Notes on Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible

Book cover.

Dr. Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm opens with the story of an uncomfortable realization after church one Sunday. A friend and fellow Hebrew language graduate student asked about Psalm 82’s description of a large council of gods responsible for the care of various nations and over which the God of Israel presided. Within American Christianity, we only tend to talk about one real God. The gods of other nations are not supposed to be characters in the biblical story who have played a major role in the course of human history. However, with all of his expertise as a student of ancient Hebrew, Heiser saw no other way to read the passages in Psalm 82, and it immediately started to suggest equally uncomfortable readings of many other biblical accounts. This growing list of Bible passages came together for Heiser over the next few years to describe human history in terms of a clear storyline about God’s ongoing interactions with humans alongside a vast but unseen realm of divine and angelic creatures.

Most modern commentaries on Psalm 82 obscure the clear references to the God of Israel interacting with a council of lesser gods who were commissioned to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” and to “maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” throughout all the nations of the earth. In this psalm, these gods are condemned by God for having failed at these assignments that God gave. God tells them that they must now “die like mere men” while He and His people take up the care of all the helpless inhabitants of every nation.

Over the course of his book, Heiser weaves a compelling and grand narrative about God’s creation of an angelic and then a human divine household (intended to function ultimately as a ruling council) and of their multi-stage rebellions and interactions that culminate in God’s restoration of His rule with the life, death and ascension of Jesus Christ. To give an overly simplistic summary off the top of my head:

  1. God created a household of angelic beings who were a council of lesser gods intended to care for all of God’s creation.
  2. There is some indication that all was not well in this first household, and that creation was far from perfect even before the creation of humans. (However, this is not entirely clear to me from Heiser’s reading as he seems to say some things both affirming and denying this idea of a pre-human fall. Heiser clearly seems to reject an angelic fall but also to suggest that the council of lesser gods was already out of order in some way.)
  3. God created a second household of humans to join his first household as additional members of his council.
  4. God brought these humans into his first sanctuary of Eden (which was a temple, highplace, garden, palace and household), and the lesser gods were jealous of the new divine image bearers and household members (the humans).
  5. The serpent was a lesser god and member of the first divine council in Eden who invited the young humans into a state of rebellion and war with God.
  6. Eventually, some members of the first household had children with some humans.
  7. These children were heroes and powerful leaders (Nephilim and a later race of humans perceived as giants) among humans and further led the world into selfishness, rebellion and chaos.
  8. As these children died (in the flood among other punishments), their spirits became the demons of later human history and continued to interact with the lesser gods who God would put over the nations. To be clear, Heiser does not specifically support this idea, but he seems to deny that demons are fallen angels and to point toward this wide-spread and ancient belief (that demons are the disembodied souls or spirits of dead Nephilim) without denying it.
  9. After the flood and the Tower of Babel, God places at least some members of the first divine council (the lesser gods) over each of the nations of the earth with the charge to care for these banished and wandering human clans.
  10. God takes upon Himself to care for one nation that He calls out from among all the other nations in order to prepare a way to restore humanity to God.
  11. God often interacts with his nation of Israel in the celestial body of an angel, and Israel calls this manifestation of God “the Angel of the Lord” or “the Angle of Yahweh.” Heiser makes a strong case for the fact that this incarnation of God as an angel in the Old Testament is intended to be identified in the New Testament with the Son of God who is incarnate as the human person Jesus Christ (and identified as the second person of the Trinity by the early church).
  12. The gods of the other nations are not faithful to God and do not care for the poor and the weak. Instead, they seek power and continue to defy the God of Israel.
  13. God eventually condemns these other gods to die and says that they will be removed from power. (Psalm 82 is one reference to this.)
  14. God fulfills His plan for the restoration of humanity by becoming the human Jesus Christ and overcoming all the rebellious powers of this world including sin and death. Jesus Christ overcomes death with a glorified (celestial) human body and takes the throne at the right hand of God the Father in order to rule over an everlasting Kingdom that will include His entire human family. [Heiser does not give much detail regarding his ideas about the church era or the “end times.” On a separate note, while Heiser does note that Jesus Christ is the prototype for humanity as the perfect image of God, he does not seem to pick up on an idea prominent among the early church fathers of Jesus Christ as the “first full human” or the one in whom the creation of humans is finished (both the beginning and the end in God’s work of creating humans).]

With this off-the-cuff summary, I’ve certainly missed some critical details and misrepresented some points that Heiser made clear. This narrative is outlined a few times in the book with many recapitulations and deeper dives into specific periods and thematic points. While having some topical sub-structures, the book is organized chronologically overall, and it follows the story of God’s people across the biblical canons of the Old and New Testaments.

Heiser’s scriptural exegesis is specific and convincing, and his narrative is detailed yet coherent. Nonetheless, there are few specific answers to the many related topics and questions that are encountered along the way. Questions about metaphysics, eschatology or the nature of the afterlife are all raised in his book with few specific resolutions or suggestions provided. For example, Heiser mentions near the end that he does not subscribe to any current escatological systems. At the same time, he makes no attempt to outline his own escatological system. Likewise, in the first section of the last chapter (42, “Describing the Indescribable”), he has a section on “Celestial Flesh” that describes the bodies of glorified humanity following the general resurrection. However, nowhere in this account does he suggest how we should understand the relationship between the categories of spiritual and fleshly bodies that are under discussion. Apart from one brief allusion to the fact that Paul’s metaphysics have some points of similarity as well as difference with the Stoics, there is no analysis of Paul’s language and arguments within the thought categories of Paul’s own day. Nor is there any attempt to say what the implications of these biblical categories might be for our own modern categories of thought regarding celestial vs. earthly bodies. In this section, Heiser also points back to a portion of Chapter 20 called “Heirs of the Cosmos” in which he addresses the idea of angelic bodies along with the idea in scripture that humans are intended to become “as the stars.” Again, there is almost no help given to moderns regarding how to understand such alien language. Finally, there is not even a basic survey given in the book of the parallels between humanity, stars and angels despite the fact that this set of parallels is made by many biblical authors (as well as their extra-biblical counterparts within surrounding cultures) during the course of several millennia and the fact that Heiser’s entire thesis is about the relationship between lesser deities and humans within God’s salvation history.

Perhaps I was seeking too much from one book. Heiser does provide excellent footnotes throughout. For example, on the topic of becoming “as the stars,” Heiser points to the article “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions” by David Burnettin in The Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, vol. 5 no. 2 (2015). This is an excellent study under the tutelage of N.T. Wright among others. I cite this one sample passage:

Philo of Alexandria and the Saying “So Shall Your Seed Be”

In commenting on Gen 15:5 in Who Is the Heir? 86–87, Philo states:

When the Lord led him outside He said “Look up into heaven and count the stars, if thou canst count their sum. So shall be thy seed.” Well does the text say “so (οὕτως ἔσται)” not “so many (τοσοῦτον)” that is, “of equal number to the stars.” For He wishes to suggest not number merely, but a multitude of other things, such as tend to happiness perfect and complete. The “seed shall be (οὕτως οὖν ἔσται),” He says, as the ethereal sight spread out before him, celestial as that is, full of light unshadowed and pure as that is, for night is banished from heaven and darkness from ether. It shall be the very likeness of the stars.

Here, Philo argues from the grammar of LXX Gen 15:5 that the adverb οὕτως should be understood not merely quantitatively but qualitatively as well, suggesting that the promise to become as the very likeness of the stars was the original intention of the scribe. The promise of Gen 15:5 for Philo entails being transformed into beings full of light, being in the “very likeness of the stars,” and participating in their celestial life.

In Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo similarly comments on the patriarchal promise of star-like seed as it was retold to Isaac in Gen 26:4a:

What is the meaning of the words, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven?” Two things are indicated, in which the nature of all things in general consists, (namely) quantity and quality—quantity in “I will multiply,” and quality in “as the stars.” So may (thy descendants) be pure and far-shining and always be ranged in order and obey their leader and may they behave like the luciform (stars) which everywhere with the splendour of  ethereal brightness also illumine all other things. (QG 4.181)

Philo here again sees implicit within the language “so may thy descendants be” the promise of the ethereal life of the stars. In Gen 26:5, Abraham’s seed will be multiplied as the stars of heaven and be given all these lands “because Abraham obeyed my voice.” For Philo, Abraham acts as the stars act who are always “ranged in order and obey their leader.” In both of these texts, Philo seems to axiomatically employ the phrase “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” as though it were to be taken as a kind of adage that was intended to denote celestial immortality.

Two other articles referenced positively in the footnotes and yielding excellent reading were: “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis” by Robert V. Rakestraw (1997) and “When Did Angels Become Demons?” by Dale Martin (2010).

Despite these rich footnotes, however, I cannot forgive one gap in Heiser’s book. It would have been strengthened by clearly acknowledging the need for an alternative to our standard modern and materialist metaphysics—the need for a way of seeing and talking about ourselves and the world that goes beyond Enlightenment’s spiritual vs. material dichotomy. With his idea of an “unseen realm” in his title, Heiser clearly seeks to find some alternative language for expressing the reality of a thick and substantial world of life and beings who are so easily dismissed by us moderns. Generally speaking, however, Heiser simply uses the standard modern categories of spiritual (and therefore invisible) vs. material (and therefore visible) in order to describe these two realms. In using these standard categories, Heiser seems unaware of the ways in which he repeatedly reinforces the Cartesian dualism that dominates our modern way of approaching the world and that separates our senses and bodies so hopelessly from what is (to the ancient mind) most real and substantial within everything that surrounds us during each waking moment.

To be clear, Heiser is not defending a Cartesian dualism. He speaks repeatedly of the unseen realm being closely intertwined with our everyday world of physical bodies. However, he fails to acknowledge how Cartesian dualism hides the primary nature of mental and spiritual realities from us and therefore isolates us within a material world that is somehow “more real.” Heiser sees no need to offer alternative ways of understanding our relationship to ultimate realities, and he leaves his readers having to imagine a spiritual world that, at best, parallels our visible and material world in some intangible or abstract way. We moderns cannot read any language about “spiritual and material realms” without defaulting to the idea that the material world is ultimately independent of the invisible world and entirely capable of functioning without it rather than recognizing the material world (as all of ancients would have understood it) to be completely dependent on the realm of mind and spirit for its very existence. This leads to my main concern: it would be easy to read the whole of Heiser’s book earnestly and carefully while thinking that the “unseen realm” was only important given its profound connections to the story of salvation and not because we humans are all blind participants in the unseen realm and utterly dependent upon this realm for all the daily details of our own lives and all the basic workings of our material existence.

Only someone already deeply interested in the biblical account of salvation history would find Heiser’s book challenging. He does connect the unseen realm powerfully and convincingly into the Christian story of salvation which is a helpful achievement. However, for any Christians who already tend to understand salvation as mostly being about our future “rescue” and “removal” out of this world, Heiser’s account may achieve nothing more than to further abstract the salvation story from any contact with our current daily lives and the visible world around us. Such readers may care about their future places in the unseen realm. They may also be fascinated to learn that their own salvation in Jesus Christ is somehow connected to this wild narrative about a pantheon of gods who are installed and then removed by the God of Israel. However, this will have no clear connection to how they eat their supper, mow their grass or treat their children later today. Such abstract and sweeping concerns, however, takes me far outside any response to Heiser’s book, however, and into a critique of modernity and American Christianity.

To refocus on Heiser’s book, I will mention two more minor weaknesses before listing a few additional points that I found noteworthy and that Heiser did an excellent job of presenting and defending. These two minor weaknesses are related. First, Heiser was stronger in the Hebrew world of thought than in the Greek. Second, Heiser maintains a fairly focused Protestant and American Evangelical set of categories in his analysis of the Bible, and he therefore missed some of the benefits and insights offered by other traditions. For example, in the first section of chapter 7 (“Earth Was Not Eden”), he blames the early church fathers for spreading the misconception that the earth was created in a state of perfection. The earliest of the church fathers (writing in Greek) actually tended to note that Eden was separate from the rest of the world and also to recognize that the rest of the world had already fallen before Eden was set apart by God. These fathers also describe the state of Eden itself as immature and innocent rather than as perfect (like a seed or a child filled with potential but not yet developed). Even Augustine (writing much later and in Latin) made some of these distinctions and did not simply equate Eden with perfection at the start of the world. In another example, when Heiser argues that the imaging status of humans (created as “images of God”) is shared with other creatures who were made before humans, Heiser does not note that earlier theologians (such as John of Damascus) have made this same case long ago.

With all my complaining out of the way, I want to reiterate that I was impressed with Heiser’s careful and open scholarship, his clear reverence for God and the Bible and his many insights based on extensive reading and research. His book is filled with thought-provoking connections. Here are just a few of the points that I noted for further reading and reflection while listening to the book:

  1. Yahweh, whenever embodied, is the Angel of Yahweh (implying, among other things, that angels have bodies in comparison to God, which is also a point made by John of Damascus and many earlier church fathers).
  2. Elohim is a term for any inhabitant of the spiritual realm (spanning the gulf from God to the spirits of deceased humans—a range that includes multiple other categories of creatures). This term often refers to the divine council of gods over whom God presides as creator and source of all life.
  3. Animals have soul (nephesh), and Heiser says that nephesh is interchangeable with rûach (spirit) in biblical Heberew.
  4. Eden is called “the seat of the gods” by Ezekiel.
  5. Jesus speaks of the “Gates of Hell” near Caesarea Philippi because it was situated near a mountainous region (containing Mount Hermon) that had many ancient associations with evil powers in the unseen realm. Form an online article by Heiser on this topic: “In the Old Testament, this region was known as Bashan [‘the place of the serpent’]. This was a region controlled by two kings—Sihon and Og—who were associated with the ancient giant clans: the Rephaim and the Anakim. These cities and their Rephaim inhabitants are mentioned by name in Canaanite (Ugaritic) cuneiform tablets. The people of Ugarit believed the Rephaim were the spirits of dead warrior-kings. They also believed that the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei were the entryway to the Underworld—the gates of Sheol. Also, during Israel’s divided kingdom period, Jereboam built a pagan religious center at Dan—just south of Mount Hermon—where the Israelites worshiped Baal instead of Yahweh. For the disciples, Bashan was an evil, otherworldly domain. But they had two other reasons to feel queasy about where they were standing. According to Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was the location where the divine sons of God had descended from heaven—ultimately corrupting humankind via their offspring with human women (see Gen 6:1–4). These offspring were known as Nephilim, ancestors of the Anakim and the Rephaim (Num 13:30–33). In Jewish theology, the spirits of these giants were demons (1 Enoch 15:1–12).”
  6. Armageddon is described as taking place in Jerusalem and not Megiddo (a position for which Heiser cites some early church fathers in defense and that is also advocated by amillennialist Meridith Kline—although Heiser clarifies that he is not an amillennialist like Kline).
  7. Finally, Heiser talks in several places within his book about the people of Jesus Christ as the new “holy ground.” Heiser is referencing the temple language that is used to describe the bodies of believers and of the church as a whole (and as the body of Christ). These reflections on the nature of Eden, the Promised Land, the Old Testament temples and then the New Testament church are a rich theme in the book that carry great insights into the nature of sacred space and the way in which God works. This may have been one of my favorite motifs out of many within the book, and I hope to find more by Heiser on the topic.

I hope that this “random sampling” convinces you that there is much value in Heiser’s book. If you want to find more without getting his book, he has shared generously over the years in many online formats as well. After finishing this book, I’m tempted to try an assimilation of what I’ve learned about the unseen realm in Heiser’s work with what I read earlier in Naming the Powers (1984) by Walter Wink (see here), in The Corinthian Body (Yale, 1995) by Dale Martin (see here), in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford, 1994) by Alan Scott (see here) and in Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”) by Saint John of Damascus (see here). However, I have another book or two that I hope to read before any such compilation of my own thoughts on the unseen realm (which will be tentative thoughts on a subject not to be overly concerned with regardless of what has been read).

One thought on “Notes on Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible

  1. This is an outstanding review and takes the conversation further and deeper. I read Heiser’s book and it plowed new ground for me. Thanks for taking it further by contributing your insights as well as other works you have read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: