Are There Angels Anymore?

Posted on June 2, 2012


“Well, you look about the kind of angel I’d get. Sort of a fallen angel, aren’t you? What happened to your wings?” George Bailey snidely remarks to the affable stranger Clarence.

“I haven’t won my wings, yet. That’s why I’m called an Angel Second Class. I have to earn them. And you’ll help me will you?” Clarence intently pleads.

George looks at him in exhaustion and says sarcastically, “Sure, sure. How?”

“By letting me help you.”

“I know one way you can help me. You don’t happen to have 8,000 bucks on you?”

“No, we don’t use money in Heaven.”

“Well, it comes in real handy down here, bud!”

I’ve always loved It’s a Wonderful Life, perhaps for the feel of a bygone day, perhaps because we can unapologetically assert that every life does have meaning. After several discussions lately, however, I wonder how we feel about Clarence, this unrefined angel-in-training.

Our faith is founded upon a series of visits by various angels, or beings who have lived on this earth and completed their mortal experience. First Jehovah, then Moroni (several times), John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Moses, Elijah, Elias, Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, Enoch, possibly more. It stretches the imagination of many moderns to consider such a permeable veil around the earth. Indeed, as one commenter noted, at times the claim of visitation of supernatural beings was sufficient to get one committed. We could spend a great deal of time on why it is less believable now than a couple of centuries ago, but today I’m wondering if it is believable at all.

Our record of previous eras, the scriptural record at least, is rife with examples of angelic visitation. Abraham was visited by three angels, which may or may not have included Jehovah, but he seems to have visited the Father of the Faithful at other times. Mary was surprised by Gabriel.

Zacharias saw an angel in the temple and several women saw angels at Jesus’ tomb. In the Book of Mormon, both the wicked and the righteous saw angels: Laman and Lemuel were only temporarily affected by their experience, but Nephi, Lehi, and the brother of Jared were enobled and taught through theirs.

Alma and his friends, like Paul, were rescued from lives of persecution to become advocates for the cause. Peter, James, and John were empowered while in the cause by visits from several beings, as were Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris – for the former it was a permanent transition, and for the latter it lacked staying power. Mary Whitmer was shown the gold plates by an angel, apparently merely as a reward for her persevering faith.

In the decades following his passing, several prophets spoke of visits from Joseph Smith, in visions as well as dreams. He had various messages to bring, from clarifying church procedure on sealing blessings to imparting comfort and counsel to leaders filling his shoes. A few selected prophets have discussed visions or appearances of the Savior, but nothing very specific for nearly a century. While discussions of revelation and the need for it have continued with increased regularity, few people discuss supernatural experiences publicly.

Within western culture, almost whimsically, the idea of post-mortals visiting for our welfare is restricted to science fiction, with their completely acceptable appearance nested in a tale of otherworldliness that has already anesthetized the reader’s or viewer’s skepticism. Like the popular comic created in the latter part of the twentieth century by Bill Keane in which his family circus was often kept intact by the exhaustive efforts of a grandfather guardian angel, the public attitude about post-mortal guardians is charmed, if dismissive. One writer has hypothesized that women tend to have more visionary spiritual experiences because they are more intuitive and more likely to expect and believe in the supernatural, while hinting that a tendency to flights of fancy increases their prevalence as well.

I am inclined (tongue firmly out of my cheek) to agree. Our early experience – the soup we’re cooked in – has a lasting effect on our outlook and expectations. Because of the commonality of stories of spiritual experience in my growing years, I found the supernatural acceptable as long as it was instructive, protective, and supportive. Very like the soup Joseph was cooked in, the flavor of post-mortal contact permeated the texture of my expectations.

My mother was mesmerized by the story of Paul when she was a young teen and though her family was not religious, she prayed fervently that God would show himself to her. While walking by their barn, she saw a man from the chest up, rather like a sculpted bust of an angel. It was there only a moment, and she later felt that it was a prophet like John the Baptist rather than Jesus himself, but the experience prepared her to fully embrace a gospel restored by angels when she heard it in her twenties, and no further education nor maturity could strip from her the assurance that she had seen it.

She had many experiences through the years that she shared freely, including pigs wandering across a hillside that aligned perfectly when she asked in desperation for God’s help and feelings of distinct individuals to protect her during times of great fear. I grew up expecting that the veil was only as thick as it needed to be and that God sent seasoned saints to assist us when we needed, which likely made possible my own encounters. These experiences, unfolding in the life of someone young and foolish (albeit intent), also left me undisturbed by the historical facts of the restoration that are more troublesome to others.

The words of Alma to the poor Zoramites resonate with me regarding faith. In our own day we would likely scientifically parse the development of perfect faith as the stages of psychosis. “Profound desire shapes our interpretation of experience, expectation builds upon these false premises, and increasingly psychotic episodes create an alternate reality completely divorced from the real world.” So say skeptics. It’s entirely unprovable, which is the point from the outset. The spirit of peace and power that permeates the experience must be interpreted by the one experiencing it, and is the most profound proof.

This alone – this mandate to experience – is why I’m personally a fan of keeping it private except in intimate settings where the spirit can be more fully explored. Stripped of these compelling structures, acquaintance with post-mortals as experienced by unremarkable people is laughable, and few of us have the internal resolve or prophetic endowment to withstand skepticism that often borders on the destructive. Like Mary, I’m inclined to encourage to “keep these things and ponder them” in one’s heart.

I’ve stripped this post of the multitudinous source links that I initially felt compelled to place here. In making this more about personal perspective, I can now ask yours – not your thoughts about what we should think, or what we can find source support for, but what you feel in your gut. I’m interested in an anecdotal discussion evaluating the soup you were cooked in.

  • Do you believe that angels visit the earth in our day?
  • Do you believe unremarkable people are worth post-mortal attention?
  • If you do, would you call them guardian angels or do you think of them as infrequent messengers to the outstanding?
  • Would you characterize them as more Clarence, Grandpa, Obi-wan, or Moroni?

I have very structured thoughts on the subject, but I’ll defer them for now to watch the discussion.

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