rotten > Library > Religion > Angels


Angels aren't cute little cherubs with rolls of baby fat, whose only concern in life is making you happy and posing for greeting cards. Just get that idea out of your head right this minute.

Angels are angry, ass-kicking, flaming-sword-wielding, vengeance-mongers who impregnate human women with mutant spawn in their spare time. Angels should be dragged to Nuremberg and held to account for their voluminous crimes against humanity. If you ever see an angel coming toward you, run the other way, because there's just no fucking way that it's good news.

While most religions have a pantheon of noncorporeal flunkies who serve the whims of the gods, the tradition of the angels is largely Judeo-Christian.

The first references to angels are in the Old Testament, with the very first one coming about halfway through Genesis. In an indictment of the literary quality of the Bible, this debut comes with no explanation or exposition of what an angel is. Indeed, one could say that the angel's arrival on the scene is strictly deus ex machina... Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha... Oh, man, I kill me. Anyway, here it is, the first ever appearance of an angel:

And the LORD God said, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life."
No happy-happy, love-love, baby-fat cherubs here. Watch out for that flaming sword!

Genesis is filled with angels who are generally carrying out the vengeful and arbitrary will of a spiteful God. At one point, an angel appears to convince Hagar to return to a life of slavery, abuse and prostitution. This is, incidentally, the first appearance of the official Hebrew word for "angel".

Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, "Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her."

And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.

And Sarai said unto Abram, "My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee." But Abram said unto Sarai, "Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee." And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. And he said, "Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?" And she said, "I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai."

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, "Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands." And the angel of the LORD said unto her, "I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude." And the angel of the LORD said unto her, "Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren."

Not exactly inspirational, is it? The angel of the LORD zooms down in on a woman who has been pretty miserably abused, promises to "multiply her seed" and orders her to return to her slave-owners for more rape, prostitution, forced childbirth and beatings at the hand of her owner's jealous wife, so that she can bear a wild man who will be the enemy of all humanity.

For some reason, the people selling "guardian angel" candles, trading cards and wall hangings don't like to talk about that passage, nor this one (also from Genesis):

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

The Hebrew phrase "sons of God" is used elsewhere to describe angels, which leads to a number of sticky theological problems. For one thing, angels aren't supposed to have physical bodies, so how can they sire children? For another thing, wouldn't God frown on this sort of hanky-panky? And what's up with the giants?

Christians who believe the Bible is filled with literal evolution-denying truths should in theory be forced to admit that God's top servants have been engaged in sick eugenics experiments since the beginning of human history, but surprisingly, you don't hear a lot about that from Jerry Falwell, who prefers to chalk this particular bit of history up to a "translation" error. (Weirdly, this passage is also cited by white right-wing racists as a Biblical justification for banning mixed-race sexual relations, even though the passage clearly refers to interspecies sex.)

We could go on and on, but it might be a good time to summarize. The Old Testament is full of many, many nasty angels with flaming whatevers doing all manner of unspeakable things to anyone who gets in the LORD's way. Angels don't hover lovingly over the cribs of infant children to protect them; they swoop down on the cribs of infant children to slaughter them. They arrive on the scene only to deliver bad news, or annihilate cities.

The New Testament angels are barely an improvement, but at least they claim to have "joyous" tidings once in a while, at least if you consider news of an illegitimate pregnancy or the undead walking the earth to be joyous. The angel Gabriel delivered the news that Jesus Christ was a bun in the Mary's virginal oven, and angels popped up here and there to help J.C. out of the occasional bind. In the New Testament, angels also like to fuck with Apostles' heads by posing as passing strangers and asking a lot of trick questions.

Many angels are known by name. In the beginning, there was one angel who was better than the rest. His name was Lucifer, which means the Morning Star, but you might know him better as Satan. Interestingly, this most smart, powerful and beautiful of all angels is also the one who chooses to rebel. Which, if you think about it, reflects pretty badly on God.

When Lucifer launched his coup attempt against the Almighty, he subverted a third of all the angels to fight on his side. Outnumbered two-to-one, his war on heaven ended rather predictably with a resounding defeat, and all of his minions were cast down into Hell.

There is an elaborate caste system for angels, who are apparently not all created equal. This system was revealed to men by... Well, OK, it wasn't really revealed per se, so much as vaguely hinted at in the Bible. But someone somewhere has it on good authority, let me tell you. In descending order of importance:

  • Archangels: This is the elite corps of God's murdering army, often charged with Very Important Tasks on His direct orders, like obliterating cities to prevent buggery. Archangels include Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael and Metatron. Don't ask how these names were determined. It's just the way things are. There is some ambiguity about where the archangels rank in the cosmic scheme, but it seemed like a good idea to put them first (if for no other reason than to avoid being turned into a pillar of salt).
  • Seraphim: The Catholic Encyclopedia says seraphim "stand before God as ministering servants in the heavenly court," whatever that means. They have six wings, an uncertain number of faces. The archangels are members of the seraphim caste.
  • Cherubim: The designation cherubim is where the word "cherub" comes from, but these bloodthirsty mutant freaks are anything but adorable. They have four faces, four hands, four wings and cloven hooves for feet. And don't forget the flaming swords!
  • Thrones: These guys aren't in the Bible. Somebody just made them up... I mean, figured it out. Whatever. Thrones are the keepers of God's Justice, which is apparently a good thing, despite whatever conclusions you may have drawn from your life experiences.
  • Dominions: These are even less biblical than the thrones, if possible. They are the cosmic bureaucrats, and most likely responsible for your karmic check getting lost in the mail.
  • Virtues: Supposedly in charge of nature and lending the occasional hand to beleaguered humans.
  • Powers: These angels are in charge of killing demons, much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  • Principalities: In charge of watching over the welfare of nations. Clearly, the Principality in charge of Iraq has a lot of 'splaining to do.
  • Angels: Just plain old angels. This includes the so-called guardian angels, which we shall discuss more completely below.
All these angels mill about in heaven in a foppish medieval royal court scene, pandering to God and generally acting like 15th century nobles. No, really, that's the official line! As tedious as this Elizabethan costume drama seems to us, one can only imagine what it must be like for them, considering that eternity is a very long time.

And then there are the guardian angels. The concept of the guardian angel is really one of the most baffling ideas in the history of religion. With all of the above documentation about the angry vengeful missions of angels, where the hell did anyone get the idea that these guys might be on our side at all, let alone that there might be one personally assigned to taking care of you as you go through life?

Aside from the obvious fact that you're a miserable, unlucky bastard whose life has been nothing short of a living hell, there are several logistical problems with this whole deal. For one thing, there are 6.3 billion people in the world. Do they ALL have guardian angels? That's a lot of angels. Or do only Christians have them? Or Jews? Or Muslims? Do atheists have them?

No one knows quite where the guardian angel concept comes from, nor is there any record of why the angelic image changed from four-headed monster into the cute little baby. The most likely explanations is some combination of wishful thinking and convenience. After a few centuries of pondering multifaced killing machines, Renaissance artists may have wanted something a little cheerier to contemplate, not to mention being a hell of a lot easier to draw.

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