The following was adapted from an answer elsewhere on the web to a question presupposing that creatures in the vein of Ezekiel’s “living creatures” are the true, “biblically accurate” angels.
Let me be clear: the exact physical form of angels or other supernatural creatures in the Bible is of little practical import. My motivation for this analysis and explanation comes rather from a strong distaste for what I perceive as some atheists, self-identified Christians, and others acting derisively or dismissively toward more “serious” or “devout” Christians on the basis that the latter don’t know their Bibles, with the implication that much of their beliefs are, for example, invented out of whole cloth. Popular perceptions of angels even amongst more committed Christians are often quite inaccurate. And Biblical literacy is shockingly low even among those who self-identify as devout or practicing Christians. However, this issue of “biblically accurate” angels is generally more indicative of ignorance of the mockers rather than of the mocked. (I say all this fully aware that many such memes and references are made as light-hearted jokes not intended to belittle anyone; those are not what I am addressing.)
Introduction & Disclaimers
- I am not a true scholar, nor do I have any familiarity to speak of with biblical Greek or Hebrew. For reference, I will be using the English Standard Version here. This is purely for reasons of familiarity; it is not necessarily the best translation for this sort of discussion.
- This is not an attempt to summarize or explain the post-Bible history of popular perceptions of angels throughout history. Beyond mentioning that Renaissance artists contributed to the modern image of the winged human image of an angel, and a couple of references to statements by others more knowledgeable on the subject, I won’t address it. What I am doing is analyzing the biblical accuracy (or lack thereof) of various angelic imagery.
The short version is that winged humans are not entirely biblically accurate. Still, they are much, much closer than the terrifying eldritch creatures that have recently come to embody “biblically accurate angels” to the meme-smiths of the Internet. Terrifying chimeras are not described as “angels” in the Bible, though angels are often terrifying in other ways (usually in action, and sometimes in appearance). The eyeball-covered wheels aren’t even described as creatures per se. Angellic physical descriptions are somewhat limited, but generally indicate (wingless) humans, albeit often with something “special” about their appearance.
Let’s take a look at various passages where angels (or characters/creatures that might be angels) appear in the biblical narrative.
In Genesis, “the Lord” appears to Abraham:
And the Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, […] three men were standing in front of [Abraham]. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. […] So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly […] and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.Genesis18:1-8Genesis 18:1 – 18:8
1And Jehovah appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth, 3and said, My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: 4let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: 5and I will fetch a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on: forasmuch as ye are come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. 6And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes. 7And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hasted to dress it. 8And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.ESVGenesis 18:1 – 18:8
1And Jehovah appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth, 3and said, My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: 4let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: 5and I will fetch a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on: forasmuch as ye are come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. 6And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes. 7And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hasted to dress it. 8And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.
Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord.Genesis 18:20-22 ESV
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom.Genesis 19:1 ESV
The story of Sodom is too lengthy to recount here, but hopefully this is enough to demonstrate that these angels were hardly eyeball-festooned creatures of terror. If it is not, one need only consider this particular part of the story:
And [the men of Sodom] called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”Genesis 19:5 ESV
Note that the Bible here is unsurprisingly using “know” in the “biblical” sense (as evidenced by Lot offering his daughters in their place in his response). In other words, the Sodomites wanted to sodomize the angels. Go figure.
These angels are consistently described as “men”. One can reasonably conclude that there was something not entirely normal about their appearance, but they are unlikely to have wings and certainly don’t resemble monstrous creatures.
During Israel’s wandering in the desert, a prophet known as Balaam is riding a donkey when an angel appears several times.
But God’s anger was kindled because [Balaam] went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”
Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.Numbers 22:22-35 ESV
The Bible is clear on this point: the donkey is female and therefore is unlikely to have the voice of Eddie Murphy.
More importantly, this depiction of an angel, as with Sodom, clearly indicates they are not to be trifled with, but neither are they monstrous creatures. This one is not quite called a “man”, but his behavior is more consistent with a human (or at least a humanoid) than, say, an eyeball-covered “wheel within a wheel” – he stands, he has hands, etc.
In Israel’s days of the judges before the institution of the monarchy, an angel appears to a young man named Gideon:
Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”Judges 6:11-12 ESV
The angel and Gideon converse a bit and the angel charges Gideon with leading Israel against the oppressive Midianites. This part of the conversation ends with Gideon requesting a supernatural sign that the angel (or the Lord?) is who he says he is.
And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay till you return.”Judges 6:16-18 ESV
Gideon prepares some meat and “cakes” and then:
Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes. And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord.Judges 6:21-22 ESV
Setting aside that “the Lord” and “angel of the Lord” seem to be used interchangeably here (a recurring theme in such passages), note that the text explicitly states that it was the supernatural events that convinced Gideon this was indeed an angel. That would be rather odd if he were conversing with a creature that was convincingly supernatural in its very physical appearance.
Later on in the Judges period, an angel appears to a married couple and informs them that they will have a son (Samson), himself a future judge of Israel.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to [Samson’s mother] and said to her […] Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome.
[…] the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field. But Manoah her husband was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband […] And Manoah arose and went after his wife and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.”
And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “If you detain me, I will not eat of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.” (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord.) And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?” And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to the one who works wonders, and Manoah and his wife were watching. And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord went up in the flame of the altar. Now Manoah and his wife were watching, and they fell on their faces to the ground.
The angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.”Judges 13:3-22 ESV
Again, there is something remarkable about the angel. But again, there is a large degree of uncertainty pending supernatural events. Manoah seems to think that the angel is a human man.
Angels make several appearances in the early days of the Israelite monarchy, particularly around Elijah the prophet. Suffice to say that when there is a physical description of some kind, it is consistent with what we’ve seen so far – humanoid, but often impressive, powerful, or even terrifying (in action, if not appearance). Here are a few relevant quotes from mostly unrelated events and passages.
And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.2 Samuel 24:16 ESV
And behold, an angel touched [Elijah] and said to him, “Arise and eat.”1 Kings 19:5 ESV
And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians.2 Kings 19:35 ESV
Then the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath.1 Chronicles 21:27 ESV
Old Testament Prophetic Literature
The book of Zechariah (not to be confused with the father of John the Baptist) describes some interactions between the eponymous prophet and angels. I am uncertain whether this is intended to be interpreted as a depiction of literal physical events or if, like Ezekiel, it is depicting a “vision” of some kind. Regardless, the narrative describes a dialogue between Zechariah and the angel but has virtually no physical descriptions. That said, the narrative is entirely consistent with a human or humanoid conception of angels. The closest I can find to a physical description is the final mention of angels in Zechariah, which merely reinforces that angels are strong or powerful in some way:
On that day the Lord will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, going before them.Zechariah 12:8 ESV
Now, it is important to note that the “biblically accurate” terrifying creatures are absolutely not invented out of whole cloth. They generally bear close resemblance to descriptions that are indeed found in the Bible. Here is perhaps the most relevant description, from Ezekiel:
And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.
Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.Ezekiel 1:5-21 ESV
There are a few things I’d like to point out about this passage. First, you’ll notice the word “angel” is never used. Instead, this is describing “חַיּ֑וֹת” (variously translated as “living creatures”, “living beings”, “Chayos”, “beasts”, or “creatures”). Ezekiel 10 names these creatures “cherubim”. (To quickly summarize: cherubim are not winged infant archers. Their limited physical descriptions elsewhere, such as in the descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant, are similar to Ezekiel’s, though there are variances. For example, the cherubim “decorations” of Solomon’s Temple as described in 2 Chronicles 3 and 1 Kings 6 have two wings each.) The Protestant Bible (and, to my knowledge, other Bible variants) never describes “living creatures” as “angels”. According to one historian of medieval and early modern Europe, classifying cherubim and seraphim as “angels” originated with early Church Fathers considering them to be “prophets” (i.e. messengers) and therefore “angels” (Biblical angels almost always fill the role of messenger, and one could argue that they always do, given a sufficiently broad definition of “messenger”), but this is a matter of later interpretation, and not strictly what the Bible states. And neither the Bible nor the Church Fathers made any claim that “living creature” descriptions in any way overrode the more common human form as the “true”, “biblically accurate” angelic form.
Second, even these outlandish descriptions more closely resemble humans than they do some of the eldritch depictions of angels in, for example, this meme. Though it need not be said they are still clearly terrifying and strange, they are vaguely humanoid, with faces, legs, feet, etc.
Third, these have wings (though four each).
Fourth, in this passage descriptions of wheels and eyes are not even in reference to the “living creatures”. So even if we take “living creature” to mean “angel”, the eye-covered wheels are described more like an accompanying construct of some kind than the “angels” themselves.
Fifth, this passage (along with similar descriptions in Isaiah and Revelation) is describing an apocalyptic vision. Regardless of how one views the veracity and historical accuracy of the various Biblical books, it would be inadvisable to prioritize apocalyptic visions over more mundane conventional narratives when determining how the authors intended to depict angels as physical beings.
The New Testament also has several mentions of angels, most of which lack physical descriptions. They generally lend themselves well to being quoted more concisely than the Old Testament passages, so I will briefly mention the more salient ones here.
In Luke, the angel Gabriel who appears to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (not to be confused with the Old Testament prophet), is described as “standing”:
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.Luke 1:11 ESV
When Gabriel later appears to Mary, there is even less physical description, but it bears mentioning that Mary seems more bothered by Gabriel’s greeting and words than by his physical appearance:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to […] Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”Luke 1:26-30 ESV
Around the temptation of Jesus in Mark, angels are described as “ministering” to him.
And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.Mark 1:13 ESV
After the crucifixion and resurrection, an angel is described in Matthew as sitting on a stone. Similar descriptions appear in John.
And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.Matthew 28:20 ESV
Much later, the author of Acts describes the martyr Stephen’s face as being “like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
In what might be the most interesting New Testament verse to someone analyzing the history of depictions and conceptions of angels by Christians, the author of Hebrews states in chapter 13 that, by showing hospitality to strangers, “some have entertained angels unawares.”
Revelation is another area where we get more of the descriptions in the vein of “terrifying abominations”. In particular, Revelation 4 describes some “living creatures”:
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and withinRevelation 4:6-8 ESV
In this case, the plethora of eyes is actually describing the living creatures. But generally, the observations in Ezekiel still apply here: this is a visionary description, “living creatures” is used instead of “angels”, etc.
Perhaps more importantly, Revelation (unlike Ezekiel) actually does contain the word “angel”. Many times, in fact.
In particular, Revelation mentions “living creatures”, “elders”, and “angels”, all as being distinct from each other:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,Revelation 5:11 ESV
This same distinction is made elsewhere:
one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowlsRevelation 15:7 ESV
There is not much in the way of physical descriptions of angels in Revelation – and it’s still apocalyptic visionary writing – but what there is is more consistent with human-like angels than any of the permutations of the “terrifying abominations”. (Though they are not without causes for fear and awe themselves.) Revelation 8-9 mentions angels “standing”, using trumpets, and having hands. Revelation 10 describes an angel with a face “like the sun” and legs “like pillars of fire”. Revelation 14 describes an angel flying, for what that’s worth.
There are arguments (perhaps based on other ancient books such as Enoch), that there are different categories and types of angels – that “living creatures” are one type, humanoids another, etc. Aside from previously-mentioned “cherubim” and the “seraphim” of Isaiah, this is where words like “Thrones” and others come into play. I cannot speak to how consistent this view is with whichever texts it is based on, but if true, it would mean that “terrifying abominations” are not any more or less accurate than human-like depictions. Rather, it would mean that they are roughly equally accurate depictions of different types of “angels”. According to the same historian mentioned earlier, the idea of a hierarchy of angels (indeed, the origin even of the word hierarchy itself) and the classification of cherubim and seraphim as sub-categories (and high ranks) of angels comes from “Pseudo-Dionysius”, the author of On the Celestial Hierarchy.
Memes and comments around “biblically accurate” angels will sometimes belabor the point that biblical angels frequently say “be not afraid” or something similar. This is frequently true, but its prevalence amongst biblical incidents involving angels is often overstated (possibly due to a bias towards the relatively small New Testament, where these “be not afraid” statements are more prevalent). Such arguments also draw a typically false connection between such statements and the angel’s physical body (see Gabriel’s appearance to Mary as an example of an angel dispelling fear for reasons unrelated to his physical form). These pacifying remarks more often relate to the fear the person in question might have of (a) events that are going on or which are foretold by the angel, or of (b) the manner in which the angel supernaturally appears to them, but they do seem to sometimes relate to (c) the impressiveness of the angel’s physical appearance.
In conclusion, the image of an angel as being roughly equivalent to a human is more textually accurate than describing various permutations of eye-covered eldritch creatures as “angels”. Humans with two wings and certainly a halo are later inventions. And the modern perception of angels as pacific harp-strummers is rather… mild (to put it mildly) compared to much of biblical angelic activity. But ultimately humanoid depictions of angels have a firm basis in biblical texts, and more so than the eldritch creatures that are ostensibly more “biblically accurate.”