During a recent Bible Study, I listened as a woman shared about her Christian friend whose godly mother had recently died. This sorrowing woman was grieving and needing comfort. To help with her grief, she drew from something she had heard in the culture—that her mother had now become an angel and was present with her, communicating with her. As we talked about this, looking into what was true or not and how to help someone grieving like that, our discussion encompassed three different issues.
1. Do Christians become angels when they die?
2. Can our loved ones in heaven see what is happening in our lives on earth and communicate with us?
3. When grieving, how do we turn to Jesus for our comfort rather than traditions that make us feel good but draw us away from Him?
Though very emotionally charged, these are not heavy doctrinal or denominational issues. They deal more with practices and the outworking of our faith. How we deal with grief can make us draw closer and more dependent on our Lord as the supplier of our needs, or it can draw us away to other things that are emotional substitutes for Him. Since a life of faith is a life of dependence on the living Christ and His Spirit in us, we should consider graceful, biblical responses to these three issues that crop up when a loved one dies.
As we do this, we will go through the 3-step process: 1) Dwell in truth you can know, 2) Humbly accept what you can’t know or don’t understand, and 3) Discern using the Word of God to determine truth from error and to respond graciously when someone is grieving and needing comfort.
Do Christians become angels when they die?
Blame this popular idea that people become angels when they die on the classic 1946 American movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a guardian angel named Clarence occasionally refers to events of his life (and death) as a human being on earth. Actually, it goes further back than that—to an 18th century Swedish mystic and philosopher named Emanuel Swedenborg who taught that all angels and demons were once humans.
What is the truth? The Bible is adamantly clear in the distinction between angels and human beings. Never will you find any verse saying that good humans become angels when they get to heaven. Angels are beings created by God (Colossians 1:15-17) and are entirely different from humans. They are God’s special agents to carry out His plan and to minister to the followers of Christ (Hebrews 1:13-14). There is no indication that angels were formerly humans or anything else—they were created as angels.
Our greatest confirmation of this is Jesus Himself. When Jesus was raised from the dead, He did not appear to His followers (all 500 of them who saw Him at once 1 Corinthians 15:6) as an angel. He appeared in His glorified human body. The same kind we will receive after we die. After we die, we go to be with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8), then we get a new human body.
- Philippians 3:20-21 — “…we also eagerly await a savior from there [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.” His body, not an angel.
- 1 John 3:2 — “…we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.” We will be like Him, not like an angel.
One more strong evidence: Elijah and Moses were recognizable on the Mount of Transfiguration as themselves to Peter, James, and John (Mark 9:2-8). They had not transformed into angels. And, if anyone would have, it certainly would have been Moses, right?
HERE’S THE TRUTH WE CAN KNOW: PEOPLE BECOME LIKE CHRIST WHEN THEY DIE, NOT LIKE ANGELS.
Can our loved ones in heaven see what is happening in our lives on earth and communicate with us?
Let’s take the first part of this concept to its logical conclusion—a dead parent, sibling, child, or other can see what you are doing on earth. Most of the time when this is said, someone is referring to the public things that you don’t mind people seeing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my parents in heaven to now see me in the bathroom, having an argument with someone, or during intimacy with my spouse. It’s hard enough knowing that God sees those things.
The Bible doesn’t clearly tell us if people in heaven are able to observe what happens on earth. Some passages given as proof that they can are speculative but not a clear teaching of truth.
- Hebrews 12:1 — The great cloud of “witnesses” are the people whom God commends for their faith in chapter 11 who are now in heaven. They are witnesses not in watching us but in the value of living a life by faith, especially faith in Jesus. Their lives bear witness that they did it. Therefore, we can do it, too.
- Mark 9:2-8 — Moses and Elijah were prophets of God during their earthly lives, meaning they delivered God’s messages to His people. In this instance, they are delivering a message of encouragement to Jesus about what would soon happen to Him in Jerusalem. There’s no other indication that they were aware of anything else happening on earth.
- Luke 16:28 — Though this is a parable not a historical narrative, in it the rich man referred to his brothers whom he had known before death were unbelievers. The passage never says that the rich man could see his brothers.
- Revelation 6:10 — The tribulation martyrs ask God how long will it be before He avenges their deaths. They remembered what happened to them. It doesn’t say they could see people on earth. It simply says that they knew they deserved justice and desired the Lord to take action.
Now the second part—can they communicate with us? The Bible does teach that we on earth are not to communicate with the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Doing so is going against God’s will. People in heaven are without sin and will not do anything against God’s will. Your dead loved one will not try to communicate with you. We are also not told in the Bible that they can act on our behalf. Those things that you may have heard someone refer to as “signs your dead loved one is communicating with you” (seeing a white feather, a penny, stopped clocks, phones ringing once, etc.) are simply normal events. Attributing these signs to a loved one communicating with you are just superstitions, not truths. The danger is they can draw you away from Jesus and toward seeking such “signs” during your grief.
Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.”
HERE’S THE “I DON’T KNOW” WE MUST HUMBLY ACCEPT — WE CANNOT KNOW IF OUR DEAD LOVED ONES CAN SEE ANYTHING HAPPENING ON EARTH. That is a secret thing the Lord has not revealed. We can know that our dead loved ones will not try to communicate with us from heaven because they will not disobey God.
When grieving, how do we turn to Jesus for our comfort rather than traditions that make us feel good but draw us away from Him?
Our God claims to be a God of comfort, promises it and fulfills that promise.
- 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 — God is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” We are to turn to Jesus first for our comfort and let Him choose how He does that for us.
What does Jesus use to comfort us in our grief? He uses people, reminders, memories, and His own love in our hearts (Romans 5:5). People gives us hugs, listen to us as we share about our loved one, cry with us, and help us when we are weak. They do this on Jesus’ behalf.
Memories of our loved ones can be stimulated by sounds, sights, places, smells, and many other reminders associated with that person in our lives. We can take comfort from those stimulated memories and thank God for them. The Holy Spirit pours out Jesus’ love in our hearts so we can inwardly feel loved by Him during those times of grief. Counting on being loved by our God gives us comfort.
Jesus can also use His angels who are servants of God and described by the author of Hebrews as, “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). Angels are present around us and can influence things happening so as to minister to us. They have that authority under Jesus. If you feel someone close to you, it’s not your dead loved one’s spirit. It is likely an angel Jesus has sent to be near you at that time. Give the credit to Jesus, who is Lord over all. Giving that credit to someone or something else is only looking to a powerless substitute for Jesus and His Holy Spirit living inside of you, the greatest power in the universe who loves you dearly. When Lazarus died, Jesus personally went to be with Martha and Mary, cried with His friends, and then did something to help them in their grief. He will do the same for you.
DISCERNING THE TRUTH: JESUS USES PEOPLE, MEMORIES, HIS SPIRIT, HIS LOVE and HIS ANGELS TO COMFORT US IN A TIME OF GRIEF.
Responding graciously when someone needs comfort
If you are with someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one who is now in heaven and tries to gain comfort from thinking of that person as now an angel helping them and communicating with them, how do you give comfort without perpetuating the lie? That’s tough. You do it graciously, affirming their grief and pointing them to a true source of comfort. Something like this:
“I feel how much you are hurting since your mother’s death and how much you miss her. While you loved your mom so much that thinking of her as an angel gives you comfort, the Bible teaches this truth that God is giving her a wonderful resurrected human body like Jesus has, not an angel’s body. You have wonderful memories of your mom that will crop up through places, smells, sights, and other reminders of your life with her. And, Jesus will comfort you in your grief through those memories, through people He sends to cry with you and help you, through His Spirit pouring love into your heart, and through true angels who will be near you to minister to you in amazing ways during this sad time. Stay focused on the comfort you will receive from Jesus and let your heart just be completely hugged by Him.”