The question, “Do you believe in angels?” brought nearly 100 people together March 19 at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Homewood.
The Sunday afternoon program was sponsored by South West Interfaith Team, a non-profit organization made up of 14 congregations from Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques working to promote dialogue among different religious communities and collaborating on community projects.
“We desire to instill more peace and more reconciliation among our different faiths,” said Mohammed Nofal, local co-chair of the group, as he opened of the meeting. “By coming together we can better understand our neighbors and friends of various faiths in our communities.
“We hold two forums a year open to the public and also conduct small dinners in homes of our members to develop interpersonal relationships based on understanding, respect and tolerance,” Nofal explained.
At the St. Andrew program, the group welcomed Christian Pastor Caleb Hong, lead pastor at Faith United Methodist Church in Orland Park; Jewish Rabbi Michael Stevens, retired from Temple Beth-El in Munster, Ind.; and Muslim Imam Amir Toft, who has an advanced Islamic Studies degree from the Institute of Islamic Education in Chicago.
The three speakers presented a wide range of beliefs on the subject of angels, covering questions submitted by audience members, including whether they exist, what they do, whether people can see them, whether they have a will and whether they have a life span.
"I am a student, still learning,” said Hong, explaining he is not an expert on the subject. He stated angels are created by God, they are crowned with glory and honor and are a little higher than man.
“Angels are supernatural beings. They are not the cute, chubby little cherubs presented in our pop culture. The Book of Revelation in the Bible describes them as having multiple wings and eyes,” he said.
Hong also stated the Bible cautions us to be careful of how we treat our fellow man, as we may be entertaining angels, unawares.
“This indicates that they can take human form in our lives,” he said.
He also referenced the Angel Gabriel as a messenger of God appearing to Joseph and Mary regarding the birth of Christ.
“We know and believe, too, that there is an Angel of Death and an Angel of Destruction,” he said, adding the Bible says angels visited Jesus in life. “Angels sang at the birth of Christ and they were present at the tomb when they announced his Resurrection.”
“While we may not understand them, we believe in angels and believe that they can minister to us in our life’s journey. But contrary to popular belief, we do not become angels when we die. That concept is not Biblical. Angels are created by God,” he said, adding there is also no mention in the Bible of angels dying.
“As Christians, yes, we believe in angels, but we do not worship them. They are divine messengers and servants of God. We respect them but we worship God alone,” he said.
Stevens, said for Jews the subject of angels is a complex issue, as evidenced by the fact that there is no Hebrew word for “angels.”
“In Jewish thinking, everyone has a good side and also an evil instinct and that ‘something’ decides for us whether we follow the good side or the evil side. Historically, our ancestors were more superstitious, believing in good and evil spirits and that their destiny was determined by their number of good deeds and bad deeds,” he said.
Stevens said modern Jews are very divided on the subject today.
“They may believe in angels figuratively or metaphorically, but scholars do not believe in them," he said. "At the other end of the spectrum are the Orthodox or Hassidic Jews, who still believe literally in angels.”
As for the Angel Gabriel and the Archangel Michael named in the Bible, Stevens said their existence is interpreted as “as individuals designated by God to deliver a message."
Toft stated belief in angels is a fundamental tenet of Islamic theology, explaining there are two sources of Islamic knowledge. The Quran is the primary source, the literal word of Allah, as revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. It supersedes the Gospel and the Torah, he said.
The secondary source is the Hadith, a collection of thousands of authenticated sayings and actions by Prophet Muhammad as conveyed by his companions.
Toft said there is not a great deal of attention to angels in the Quran as it is directed to the individual.
“It is better to think of angels as a part of the chain of revelation, our belief in God, who sends His message to people through angels. They are a connection between God and man,” he said. "We believe angels are made of light and not always seen by humans. They are celestial beings with wings in their natural form.
Angels describe themselves as "emissaries of your Lord" in the Quran, Toft said.
According to Islamic belief, angels can die. Their life span is determined by God, who creates them, he said.
“We believe angels are created to glorify and obey God. They play a role in delivering revelations, in helping people learn how they can achieve a higher station,” the Iman said.
Questions on whether or not angels have a will revealed wide differences in the three religions.
As a Protestant, Hong said the question opens up a "can of worms," declining to give a more definitive answer.
“Without a free will, angels would be robots," said Stevens. "Everyone has a dark side, including angels.”
In the Muslim perspective, Toft said there are no fallen angels.
"We believe angels are beings who are monitoring human beings to record their good and bad deeds,” he said.
People interested in more information on the interfaith group may attend the “Discover Tinley" expo from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 8 at the Tinley Convention Center.