Do Mormon Angels Have Wings?

July 23, 2011

There has been a book of personal testimony making waves in Evangelical Christian circles for the past few months. Indeed, it isn’t just limited to Protestant Evangelicals; the person who recommended it to our family is a devout Catholic liberal.

The book, entitled Heaven is for Real, is the real life story of Todd Burpo, a small town Christian pastor, and his family as they pass through a life crisis of Todd’s illness and resulting financial problems. As they seemingly reach the end of this crisis and take a family trip that combines a family vacation with a ministerial conference, their toddler son Colton is stricken with a burst appendix that is mis-diagnosed until the infection brings the child to death’s door. Instead of being over, the life crisis has only deepened beyond anything they could have feared.

Colton does survive and, then, over a period of time — with all the innocence of the old “kids say the darndest things” television show — starts dropping casual details about the time in the hospital when he died and spent time in heaven. Since the details include things like Jesus not being angry because Todd got mad at God in the hospital chapel while Colton was in surgery, something Todd had carefully hidden from everyone, Todd begins to pay attention.

Indeed, Colton describes meeting in heaven his great-grandfather who died thirty years before he was born. He is later able to pick out “Pops” from a picture his grandmother has, but which he has never seen. Similarly, he is introduced to an older sister — one who died from miscarriage in the womb — and his recitation of that meeting heals a deep pain and sense of loss in his mother’s heart.

Just as Colton knows things he shouldn’t about his family, he also casually drops details about heaven that are dear to the Evangelical world view, but aren’t covered in his age group in Sunday School. The Jesus he meets wears a purple sash, but Colton doesn’t know that purple is the color of royalty, or how to describe a sash. He keeps saying that the pictures of Jesus are not what Jesus looks like — until he is shown the picture above, and says “that’s right”. Jesus rides a great white horse, while all of the others in heaven have wings. (Even Colton has wings, but his are only little; he still has a lot of homework to do.) Colton gets to sing songs like “Jesus Loves Me” with the angels, but for some reason, they won’t allow him to sing “We will, we will, rock you!”

And Colton is strongly convinced of two things: Jesus REALLY, REALLY loves children, and people HAVE TO, HAVE TO have Jesus in their heart when they die. When his father goes to visit someone whose believing loved one has died, Colton rushes into the confident, comforting role. But when a person has died without belief, Colton is inconsolable.

Finally, Colton is convinced that a great battle between good and evil is coming soon, and that his father will have to fight in it.

Now, I am somewhat cynical, as most of the readers here well know. I am well aware that once an author learns to fake sincerity, the rest is easy (particularly when the co-author is a professional writer). Nevertheless, sincerity and humble faith leap out at me from the pages of the book, and it was definitely faith-promoting to me even when I didn’t share particular theological agreement. A critical reviewer at Amazon, Matthew Hickman, put it this way:

“Don’t use this book as a basis for theological discernment about either the afterlife or the end of time. Take this book for what it is: a sweet story of the love of parents for their child, the care of Christians for each other in times of crisis, and the surprising mystery of the grace of God.”

But if I am not to use it for theological discernment because it doesn’t match my theology, what am I to make of the variation in visionary experiences from other sources? I don’t recall any accounts of visitation by Moroni that depict him as possessing wings. Do Mormon angels have wings? In other words, am I to be put off because the experiences we have don’t match each other in details, but rather seem to reflect the expectations of our particular religious culture?

For example, the testimony of John Gustav-Wrathall here comes across as equally sincere as that of the Burpo’s, even though they might recognize little more that they shared together theologically than that they had had an experience with Christ.

Can we see the spiritual experiences of other traditions — perhaps even beyond Christian traditions — with a sense of  divine grace, or do we only regard grace as coming with the proper brand name?

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17 Responses to Do Mormon Angels Have Wings?

  1. CatherineWO on July 23, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    Many years ago, as a young mother living far away from what had always been home (Utah), I became very good friends with another young mother who was Evangelical. Shortly after our first meeting, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and I had a very close association with her up until her death about six years later. During that time period she had several spiritual experiences, including near-death, that were at first confusing to me and my narrow Mormon view of grace. But she was so sincere and such a genuinely good person that I could not discount them.
    I believe that divine grace is manifested to each of us in a manner that we will best be able to recognize, whatever our previous religious training or lack of such. There is no one brand that makes it valid. If angels need wings to fit into one’s concept of heaven, then let them have wings.

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  2. Mike S on July 23, 2011 at 10:09 AM

    I think that we, as Mormons, think we have a “lock” on the spiritual. I read a story recently about a young lady (Buddhist) who was very sick, and had been getting worse. She was praying and meditating on a retreat. One night, an elderly man appeared and blessed her. The next morning, she was completely better.

    The next year, she went over to Tibet for the first time. In a monastery, she saw one of the old monks and immediately recognized him. Through a translator, he recognized her as well and asked if she was still better. She was stunned. When she asked some of the other people there, they said that at night, he often meditates and “travels” to visit those in need.

    I think profound and miraculous events are a fundamental part of life at a much deeper level that we usually appreciate. We see them in a “Mormon” context and assign our values to them. The Burpos assigned Evangelical values to them. Hindus and Muslims assign their own values to them. Buddhists assign their own values.

    The biggest issue this raises for me is a missionary program that is based upon these “experiences”. We use them as the basis of a testimony that the Mormon Church is the only true Church. But what about all these same experiences occurring in a “non-Mormon” context?

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  3. Howard on July 23, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    Visions are not visitations revelation is Spirit to spirit communication one’s mind must in interpret them I’m not surprised that they vary greatly or that people see what they expect to see think of them as analogies or metaphors.

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  4. Troth Everyman on July 23, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    I recently read an account of a boy who had memories of his previous reincarnated life as a pilot in WW2. He even had memories of his death. He was later able to meet members of the family from his previous life and was able to recount experiences that should have been impossible for him to know. Spiritual experiences can be present in many religious and nonreligious contexts. We as Mormons certainly do not have a trademark on spiritual manifestations or experiences…nor is our brand of religion meant for everyone.

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  5. Mike S on July 23, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    Troth: …nor is our brand of religion meant for everyone…

    I agree with this, but how do you reconcile this with our teachings that EVERYONE must receive what are essentially “Mormon” ordinances to reach the “highest reward”?

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  6. Mike S on July 23, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    Also re #4:

    Regarding reincarnation: it has certainly been more rigorously studied than most things that we teach. For example, Dr. Stevenson has documented more than 3000 instances of children who recalled specific details of a prior life. There are MANY, MANY other accounts as well.

    To an outside observer, this is certainly more rigorous of a proof than what we have for the Book of Abraham, for example, or for many of the things mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

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  7. Troth Everyman on July 23, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    Mike S.

    I don’t reconcile it. I actually don’t believe in the doctrine that “our way is the only way”. While I find much beauty in the theology of Mormonism, I currently have a hard time with the authority claims.

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  8. Jana H on July 23, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    “The biggest issue this raises for me is a missionary program that is based upon these “experiences”. We use them as the basis of a testimony that the Mormon Church is the only true Church. But what about all these same experiences occurring in a “non-Mormon” context?”

    Do you have to reconcile it? My husband is a convert to the church, after having a fulfilling experience as an evangelical Christian since his childhood. He doesn’t believe those experiences to have been fake or not of the Lord. But he also doesn’t discount his experiences investigating and participating in the LDS church. He looks as his life as a journey toward Christ that has taken different forms over his lifetime.

    Now, I know my ward is somewhat progressive in comparison to wards elsewhere, but I can recall many times where someone shared a story about a non-member friend or relative who has had a spiritual experience. These are recounted in a faith-promoting context, and it is understood that they believe the non-Mormon has had a valuable and authentic experience with the divine; one they shared with other Mormons with the intent to inspire. This hasn’t ever been controversial.

    So, I disagree that “we, as Mormons, think we have a “lock” on the spiritual.”

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  9. Mike S on July 23, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    Jana:

    I agree that many Mormons appreciate the spiritual in those around us, even to the point where many of us feel that another faith is just as valid of a way for someone else to return to God as ours. But this raises two issues:

    1) At what point does this dilute the “One True Church” nature of Mormonism enough that it truly doesn’t matter if you are a Mormon or not?

    2) How can the Church ever fully accept this attitude when our “Founding Story” which we accept at canonized scripture includes the following condemnation of EVERYONE ELSE:

    I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

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  10. Jana H on July 23, 2011 at 10:07 PM

    In my ward, we’re encouraged to have “missionary moments” and think of new and interesting ways to share the gospel. Maybe this will materialize into a conversion somewhere along the line (I have a friend who was baptized and my husband, for example), but in many other cases I believe we’re providing an example for righteous living and hopefully fostering within ourselves a spirit of service to others. Eternity is a long time, and I have always thought that some hearts just can’t or won’t be changed in this world. And that’s OK.

    I am not troubled by the idea that there are many roads to Zion. After all, Catholics, as I understand it, don’t believe Protestants to be bound for hell, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean that Catholics don’t believe that they have a purer form of the Gospel than Protestants, with a direct line of authority to Peter.

    In the firebrand preacher religious parlance of JS’s time, it is perfectly reasonable for the Lord to express himself in such a way. We don’t know specifically what about the creeds were an abomination, but I would imagine an incorrect understanding of the nature of God/Godhead is probably a reasonable place to start. There is still great antipathy among the mainstream Christian community about our “different Jesus.”

    We don’t have to pridefully claim all other religions invalid, even though we reserve the right to believe our truth claims. Claiming exclusivity to accessing the Spirit would not only be contentious (and therefore not of the Spirit), it would be fruitless except in very limited circumstances.

    I have no other choice than to believe that Christ changes hearts in different ways and by different avenues, and that His ways are not to my understanding at this time. I have no other option, because I don’t think that those having spiritual experiences outside of my faith are delusional or somehow being tricked by the adversary. But I do own my own spiritual experiences within the context of Mormonism and judge them to be “pearls of great price.”

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  11. FireTag on July 23, 2011 at 10:52 PM

    I’ve appreciated the thoughtful discussion on this thread today.

    CatherineWO:

    Thank you for getting the comments off to such a beautiful start.

    Mike S. and Jana:

    Your comments raise several interesting “next questions” for me. The Community of Christ gave up the notion of one and ONLY true church some time ago, so I’m comfortable with the notion that authority is given by God to whomever He wills in whatever form He wills. As I have noted in some recent posts, such as

    http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/05/14/brokering-the-kingdom-is-missing-the-point/

    my studies right now are exciting me about the notion of an “unbrokered” kingdom in which Jesus taught the direct accessibility of God’s grace to all. With that idea in mind, I am looking at that “abomination” quote in terms of the idea, not the content, of creeds as the source of the problem, because the existence of creeds to which we must hold for salvation puts brokers between us and Christ.

    Troth and Mike:

    Reincarnation seems to me to trade one set of theological problems for another. Our minds and bodies are so interrelated that it’s hard for me to see how very different bodies can house the same spirit, and different parents pretty much guarantee very different bodies. Living different lives with the same parents which is closer to the Mormon eternal family) is just easier for me to grasp from a spiritual-physical interface. I suppose I’ll be able to know the answer to that issue by direct observation before I ever have time to sort it out.

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  12. miskky on July 24, 2011 at 1:45 AM

    Having read several books on near death experiences, I was surprised that millions of people across all earth’s cultures have had near death experiences. It seems that the religious or spiritual ‘culture’ of the person flavors the experience accordingly.

    That being said, my experience is that the true Gospel of Jesus Christ must be our main concern. Within that Gospel, as taught by the Savior, there appears to be ordinances that are necessary, such as baptism, and they must be performed by those authorized. There must be faith in Christ and good works. But, it is evident to me that ordinances alone, faith alone, works alone or any combination of these is not enough.

    Perhaps the great abomination that the Savior spoke of to JS was that which seems to take place in all religions, even mormonism. The Apostle Paul wrote specifically about it as did Moroni when he recorded Mormons words about it. It may be where so many perhaps miss the mark.

    In the end will it not be our hearts, our ‘real intent’ that is judged? How will our hearts answer? Have we really lived the true Gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what church we attended?

    Those who have had near death experiences live transformed lives and the closer they experience the ‘Light’ the greater that transformation. This transformation in my opinion is the ‘Mighty Change of Heart’? I further believe anyone can receive this change. I believe anyone who truly lives the ‘true’ Gospel of Jesus Christ will be given the opportunity to fulfill all that is necessary to receive of the Savior’s full atonement and whatever portion of eternal life they are capable and comfortable in receiving.

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  13. FireTag on July 24, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    Miskky:

    I certainly believe that there are many who follow the true gospel of Christ but do not know that they know.

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  14. Mike S on July 25, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    #11 FireTag: Our minds and bodies are so interrelated that it’s hard for me to see how very different bodies can house the same spirit, and different parents pretty much guarantee very different bodies.

    I think the Buddhist concept makes more sense to me than the Hindu concept. Unlike Hinduism (which posits more of a “soul”), Buddhism suggests that it is not a specific entity that gets passed along, but a “life-force” with associated karma, etc.

    Perhaps the best analogy is a wave on the ocean. The wave can travel great distances – the individual particles don’t really travel that much but just make circles transmitting the wave. Similarly, a particular wave could be this particular body, but when it dies, the energy is in another body.

    This is greatly simplified, but it’s a start.

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  15. FireTag on July 25, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    Mike S:

    That’s an interesting way to look at it. I hope no one from the past is sending bad karma my way, and that I’m not sending bad karma to others in the future.

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  16. Geoff on July 25, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    Firetag:

    Here’s the video someone previously noted of a small boy who recollects his past life as a fighter pilot in WW2.

    Mike:

    Can you share where you read that story of the buddhist woman being healed by the monk?

    Re: Brokered kingdom

    Firetag – thanks for raising this issue. It’s interesting to me to see things in this light. Just yesterday, for instance, several of our lessons were on the necessity of the Church, belonging to the Church, the ordinances being of and for the Church and belonging to the Church where all must come to find truth. It was taught with the concept of pioneers laying the path and devoting their lives to truth, that now we have leaders who regularly receive revelation and are showing us the way. One teacher even held up the scriptures (his Quad) and stated, “… these scriptures are important, but the words of the living prophets contained in the Ensign and at LDS.org are infinitely more important.”

    I need to read Crossan’s book to gain a better understanding of his jist for the brokered kingdom.

    Lastly, several comments noted that we tend to see and interpret things in the context of our belief system. For those looking for a book that discusses that idea in more depth there’s The Shack, which takes it to a whole different level, and the Adjustment Bureau [movie] references those ideas throughout.

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  17. FireTag on July 26, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    Geoff:

    The Adjustment Bureau was a very interesting movie, indeed.

    If you do get “The Historical Jesus”, go directly to Chapter 13 first — that’s the crux — and then backfill all the scholarly chapters beforehand that build the evidence for the conclusion.

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