What you believe affects what you do. That is the implication of Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:34-45 (Luke 6:45). Learning to think according to scripture then is vital for Christians who seek to live lives pleasing to the Lord. For this reason it pays to be discerning in what we read, watch, and otherwise mentally imbibe. It also serves us to be cautious when delving into studies on the Spiritual or rather, “Unseen Realm”. This is mostly because the glimpses we see in scripture are rarely directly descriptive and explanatory. Rather the Biblical authors tend to assume that the reader is operating with the same basic worldview and belief system as they are. To that end, they’ll mention Cherubim, but rarely in a context of description. We see Satan in the later portions of scripture as a proper name, but it wasn’t that way early on in scripture.
Fixing that worldview gap is the stated goal that Michael Heiser had when he wrote first The Unseen Realm, and its distilled companion, Supernatural. (Related link: Read Supernatural)
When I first started studying Principles of Spiritual Warfare years ago, I encountered some extremely strange passages and ideas in scripture. Jude mentioned angles in chains (Jude 6). Genesis 6:1-2 seemed to describe angelic beings sleeping with human women; and Gabriel had trouble getting a message to the prophet Daniel because the “Prince of Persia” was fighting against Him until Michael the Archangel came to His rescue (Daniel 10:13). In a bizarre twist, Gabriel claims nobody but Michael the angel in charge of Israel was firmly standing against this Prince of Persia (Daniel 10:20-21).
I discovered that the spiritual world was complex – and just a little hidden in the stranger passages of scripture. There was a discernable but unclear hierarchy of angelic authority and much more. Gradually I began amassing hundreds of pages of notes and spent a few years teaching those principles in Haiti.
So when I opened up first The Unseen Realm, and now Supernatural, both by Michael Heiser and essentially containing the same information in a much clearer format- I was prepared in a way that many first time readers won’t be for what I was about to see. Even so, Heiser went further into the obscure passages than I did.
The First chapter serves as a fitting opening salvo. Heiser throws out some of the same passages that once threw me into a theological headlock and asks if you’re willing to believe them. To be sure he offers a unique interpretation on them compared to some commentators, but one that, in many ways, is more consistent with the broader canvas of scripture – and more reflective of the first century interpretation they would have been given.
When you’ve been staring at a concept for a while but weren’t sure how to put it together, that moment of clarity that comes from reading a book on the topic is like looking at the picture on the front of a puzzle box and suddenly finding the rest of the puzzle assembles itself.
A Word Choice Nit To Pick
That’s not to say that I can endorse everything Heiser writes in “The Unseen Realm” / Supernatural. But I am convinced that overall he presents a compellingly clear picture of what I would simply refer to as the angelic realm. Mike prefers to highlight some distinctions between “angels” (the word in Hebrew and Greek means ‘Messenger’) who are messengers and other ranks of such spiritual beings. It is a distinction which I remain unconvincedced is necessary in small part because one of the key texts Mike refers to as a foundation uses the Greek word angelos to interpret the underlying original Hebrew text – the very text where he claims it is speaking of “Divine Beings”.
“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” (Deuteronomy 32:8, ESV)
“ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ,” (Deuteronomy 32:8, Logos LXX)
Throughout the work, Mike uses the terminology “Divine Council” to describe those created spiritual beings who labor together with YHWH the uncreated God as a governing council. I must admit to getting hung up on his terminology. Divine, as a word, has always indicated for me something that was specifically YHWH only. Mike’s usage of the term is consistent with the scholastic circle he is used to, and refers not only to the Unique God of scripture, but also refers to the deities of the nations – recognized as created beings. We’re used to softening the blow visually by referring to God Almighty with a capital “G”, and to the gods of the nations such as Baal with a small “g”.
That distinction is alive in what Heiser is communicating as well. The gods of the nations weren’t make believe – they were real, but they were no comparison to YHWH, the Almighty Creator God who Himself created all things, including the angelic (divine) beings who abused their power and claimed worship that did not belong to them.
Heiser emphasizes that this does not make these beings, this divine council, as equivalent in power, glory, stature, or nature, to God almighty. Neither does the divine council indicate that God needs help governing His universe, or His planet. But God delights to use His creatures to accomplish His purpose, even when some of those creatures rebel.
One might think at the outset that such a view of God makes Him smaller and more manageable. But it does not; quite the opposite. In order to work out his will in free willed creatures of both divine (angelic/spiritual) and human substance; the sovereignty and omniscience of God must be raised up to new heights. In that case one might even argue that the theology present in Heiser’s book is a higher theology than that which some evangelicals have grown accustomed to.
Michael Heiser has written two books on the same theme, for two slightly different audiences. The First to be released, “The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible” is aimed at scholars and those not afraid (indeed eager) to wade through copious footnotes in the book, and even more discussion on a companion website (http://www.moreunseenrealm.com) dedicated to exploring with a little more depth some of the admittedly controversial statements, positions, and conclusions drawn.
The Second book is titled, “Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the unseen world – and why it matters.” It is a communicative title. Having already read The Unseen Realm, reading through Supernatural was like reading an executive summary. This more accessible version of Mike’s work is …. well, more accessible. The language is simplified, the argument is streamlined, and his thoughts find more clarity in the distilled version over against the lengthier book. Granted this may be attributed to the fact that I was re-reading the information and had time to process The Unseen Realm already.
One of the key additions to supernatural, highlighted in the “why it matters” part of the title, is the very application oriented sections at the end of each chapter titled, “Why This Matters.” While I do not find myself nodding in agreement at everything Mike says, or more likely the way he says it; I am deeply appreciative of the implicational addenda to the worldview material. This is what I would refer to as “the gospel payoff” which the more casual reader might be seeking answering the question: why would I need to know this anyway?
Aside from technical depth in The Unseen Realm, and the more reader friendly passages in Supernatural, through both books, Heiser basically clarifies the weird passages of scripture by properly–weirding scripture as a whole. The Bible is a supernatural book. He invites us to read it that way, discovering that the truth is as strange as fiction.
Mike’s thesis is centered upon the impact Psalm 82 had on him in introducing him to the concept of God using a host of “divine beings” to run his universe. In the same way that humanity did, some of these created divine beings rebelled against God. But the Scripture never does say when that happens, only acknowledging that it did. In the Deuteronomy 32:8 text mentioned above, God temporarily abandons all of mankind putting them into the managerial hands of these angelic spirits, many of who turn out to not be so angelic after all.
Psalm 82 describes God’s courtroom scene – these gods have failed to do what they should have done. Their punishment? They lose their immortality and will die like men do.
The rest of both books play out that thesis in terms of its implications for other passages. He paints a very compelling picture of the fullness of this displayed through Scripture.
It is a hallmark of false teachers according to Jude that they blaspheme angelic powers (Jude 8-10). Mike does not do that. He very clearly focuses on the spirit world with a bold Theology, a consistently high Christology, and a properly biblical anthropology. It is angelology/demonology as often taught – or more likely ignored – that he turns on its head. One section from the “Why This Matters ” section demonstrates the humility and power we are to have when dealing with the supernatural realm.
“…don’t forget: It is the gospel that is our weapon. We aren’t authorized to confront principalities and powers directly. There’s no spiritual gift to that effect handed down to us by the apostles. But the faithful dispensing of the gospel will turn the tide. The Great Commission is a spiritual battle plan.”
There is no lack of scriptural study in the book. Both versions of this work are worthy of deeper study. I highly encourage reading any theology book with an open Bible, Heiser wouldn’t be more pleased if you did the same with these.
One issue that may put some readers off is that Heiser frequently refers to extra-biblical literature to buttress his argument or to fill in the blanks that scripture leaves. I confess to not feeling that he is as cautious as I would be myself in referring to works like the book of Enoch. But he does point to their proper role in helping us to at least discern what first century (and earlier) Jews were thinking about these issues, and some of these passages – notably Genesis 6.
All in all, I think you’ll find that reading either, or both of these books would be worth your time.
Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm will be an eye opener for many.
The Unseen Realm: