Wisdom as Authoritative Tradition

Nick is 13. His parents were divorced when he was eight, and it was not cordial. He lives with his mom, and his dad doesn’t seem interested in spending time with him. Nick’s dad cancels most of the planned weekend visits, sometimes with advanced warning, but most of the time he simply doesn’t show up to the agreed-upon meeting place. Nick’s mom is, at best, distracted. She works a full time job, but her typical week night is spent drinking a bottle of wine, staring at her phone.

Everything about Nick – his body, his mind, his heart, and his environment – is in a constant state of change. Eighth grade is hard enough for kids from stable families; it’s eating Nick alive. The pressure to do, to achieve, is overwhelming. He wants to go to college, but admissions standards have gone through the roof. Even the state school is turning away kids with 4.0 grade averages. He is afraid that a single bad grade on a test or a project could derail his entire life. Nick feels immense pressure to achieve, and exceed, perfection in his academic performance, and he hasn’t even entered high school yet.

Not only is he crushed by the weight of academic standards and their bearing on his future career, Nick also lives with the burden of self-determination. He feels tremendous peer (and cultural) pressure to decide for himself who he truly is, particularly sexually. Everything sexual is new for him, and he has no internal foundation upon which to build his identity. He thinks he’s probably straight, but occasionally he hears a voice in his head that tells him he’s gay. But he also wonders about being trans. A lot of kids in his school have come out as gay or trans, and they seem so confident about it. But if Nick is honest with himself, he has no idea who he is or who he is supposed to be. The burden to be, like the burden to do, is crushing him.

Both his internal and external worlds are in a constant state of flux, and because of his parents’ distraction and indifference, he must navigate this chaos on his own. Like so many kids, Nick is alone, confused, and angry. Almost everything in his life causes him anxiety. He is adrift at sea, with no north star to guide him. What does Nick need? (At this point I’d like to say that Nick is an entirely fictionalized character, although I suspect many teenagers – both boys and girls – can relate to some of Nick’s anxieties. His experience may not be typical, but I imagine that it is more common than we might think.)

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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.

Authority versus power Augusto Del Noce

Authority is a bad word. As a culture, we are decidedly against it. The word conjures images of severe-faced, white-haired autocrats sitting behind tall desks, passing out harsh and irrational judgments. The authority stands above the masses, oblivious to their plight, using the power of his position to achieve his own selfish ends. In the stories of our cultural imagination, the authority serves only his own interest. Think Cinderella’s wicked step-mother. Cruel and unjust, she used her authority to oppress innocent Cinderella while giving every benefit and blessing to her own spoiled daughters. Authority oppresses and enslaves, so what we really need is a revolution.

But do we? It seems like we’ve had nothing but revolution for the past century or more, but we still can’t get rid of this idea of authority. The history of our world’s revolution teaches us that the revolutionaries weren’t opposed to authority as such, they just thought they should have it instead of the other guys. And yet the Lenins, the Pol Pots, and the Castros of the world are often far more cruel and unjust than the people they ousted from power. We don’t need new authorities; we need good authorities. In fact, what we need are people who understand that there is a subtle but significant difference between authority and power.

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Augusto Del Nice How the Demonic Creeps In
Thanks to this excellent article by Michael Hanby in First Things, I’ve discovered the writings of Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Writing primarily in the postwar period, Del Noce had unusual and prescient insight into the political and cultural direction of the West. In his collection of essays, The Crisis of Modernity, he sounds like a contemporary cultural critic despite publishing most of these works over 50 years ago. In predicting the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, he writes,

“Total nudity must be unconditionally accepted and facilitated. Public intercourse must be allowed. Nobody can forbid his/her partner to have other lasting sexual relationships. …Nothing gives the right to criticize homosexual unions. Sexual education must be understood as the removal of all ancestral complexes that lead us to value abstinence.”

Augusto Del Noce perceived where Western culture – both European and American – was going. He understood that sexual expression would become a matter of identity, the realization of which would become a basic human right that would usurp the moral high ground from traditional religion. He also consistently provides, in his essays, a historical contextualization of the development of political and cultural ideas in the twentieth century. This history lesson helps unschooled readers like myself grasp the intellectual roots of the culture in which we now find ourselves.

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What the Book Is About

Obviously, On the Incarnation is about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whom Athanasius consistently refers to as “the Word of God.” This short book is divided into nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with creation and the fall of humanity into sin, and specifically with the dilemma human sinfulness created for God. What is God supposed to do now that his prize creation, the ones upon whom he placed his image, have disobeyed his single command, thereby inviting sin and death into the world? Athanasius puts the problem this way:

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. - On the Incarnation, p. 32

In other words, God is too good to allow the devil, through his deception, to destroy humanity and make them nothing (in the same way that both evil and darkness are nothing, the absence of goodness and light, respectively). His goodness cannot allow evil to win. What, then, is he to do? 

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