Book Review

A “Lord of the Rings” Biblical Theology: “Supernatural” and “The Unseen Realm” by Michael S. Heiser

John J. Bombaro
Michael S. Heiser
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

Seemingly from nowhere, SupernaturalandThe Unseen Realm have found themselves atop Amazon’s best-selling Kindle books list. They are what your neighbors are reading (evangelical neighbors especially). The author, Michael S. Heiser, is a credentialed and peer-reviewed scholar in Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages, as well as scholar-in-residence at Faithlife Corporation, the makers of Logos Bible Software; he also has a notable website presence and following.

Supernatural and The Unseen Realm are, for all intents and purposes, the same book with the same major theses, aimed for two distinct audiences: the former for biblical enthusiasts without technical abilities in biblical studies; the latter for learned laypersons, pastors, and scholars—one low octane, the other high octane. Put differently,Supernatural is the “pop” version of the much more substantive, interesting, and closely argued The Unseen Realm. Together they disseminate the fruit of Heiser’s academic pursuits, particularly his doctoral work and professional interests in the spiritual realm as presented in both the Old and New Testaments.

At first glance, Heiser’s surprising proposal reminds one of the curious yet sensationalistic work of Immanuel Velikovsky—The Unseen Realm’s opening chapters reading like Worlds in Collision. Heiser purports that the dynamic and pervasive workings and structures of the unseen realm are sorely neglected and badly truncated due to Christianity’s “selective supernaturalism,” warranting a thorough reconsideration for a truly biblical theology and recounting of redemptive history.

Beginning with the creation account, Heiser presents his major thesis through an explanation that the plural elohim refers to a heavenly assembly of beings, a divine council of subordinate “gods” who assist Yahweh, the Creator God. After all, ancient Hebrews were monotheists, not polytheists, so there should be no fear of venturing into the heretical here. Notwithstanding, the patriarchs and later Israelites had a far more expansive understanding and engagement with the heavenly hosts than subsequent millennia have come to appreciate. Significantly, human beings are not only fashioned in Yahweh’s likeness but especially in the image of the elohim: hence, the plural injunction of Genesis 1:26 and other plural referents to the “divine.” “Human beings are imagers,” like the elohim, but whereas they image-forth the divine likeness in heaven, human beings do so within his earthly kingdom. The Lord God, then, has two divine councils: the elohim in heaven and humanity on earth; and it is in this sense that the many biblical references to various human beings or groups of humans as “gods” are to be understood. For Heiser, the ramifications of this identification and association reverberate throughout the biblical narrative.

The divine council abides in the divine presence, whether in heaven or upon the earth. Human beings were to globally expand the Edenic domain of Yahweh through their reign in proxy. All of this changes, of course, with Adam’s rebellion, but also with the fall of certain among the elohim. And there begins Heiser’s chronological consideration of the opposing forces of God and the gods from Genesis through the advent of the Messiah Jesus and into the age of the church. There are fallen elohim that pervert the reign of Yahweh, and there are blessed elohim that do the bidding of Yahweh. The adversary in Job 1–2, for instance, is not the serpent of Genesis 3, but one filling a role in Yahweh’s good council to test or exercise judgment. But there are evil adversaries, too. With his divine council thesis, reinforced by his understanding of Psalm 82, Heiser boldly interprets a host of historically thorny passages in a remarkably coherent fashion, including the troublesome Nephilim text of Genesis 6:1–4, the imprisoned angels of 2 Peter 2:1–10, and the fettered spirits of Jude 5–7. It all makes for fascinating reading, especially when Heiser’s soteriology terminates the various, interrelated threads of spiritual warfare, cosmic geography, and heavenly orders in christological fulfillment. Indeed, more than that, The Unseen Realm has a compelling way of reawakening for its readers the reality of the spiritual dimension of the created order. On not a few occasions, I found myself guilty of harboring a disposition ready to disenchant controverted passages discussed by Heiser, in addition to exposing a disposition of ratiocination incommensurate with those supercharged spirit-world texts of the Bible. In this way, Heiser’s work holds the promise to re-enchant reified post-Enlightenment worldviews, bringing to modern minds a fresh perspective on the fact that we are not alone and that our warfare “is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Yet for all of the insights and preferred renderings and isogogical aid, there’s no shortage of material about which to quibble within The Unseen Realm. First, Heiser’s exegesis can be and has been disputed over a number of passages. Genesis 3:22 is an example. Heiser has the Lord God saying that the man has become like “one of us”—that is, like the heavenly elohim—following the deception and fall. However, the Hebrew may be constructed to read “like a lonely one” rather than more elohim-like after high treason. There are good reasons for preferring this latter rendering or, indeed, a more traditional exegesis than Heiser’s—renderings and exegesis also very much in keeping with sound biblical theology. Then there is Heiser’s ponderous Edwardsian spiritualization of virtually all of reality, while at the same time emptying the sacraments of any real divine presence or efficacy when treating 1 Peter 3:18–22 and the Lord’s Supper. Heiser’s proposal, therefore, cannot be said to be a nonpartisan offering, devoid of a presupposed theological paradigm. There are Pentecostal sympathies, sacramentarian parameters, Arminian perspectives, and evangelical nomenclature throughout both books, with Supernatural being the more egregious of the two and, consequently, less useful or recommended. Lastly, Lexham Press’s hardcopy edition of The Unseen Realm is poorly constructed and so receives low marks for that, along with virtually no margins for annotation. Nevertheless, there are two useful indices, unlike the paperback Supernatural, which contains none.

And so goes Heiser’s intriguing reading of the Scriptures—territorial elohim battling opposing heavenly elohim, with humanity vying to and fro until, climatically, the Image-bearer becomes incarnate to engage in the ultimate cosmic conflict upon Calvary, that through the church continues to this day. The more aware we are of the reality of the supernatural realm, the more closely aligned we will find ourselves to the worldview formed and informed by Holy Scripture and the church’s gospel mandate. Heiser’s preferred work in The Unseen Realm, although overreaching and underreaching at the same time (making it a sort of “Lord of the Rings” biblical theology), still provides valuable insights that should be considered, on the part of the confessional Reformation traditions, as offering important correctives to a dimension of Scripture infrequently discussed within our respective enclaves.

Photo of John J. Bombaro
John J. Bombaro
Rev. John J. Bombaro (PhD, King’s College London) is senior pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Lafayette, Indiana, and special projects supervisor at the US Naval Chaplaincy School, Newport, Rhode Island.
Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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