The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser

What The Unseen Realm is About

The story of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm began when he was confronted with the Hebrew text of Psalm 82:1. That text reads like this: “God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods [elohim].” Many Christians know that the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures used the word elohim to refer to God. This noun is plural, but it is very often used in the singular. However, elohim doesn’t always refer to the singular God, Yahweh, of Israel. Sometimes, like in Psalm 82, it is used like a normal, plural noun, where it means “the gods.” But how can this be? The Bible tells us over and over again that there is only one God, Yahweh. Surely there aren’t other gods. The gods of the pagan nations are false gods, mere idols with no real power or authority. As it turns out, the truth about the spirit world – the unseen realm as Dr. Heiser calls it – is much more complicated than we’ve been told.

The ancient authors of Scripture had a vastly different understanding of the world than we do today. Our culture is thoroughly modern. Materialism is our dominant cultural lens. Scientism is our superstition. We are, in large part, blind to the supernatural, culturally conditioned to reject anything that can’t be explained through scientific inquiry. While we may understand the processes and particles of our universe better than ever before, due to our inherent antisupernaturalism, our world is much smaller than the world of the ancients. This is a problem for believers. Heiser laments, “The believing church is bending under the weight of its own rationalism, a modern worldview that would be foreign to the biblical writers.” (p. 17) Our rationalism prevents us from reading the Bible aright, thereby impoverishing our theology and, more importantly, keeping us out of the mission to which we are called.

God is not the only elohim. While none of the other elohim, other spiritual beings, can compare to God in majesty, power, glory, goodness, etc., the Bible clearly teaches that there are spiritual beings other than the one Creator God. In fact, several texts speak of a divine council, and the book of Job tells us that the satan was a part of this council! We are all familiar with angels and demons, but the divine council texts indicate that there are beings who go beyond these oversimplified categories. There appears to be some kind of hierarchy in the unseen realm, though it is not at all clear to us exactly what that is. The overall point, however, is that the spiritual world is far more complex than we typically understand.

This is not a book about spiritual warfare as evangelicals perceive it. Heiser is not saying that demons are responsible for every cough or sneeze, or that the devil could be hiding just around the corner. His work is far more sophisticated than that. The book could be summed up this way:

  • The fall of physical beings mirrored the fall of spiritual beings.
  • The fall of spiritual beings is told in Genesis 6:1-4 when “the sons of God” came to earth and impregnated human women.
  • God disinherited the nations at Babel, handing spiritual dominion of human peoples over to the fallen spiritual beings.
  • God would build his own portion of humanity through Abraham and Sarah, and in some mysterious way, bless all the peoples of the earth through them.
  • Jesus has defeated the fallen spiritual beings and stripped them of their power and dominion in a way that they never expected – through physical death and resurrection.
  • Through the Spirit-empowered church, God is announcing his message of reconciliation to all the peoples of the earth.
  • When the time is right, Jesus will return and defeat the fallen spiritual beings and their allies in a great battle, bringing full and final restoration to God’s creation.

What I Learned from The Unseen Realm

Some of the most interesting material in The Unseen Realm covers the mysterious Nephilim. While in seminary I had to write a paper on the Nephilim in which I was forced to decide if “the sons of God” of Genesis 6 referred to spiritual beings or humans. I couldn’t decide. But after reading The Unseen Realm, I’m confident that “the sons of God” are spiritual beings who rebelled against God’s proper order, crossing a boundary that ought never to be transgressed. The unholy offspring of these unions between “gods” and women were the Nephilim, called giants in other texts. Goliath was a descendent of the Nephilim. In fact, paying careful attention to the text and ancient geography, Heiser demonstrated that Israel’s conquest of Canaan was tightly linked to the locations where these tribes of giants lived. In other words, the task of Moses, Joshua, and David was to destroy the last remaining descendants of the rebellious “sons of God.”

And then there’s this fascinating nugget. There is some ancient Jewish literature that indicates that the spirits of these fallen giants became demons, or unclean spirits, that roamed the land looking for people to possess. The Old Testament has no records of anyone being exorcised of a demon, but there is one biblical character for whom exorcism was central to his mission: Jesus. It’s possible to interpret Jesus’s exorcisms as his way of “finishing the job” started by Moses, Joshua, and David.

My Recommendation of The Unseen Realm

There is so much more that I could include in the previous section, especially about the significance of, and relationship between, Bashan, Mt. Hermon, and the gates of hell. In fact, Heiser has another book called Reversing Hermon which I am anxious to read, so perhaps I will leave that subject for a later review. But overall, this is a readable and informative book.

With brief but deep chapters, The Unseen Realm is a readable book that can be digested thoroughly. There is also a companion website that provides more information for the curious reader. This is the first book that I would recommend for those who are interested in learning what the Bible has to say about the spiritual world. It will expand your universe, while at the same time giving you proper context for finding your place in it. The world is far larger and more complicated than we know, but so is God’s plan for us, mere humans.

Part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints: Bible & Theology series, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church is a constructive, and helpful, dialogue on the most significant cultural issue of our time. The four contributors – William Loader, Megan DeFranza, Wesley Hill, and Stephen Holmes – represent two views on the issue of homosexuality and the church. Loader and DeFranza argue for an affirming view, meaning that homosexual relationships should be encouraged and sanctioned within the church, while Hill and Holmes argue for the traditional view, that God designed marriage to be a procreative, covenant relationship between one man and one woman. All four contributors take the Bible seriously, maintaining a high view of Scripture whilst arguing their positions. Each contributor also demonstrates how Christians ought to engage in this significant matter by maintaining a respectful tone toward one another. As General Editor Preston Sprinkle says in his final comments, it really does seem that all four writers could push back on one another’s arguments, “yet still be able to hit the pub together afterward.”

In this review of Two Views on Homosexuality, I will briefly reflect each contributor’s argument as faithfully as I can, and then provide some of my own thoughts on the book and the arguments presented.

The Arguments of Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church

William Loader’s presentation comes first. He thoroughly outlines the biblical case against affirming homosexual relationships, including a valuable survey of contemporary, extrabiblical writings from both a Jewish and a Gentile perspective. The overwhelming weight of the evidence is prohibitive, meaning that homosexual relationships are not affirmed in Scripture. Despite this, however, Loader argues that new insights into human sexuality and psychology should cause us to go back to Scripture and seek a fresh understanding. “It is not disrespectful of writers of Scripture…to suggest that their understanding of human reality needs to be supplemented.” We have done this, he argues, in regards to cosmology, slavery, and the role of women. He concludes with a warning, “We can too easily find ourselves on the wrong side of the pattern of conflicts that have characterized the development of faith over the centuries, rather than on the side pioneered by Jesus.”

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What Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society Is About

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, the only magazine to which I subscribe and read regularly. His book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, takes its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” For Reno, this grand idea of the possibility of a truly Christian society has been rejected by, and therefore lost to, American culture, much to that culture’s detriment. This is not to say that America ever was a genuine Christian society, but that the mere thought of such a society has vanished.

At the heart of the American story, one discovers the idea of freedom. But what is freedom? Reno argues that the meaning of freedom has shifted over time, and is now understood as “unimpeded choice and self-definition.” Freedom has become an end in itself, a sort of circular reasoning that never escapes the orbit of its own justification. We understand ourselves as free for freedom’s sake, not to perform a duty or responsibility for some higher good beyond ourselves. This, he argues, is a dangerous misunderstanding that deconstructs social norms upon which the poor and weak depend for stability and livelihood.

The logic of faith runs counter to the cult of freedom. The freedom for which Christ makes us free is quite different from the freedom championed by modern liberal culture, the freedom of self-determining, even self-defining, choice that ends up paradoxically reinforcing our slavery to worldly powers. …Christian freedom grows in proportion to our obedience to Christ and to the natural truths of the human condition. A society encourages human flourishing to the degree that the supernatural authority of God’s revelation is proclaimed and the natural authority of his creation sustained.

-Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, p. 5-6

We need a Christian society because only Christ offers the freedom that is full and true. Apart from him, haunted by the half-truths of post-protestant preaching, a culture’s pursuit of freedom becomes militant to the point of tyrannical. “Securing a total freedom – always only for the sake of freedom – will require us to criminalize nature.” (p. 31) Nothing, even nature itself, can withstand our quest for absolute autonomy. This is seen most clearly in progressivism’s sudden and militant campaign for transgender rights, in which nature’s most basic (and forthright) indicators of gender are despised as oppressive transgressors of the individual’s right to self-definition. But the self is not a reliable telos of freedom. True freedom is discovered only in the service of something beyond the self. “In order to be free we need a higher truth to serve. …Our American dream of freedom will become a nightmare if we do not put it in the loyal service of something greater than ourselves.” (p. 36-7)

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What Onward is About

Onward by Russell Moore is a call for American evangelicals to engage the culture in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. American culture has changed. It is no longer allied with Christian values. The Bible Belt is collapsing. In Moore’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For too long American culture has embraced Christian values while simultaneously rejecting the Christian Gospel. This has created a cultural Christianity that is a perversion of the true faith, a moralism that exalts Jesus as right or correct, without submitting to him as Lord. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.” (p. 7)

The demise of the Bible Belt and American Christianity is an opportunity too good for the Church to miss. This allows for a sort of purification of the Church in America, a disentanglement from partisan politics and ethnic nationalism. The end of American Christianity ought to open the eyes of Christians in America that our country is not, and really never was, Christian. Rather than clinging to the last vestiges of political influence, we ought to turn our attention to true Gospel influence, which is far bigger than any political party’s platform. In a particularly prescient passage, Moore writes, “If politics drives the gospel, rather than the other way around, we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do the gospel. They are, after all, ‘right on the issues.'” (p.32) In the wake of the election of President Trump, and the strong evangelical support that helped get him into office, this passage cuts to the core of what is wrong with American Christianity.

Keep Christianity Strange Onward by Russell MooreThe thematic thrust of Onward is made clear in a pithy statement, written in bold letters, on the back cover of the book: Keep Christianity Strange. Calling to mind bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird,” Moore urges us to recover the peculiarity of the Gospel. When culture faith become entangled, it is always faith that suffers. The Christian faith lost its peculiar power in America precisely because it became normal. As Moore writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority – in any fallen culture – even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us. The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.” (p. 29) The systems of the world are always antichrist; they are always inimical to the Gospel and the transformative work of the Spirit. This was as true in ancient Rome as it is in modern America.

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The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

What the Book is About

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is a survey of the greatest thinkers of the early church on a broad range of subjects. Each chapter is dedicated to a single topic, such as the Trinity, virtue, politics, or apologetics. Wilken artfully weaves thoughts from at least two primary writers in each chapter, diving to the depths of the issue, offering the wisdom of the ancients to a modern audience. Wilken is careful not to rely on the same thinker over and over, so the audience is treated to a wide range of authors, including Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and others. He admits, however, that there were four giants, so to speak, to which he returned more often than the rest: “Origen in the third century, Gregory of Nysa in the fourth, Augustine in the fifth, and Maximus the Confessor in the seventh.” (p. xix) Any student interested in learning from the great masters of the Church would do well to start with these four.

As noted above, Wilken’s approach is to tackle one issue in each chapter, and to do so under the guidance of two ancient writers. While he does not typically quote any author at length, he pieces together their thoughts and gives them flesh through his own prose. The reader may be left with the hunger to hear more directly from Origen or Augustine, but the effect is to give the audience the best of their thoughts in modern formulations. A typical example can be taken from the first chapter, which dealt with the Christian concern of apologetics.

In the debate between Christian thinkers and their critics the central issue was where in the search for God reason is to begin. Christians argued that Christ had brought something new; the life he lived, though fully human, was unlike that of anyone who had lived earlier. …For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. “Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ,” wrote Justin. Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ. In him was to be found the reason, the logos, the logic, if you will, that inheres in all things.-The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 14-15

In taking this approach, the reader must trust that Wilken has done his homework, and is faithfully presenting the thoughts of each author. While I often found myself longing for lengthier quotations, I came to conclude that Wilken’s approach was best. Nearly two thousand years separate my mind from the ancient author’s words. In such a sweeping survey, it is helpful to have a learned mediator bridge the gap between the style of their writing and the form of prose which best suits modern readers.

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