TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son”? (Hebrews 1:5)
Each week the TV show Touched By An Angel solves a problem and has a happy ending for the characters on the TV screen. What’s more, the show does amazing things for some of the real-life people who watch it. They say so in their letters.
A man on the verge of killing himself watched an episode of Touched by an Angel where the angel Monica tells a doctor: “Only God can decide when it’s time for someone to die.” “I felt as if Monica were talking to me,” the man wrote. “I’ve been suffering from severe depression for more than two years. Gradually I had begun to accept the consequences of my choice to end my life. That all changed after I watched Touched by an Angel. It drastically changed my perspective. I can honestly say that for the first time in nearly three years I have no thoughts or feelings of committing suicide.”
A prison inmate wrote of the “hush” that comes over the room when he and his fellow prisoners watch the show. “Many go years without hearing an I love you,” he wrote. “But each week, your scripts always manage to include the message that God loves each of us and we are important to Him.”
A woman wrote to say how the show touched her. In one episode a man is dying, and his family is gathered at his bedside. With the help of angels, they reveal painful family secrets and forgive each other for hurts they had never before faced honestly. “After I saw that episode,” wrote the viewer, “I realized I had to make things right with my father before he died. I only had a week to do it, but I did.” True stories keep coming in from people who get fresh hope and healing and help in their relationships from watching Touched by an Angel.
Meanwhile, the show itself has become a huge success in the ratings. It is one of the most-watched dramas on television. Apparently, a family-friendly program can make it big. With no sleazy sex scenes, with little violence or bloody revenge, with a minimum of foul language, and with lots of talk about God and love, Touched by an Angel has become an astonishing success story and a weekly part of the lives of many people.
It wasn’t always so successful. The show was originally conceived by CBS executives who wanted to tap into people’s interest in angels. They got some cast members together and produced a pilot episode. That first episode was so silly, so despised by critics, and so unattractive to viewers, that the idea could have died almost immediately.
That’s when CBS turned to Martha Williamson for help. Martha Williamson says openly that she’s a Christian. Her creative skills and long track record in the entertainment industry, together with her faith, made her a logical choice to get the show on track, and she became executive producer.
The episodes improved greatly, but the time slot was bad, the ratings were weak, and the show was almost canceled after the first season. However, with much urging from loyal viewers, CBS gave it another chance and a better time slot. Ratings began to shoot upward, and the show became a TV powerhouse.
Touched by an Angel deserves applause for avoiding filth, for telling stirring stories, for prompting viewers to think about God, and for helping people in a positive direction. Even some critics who blasted the show in its early phase have become convinced that it may be doing something right, after all.
Occasionally the program has even tackled tough realities that other programs might avoid. One episode a few years ago portrayed the Chinese government’s brutal persecution of some of its own people. The season premiere this past fall showed the grim horror of slavery in the Sudan. Touched by an Angel deserves credit for vividly showing millions of viewers the plight of the persecuted and the crimes of their tormentors.
It’s quite an achievement for a TV program to offer smut-free family entertainment, make a difference in the lives of real-life individuals, stand up for oppressed and enslaved people, and at the same time rank among the top-rated shows around. That’s what Touched by an Angel has managed to do, and millions of viewers would like it to continue.
One would have to be blind and heartless not to recognize and appreciate the good things accomplished by the show, and I appreciate those things as much as anybody. Still, Touched by an Angel has its limits, and it’s wise to consider those as well. I’m not going to deal with technical or artistic matters; that’s the entertainment critic’s job, not mine. My aim is to address spiritual concerns.
You might wonder, “Why not just relax and take in the program? Why analyze everything?” Well, Touched by an Angel isn’t just feel-good entertainment. It deals with spiritual matters and reaches a larger audience than any preacher. It’s a drama, not a sermon, but the program does plenty of preaching. Each episode includes a spoken message about God and people’s relationship to God. Whenever there’s communication about God and spiritual matters, don’t just relax and take it in. The Bible says, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
If you watch Touched by an Angel regularly or at least once in a while, it’s absolutely necessary to evaluate what you’re seeing. And even if you’ve never seen a single episode, the message and attitudes the show conveys are so widespread that you’ll benefit from a better understanding.
I think Touched by an Angel really has moved some people to a greater interest in God, and that’s good. At the same time, I’m concerned that some viewers might end up with a view of God that is incomplete or downright wrong, and that’s not so good. It’s wonderful if a TV show can stir your spirit and prompt you to seek God, but it would be awful if you got on the wrong track and settled for something less than the true, living God.
Many good things can be said about Touched by an Angel, but something is missing. What’s missing can be summarized in a single word: JESUS! When people need help on the show, there are plenty of angels to encourage them, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. When the TV angels give their inspirational speeches, they always talk about God, but they never mention Jesus. I haven’t seen every episode, but I’ve seen plenty, and I don’t recall hearing Jesus’ name mentioned even once.
As I was watching one episode, I felt sure they were about to use the name Jesus. In that episode, a man died, and angel Tess led the family members in singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” When she got to the chorus, Tess sang, “Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at the Father’s feet.” Up to that moment, I thought Tess was going to sing “till we meet at Jesus‘ feet.” That’s what the song really says. That’s how it was originally written. That’s how it has always been sung. But Tess and her fellow angels refuse to mention Jesus’ name, even when it’s part of a well-known song they’re singing.
Perhaps Touched by an Angel avoids mentioning Jesus in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Some viewers may believe in angels and in God as some sort of higher power, but they don’t necessarily believe in Jesus. People who prefer non-Christian religions can enjoy Touched by an Angel and feel uplifted without being upset by any references to Jesus. That may help the ratings, but it may also mislead viewers and make them think there’s no need for Jesus.
When characters on the show feel discouraged and worthless, the angels assure them of God’s love. When characters feel guilty and think they deserve punishment, the angels assure them of God’s forgiveness and acceptance. When people are dying, Andrew, the kindly angel of death, assures them everything is okay, and he gently escorts them to heaven. All of this happens without Jesus. If you take Touched by an Angel as gospel, you will believe that you can have God’s love without Jesus, be forgiven without Jesus, and go to heaven without Jesus anywhere in the picture. Who needs Jesus if you can have every divine blessing without him?
But the truth is that you can’t have any divine, eternal blessing apart from Jesus.
Without Jesus, you can’t have access to God the Father. “No one comes to the Father,” says Jesus, “except through me” (John 14:6).
Without Jesus, you can’t experience God’s love. The way God shows his love, says the Bible, is by giving his Son Jesus to us (1 John 4:9).
Without Jesus, you can’t have your sins forgiven. Only “the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, purifies us from all sin,” says the Bible (1 John 1:7), and “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
Without Jesus, you can’t change your heart or do God’s will. “Apart from me,” declares Jesus, “you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Without Jesus, you can’t have eternal life or go to heaven after you die. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” says the Bible, “but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
The Bible sums it all up by saying of Jesus, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name … by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The name the TV angels never mention is the one and only name that saves.
The Bible often speaks of angels, but Scripture clearly says that Jesus Christ is “superior to angels” (Hebrews 1:4) and that Jesus brings us into a relationship with God in a way that angels never can. This is because Jesus is God’s one and only Son. In Hebrews 1 the Bible addresses people who are tempted to focus on angels and forget Jesus. Scripture asks, “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son?'” (1:5) The answer, of course, is that the Father never said that to any angel but only to Jesus. “Let all God’s angels worship him,” says the Father (1:6). Then Scripture presses the question: “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” (1:13). None, of course; the Father said that only to Jesus. So in a program where angels are everywhere and Jesus is nowhere, the most important Person is missing.
But is it really a problem that Touched by an Angel doesn’t mention Jesus? Why can’t the show simply tell an uplifting story, perhaps stir interest in God and spiritual things, and then let people turn to the Bible and the church to find the full truth of Jesus? I would have no objection to that, and that may be what happens with a fair number of people. A show doesn’t have to talk explicitly about Jesus to be a good show. Indeed, it might be possible, without mentioning Jesus, to awaken in people a longing that eventually leads to Jesus.
The danger arises when the program explicitly shows characters receiving blessings apart from Jesus that in real life can come only through Jesus. Touched by an Angel doesn’t just tell heartwarming stories in a vague spiritual atmosphere. It shows people receiving assurance from God and being forgiven and even passing through death to eternal life. What happens if viewers think they themselves (like the characters on the program) can get forgiveness and heaven without Jesus? Viewers trapped in sin and bound for hell without Christ might wrongly think all is well between them and God because they’ve just heard a TV angel’s sweet words of forgiveness without Jesus’ blood and heaven without any expression of faith in Jesus.
Behind the Scenes
As a case in point, let’s look behind the scenes at the leading members of the cast of Touched by an Angel. Della Reese is the talented singer and actress who plays the senior angel Tess. In real life, Della Reese is a minister in her own church with its own beliefs and teachings. In her autobiography, Della Reese writes, “I don’t teach that there is one way and one way only to salvation… I teach that you don’t have to call God what I call Him in order to be in touch with Him. Or Her. I teach that Father/Mother God loves you with infinite love and loves to hear from you and talk to you no matter what’s on your mind.” In the Bible, God reveals how he wants us to think of him and speak of him, but Della Reese contradicts God’s Word and says you can call the Lord whatever you like. Jesus says, “I am the way… No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), but Della Reese contradicts Jesus and denies that there is only one way. Should you believe Jesus or Della?
Della Reese boasts that an assistant minister on her staff has been involved with the religion of nomadic Masai, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and various other religions. At their church they celebrate festivals of various religions and confess as their creed: “I am one with God; I am one with all men; I am one with all life.” This is not Christianity; it is New Age pantheism, the idea that everything is God, including me.
Indeed, the first teaching Della Reese’s church lists on its website is this: “Everything that exists, or ever will exist, is pressed out of the body of God (God substance) in different forms of manifestation. Since the nature of God is Absolute Good and everything is God substance, there can be no evil in reality.” In other words, everything and everybody is a chunk of God, so nothing is really evil.
Salvation from sin and hell is unnecessary. Just discover and unleash the divine reality which is already yours. “We believe,” declares Della’s church, “that the time has come to make available to all men everywhere a teaching that will enable them to provide for themselves by learning to release the Divine potential within them.” It’s not a matter of trusting the divine Jesus but of releasing your own divine potential.
What kind of lifestyle does this type of religion endorse? “Be of good courage and do what you wanna do,” says Della Reese. “Allow yourself to be as wonderful as you really already are.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? But what if you’re not so wonderful? What if you wanna do things that are sinful?
Della Reese has been married three times. She got involved sexually with her third husband before his divorce and brags in her autobiography about their fabulous time in a hotel room. “I now knew he was THE ONE… the man God had chosen for me, an angel,” she writes. “I didn’t feel I owed anything to [his wife]. Watching the lengths to which she went in order to oppose the divorce, I couldn’t see her point of view or her perspective or her condition or her anything EXCEPT her in my way.”
When Touched by an Angel began to make it big, Della Reese complained publicly, right in her church, that she wasn’t getting paid enough. Under her current contract, she makes $100,000 per one-hour episode.
As a preacher, Della Reese officiates at marriages. One marriage she presided over was the marriage of her co-star, Roma Downey (who plays the angel Monica) to David Anspaugh. After a few years of marriage and one child and many more episodes of Touched by an Angel, Roma Downey filed for divorce. This was Roma’s second marriage that ended in a painful split.
Then there’s John Dye, the actor who plays Andrew, the angel of death. When a woman saw John Dye down a shot of whiskey in a bar and scolded him for it, he replied that he’s just an actor, not an angel. Someone who can’t tell the difference, Dye later said, should get a shrink. Fair enough. It would be silly to think people who make millions of dollars for acting out a script are actually as wonderful as the angels they play.
But then it’s equally silly for Della Reese to say, “Do what you wanna do. Allow yourself to be as wonderful as you really already are.” People aren’t divine or perfectly wonderful; they are sinners. And there’s only one way for people to be saved from sin and hell. His name is Jesus.
Della Reese denies that Jesus is the only way, and so, apparently, does John Dye. Dye says it doesn’t matter whether you’re “a Buddhist or a Christian … gay or straight or whatever, it’s about coming to find out through yourself who God is.” He thinks Touched by an Angel is helping people to do that. I’m afraid he might be right. As a viewer, you might be led to think you can “find out through yourself who God is,” rather than finding God in Jesus.
The real-life beliefs and behavior of the lead actors in Touched by an Angel are proof that although the show may help some people, it may leave others believing the errors of New Age pantheism. It may leave them thinking Jesus is optional. It may leave them behaving as sinfully as ever. It may leave them far from salvation, traveling down what Jesus called the broad road that leads to destruction.
The Unknown God
My goal in saying all this in not to bash any individual or to say that Touched by an Angel is all bad. Earlier I told about some of the people the show has helped; I pointed out some fine things about the program; and I don’t take any of it back. Executive producer Martha Williamson, who identifies herself as a Christian, deserves credit for finding a way to get people’s attention without crude, degrading garbage, and for producing a show that has stimulated spiritual interest among viewers.
Let’s appreciate what the show does well, and at the same time let’s be aware of what it doesn’t do. It talks about God, but it doesn’t provide a clear understanding of who God really is. God remains a vague “whoever,” an unknown God. He sends messages using sweet angels as go-betweens, but he himself remains unknown. He offers love, assurance, forgiveness, and heaven, but his way of providing these things remains unknown.
If Touched by an Angel makes you think more about spiritual things than you have before, and if it stirs in you a desire to have the unknown God come into your life, then I’m glad you’ve been watching the show. But don’t be satisfied leaving God a great “whoever” and his way of salvation a great “whatever.” If you want to know who God is and what he is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know how to have assurance, forgiveness, and eternal life, look at Jesus.
If you want to hear a loving message from God, listen to Jesus. He says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The greatest revelation of God’s love is not a sweet-sounding angel bathed in light but a crucified man dripping blood. Without that man, there is no one to stand between us and God, and we remain God’s enemies. Without that blood there is no forgiveness of sins; there is only hell. But if you believe in Jesus crucified and risen victorious, and if you trust his blood to wash away your sins, you will not perish in hell but have everlasting life in heaven.
If you believe in Jesus, he does things for you that angels could never do. Keep in mind that unlike TV angels, the real angels of God are not primarily soft-hearted “caseworkers” who help us get over emotional hang-ups. Angels are mighty warriors who battle God’s enemies, guard his friends, and carry out the orders of Christ their king. People in the Bible who encountered real angels were usually more shaken than soothed by the experience. For real comfort, you need not an angel but the Person who is the real go-between, the real mediator between humanity and God. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men,” says the Bible, “the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12). Do you have Jesus the Son?
Father in heaven, thank you for your great love and for the gift of your Son. Move many to trust Jesus as the only way of salvation, that they may not perish but have eternal life.
Thank you, Lord, for people who are trying to make a positive difference in television and entertainment. Help them strengthen what is good, correct what is wrong, and use their talents to honor you and help others.
Protect each of us from the tricks of Satan, who can even disguise himself as an angel of light. By your Spirit, guide us in the Bible, and help us walk with the Lord Jesus. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.