Angels and wings go together naturally in popular culture. Images of winged angels are commonplace on everything from tattoos to greeting cards. But do angels really have wings?
After all, powerful spiritual creatures aren’t bound by the laws of physics, so they don’t actually need wings to fly. Yet, people who have encountered angels sometimes report that the angels they saw had wings. Others report that the angels they saw manifested in a different form, without wings. So do some angels have wings, while others don’t?
Art throughout history has often portrayed angels with wings, but sometimes without them. Could it be that angel wings symbolize something?
The sacred texts of three major world religions -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- all contain verses about angel wings. What does the Bible say about the issue? How about the Torah and the Qur’an? Let’s take a look to discover some answers:
Different Missions, Different Appearances
Since angels are spirits, they aren’t limited to appearing in just one kind of physical form, as human beings are. Angels may show up on Earth in whatever way best suits the purposes of their missions.
Sometimes, angels manifest in ways that make them appear to be human beings. The Bible says in Hebrews 13:2 that some people have offered hospitality to strangers whom they thought were other people, but in fact they “have entertained angels without knowing it.”
At other times, angels appear in a glorified form that makes it obvious that they’re angels, but they don’t have wings. Angels often appear as beings of light, as they did to William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. Booth reported seeing a group of angels surrounded by an aura of extremely bright light in all colors of the rainbow. The Hadith, a Muslim collection of information about the prophet Muhammad, declares: “The angels were created from light …”.
Angels may also appear in their glorified form with wings, of course. When they do, they may inspire people to praise God. The Qur’an says in chapter 35 (Al-Fatir), verse 1: “All praise belongs to God, the maker of the heavens and the earth, who made the angels messengers with wings, two or three or four (pairs). He adds to creation as he pleases: for God has power over all things.”
Magnificent and Exotic
Angels’ wings are quite magnificent sights to see, and often appear exotic, as well. The Torah and the Bible both describe the prophet Isaiah’s vision of winged seraphim angels in heaven with God: “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Isaiah 6:2-3). The prophet Ezekiel described an incredible vision of cherubim angels in Ezekiel chapter 10 of the Torah and the Bible, mentioning that the angels’ wings were “completely full of eyes” (verse 12) and “under their wings was what looked like human hands” (verse 21). The angels each used their wings and something “like a wheel intersecting a wheel” (verse 10) that “sparkled like topaz” (verse 9) to move around.
Not only did the angels’ wings look impressive, but they also made impressive sounds, Ezekiel 10:5 says: “The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far away as the outer court [of the temple], like the voice of God almighty when he speaks.”
Symbols of God’s Powerful Care
The wings that angels sometimes feature when appearing to human beings may serve as symbols of God’s power and loving care for people. The Torah and the Bible use wings as a metaphor in that way in Psalm 91:4, which says of God: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” The same psalm mentions later that people who make God their refuge by trusting him can expect God to send angels to help care for them. Verse 11 declares: “For he [God] will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
When God himself gave the Israelites the instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, God described specifically how the two golden cherubim angels’ wings should appear on it: “The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them…” (Exodus 25:20 of the Torah and the Bible). The ark, which carried a manifestation of God’s personal presence on Earth, showed winged angels who represented the angels who spread their wings near God’s throne in heaven.
Symbols of God’s Wonderful Creation
Another view of angels’ wings is that they’re meant to show how wonderfully God created angels, giving them the ability to travel from one dimension to another (which human beings may best understand as flying) and to do their work equally well in heaven and on Earth.
Saint John Chrysostom once said about the significance of angels’ wings: “They manifest a nature's sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature."
The al-Musnad Hadith says that the prophet Muhammad was impressed by the sight of archangel Gabriel’s many huge wings and in awe of God’s creative work: "The messenger of God saw Gabriel in his true form. He had 600 wings, each of which covered the horizon. There fell from his wings jewels, pearls and rubies; only God knows about them."
Earning Their Wings?
Popular culture often presents the idea that angels must earn their wings by successfully completing certain missions. One of the most famous portrayals of that idea occurs in the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a “second class” angel in training named Clarence earns his wings after helping a suicidal man want to live again.
However, there’s no evidence in the Bible, Torah, or the Qur’an that angels must earn their wings. Instead, the angels all appear to have received their wings purely as gifts from God.