Published October 13, 2012
The current issue of Newsweek features a cover story by the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, who endured a seven-day coma after bacterial meningitis attacked his brain.
Contrary to the assumptions of medical science, Alexander claims to have been fully conscious during this period—but conscious of another place. He says he visited heaven and reports several things from the experience, including hearing angels sing and speak.
Do angels speak with us? Leaving aside those who disbelieve, the Judeo-Christian tradition resounds with a loud yes. As I discovered while researching my book "Lifted by Angels," the point is deeply ingrained in the thinking of the early church.
Take, for instance, these words from the monk and theologian, John Damascene. Angels, he said, “take different forms at the bidding of their master, God, and thus reveal themselves to men and unveil the divine mysteries to them.”
And these from Isaac the Syrian: “[Angels] are our teachers,” he said, adding that our “development and illumination cannot come to pass without the divine vision received of angels.”
Using words like reveal, unveil, teachers, and divine vision cast the angels in the job of messengers. This is fitting, since that’s exactly what the word angel means.
According to the tradition, angels have other functions as well, but their primary task is to reflect the knowledge and glory of God upon creation and point us to the source of that knowledge and glory. And so we find the biblical stories of angels mostly concern passing news, explaining mysteries, giving warning, or encouraging the fearful.
Many of these stories are familiar to us:
*Abraham hears from an angel about the unlikely birth of his son, Isaac, just as Manoah and his wife hear from an angel about their boy, Samson.
*Jacob hears from an angel in a dream that he should return to his family.
*Moses hears from an angel speaking in a burning bush.
*Gideon hears from an angel who promises that God will deliver his people.
*And jump ahead to the greatest of all revelations, when Mary hears from the archangel Gabriel about the coming of Christ.
What does it mean to hear from an angel?
Angels are bodiless and spiritual, so how do they deliver their messages to people of flesh and blood? One answer is noetically—that is, through our thoughts. Angels can in a sense whisper, maybe even shout, to our spirits, minds, and hearts. That’s why in several biblical stories angels speak through dreams.
It can and does happen in waking hours, too. People talk about having certain passing impressions, moods, and imaginations. The early Christians knew that some of these thoughts were in fact angelic suggestions.
“The angel of righteousness is sensitive, modest, meek, and mild,” according to "The Shepherd of Hermas," an early second-century book. “[W]hen he rises up in your heart, he immediately speaks with you about righteousness, purity, reverence, contentment, every upright deed, and every glorious virtue. When all these things rise up in your heart, realize that the angel of righteousness is with you.”
Similarly, Clement of Alexandria dwelled on this a bit in his "Miscellanies." “[T]he thoughts of virtuous men are produced through the inspiration of God,” he said, adding that “particular divine ministers” contribute to “the divine will being conveyed to human souls.” By “divine ministers” he meant angels.
These are all examples of noetic communication, angels speaking directly to the soul of a person.
But angels are not limited to noetic communication or speaking directly to our souls. While bodiless and invisible, angels can condescend and make their presence palpably and tangibly known. They, said Basil the Great, become “visible, appearing to those who are worthy in the form of bodies proper to them.”
And so in Genesis we see Abraham and Lot offering water for angelic visitors to wash their feet while also carrying on conversation—and Jacob not only talking but physically wrestling with an angel.
How is this? It’s a mystery.
Augustine admitted difficulty in understanding how angels can speak inside us intellectually and spiritually and also to us audibly and bodily. But he nonetheless believed it. Scripture records too many moments in which angels have visibly, physically interrupted human life.
It’s impossible to speak to all of Alexander’s vision, but Christians should know that angels speak to us. As messengers of God, it’s one of their primary tasks, and the scripture and teaching tradition of the early Christian church testify to the fact.