Do Angels Have Wings?
by Rt. Rev. George de Charms
There has grown up in the New Church a strong prejudice against the representation of angels as having wings. This prejudice arose from opposition to the false idea of angels as ghostly supernatural beings created by God in the spiritual world, without ever having lived on earth, or as the disembodied spirits of men floating in the clouds, while waiting to be reincarnated in their natural bodies at the time of the Last Judgment. In opposition to this is the clear teaching of the Writings that all angels are human beings who have lived on earth, and who were immediately resurrected to life in the spiritual world on the third day after death. The teaching is that they arose in a spiritual body, so similar to the one in which they had lived on earth that they could discern not the slightest difference. They therefore could have no wings. They were not ghosts, but were possessed of all sensations, faculties, and abilities which they had possessed on earth, save that these were increased a hundredfold.
On the other hand, the representation of angels as having wings did not arise in the Christian Church. Its origin dates back even to most ancient times. Instances are recorded in the Old Testament of angels flying through the air as they descended to the earth from the heavens, or rising from the earth as if on extended wings. The prophets often speak of flying angels. Ezekiel speaks of winged creatures surrounding the throne of God. The Apocalypse is replete with accounts of flying angels, and in the Writings Swedenborg on a number of occasions tells of seeing angels descending from heaven as if, flying through the air. Although wings are not mentioned, the angel who appeared to the shepherds on the night when the Lord was born, was seen as if in mid-air, and with Him the host of those who sang rejoicing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men." In the face of all this testimony of Divine Revelation, how can we dismiss the idea that angels have wings?
Human beings are not birds, either during their life on earth or after they have entered the spiritual world. They do not have wings. They are created in the image of God, that is, in the human form. Yet they have a mind that can soar far above the earth, "as on the wings of eagles." This mental ability is represented by all the birds that fly in the air, and make their nests even in the tallest trees. The human mind is capable of marvelous flights of imagination. It is capable of understanding abstract truths, intellectual concepts and even spiritual truths far removed from the material things of time and space. More than this: it is capable of love, compassion, and merciful protection to the weak, the needy, the suffering, and the innocent. For this reason, "wings" everywhere in the Word have a dual meaning. They represent intellectual insight, on the one hand, and Divine protection on the other. Wherefore, the golden cherubim placed over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle were the center from which Jehovah spoke to teach and guide His people Israel. So also the cherubim (human figures with outstretched wings) were woven in gold thread in the Veil that marked the division between the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies, and also in the covering that formed the ceiling of both the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies, to represent the Divine Providence protecting the church with man, even as the Lord said:
It is important that the ability of the human mind to imagine, to understand, and to perceive truth, should be represented. To perform this use, birds were created by the Lord. This ability is a human quality, by which man is distinguished from the beasts. The appearance in the spiritual world of angels with wings is not designed to make them less than human, but on the contrary to emphasize the intelligence and wisdom of which the human mind is capable.
When angels and spirits are seen as if at a distance, many human qualities are represented. We read of celestial angels appearing as little children adorned with garlands of flowers, to represent their state of innocence. When they draw near, however, they are seen as adults.
On one occasion Swedenborg describes seeing one angel in a chariot descending from heaven; but when he drew near he was seen as a conjugial pair. (CL 42) Spirits were seen as if at a distance in the form of animals corresponding to their internal state. But when they drew near they were seen as people. In the fourth chapter of the Apocalypse we read of the "four animals" as guards surrounding the throne of God. They represented the higher heavens of angels; protecting against any approach except by the good of love and charity. (AE 277) The same was represented by the Cherubim seen by Ezekiel. (Chapter 10) Both in the letter of the Word and in the Writings, we find numerous instances recorded, in which angels and spirits are seen as animals or birds representing particular affections, or qualities of the human mind.
If the appearance of angels with wings, flying in the air is rightly understood, it does not detract in the least from the teaching that angels are human beings. It merely illustrates in a way not otherwise possible, the intellectual faculties and abilities of the human mind. This being the case we would suggest that the prejudice against any representation of angels as having wings is not justified. Such a representation is sanctioned by Divine Revelation, and it performs an important use which should by no means be disregarded.
-New Church Home 1981;45:133-134