What comes to mind when you think of an angel? A towering blond figure with wings and flowing robes protecting two children crossing a rickety bridge? A chubby Victorian cherub? Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven, or Clarence in the classic film It's a Wonderful Life? What do angels look like, according to those who have experienced them and the records in the Bible?
Usually angels are unseen. This is not surprising, because angels are spirit beings: minds without physical bodies. The Bible indicates that angels constantly carry out God's bidding in caring for people, yet most people are not aware of ever seeing an angel.
In Numbers 22 Baalam finds his donkey leaving the road. Baalam is puzzled until later, when he learns that the maneuvers of the donkey were owing to an angel that he did not see. Today most of us don't ride donkeys, but if you bring up the subject of angels and automobiles, many people will tell of what seemed to be a miraculous escape from an accident. Often no angel was seen, but they are convinced there is no other explanation for the events except that an angel was present and at work. Others have sensed an angelic presence without seeing a form. Many people, in looking back, become aware that what appeared to be coincidence at the time may have been the work of unseen angels.
When angels do appear, most often they take on familiar human form in order to do their work without frightening us. The Bible does not explain how spirit beings can assume bodies. It simply teaches that they do and that we do not recognize them as angels because they look like ordinary people. The angels who appeared to Abraham and Lot in the book of Genesis looked like and were dressed as ordinary people. How often do angels come in human form? Probably more often than we realize. "Do not forget to entertain strangers," Hebrews 13:2 admonishes us, "for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." The passage suggests that at any time it is possible that we may have encountered angels without our being conscious of their supernatural nature.
One reason for this phenomenon is that when angels do appear, most often they come in a human form most characteristic of those living in that area. Abraham's angels dressed and looked like people of his day. In the accounts included in A Rustle of Angels, a missionary to the Andes saw an angel that looked like a national from Ecuador; a Mexican family saw two angels who looked like Mexicans; in Haiti the angels were very black; white Americans saw angels who resembled their neigh¬bors; black persons saw black angels. This is to be expected. Being inconspicuous is often a part of the angel's ministry.
At times there are exceptions. The Good Samaritan-type angel sometimes appears as a person of another race or culture. God is good at breaking down walls of prejudice.
Some report seeing angels that are awesome. Many times God's hosts have appeared as warrior angels, tremendously tall and powerful. Others have seen angels as beautiful beings with wings. There may be times when a person's faith is bolstered if an angel appears in a more traditional form.
Others report the angelic presence as light. In Exodus 3:2 the angel of the Lord appears to Moses as flames in the burning bush. In Psalm 104:4 angels are a flaming fire. Many have told us that they have seen an angel appear as light. At times it begins as a faint glow that grows until the room is filled with brilliance. At other times it is as though there is a figure unseen, because it is bathed in light. Some are able to describe what the angel was wearing but could not see the features of his face because it was bathed in a bright light. Could this be where our idea of a halo originated? Many observers tell of a pure white light, brighter than any whiteness they have ever seen1 others describe different colors. For several it was pink; others found it to be iridescent like mother-of-pearl; two described it as cobalt blue, while many said it was indescribable, completely different from anything they had ever seen.
Sometimes the form is seen, but the facial features are hidden in a heavenly aura. A number of people describe a ball of light that sometimes passes right through the wall of a building.
Many who have been present at the death of a loved one tell of a light that entered the room in the final moments of life, then gently rose as though escorting the unseen spirit of the dying person into the presence of God.
Angel-visited people have described the eyes of these spirits more than any other feature. They were struck by the depth of love and compassion in the angels' eyes, which left them with a deep sense of peace.
What do angels look like? Angels are unseen spirits. If it is helpful as they do their ministry, they may take on a form that we humans see. This is only a temporary accommodation—not what angels really look like but only the form in which an angel has chosen to appear temporarily.
After death, when we are given a spiritual body, will we see angels as spirits? No doubt. What will they look like? Completely different from anything our physical eyes have seen. The hints that the Bible gives us indicate that angels are awesome, glorious, and beautiful beyond description. "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).