is seen in Adiel, by Shlomo DuNour. The angel Adiel is commanded by God to witness and record ten generations of human events from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, through the flood, until the covenant of Noah. The resulting book, narrated by Adiel, provides the reader with a view into otherwise unseen events.

Angels as Agents of Judgment. One function of angels in the Bible is to bring people to eschatological judgment, for example, in Matthew 13:36–43, the explanation of the parable of the seeds, and in Matthew 16:27, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done”. Several works of fiction use the motif of an angel coming for individuals to accompany them to death. For example, in “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven,” a short story by Steve Stern, the Angel of Death comes for Lazar Malkin. The elderly man refuses to go and in the end the angel must haul him off unceremoniously in a burlap bag. In the short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel García Márquez, an angel comes for a young child who has been sick. The angel is decrepit, and the parents do not wish him to take their child. They keep the angel in a chicken coop and charge the curious money to see him. In neither of these stories is the angel welcome or wanted. They could also serve as examples in fiction of the biblical theme of the adversarial angel, as seen in the story of Jacob, wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:22–32).

Ambiguous Angels. Angels hosted by people unaware of their identity is a theme named in Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares,” referring to the story of Abraham and Sarah entertaining the three visitors who come to announce the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18:1–15. Some fictional works use the theme of the ambiguity of an angel’s appearance. For example, in David Almond’s novel for children, Skellig, a boy encounters a decrepit insect-eating creature in the ramshackle shed behind his house who turns out to be an angel. In John Cheever’s short story “The Angel of the Bridge,” a man paralyzed by his fear of bridges is aided by a harp-carrying young woman who gets into his car at just the right moment; she sings him across the bridge. On the other side she leaves. Is she a simple hitchhiking folk-singer or an angel? What is clear is that is that she provides the aid and cure the narrator needed. Sometimes one person can see an angel others cannot, as in “The Angel’s New Wings,” by Fray Angelico Chavez, in which a pious woodcarver repairs the wings on the angel of the church’s nativity set and it takes flight leading him to see blessed events others, in their preoccupations and lack of piety, cannot see.

Contribution of These Works of Fiction. These and other works of fiction about angels do not offer illumination of biblical texts about angels. They do, however, offer imaginative treatments of the role angels play in the Bible, namely, assisting humans. What the angels in these works do especially well is help us better see truths of human experience, including these: life beyond this world is difficult, but entertaining, to imagine (“Captain Stormfield”); we want people we love to have a continuing role in our lives, even after they have died (Kissed by an Angel); we find meaning and purpose in being helpful (Angel Academy, Angelwings, The Unfinished Angel, “It Had Wings”); our prejudice of those who differ from ourselves hurts us as well as the other (“Angel Levine”); life is a precious gift (“The Greatest Gift,” “The General Zapped an Angel,” Adiel, “Lazar Malkin,” “A Very Old Man”); we receive help from sources we do not expect (“The Angel of the Bridge”); and there are wonders around us for those with the eyes to see (Skellig, “The Angel’s New Wings”).

Bibliography

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Amy E. Richter