Billy Graham (no relation) died today – Wednesday 21st February 2018. I confess I know very little about him. I never listened to him preach or took much interest in his career. My only contact with Graham was through his book “Angels: God’s Secret Agents,” which was given to me by an Assistant Minister in a Presbyterian Church I attended in my teens. I thought it was odd then and I still do.
It seems a large number of people not only believe in angels as distinct beings but also claim to have their very own “guardian angel,” who pops up occasionally to save them from harm. I confess the notion of guardian angels strikes me as plain silly. The aforementioned Assistant Minister once told me a story (see below) of how an angel saved his life, and whilst I found it interesting, I just thought it was a case of misperception. Many others report their own stories of having been protected by guardian angels. I went through a phase of reading as many of these stories as I could find, but my conclusion was that the vast majority of accounts were either due to misperceptions, misreporting, or just plain folk tales. Graham himself relates a tale of a young girl who fetched a doctor for her sick mother. After tending to the mother the doctor discovered that the woman’s daughter had been dead for several weeks and the coat she was wearing on this windy and rainy night was hanging up in the closet completely dry. The trouble with this story – aside from the fact that it sounds just like a clichéd ghost story – is that it is quite an old tale which has circulated in various forms and with conflicting details. The folklorist Jan Brunvand points out that it came from an original story by S Weir Mitchell, who was a physicist and writer of fiction, and who appeared to suggest the story was indeed a ghost tale.
This sort of story is quite typical, and angels routinely pop up as mysterious kind strangers who provide assistance to people in need and then suddenly just disappear. “Roadside rescue” stories are so common as to be something of a cliché. The aforementioned Assistant Minister’s own story was of this genre of angel-lore. He momentarily lost control of his car and was heading towards a steep drop in a frozen panic when suddenly a car coming from the other direction forced him to steer away from danger. When he came to a halt the other car was nowhere to be seen, and apparently on this long straight road the car should still have been in sight. It had just disappeared. But how much time had lapsed between him swerving, then coming to a halt, and then looking for the other car? It might have seemed to him to have been seconds, but it may well have been much longer. Situations of anxiety can warp our experience of reality such that minutes seem to pass in seconds. Moreover, if the other car was moving fast enough it could easily have been out of sight surprisingly quickly.
Other stories have similar easy explanations. In fact, pretty much every angel story I’ve heard seems to me to have a more straightforward explanation. I have a demonic story of my own. I once woke up in the middle of the night and saw an area of my room that seemed “darker” than the rest. It looked – and felt – like something malevolent was hanging in mid-air beside my wardrobe. It suddenly seemed to fly right up to my face, causing me to shut my eyes in utter terror. The feeling passed in a few seconds and when I opened my eyes again my room was normal. Had I close encounter with a demonic entity? No. Clearly not. It was precisely the sort of experience that is referred to as a waking dream, a kind of hallucinogenic state between sleeping and waking consciousness. Presumably dark powers have more important things to do with their time than scaring the crap out of 17 year olds in their bedrooms. Some angelic accounts have all the hallmarks of the same sort of phenomena: waking dreams, the state which is responsible for many alleged experiences of ghosts, aliens, and other wee beasties lurking in the subconscious mind.
Stress is another state that causes hallucinations (or simply misperceptions) in which people believe they have experienced angels. Robert A. Baker, a psychologist, points out that there is a “well known psychological fact that human beings, when subjected to extreme fear and stress, frequently hallucinate. These hallucinations, in many instances, take the form of helpers, aides, guides, assistants, playing the role of saviour. If the hallucinator also has religious leanings it is easy to understand how such a ‘helper’ is converted into one of the heavenly host.”
In other cases it seems as if the person in question is simply a fantasist. This is particularly common in children, and my own son would freak us out from time to time as a toddler as he seemed to interact with things that weren’t there. Other accounts are simply urban myths, passed on as if the teller was (or knows) the person in question, (people are prone to “sexing up” stories in the retelling to make them even more marvellous to their audience).
None of this means angels do not exist, but it does mean there are generally good reasons for doubting claims to have experienced them.
Stephen J. Graham