Tap the word “angel” into one internet search engine and you get a massive 22,200,000 hits. Admittedly a few relate to TV shows or films such as John Travolta’s Michael and the Emmy-winning Angels in America, but it won’t be long before you find a site like AngelHaven.com.
Here, one Norm Braverman – your “angel on the web” – invites you to “feel the presence of angels, share your angelic experiences, visit angel chatrooms, send an Angel Gram and ask questions about angels”.
So there are even angels on the internet these days. But while it’s easy to be sceptical about sites such as Norm’s, for many people angels are a comforting reality.
A survey this week by ITV’s This Morning show hinted that while the number of people actively involved in organised religion has been plummeting for some time, interest in angels is now commonplace.
One in three people in Britain in the survey said that they believed in angels, with one in six claiming they had been helped by one.
But how, in today’s secular world, do people actually define “an angel” – and why do so many people believe in them?
Biblical scholar and Methodist preacher Margaret Barker is an authority on angels. She says: “Angels are the way that human beings perceive the divine [God], but because our minds are limited we are only able to see a limited aspect of the divine. These limited aspects are experiences which are traditionally labelled angels.”
While the traditional image of an angel is a winged figure with a beatific smile as featured on untold Christmas cards, Barker, whose book An Extraordinary Gathering of Angels is published this month, says the majority of people who claim to have encountered angels do not actually see anything.
“Most people who say they have an experience of angels do not say it was a visual experience. Many people sense a presence or hear something. A very common thing is to smell a particular flowery sweet perfume.
“People tend to think angels have to be seen because the common way people learn about angels is through paintings, the most common being the angel Gabriel.
“But if you read the original text in Luke [in the Bible] of Gabriel coming to Mary, he does not say that Mary saw Gabriel, the English translation inserts the word ‘saw’. Luke says he came in and she heard him.”
Barker has listened to many people recounting their experiences of angels, including one woman who was out walking with her husband when he fell gravely ill “in the middle of nowhere”.
“Then the next walker who came past was a doctor. She [the woman] was not able to trace who he was [when she tried to contact him later to thank him].” The woman eventually came to the conclusion that the person she had encountered was an angel.
Barker herself claims to have encountered angels “many times”. “I know I’m not writing fiction. In a library, for example, I will write out what I think is the reference for a book I want, and I will write it wrongly [accidentally], but when I go to get the book and open it, I find the answer to the question I was looking for.”
Barker, a grandmother living in Derbyshire, stands by her beliefs, but she admits doctors might well “put it down to my age”.
As to why so many people say they see angels, regardless of whether or not they are religious, Barker’s explanation is simply that, in her view and that of the Church, angels are real. She says: “Just because you don’t believe in something does not mean it is not there.”
She adds that people “instinctively” believe because it makes them feel better: “There is a huge sense of insecurity in the world today, which some call freedom, but most people don’t want freedom, they want security. The traditional way to describe security is the guardian angel. Angels are reassuring in an uncertain world.”
That view would seem to be supported by websites like AngelHaven.com, which features a quote at the top of its homepage reading: “Our angels are always with us, even when we can’t see or feel their presence. Rest easy, knowing that you are continuously guided, loved, and protected.”
Traditionally, the religious definition of angels is as messengers of God.
The Rev Charles Robertson, minister at Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirk, gives the Church of Scotland’s view: “We believe in angels as messengers of God for purposes of guiding, guarding and protecting, but not necessarily as the biblical stereotypes, the radiant beings [which people imagine].
“Angels are central in our belief because of the biblical witnesses [such as when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary].”
He is quick to distance the Church from the secular view of angels, and also disputes Barker’s claim about the way angels are experienced, saying: “They definitely do not smell.”
Explaining the positive effects which Christians gain from their belief in angels, he adds: “I think it is a comfort to people, even if they think in terms of the childhood guardian angel. The thought that somebody with a kindly eye is watching over them brings comfort, in moments of stress, and also in moments of happiness.”
The Catholic Church echoes the Kirk’s view of angels as messengers of God.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church says: “We believe and accept the existence of angels as spiritual non-corporeal [without physical bodies] beings.
“We would say that as purely spiritual beings they have intelligence and will, they are personal [individuals] and immortal.
“We also believe that we all have a guardian angel, that there is an angel who takes care of us and protects us. They are heavenly, in that sense. They are messengers from God, for example, the angels coming to the shepherds at Bethlehem.”
But it also looks at non-religious views of angels, such as those in author Philip Pullman’s cult trilogy, His Dark Materials.
The climax in the trilogy is the destruction of God, who the author portrays as a jumped-up angel.
Barker says that often even secular beliefs describing angels as supernatural beings are very close to religious ones, explaining: “I don’t think he [Pullman] was aware of how accurately he was reproducing classical angels, such as things he was saying [in his books] about angels appearing in groups of five, which is an established thing [according to religious belief].”
While religious and secular views on angels are likely to continue to differ, both sides seem to agree that the impact of people’s belief itself is the same.
As Ben Williams, Edinburgh-based psychologist, says: “I can’t say whether angels exist or not, or what they are.
“But believing in angels gives people a feeling of security that there is something out there that is more powerful than they are, and benevolent.”