The Unseen Realm, A Critique
(Volume 25, Issue 4, July/August 2019)
Michael Heiser’s view of Scripture and the supernatural realm has generated much attention within evangelical circles recently. His concepts have generated a wave of speculation that some are now riding. What does he teach and how concerned should the discerning Christian be? This critique will provide some answers.
It all began when Heiser was examining Psalm 82:1, which reads in the NASB “God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers. “Michael Heiser, currently Executive Director of the School of Ministry at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, came to believe that he had discovered the key to understanding God and Scripture which had long been buried by the western world and the evangelical community. That key was: “The God of the Old Testament was part of an assembly – a pantheon – of other gods” (p. 11). This view is reinforced by Heiser’s personal translation of the verse as found in his book, The Unseen Realm, Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible:[i] “God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods [elohim]” (p. 11). As Heiser attempted to interpret the meaning of this verse, his emerging view apparently received virtually no support from conservative theologians (and rightly so), and he found it necessary to look beyond evangelical scholarship which had, he believed, ignored his newly discovered key (p. 12). In the process, Heiser scrapped his former reliance on systematic theology along with creeds, confessions and denominational preferences, which had filtered out and rejected his new discovery (pp. 14-16, 60-61), and went about putting the pieces together himself (p. 12). He writes, “We need to lay our theological systems aside, answer these questions like an ancient Israelite would have, and embrace the results…It is time to peel these layers away” (pp. 60, 61).
In essence Heiser, like so many others recently, believes he has discovered truth that virtually everyone else has missed. Others, who are at least somewhat supportive of his thesis, are not primarily from the evangelical sphere but are scholars (a term he falls back on repeatedly) from theologically liberal circles. Who these “scholars” are and what they believe is unknown, at least to me since I have never heard of any of them. Nevertheless, Heiser assures us he “STILL believe[s] in the uniqueness of the God of the Bible. [He] STILL embrace[s] the deity of Christ” (p. 13, emphasis mine). The word “still” seems unnecessary and leaves me unsettled and deeply concerned as to where the author may eventually land in his theological understanding, taking others with him. But for now his goal is for all who accept his ideas “to be able to see [the Bible] like ancient Israelites or first-century Jews saw it, to perceive and consider it as they would have. I want their supernatural worldview in your head” (p. 13). If we do this, he assures us “you’ll never be able to look at your Bible the same way again” (p. 13).
Before delving into his main thesis, or itemizing the details, it is useful to understand that Heiser believes the supernatural worldview of the ancient biblical writers has been papered over by the western worldview of the post-Enlightenment mindset and modern ignorance of the ancient near eastern (ANE) way of understanding reality. Heiser seeks to pull away from the modern means of processing life and restore the lens he believes the biblical writers used. At the heart of his discussion is what he terms the divine council comprised of elohim or gods. How the elohim should be understood, and who the gods that the pagan nations worshipped are, is at the heart of his discussion. Heiser believes that the gods exist, not as taught in polytheism, but as created elohim (or gods) assigned by Yahweh to rule over the nations. In time, many of the gods rebelled and sought to pollute humans under their authority. As will be seen below, while Heiser offers some insights worth consideration, there are numerous holes in his arguments, many of them serious. And even if his overall concepts proved to be correct, I am not sure how it matters in a practical sense. My basic concern, as I hope to demonstrate, is that in elevating the elohim, Heiser lowers the true Elohim in the process. Now, on to a more detailed analysis wrapped around two prominent worldviews Heiser believes he has detected in Scripture.
The Divine Council Worldview
A divine council worldview (p. 27) teaches that the “gods” or elohim in Psalm 82 are divine beings and apparently have a higher level of responsibility than angels, who are primarily messengers. These “gods” are consistently called “divine” throughout Heiser’s book without any real definition. “Divine” in standard English dictionaries as well as common use, would usually reference deity as opposed to mortals. Normally the word would not be understood to describe angels or heavenly beings, but God. If an author wants to use a word in an atypical fashion, his readers would expect a definition indicating his esoteric use; this Heiser does not do. Clearly, Heiser presents Yahweh as the supreme God, the creator of all the other gods (p. 34). Still to see these beings as divine, or in some sense gods, is problematic at best. He believes that, at some point, God created a divine family but never says when (pp. 25, 37). He dismisses the common interpretation of Psalm 82, and its NT counterpart found in John 10:34. There, most agree, Jesus said that these elohim were men (pp. 28-29).[ii] Heiser rejects the consensus view and claims these texts reveal that Yahweh established a divine counsel, which takes an active role in God’s decision-making process. In other words, this divine council counsels God (p. 32). Based upon this perceived worldview, Heiser seems to find the divine council scattered throughout Scripture. For example, the “us” in Genesis 1:26, almost universally understood by conservative Bible students as teaching plurality within the Godhead and communication within the Trinity, is really a discussion, Heiser claims, among members of the divine council (p. 39), including God. In addition, Heiser asserts that when Yahweh made humans in His image, He also made them in the image of the divine council beings, who are also made in the image of God (p. 41) (although this is never specifically stated or implied in Scripture, and at no point in the Bible are any created beings except humans said to be made in God’s image). Heiser sees the divine council functioning and giving God counsel in the “unseen realm,” while God’s people form God’s human, non-divine council on earth (pp. 43-44).
Moving to the future for a moment, we find that applying these ideas in the eternal state gets more complicated as Heiser sees believers being made divine and joining the divine council in the unseen realm (pp. 159, 310-311, 355). Again we must wrestle with the undefined “divine.” In what sense will humans be made divine? Will they become angels or other heavenly beings? Nothing in Scripture teaches such. Will they be made immortal? In reality, people are already immortal in that, once born, they will never cease to exist. Will they become demi-gods or even gods? Certainly not. The Bible indicates that humans made in the image of God are uniquely physical in substance. While heavenly beings are spirits (Heb 1:4), men and women are created with physical bodies and will live eternally, both physically and spiritually (1 Thess 4:13-18). Therefore, exactly how do physical beings link up with spiritual beings to form a single divine council in the eternal state and for what purpose? Heiser offers neither convincing biblical support for a combined divine council nor a reason why such a council is needed in eternity future.
Life in Eden
Heiser believes the divine council sat and ruled in Eden before the fall and thus for a time the “gods” lived among humans (Adam and Eve). He conjectures that it was God’s design for humankind to expand Eden, bringing God’s glory and perfection to the rest of the earth (p. 48). Of course, this would mean that God’s physical creation, apart from Eden, was flawed and therefore dependent upon Adam and Eve to bring it to perfection (pp. 50-51) and advance God’s kingdom rule (p. 56), which He apparently did not have yet. Every component of this theory has substantial problems. How could a perfect and holy God create flawed material and then pronounce it good, if, in fact, it was not? And on what basis can Heiser be assured that Adam and Eve were commissioned to bring this supposedly flawed creation to perfection? Further, in what sense did the rest of the universe outside of Eden, need to be brought under the rule of God and His kingdom? The first couple was directed to subdue the earth (Gen 1:26-28), but it is a huge and scripturally unsupported leap to conclude that the earth was flawed (prior to sin’s corruption) and needed to be perfected by people. The picture given in Genesis is that God made all things good; nothing was flawed; nothing needed to be brought to perfection via the efforts of Adam and Eve, God’s kingdom rule was firmly in place. With the entrance of rebellion, corruption and sin into the universe, the need to restore the kingdom becomes the major theme of Scripture. The kingdom restoration would come about through the redemptive work of Christ, not through the efforts of either a divine or human councils.
Heiser theorizes, again without biblical warrant, that had humanity not fallen they would have been glorified and become part of the divine council, ruling on earth together as one council (p. 48). Recovering what Adam lost, the kingdom of God becomes the real focus of the Bible, Heiser asserts (p. 38). At this point a number of collaborative threads are tied together and become points of emphasis and part of the supporting cast for Heiser’s thesis:
Ancient Near East Hermeneutics
First, it becomes clear that ancient near east (ANE) mythology guides and dominates Heiser’s interpretations. This is the faulty hermeneutical lens Heiser wants to restore to the modern church. Throughout the book, the reader is informed that:
- The ANE pagans believed in a divine council structure much like Yahweh’s (e.g. pp. 44-46).
- Their myths taught that a Ugaritic council met in a garden similar to Eden (p. 49).
- ANE people alleged that animals could speak which is why Eve was not surprised when the serpent spoke to her (p. 73).
- The author based his understanding of Genesis six (which will be examined below) partially on the ANE worldview (pp. 101-103).
- He uses Babylonian myths to draw unprovable connections from extra biblical sources (pp. 198-199).
- Heiser believes that the divine council is comprised of beings called Watchers drawn from intertestamental literature, not Scripture (pp. 103-105).
- Since some Mesopotamian myths claimed a “divine” council of 70, so too does Yahweh (pp. 113-122).
- The idea that Israelite kings possessed a quasi-divine essence and were called sons of God is drawn not from the OT narrative but from the model set by ANE kings (p. 249).
- Since ANE pagans believed demons resided in the desert so, of course, does Israel (p. 277).
- And prophecy must be interpreted via an ANE worldview (pp. 349, 354, 372-372).
- The ANE divine council makes decisions so that “when God prepares to act in strategic ways that propel His kingdom forward, [His] divine council is part of the decision making” process (p. 349).
- Also, all such descriptions of God enthroned in the midst of His heavenly court are based on the ancient conception of the divine council or assembly found in Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Phoenicia as well as supposedly in Israel (p. 354).
Heiser assures us that most people wouldn’t pick up on these clues unless, like he, they knew Hebrew and are informed of the ANE worldview (p. 373). No wonder he is the first to put this puzzle together; he apparently has knowledge and information that others do not have, at least that is what he would have his readers believe.
Satan and Demons
Heiser’s view of Satan takes several unique twists. He interprets Isaiah 14 (pp. 83-86) and Ezekiel 28 (pp. 75-82) to describe the fall of the devil, however his fall took place while he lived with the divine council in the garden of Eden and his penalty was to be expelled from the garden to the underworld (p. 82). Heiser theorizes that the serpent who deceived Eve was living in Eden as a member in good standing of God’s divine council until he became displeased by God’s decision to create humanity and give them dominion over the earth. In an act of defiance, he decides to sabotage God’s plan and in the process was expelled from both the divine council and Eden (pp. 74, 82). Heiser does not see what he calls “the Satan” in Job as a villain and he is apparently not the same spirit-being found in Eden. Instead, “the Satan” is a member in good standing of God’s divine council who is simply doing a job assigned to him by God (pp. 57, 91). At some point in the Job story, he went rogue. This should not surprise the reader of Scripture, Heiser thinks, for based on the words of Eliphaz in Job 4:14-19, any member of the divine council is corruptible and none can be trusted, because they always have the free will to rebel at any time (pp. 58-60). In support of this theory, the author turns to Genesis 6 (pp. 93-109). Heiser argues that “sons of God” in the text are divine creatures (by his definition) who defected and cohabited with human women, producing the Nephilim or giants of Scripture and legend (pp. 105-109). While this interpretation is debated within evangelical scholarship, Heiser stakes out two positions that are more problematic and move beyond evangelical orthodoxy. First, as already mentioned, at any time other angels and members of the divine council could choose to rebel. And such rebellion could happen throughout eternity future. If true, then the same could be applied to redeemed humans who too could fall away at any time, even from their glorified state. That is because of Heiser’s view of free will, the second problematic position under this heading. Free will demands its own category.
Free Will and Risk
Heiser argues that “without genuine free will, imagers [divine or human] cannot truly represent God” (p. 58). Therefore, even “being in the presence of God is no guarantee that free-will beings will never stray or act out of self-will” (p. 59). By contrast, conservative theologians understand Scripture to teach that both human and angelic beings were given a time of testing. Many angelic beings failed the test and fell with Satan. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, failed their test as well and introduced sin and corruption to the human race and to creation by extension. Most believe that these unique times are now concluded for the “elect” angels and redeemed humanity. It is a frightening thought, and without any biblical base whatsoever, to teach that the redeemed could at any point in eternity choose to sin and lose their heavenly position. While free will is viable, none of those who pass the “tests” will ever choose to rebel because their wills have been regenerated and they are kept by the power and love of Christ (1 Pet 1:3-5; Rom 8:28-39). However, Heiser disagrees and believes God took a risk (and continues to do so) by creating creatures with free will (p. 61). This is the language of the unorthodox doctrine of Open Theism which attempts to solve the freewill/divine sovereignty tension by claiming God neither controls the future nor is able to fully know the future. Thus He takes a risk as to what choices His creatures might make, and sadly they often make choices that are outside the sovereign will and control of God. He states his theological point thus: “Since foreknowledge doesn’t require predestination, foreknown events that happen may or may not have been predestined” (p. 65). Falling back on ANE support, he writes, “An ancient Israelite would have embraced this parsing of foreknowledge, predestination, sovereignty, and free will. He would not have been encumbered by a theological tradition” (p. 66). In other words, ancient Jews would be Open Theists since they would not have been hampered by systematical or biblical theology. This is a tragic dismissal of careful theological engagement by conservative Bible scholars over the centuries.
The Nephilim are another major concern for Heiser. The Nephilim of Genesis 6 are seen as offspring of rebellious divine beings who have reproduced with human women (pp. 105-109). But how are the Nephilim, who lived after the flood, to be explained (e.g. Num 13:33)? Heiser sees two options and neither is biblically defensible. First is the possibility that the flood was localized and not worldwide (p. 189). Of course this flies in the face of conservative scholarship and biblical language which proclaims a worldwide flood. The second alternative, and the one which better fits Heiser’s thesis, is that the same type of “behavior as described in Genesis 6:1-4 happened again (or continued to happen) after the flood, producing other Nephilim” (p. 189). Nothing of this sort is recorded in Scripture and so at best this second option is conjecture. However, one of these alternatives is necessary for Heiser’s theory that descendants of the Nephilim were the Anakim, a people descended from the Nephilim who were spawned by rival divine beings (p. 203). It was the Anakim, Heiser believes, not the Canaanites, who Joshua and Israel came to destroy. Unfortunately, the Canaanites were collateral damage (pp. 210-211). The necessity for this hypothesis becomes clearer when Heiser’s second worldview is understood.
Deuteronomy 32 Worldview
In review, the divine council worldview maintains that Yahweh is an Elohim (God) (p. 71) who has created other elohim (gods), divine creatures who are members of His divine council. These divine beings form not just a puppet board, Heiser believes, but actually give Yahweh counsel, are a part of the Lord’s decision-making process, and are made in the image of God as humans are. Heiser sums up his divine council worldview:
God’s Edenic vision began with his announcement that humankind was his image. Yahweh had divine sons; he would also have a human family. Genesis told us that God had a divine council of imagers who represented his authority in the unseen realm and participated in his rule. It also showed us that God planned a mirror-council on earth, this time composed of human imagers. These two family-administrations were together in his presence. Heaven had come to earth at Eden. Humanity was charged with extending the earthly presence and rule of God throughout the whole earth. God wanted to live and rule with all his children in his new creation (p. 155).,
To the divine council worldview Heiser adds another which he calls, the Deuteronomy 32 worldview, also known as “The Cosmic Geographical Worldview,” (p. 116) based on Deuteronomy 32:8-9 which reads:
“When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
When He separated the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples
According to the number of the sons of Israel.
For the Lord’s portion is His people;
Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.”
The idea is that the nations outside of Israel (which constituted Yahweh’s inheritance), “were placed under the authority of members of Yahweh’s divine council” (p. 114). These lesser gods at some point, Heiser does not know when or how or exactly why, became corrupt (p. 116) and established battle lines between themselves (the gods) and God over control of the planet (p. 123). Heiser clarifies his views which, not surprisingly, parallel the worldview of ancient pagans: “The notion that different nations were allotted to different gods or heavenly beings was widespread in the ancient world” (p. 119). Since the ANE pagans held such views, Heiser concludes God’s divine scheme would mirror them:
The incident of Babel and God’s decision to disinherit the nations drew up the battle lines for a cosmic turf war for the planet. The corruption of the elohim sons of God set over the nations meant that Yahweh’s vision of global Eden would be met with divine force. Every inch outside Israel would be contested, and Israel itself was fair game for hostile conquest. The gods would not surrender their inheritances back to Yahweh; he would have to reclaim them. God would take the first step in that campaign immediately after Babel (p. 122).
The Deuteronomy 32 worldview has a number of features, all of which are troubling.
In the Old Testament, only Israel would be under the direct rule of Yahweh. All other nations and geographical territories were handed over to the corrupt elohim. Thus only the land of Israel was holy ground. The Lord was content for a time in this arrangement but the gods were not and they sought to destroy Israel. For Israel to venture beyond the borders of the Holy Land was to enter into the rival gods’ territory with unpleasant consequences. One example Heiser offers was sending the scapegoat into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement. By sending the goat into the wilderness the sins of the Israelites were being banished outside of Israel. The land of Israel was holy and “sin had to be ‘transported’ to where evil belonged–the territory outside Israel, under the control of gods set over the pagan nations” (p.178). But there is more. Since the word “scapegoat” (Lev 16:8) could actually be a proper name (Azazel), and since some nonbiblical ancient literature speaks of an Azazel as a demon in the desert, and the pagans associated Azazel with Mot, the god of death, Heiser concludes that Azazel was the god of the desert to which the scapegoat was banished (pp. 176-178). The important point to note is that none of this is actually drawn directly from Scripture but is a patchwork of potential and questionable clues taken from biblical and non-biblical sources coupled with ANE mythology. It aligns with Heiser’s Deuteronomy 32 worldview but is not part of biblical revelation. This kind of connecting the circumstantial dots is more akin to conspiracy theorists than to biblical exegetes.
Restoration of the Kingdom
The picture should be coming clear by now that Heiser sees the kingdom of God as the real focus of the Bible (p. 38) which, in all fairness, is true of many evangelical scholars, but Heiser provides some troubling twists to his theories. For example, as we have seen, Yahweh, according to Heiser, established a beachhead for the kingdom in Eden, which in essence became His home. There the divine beings lived alongside human beings. Adam and Eve were given the task of expanding the kingdom to the rest of the planet, but when they failed their mandate a new plan had to be developed. Complicating things was the rebellion and accompanying corruption of many within the divine council who subsequently cohabitated with mortal females producing a mixed race of human/divine beings known as the Nephilim. God chooses to destroy this polluted race with a flood, along with the vast majority of the human race it had influenced for evil. Unfortunately, as we have seen, Heiser thinks, some of the Nephilim either survived the flood, or the events of Genesis were repeated by another set of divine beings who later also chose to defy God and produce offspring with humans (again). From these relationships, a race of people known as the Anakims would inhabit Canaan. The Lord chose, with the counsel of His divine council, to deal with these issues by taking steps to wrestle the world out of the control of evil elohim and start the process of establishing His kingdom on earth by the calling of Abraham. Through Abraham, Yahweh would form a people (Israel) who would be given a “holy” land to possess. All other territories on earth were controlled by evil elohim, but the Lord was now staking out His territory and placing His people in a holy land as His kingdom people. But for this kingdom to take root Israel would first have to eradicate the Anakim. Under the leadership of Joshua, this campaign had a good beginning but ultimately failed. Rather than eliminating the Anakim and establishing a holy kingdom, the people of Israel compromised with this godless race and became corrupt themselves. Eventually, the Lord expelled His people from the Holy Land and scattered them throughout the nations, which were controlled by the corrupt gods. Yahweh’s attempt to restore the Edenic kingdom through Israel had failed, but He was not defeated. The Lord now shifted to a new plan which involved His Son. If Israel failed, Christ would not, but the future kingdom would come in stages. When Jesus came, Heiser believes, the kingdom was established on earth, but it was not consummated. In other words, Heiser believes in inaugurated eschatology or, in simpler language, the kingdom is already here but not yet in its completed state. The kingdom is on earth presently in the form of the church. The church’s task is to push out the boundaries of the kingdom, claiming more ground for Christ. At the return of Christ, all competing elohim will be defeated and lose their claim over the kingdoms. At such time the kingdom of God will be fully restored and governed not only by Yahweh and His divine council but also by the redeemed and glorified human council, which will join the divine council to form a single divine council of God.
Heiser correctly understands that the restoration of the kingdom ultimately would hinge upon the cross, for Eden-like conditions are only possible if the kingdom is inhabited by reconciled and regenerated human beings. Only the cross-work of Christ could produce such reconciliation by providing satisfaction for sin. Heiser’s unique, and disturbing contribution to this subject is, due to his Deuteronomy 32 worldview, that the Lord had to keep His redemption plan covered in secrecy in order to fool the opposing elohim and trick them into falling for His trap: “If the plan of God for the Messiah’s mission had been clear, the powers of darkness would never have killed Jesus – they would have known that his death and resurrection were the key to reclaiming the nations forever” (p. 241). It is for this reason that God’s redemption plan is veiled in the OT. “It had to be expressed in sophistication and cryptic ways to ensure that the powers of darkness would be misled” (p. 243, c.f. pp. 248, 279, 330). While it is true that the OT revelation concerning the Lord’s plan of salvation was relatively vague compared to the light of the New Testament revelation (see 2 Tim 1:9-10), the reasons could be many. However, Heiser’s position that Yahweh had to hide His plan lest the divine beings catch on and undermine it puts the Lord in an anemic position and does not line up with the Scriptures. For example, Isaiah 53 clearly specifies how the Lord would bring about salvation, even if the cross is not directly mentioned. And on at least three occasions Jesus informed His disciples that He would die and be resurrected (Luke 9:22, 44; 17:25; 18:31-33), that He had come as a ransom for sin is clear (Mark 9:27). These accounts were not cryptic, even if the exact method of execution was unknown until the last hours. Are the forces of darkness so powerful that Yahweh Himself had to keep His redemption program under wraps in order that the corrupt elohim could not foil His plan? Are the turf wars over planet earth so contingent and fragile that the Lord dare not let the divine beings know His strategy? This would leave us with a God who is not only not omniscient (recall that Heiser believes Yahweh is at risk because He does not know how the future will play out due to human free will), but also not omnipotent and must fall back on secret schemes to fool the elohim. We are left with a God who had to out-maneuver corrupt elohim, rather than a God who sovereignly rules over all things including false gods.
The Church and the Kingdom
Yahweh’s strategy to take control of earth back from the corrupt elohim through the nation of Israel did not pan out. Under Heiser’s scheme, it would appear that the Lord pinned his hopes on Israel, not knowing with certainty how His plan would unravel. When Israel failed, a new strategy to establish His kingdom would be devised. The kingdom now will be inaugurated through His Son and will ultimately be consummated at the Son’s return. In the meanwhile, what is life like in the Heisler’s “already, not yet kingdom”? Below are some of the troubling features of the “already” kingdom as Heiser sees it:
- Heiser begins with the supersessional view that the church is the true Israel. The Old Testament nation of Israel failed to establish the kingdom and now that task has been shifted to the New Testament church: “Since the Church, the corporate body of believers, inherited the promises given to Abraham (Gal 3:26-29), believers are the ‘true Israel’” (p. 158).
- For the church to fulfill the kingdom mandate it will be necessary for it to displace corrupt elohim who presently rule the nations. The corrupt sons of God who currently dominate the nations will be replaced by loyal members of God’s family, the church: “When we inherit rule of the nations with Jesus at the end of days (Rev 3:21), we will displace the corrupted divine sons of God presently ruling the nations” (p. 158).
- According to Heiser, the church’s task will be expedited because he believes that Satan is no longer the accuser of the brethren since he is now expelled from heaven (p. 281). Even though Revelation 12, which predicts Satan’s removal from heavenly access and the relinquishing of his role as the accuser of the brethren, is contextually during the Tribulation and shortly before the return of Christ, Heiser applies it to the entire church age.
- Heiser sees the events at Pentecost, as found in Acts 2, as the beginning of the reversal of the confusion at Babel in Genesis 11 (pp. 296-298). Pentecost initiated the church’s efforts to bring in the kingdom.
- The mission of church age believers, as members of God’s earthly council, is to spread the kingdom rule of God which Adam and Eve failed to do. The church is on a mission to restore Eden: “Believers have a divinely appointed purpose. Adam and Eve were supposed to make all the world Eden—to spread the kingdom rule of God so that we could enjoy the love of God, our Father. That hasn’t changed” (p. 310).
- But there is more. When the kingdom is restored we (human believers) will become divine: “Believing followers of Jesus Christ are the fulfillment of God’s plan to have humanity join the divine family-council and restore Eden. But that’s still not the full story. We will be made like him (1 John 3:1-3). We will become divine” (p. 314). Further, “Joining God’s divine family is inextricably linked to the New Testament concept of becoming like Jesus – becoming divine” (p. 319). Heiser even conjectures that the elders in heaven found in Revelation 5:11 are divine humans (p. 355). Heiser’s lack of definition for “divine” remains problematic. In what sense do regenerated humans become divine? That the redeemed will be given glorified, resurrected bodies which will enable them to live in the eternal state is taught in Scripture (1 Cor 15:35-57). That they will in some way be like Jesus is taught as well (1 John 3:2). But that they take on characteristics of elohim, or of the Elohim, in that they become “little gods” has more in common with Word of Faith theology than biblical orthodoxy.
- On the other hand, the corrupt elohim will be stripped of their immorality and die like men (Psalm 82:6-8) (p. 322). This conclusion is forced by Heiser’s faulty interpretation of Psalm 82. If the “gods” in the text are fallen members of the divine council, it becomes necessary, at some point, to turn them into mortal beings who die. Strangely, under Heiser’s system redeemed humans become gods and corrupt “gods” become mortal. We find neither of these concepts in Scripture. Exactly what is meant that the corrupt elohim die is a bit of a mystery that Heiser does not attempt to solve. Do they cease to exist? Do they suffer eternal judgment? Will they be given a second chance if by free-will (an important concept in Heiser’s scheme) they change their minds and pledge allegiance to Yahweh? We are not told.
- The church is presently the holy ground similar to what Israel occupied in Old Testament times. Therefore, church discipline is to thrust someone out of holy ground and into the realm of Satan (1 Cor 5:5) (pp. 342-343).
Heiser summarizes his Deuteronomy 32 worldview as follows:
In the distant past, God disinherited the nations of the earth as His co-ruling family, the original Edenic design, choosing instead to create a new family from Abraham (Deut 32:8-9). The disinherited nations were put under the authority of lesser elohim, divine sons of God. When they became corrupt, they were sentenced to mortality (Psa 82:6-8). The Old Testament is basically a record of the long war between Yahweh and the gods, and between Yahweh’s children and the nations, to re-establish the original Edenic design. The victory at Armageddon of the returning incarnate Yahweh over the Beast (antichrist) who directed the nations against Yahweh’s holy city is the event that topples the elohim from their thrones (p. 376).
Heiser’s cosmic-geographical worldview paves the way for a theology of spiritual warfare laced with territorial demons. Many Pentecostals have developed such a theology and have taken it to its logical and disastrous conclusions.
The Unseen Realm, while offering some interesting theories, rests on a weak foundation: faulty exegesis, especially of Psalm 82 and related texts, speculation and connecting intertextual dots that are conjectural and unprovable, and interpretation of Scripture through the lens of ANE literature and mythology. All this leads to an all-too-human God who does not know or control the future, who takes risks without certainty of the outcome, is in a battle with demonic forces that are almost as powerful as He is, necessitating that the Lord hides His plans lest they are undermined. Yahweh relies on both a divine council and a human council to make decisions, which will ultimately become one divine family council in the eternal state and, which will apparently aid Yahweh in decision making forever. With Heiser’s system, Scripture can only be interpreted through ANE pagan mythologies and worldviews. These worldviews, filled with gods and demigods, were to be rejected by Israel in the Old Testament. It was by absorbing the pagan teachings and lifestyle that Israel became corrupt and failed as a holy nation. The inspired writers of the Old Testament never encouraged Israel to study ANE myths in order to understand the ways of God or to mirror them, but to repudiate them. Heiser’s understanding of what is taking place is far more informed by ANE paganism than by Scripture. He is using an ANE lens to interpret the Word.
The God of Scripture is not an anemic God who takes risks, not knowing the future, needing to hide His plans from other deities to keep them from discovering and obstructing them. Nor is He the chairman of the board of some form of divine council that helps Him make decisions. While a few examples of interaction between the Lord and His heavenly creations exist in Scripture, better explanations are available than Heiser’s. The first clue that Heiser’s unseen realm is on shaky ground is his claim that virtually no one else has made these discoveries (p.12). If, after thousands of years of study, you are the first to come up with novel interpretations, and these are based more on pagan worldviews than Scripture, you can be pretty certain that something is amiss. If, in order to take these views one has to jettison all the creeds, confessions, and systematic developed by serious conservative Bible students, great caution is obviously in order. Heiser’s theories, while interesting in places, lack the clarity of Scripture. More seriously, adopting his concepts of God leaves us with a supreme deity who, while ruling over all other deities, nevertheless is at risk. He lacks absolute knowledge of the future; He devises plans that may be shattered by divine and human choices; He relies on a council for decision making, and He must disguise His kingdom program for fear the elohim will undermine it. In the final analysis Heiser’s theories leaves us with a lesser god than the God of Scripture.
by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel
[i] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015)
[ii] See William Hendricks, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953, p. 128, and Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), who writes, “The passage refers to the judges of Israel, and the expression ‘gods’ is applied to them in the exercise of their high and God-given office” (p. 525).