Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?
In the Gospel of Luke, the first thing the angel delivering the news of the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds says is ‘Do not be afraid’. This is a messenger of God, a piece of eternity descending into our material world, and the same kind of creature that slaughtered the firstborn sons of Egypt (from the son and heir of Pharoah to the son and heir of the slave at the mill). Fortunately for them, this is not a destroying angel, but simply a messenger.
It is very much these uncaring sort of ‘force of nature’ angels that I find interesting. They’re almost Lovecraftian – made of eyes and tongues, or with four heads (a man, and ox, a lion, and an eagle) and four wings covered in eyes, or a wheel moving within a wheel and covered in eyes – but with the crucial difference that they work for a God that very much does care about humanity, even if He moves in unfathomable ways.
In a way, that just makes it worse: if Nyartholep awakens and kills you, it’s nothing personal; if an angel kills you, it’s doing so because your death is an objectively morally correct thing – angels are instruments of God’s will, you see, and God knows everything and is the source of morality. If an angel kills you, it’s because you deserve to die. The books that made this point most chillingly, I think, were C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (where all the planets of the solar system have life, but Earth is the only one in the entire universe to have had the Fall). There, the angel placed over Malacandra (Mars) makes comments along the lines that it would destroy any malcontents or rebels as a matter of course – and this is no threat or boast, and there is no chance that anything on Malacandra could remotely threaten its rule of the planet or God’s rule of the cosmos. It would destroy those beings because they are ‘bent’, because it simply needs to be done for God’s plan to proceed (in my opinion, this trilogy is one of the strongest anti-Christian works I’ve ever come across, though of course that is the exact opposite of Lewis’ intention).
There’s more to angels than this, of course. There is the tradition of ‘guardian angels’, and various mystic traditions that claim communication with angels (John Dee, court magician and spymaster to Elizabeth I, claimed to have learned the primordial language used by Adam in this way). Then there are the angels of the likes of Supernatural or Charmed: basically regular asshole humans with glowy powers, and the halfway position of Angels in the DC Comics Vertigo line (Sandman and Hellblazer most especially), where they are mostly human enough to sympathise with (The Snob, who hangs out in the elite Cambridge Club and smugly refuses to help John Constantine with his lung cancer – ‘Debts mean nothing to our kind’ – is extremely punchable, but ultimately understandable) except for when they’re not (an angel and a demon conceive a child; seven figures in cloaks with their faces covered turn up to kill the abomination as it’s born – ‘And the Angel of Mercy, too’).
Where does this impulse to humanise the inhuman come from? The wrong question, maybe. To a non-believer like myself, gods (and God) are basically attempts to put a human face on the storm – we all recognise that we can’t personally control everything, but it’s nice to think that somewhere out there is someone who can. Better the tyrant than chaos. The God of the Bible (as opposed to the omnipotent omnibenevolent etc. God of Theologians), like Zeus and Odin, is just another king, albeit one with fantastic powers, so it makes perfect sense for His servants to be likewise flawed.
Perhaps the better question would be: where does this impulse to dehumanise human beliefs come from? I would say that it has the same fundamental root as the invention of God: we wish to impose some structure on the world. Hence the Kabbalic tree of life, and the various hierarchies of angels, and alchemy, and science. This vision of God, and of angels, is that of an ineffable light at the very top of the pyramid of reality: it can be understood in terms of complicated rules.