This past week was a very hard week. I have been pastoring Happy Home Baptist Church in Nakina, NC for six years. A very special lady in the church died this past week. She had been battling cancer since before I came to the church, but she was always there with a smile on her face, praising the Lord for what he had done for her. It’s not going to be the same without her there.
With the news of her death, social media began to spread the word. Inevitably, whenever someone dies and the word starts spreading, someone is going to say something to the effect of: “Heaven gained another angel today.” I’ve always wondered how people who I thought were Bible-believing people could think that we become angels when we die. But even more, I wondered where the original thought came from.
As I researched, I realized, at least for us in the West, that the idea most likely came from the thoughts of Charles Dickens. Most of us probably know him for his great novels: Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities are my two favorites. But he actually influenced Western thought on this very topic:
“Dickens’s doctrine of angels is, I suspect, responsible for a good deal of erroneous teaching. Essentially Dickens taught that when the good people (particularly children) die, they become angels in heaven (a doctrine that the Bible nowhere maintains). When Dickens’s favorite sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died at age seventeen, he said, ‘God numbered her among the angels at seventeen.’ The word ‘among’ in the previous sentence might mean that she was simply surrounded by angels—unless we had other Dickens contexts that clarified this notion.
There can be little question about Dickens’s meaning when he taught his children in The Life of Our Lord: ‘The most miserable, the most ugly, deformed wretched creatures that live [on earth] will be bright Angels in Heaven if they are good here on earth.’ In Dickens’s account of Jesus receiving little children he even asserts: ‘the Angels are all children.’ In The Old Curiosity Shop (chapter 54) the schoolmaster says to Little Nell: ‘There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here.’ In other words, individuals engage in their ‘work on earth’ and are finally ‘added to the [angelic] Host of Heaven.’ Reflecting this people-become-angels teaching, Dickens’s adult daughter Katie remarked, ‘Well, really, papa, I think when you’re an angel your wings will be made of looking glass, and your crown of [his favorite] scarlet geraniums!’ Thus, we must conclude that Dickens’s angelology was askew—and it suggests his naivete about some other doctrines.”
— Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society JOTGES 12:2 (Autumn 99) p. 75
Whether he was the sole influence of Western thought on this issue in the beginning, I really don’t know. But I do know that movies and even some in the church have helped to put forth this teaching. The Bible, however, tells us something different.
First and foremost, humans are the only ones in the Scripture that are said to be created in the image of God. Genesis 1:26-27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This is something that is not true of angels. While they too are created beings, they are not created in the image of God. (For more information on what it means to be created in the image of God, see chapter one of my book: The History of Redemption.)
Second, Hebrews 2 puts a lot of these thoughts to rest. In verse 7, the author quotes Psalm 8 and writes, “You made him for a little while lower than the angels.” This could be used to say that we’re lower now but become angels later. However, the author of Hebrews says later in that same chapter: “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham” (2:16). This surely differentiates humans from angels again, because it says that Jesus’ redemptive work was only for humans and not angels.
In Genesis 3, we read of the fall of mankind through the sin of Adam. But Jude 6 tells us that angels also made a choice to rebel against God, separate from Adam. “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…” And while Jesus offers redemption for humanity, 1 Peter 1:12 tells us that the good news of the gospel is something “into which angels long to look.”
Another thought on this point comes from the author of Hebrews again. Hebrews 1:14 says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” Continuing on this thought, Tyler Kinney posted on the Desiring God website three things Jonathan Edwards said made humans greater than angels:
“Jonathan Edwards gives three reasons why human beings, though sinful and inferior in wisdom and strength, will forever exceed angels in glory and honor:
1. Angels were made to serve God by serving man, but man was made to serve God directly.
2. Human grace, holiness, and love are greater virtues than angelic wisdom and strength.
3. Believers are united to Christ in a way angels never will be.”
I think just this brief look at what the Bible says is enough to show that we are different than angels and will remain so when we die. But before I close, I want to address one more issue on this topic: Matthew 22:30 says, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This was brought to my attention as the reason for this thought, so perhaps Dickens was not the originator of the thought. Maybe it goes back much further.
The problem with using this verse in that manner is that it takes the verse out of its context. (See my last post for information about context: Preaching: What Do You Prefer?.) Jesus is talking to Sadducees who do not believe in the resurrection, and they are trying to trick Jesus by asking him about who would be married to a woman if she got married and her husband died, then the next one, then the next one, and so on. Jesus is answering that question. So what he is saying is that we will be resurrected, but we will be like the angels in that we will not be married or get married. That is the only comparison Jesus is making here.
With all of this said, my hope is that we correct our theology that was formulated by misguided traditions or some other outside source, and we replace it with what the Bible says.
Please let me know what you think in the comments and let me know what your thoughts are on the subject!