Angels Don’t Have Wings

Preston Sprinkle —  December 22, 2011 — 18 Comments

The traditional image that angels have wings is pervasive. I’ve rarely heard anyone question it. But—as has been my trend over the last few posts—I’m going to question it. Put simply, nowhere in Scripture do we see angels with wings. Nowhere. If you know of any, please drop the reference in the comment box below.

In Christian folklore, angels are often depicted as Caucasian men with wings, which is odd since most of the people in the Bible are middle-eastern. (Why would an angel appear to them as European?) It is true, though, that angels do in fact look like men. Unfortunately, there are no depictions of angels as women that I’m aware of. They appear as men, as human beings. So human, in fact, that they are sometimes mistaken for being mere men as in Genesis 18, where three men hang out with Abraham and have a meal together (Gen 18:8). Come to find out, they were angels (two of them, at least; see Gen 19:1). If they had been flapping their wings the whole time, they probably would have blown their cover.

Abraham: “Wait a minute, are you guys really men? I think I see a wing on your back!”
Michael: “Dangit, Gabriel, I told you to tuck those things in!”

But angels don’t have wings. They are spiritual beings who intervene in human affairs and appear as men when they encounter people. That’s why Hebrews 13:2 says that we may entertain angels without knowing it.

“But wait a minute, what about Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1? These texts clearly say that angels have wings, don’t they?”

No, actually, they don’t. Isaiah 6 says that Seraphim have 6 wings and Ezekiel 1 (and 10) says that Cherubim have 4 wings (and 4 faces), but these passages don’t mention angels. A common mistake is to assume that Cherubim are angels and Seraphim are angels, but the text never mixes these terms. Angels are called angels and not Seraphim or Cherubim. Seraphim are called Seraphim and not angels or Cherubim. You get the point. Seraphim, Cherubim, and angels are all different classes of spiritual creatures, but the Bible generally keeps them separate. (Rev 4 seems to blend Cherubim and Seraphim, but  doesn’t confuse these with angels.)

And think about it. If you saw a cherub, which would look something like the picture to the right (see Ezek 1 and 10), you wouldn’t confuse this creature with a mere man as Abraham did in Genesis 18, unless you were smoking something serious. That’s because angels usually look like men; cherubim never do.

There’s no major payoff with this clarification. No huge advance in your sanctification will be made by understanding that angels don’t have wings. Just a bit more clarity as you envision various scenes from the Bible, like Luke 2 where a multitude of angels surround the shepherds and cry out, “glory to God in the highest.” Instead of picturing a flock of Caucasian angels with fluttering wings, it’s probably best to see a myriad of middle-eastern men who reflect in many ways the glory of heaven and the commonality of earth.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • http://www.facebook.com/raymond.ward.777 Raymond Ward

    I’m glad somebody finally said something about this. I don’t like the idea of angels having downy wings. They’re human like beings not birds. I was thinking that the wings if any are made of light. Just a guess.

    • Thomas Star

      everything is light

  • Rea Rea

    Look I do not know much of the bible, but i do know of angels. They do have wings. They are just like us. they are spirits that can, and do go through the cycles of life. They keep their wigs serve as more of proof of what they are. While among us their wings are only seen by those with the gift of seeing the paranormal. I do not expect you to believe me but they are out there. Unknowingly teaching us values. That’s right they don’t know they are one.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks Rea. In a round about way, I think your thoughts prove my point.

  • Jared Clark

    Preston, as stated earlier, fun article. Love you man!

    I would make a case that Cherubim and Seraphim are angels and that angels do fly and can have wings.

    Angels are able to fly as witnessed in Revelation 14:6

    It is interesting to note that it appears Cherubim are seen with two wings as well as four wings in Scripture.
    “In the Most Holy Place he made two cherubim of wood and overlaid them with gold. The wings of the cherubim together extended twenty cubits: one wing of the one, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and its other wing, of five cubits, touched the wing of the other cherub; and of this cherub, one wing, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and the other wing, also of five cubits, was joined to the wing of the first cherub. The wings of these cherubim extended twenty cubits. The cherubim stood on their feet, facing the nave. And he made the veil of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and he worked cherubim on it.” (2 Ch 3:10-14 Also 1 K. 6:23-29). These instructions were given by the Lord.

    Quite possibly, not all cherubim are the same just as there is a rank of angels (1 Thess 4:16; Jude 9). Possibly the Cherubim who are the Guardians of Eden are slightly different than the ones in Ezekiel (Gen 3:24).

    Ez 28:14 – If you take this as an allusion to Satan (which is obviously debated) ( I personally believe the wording does seem to go beyond a human king and alludes to Satan though not directly speaking only of Satan), than Satan is described as both a Cherubim . Both Satan and his workers are described as angels (Job 4:18; 15:15; Matt 25:41; 1 Cor 6:3; 2 Cor 11 2 Pt 2:4; Jude 6)

    Here is my big defense, There appears to be a group that is classed together as Heavenly Hosts, Holy Ones & Council & Assembly (Ps 89:5, 7).

    In Isaiah 6:3 the Seraphim calls God the Lord of Hosts. It would make sense that the Seraphim would be classifying himself in this category and God as its Lord.
    I believe Cherubim and Seraphim would fall under the class of Heavenly Hosts/beings. If this is the case, they should be classified as angels.

    Heb 2:9 and Psalm 8:5 implies heavenly beings as in the same class as an angel. (Psalm 8:5 has different translations, some say angels some say heavenly beings).

    One might go to Psalm 148:2. Does this verse separate them from Heavenly Hosts? I don’t believe so.

    A big verse for me that appears to show that all “Heavenly Hosts” can be classified as angels is Luke 2:13-15.

    It appears Luke 2:13-15 shows that the one angelic messenger is accompanied by “heavenly hosts” and later, these heavenly hosts are described as angels.
    “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ When the angels went away from them into heaven,”

    Demons are also referred to as Heavenly Hosts and Angels (Isa 24:21).

    In conclusion, I believe Seraphim and Cherubim are heavenly hosts and are consequently classified as angels too.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Jared,

      A lot of interesting suggestions here. First, you are right about the cherubim on the ark and in the holy of holies from the description in Kings and Chronicles. It appears here that they have two wings. In fact (and you of all people will dig this), in ancient Mesopotamia we have found all sorts of depictions of cherubim: some of 2 wings while others have 4. So from an ANE perspective, there’s some variation with the wing count on cherubim and this seems to be reflected when comparing Ezek 1 and 10 with 1 Kings 6. Good observation!

      Second, just because Rev 14:6 says that the angel is flying doesn’t mean he had wings. Again, the point still stands: never does the term “angel” (Heb: Malakh; Grk: Angellos) accompanied with the term “wing.”

      Third, I don’t see any reason to see a different class of cherubim in Gen 3 and Ezek 1,10. I don’t see anything in the text that demands it.

      Fourth, I don’t think the Satan interpretation is viable for various reasons (see my comment above). Most Ezekiel scholars say the same thing too. At the very least, I don’t think it’s good to base a firm view of Satan on the passage. But even if it does say that Satan was a Cherub, it doesn’t say that he was an angel. (See 2 Cor 11:13 below.)

      Fifth, and here’s where I think there’s a significant flaw in your argument, you say that because Seraphim say “LORD of hosts” they must therefore be part of that host. This is a huge leap in logic: tons of different beings call God “the LORD of hosts”–including humans–but that doesn’t (it can’t, really) mean that the speaker is part of those hosts. But even if the Seraphim were included as part of God’s hosts, the term host is an incredibly broad description. It would be similar to “spiritual beings,” usually describes spiritual beings in a military context. (It’s such a broad term that it often is used to describe stars and planets.) So nothing can really be proved about whether angels have wings from the use of hosts in the Bible.

      Sixth, everything in your argument flows from the assumption that Seraphim are hosts, who are angels, who therefore have wings. So the rest of your points don’t hold much weight, to my mind. But you did reference Satan being both a Cherub and an Angel and therefore having wings. I’ve already said that the Satan interp of Ezek 28 is suspect at best. But what about Satan being an angel? Again, I don’t think Scripture clearly says this. The closest passage that I’m aware of is 2 Cor 11:13, but this just says that he disguises himself as an angel of light, not that he is, or was, an angel. The Satan-as-a-fallen-angel tradition comes from a presupposed interpretation of Ezekiel 28:12-16 and Isaiah 14:12-14. It’s pretty circular. The Bible says hardly anything about the origin and fall of Satan. Perhaps that should be another post!

      • Jared Clark

        Preston,

        Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. The combination of Christmas and cranking out my final work for a seminary class hasn’t made for great opportunity to sit down and write out a response. You know what’s up!

        I appreciate your very thoughtful and insightful response. You had a lot of great points. I definitely appreciated your observation about Satan masquerading himself verses being define as an angel of light. I honestly thought that response might come right after I sent my first thoughts your way. Your “hosts” defense was also very strong. That being said, here are my thoughts to your response.

        First, I don’t believe it’s right to dismiss the view that Ezekiel 28 alludes to a comparison with Satan and gives us insight into the study of Satan. I believe saying most Ezekiel scholars don’t take the view and implying that it is a dismissed view is unfair. The great Charles Feinberg who is one of the nation’s leading authorities on Jewish history, OT languages and customs, and biblical prophecy and is unquestionably a great and valued Ezekiel scholar takes the same view as myself. New American Commentator Lamar Eugene Cooper, Sr. also takes this view too. And to my understanding the church Father Jerome did as well ☺. If this view is plausible, which I believe it is. We can understand that Satan can be referenced as cherubim, which would have had two or four wings. I also believe Satan’s connection, as prince of the fallen angels is also important to this. It might be just me, but being their prince seems to imply that he is one of them. If this logic is right, satan would be classified as a cherubim and a fallen angel.

        I think it is also interesting to note that parts of the early church when having the opportunity to portray their theology in art depicted angels with wings. I know this isn’t across the board. However it does take pattern for the rest of Christendom. Artists would have more than likely learned its theology from the pastors and preachers of their time. Consequently I think it is safe to say that the history of the church held to angels with wings. I currently own two oil lamps from the third century with angels with wings. One is with Jesus treading on the serpent (based off of Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 91). And the other is of the Angel of the Lord saving the three Hebrews from Daniel 3. Both were results of Augustine’s teachings in North Africa.

        I still hold that my defense adds up that Seraphim and Cherubim should fall under the category of heavenly host, holy ones, heavenly council, etc. and would therefore be categorized as angels. They are all heavenly beings and all appear to fall under the same role of servants of God in heaven. Your defense is still very strong and I am still trying to do business with it.

        I do think that your points are strong. I would still however fall back on my thought process that would lead angels to have wings.

        When push comes to shove it doesn’t matter a whole lot though in the long run.

        I would love to share a pretty incredible story that relates to the topic next time I catch ya too.

        Much love brotha!

  • Djs

    I think this whole discussion hints at an underlining subject. I agree with your last paragraph, to an extent, when you said that this topic does little to affect our sanctification. However, I think this post satirically points to our understanding of the world and especially tradition in this culture. Once we’ve learned something it seems to attach itself to our way of viewing the world (or any particular issue) permanently. Take for instance our topic: Angels and their possession of wings. This can easily be talked about as a fun post that gets people to realize something that tradition has made up and that we have, without a second thought, accepted. Yet, it points to a bigger void in our perception: we are, on a very large scale, unable to continually dissect the way we view the world and our already established presuppositions. if we are unable, on that large of a scale, to break down and calculate the  information that is continually coming at us I think we will be unable to rightly and godly navigate the world. 

    Mine is a generation that I hope will change all this. For in my generation I see people asking questions that have scarcely been asked before. The biggest of these questions is the one of reality and the part of personal and public character that play into it; no longer is it good enough to simply believe in something. In this day and age we are asked to prove it with our character; alongside the reality of life; where the rubber meets the road. if you believe the poor should be taken care of and you’re not doing it or if no one else thought this was a good thing; naturally, your perception of the world would be off. No longer is it acceptable to simply attain to some type of philosophical reasoning. If you are off in your living out of it, or if the world cannot be convinced that it functions the way your reason says it does: your viewpoint and base of reasoning are wrong. Period. 

    I see this becoming a trend these days and I love it. Finally, we are all starting to realize the importance of continual revision and rethinking, as our perception of reality and cold hard facts about how the world functions continue to grow. 

    I love the way this post acts as a catalyst for discussion in our already presupposed notions about the bible and our lives as a whole. We just have to point the gun in the right direction. Thanks Preston. 

  • yvonne wilber

    So much for “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Poor Clarence.

  • Jason

    While I commend removing misconceptions about angels I agree with Spencer that acknowledging angels as looking like middle eastern men universally starts adding more errors that this article seems to want to eradicate. In another note i’m not so sure seraphim and cherubim are outside the category of angels. Angelic beings seem to describe all creatures in heaven. Plus Ezekial 28:12-15 refers to satan as originally being a cherub. So as a cherub is satan not a fallen angel then our just a fallen cherub? -and this description of satan as a cherubim is very different from the cherubim you already mentioned. So classifying all angels as looking any certain way seems lacking. As spiritual beings that sometimes take on physical form we should probably avoid defining by how they look and more by what each was created to Do. Thanks for getting people thinking!

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Jason (and Spencer),

      Good point about the middle-eastern men comment. This goes beyond the text. However, and again, it’s not completely unfounded. When Abraham encountered the angels in Gen 18 and mistook them for men, I think it’s a valid assumption that they reflected men of his own culture. But Spencer’s point about Luke 2 is valid. Perhaps the angels–assuming they had the appearance of men–reflected the diversity of humanity.

      Now back to your comment, Jason. It’s a bit circular to assume that “Angelic beings…describe all creatures in heaven” so therefore Seraphim and Cherubim are angels. Again, as stated in my post, the term “angel” (Heb: malakh; Gk: angellos) is never used to describe a cherub or seraph. The identity of Satan only confuses the whole matter. Ezekiel 28 does not call Satan a cherub. Though it’s debated, most Ezekiel scholars (in fact, every one that I’ve read) believe that Ezek 28:12-15 is not referring to Satan but the king of Tyre, and I agree with them. The human king is the subject of the oracle and there’s no clear indication that Ezekiel switches references midway through. Moreover, the prophet is the master of hyperbole and figures of speech, and so the elaborate description he gives of the king in Ezek 28 fits right in with this rhetoric. And where does it say that Satan is an angel? 2 Cor 11:13 is the only reference that hints at this, but it only says that he “disguises himself as an angel of light” and not that he is an angel or fallen angel. So I remain unconvinced by your conclusion that “classifying all angels as looking any certain way seems lacking.” All I said in the post was that when angels are described in the Bible, they look like men and don’t have wings. I agree with your final statement: “As spiritual beings that sometimes take on physical form we should probably avoid defining by how they look and more by what each was created to Do.” Just to qualify my intention, I’m not defining angels by what they look like and agree that their function is given far more weight than their appearance. But again, when angels are described in the Bible, they look like men and don’t have wings. Just a simple observation.

  • Mike M

    Here’s another one to consider, especially during this season:

    The “three” wise men that came to offer gifts to the newborn King Jesus (seen in practically every nativity scene).

    …although Scripture only mentions three gifts, it does not explicitly say that three men showed up, it only says “wise men from the east”.

  • Spencer MacCuish

    Preston,
    Great post. Not trying to be overly critical about a speculative subject matter (how is that for the obligatory caveat). In your last paragraph you mention better to see the multitude of angels as middle-eastern men. My question is why? Why not see the multitude as a diverse group just as humanity is diverse. So, maybe, angels appearing in Asia would appear more asian rather than middle-eastern.
    I know that is all from silence. But just curious why the commitment to angels being middle-eastern?

  • Joshua Grauman

    I totally agree with the post here Preston. But there is that weird passage in Zec 5:9 where we have two beings who are women AND have wings! It’s in a vision, so I’m content to just chalk it up to that and say that there are no actual beings like that, but maybe some of our medieval angel tradition comes from it? When we understand angels like this for me it demystifies them and helps me remember how real they are and that they are involved in everyday life (ala Hebrews 13:2) and is a reminder that God IS involved with humanity…

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks for the reference, Josh! Leave it to you to find such a passage!

      Ya, I would still point out that the two women here aren’t called angels. In fact, Zechariah is talking to a angel throughout the vision and yet the women aren’t called angels. The wings on the two women are also compared to a stork, and they are carrying a basket to Sinar (= Iraq). Sounds like something on a hallmark greeting card.

      • Joshua Grauman

        Agreed, I don’t think they’re angels either. I was just wondering if you thought it could be a source of where our tradition of women angels with wings comes from???

  • Damon Titus

    I was thinking about this last night when I reading a bible story book to my daughter and the Angels in the illustrations had wings. I was thinking: Is that really true?, in the same way I’ve learned to question about 99% of things in any bible related materials geared for kids. Thanks for the post. It was helpful.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Sure thing, Damon. I’m often turned off by how children’s books portray scenes in the Bible. Like jolly old St. Noah and the floating zoo, when the flood should be portrayed as a holocaust!