“I know that he’s an angel looking out for me now.”
“She got her wings today.”
You’ve probably heard these phrases or similar ones after a loved one dies. It seems to be a common belief that people turn into angels, or a type of guardian angel, after they pass away. But this is not something we find in Scripture. In fact, I would argue that you don’t want it to be true that we become angels after death.
Where Did We Get the Idea That People Become Angels?
“Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Those were the words of Zuzu Bailey to her father in It’s a Wonderful Life. The idea was that Clarence, the angel who helped George not commit suicide, had done his good dead and so received his angel wings. In the movie, Clarence speaks of events in his past life as a human. The idea here, and in other Hollywood films, is that angels are former humans. Was this where the idea came from?
It might have been where it became more popular, but the idea of people becoming angels at least goes back as far as the 17th century when Emanuel Swedenborg argued that angels and humans are not a separate class of people. Rather, he said, angels are the highest form of humanity. It’s not known how far Swedenborg’s teaching gained traction.
The most likely reason for this misunderstanding is found in Scripture itself. In Matthew 22:30 (also Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:35-36), Jesus is discussing with the Sadducees about marriage after the resurrection. And he says that they will “be like the angels in heaven.” This, I believe, is where some have gotten the idea that people will become like angels whenever they die. Angels are associated with those in the presence of God, so it’s not a far leap to see a belief that people will become angels whenever they die.
How Do We Know People Do Not Become Angels?
Scripture is clear, though, that angels and humans are different classes of creation. While those like Swedenborg argued that nowhere do we see angels created, this cannot be persuasively argued. Scripture does show a difference in creation between angels and humanity.
The argument of Hebrews 1:5-2:18 would not make sense if being angelic was the highest state that humanity achieved. The author of Hebrews strings together several OT citations to make the argument that Jesus is superior, and because of this, the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant. Central to his argument is Psalm 8. Psalm 8 tells us that humanity was intended to rule over creation as a vice-regent with God. But we made a shipwreck of this, and so creation doesn’t look like we are ruling. But Jesus fulfills Psalm 8. It is only through Christ that all of these promises are fulfilled.
The author of Hebrews is contrasting the Son of God with angels and fundamentally their roles in both the old and new covenant. It’s like this. If you get an email from a Nigerian prince who claims that he needs your help and that he’ll give you this large inheritance if you can just help him out a bit. You aren’t going to believe that. And you’d be forgiven for that. But if a guy shows up dressed in all this garb and has official seals from a Nigerian prince and comes with all this credibility and pomp and such, then you’re likely going to be a bit more inclined to believe. And there might be even more consequences for you if you reject this message because it comes with more credibility. But what happens if the Nigerian prince comes himself and he comes with proof and credentials and such? And you slam the door in his face because you still don’t believe—or worse yet, you don’t even care. Well, that’s a much greater offense, isn’t it?
So, in the same way, the Old Testament was mediated by angels. Glorious, splendid angels. Or, as it says in 1:7, “winds, a flame of fire.” They are “ministering spirits sent out to serve.” And these are some glorious creatures—when people are met with angels in the Scriptures, they are moved to fear. And as it says in 2:2, “the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution.”
In other words, they’re legit. And the Old Testament is legit. You sin against this covenant, and you are cursed. You don’t enter the promised land. As the Scriptures proclaim elsewhere in Galatians 3:10-12, everyone who doesn’t abide by everything written in the law is under a curse. That’s what he’s saying here in Hebrews. He’s pointing to angels and the old covenant and saying that was legit.
But it wasn’t nearly as glorious as Christ. That’s the point. He shows through chapter 1 that Jesus is superior to angels. One he is superior by his relationship. He’s the Son. He’s not created like angels are. As such, he is also worshipped. Angels aren’t to be worshipped. Jesus is. He is the Messiah. He is the promised deliverer. Angels aren’t.
So, where does humanity fall into this? Jesus Christ is our representative. He came not to make us turn into angels; he came to make us fully human. That is what the New Covenant does. This is the argument from Hebrews 1. And it would undercut the entire argument if people became angels.
This is not the only Scripture, though, which shows that people do not turn into angels. Colossians 1:15-17 also shows the superiority of Christ to angels. And it shows them as created beings. Angels and people are of a different class. And in the gospel, when Jesus says people will “become like angels,” he clearly does not mean that we will become angels. The word like means something. And in this context, it means that in regards to things like marriage, we will become as the angels are—not given to marriage. 1 Corinthians 6:3 says that we will judge angels. I’m not sure how that’s possible if we become angels. It is clear from Scripture that God is doing something different with humanity than he is doing with the angelic realm. And this is fundamentally good news.
Why It’s Good News That You Won’t Be an Angel
1 Peter 1:12 tells us that angels long to look into the things pertaining to salvation. They long to experience things like union with Christ, our shared humanity, and all that this entails. The gospel astounds them because angels have no concept of grace. They understand God’s love, but they understand it differently than we do. We have redemption. Angels do not.
Consider this from the Puritan, John Flavel:
Great is the dignity of the angelical nature: the angels are the highest and most honorable species of creatures; they also have the honor continually to behold the face of God in heaven, and yet, in this one respect the saints are preferred to them, they have a mystical union with Christ, as their head of influence, by whom they are quickened with spiritual life, which the angels have not.
Why would you want to become an angel? Angels are not in union with Christ the way humanity is. They do not have Christ as their head in the same way that humanity does. Our relationship with Christ is something that the angelic beings marvel at.
People do not die because God needed another angel. People die because of the consequence of sin. But death has lost its sting because of Christ. Our death in Christ only means that we are ushered into His presence in a way that we were not able to be while we were tainted by sin and our flesh. But someday, we will once again have resurrected bodies. And in these resurrected bodies—that very much bear the marks of our humanity—we will enjoy Christ forever. Not as angels, but as glorified humanity. We will walk in the Garden once again, as we were meant to walk.
You don’t want to become an angel. You want to be “in Christ.” The gospel is far sweeter than any flight that angel wings could give.
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