Supernatural: What the Bible teaches about the unseen world—and why it matters
MICHAEL S. HEISER
LEXHAM PRESS, 2015
There’s nothing like your first year as an incumbent to send you scurrying to the Christian bookstore, desperate to upskill yourself in the many issues pertinent your new congregation’s life. Relationship counselling, grief and loss, deconstruction of faith, power dynamics, family systems, staffing for growth, managing a team, persistence in prayer—I’ve felt the need to learn and grow in all of these areas, and more. A specific need in my new context has been confidence in engaging with the unseen or supernatural realm. My faith heritage hasn’t been closed to such things, but I always want, as I suspect you do, as much Biblical support for my ministry methods as I can get before I’m willing to roll something out “from the front.”
Enter Supernatural by Michael S. Heiser. The clean, modern cover claims: “What the Bible teaches about the unseen world—and why it matters.” Michael Heiser was FaithLife Corporation’s (Logos Bible Software) Theologian-in-Residence but apart from that, he doesn’t have a particularly remarkable pedigree. Supernatural is one of three short books distilling his original academic work The Unseen Realm (Lexham Press, 2015). The longer book is not inaccessible and does provide good background, but it still doesn’t answer every critique you might have of Supernatural, or its fellows, Angels (2018) and Demons (2020). However, Heiser also has a very generous web presence, with full text of many academic articles freely available for those wanting to explore further.
Stoking the desire to explore further and building capacity to do so is probably the most powerful thing about Supernatural and why it’s worth bringing to your attention. It’s not a how-to or testimony tome, it’s an attempt to thread a thesis regarding the reality of powerful spiritual beings and their opposition to Yahweh’s plan of salvation for the world from one end of Scripture to the other, with gospel-centred applications along the way. Heiser’s ability to push you into areas of Scripture you may have brushed aside is well worth the 167 pages and the subsequent rabbit holes you may explore. Soon you’ll be linking Genesis 1, 6, 10 and 11, with Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82 in ways you never expected, and feeling like you’ve got a more settled understanding of what was going on in Daniel 10 because of it—all rounded out with a burgeoning confidence to bring Scripture into your critique of C. Peter Wagner or Charles Kraft’s “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare” approach (if that were something you felt you needed to do).
Heiser’s thesis is that “the gods are real” (p.19) – that the One True God Yahweh has always functioned in a “divine council” of (created) spiritual beings and that these beings have had a role in the history and behaviour of the world—they are the “gods” of Psalm 82:1. This is likely not news to those who have understood the “Let us make humankind in our image” of Genesis 1:26 to be Yahweh addressing his angelic court. Nevertheless, the concept that God gave certain of these beings (called “Sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4) authority over and responsibility for the nations around Israel at the time of the dispersal from Babel in Genesis 10 and 11 may be more challenging. Readers of Deuteronomy 32:8 in the ESV may have encountered this unknowingly, as it translates (correctly, in most scholars’ view) the reference to Babel in this way:
“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.”
These beings then face judgement for the way in which they have ruled with injustice and in opposition to God (Psalm 82), and those who follow their ways—the ways of the nations— are not simply denying their national and covenant identity, but they are truly worshiping other “gods”—demons, in fact (Deuteronomy 32:17).
Once you start looking, you’ll encounter this throughout the Old Testament, and will be fascinated with Heiser’s attempt to connect it to the New. Yet, although soaked with Scripture references, this is not a book that will always convince. I suspect Heiser has made decisions about the priority of intertestamental literature, Qumran and the LXX that might have wider reaching implications for canonical shape and authority if one weren’t careful. He takes it as read that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 refer clearly to Satan (pp.28-30) which, although a traditional reading, ought to be more cautiously read as archetypal only (see Chris Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, Zondervan, 2008, p. 40). Did God trick the powers of darkness into crucifying Jesus through keeping his true messianic plans hidden in the Old Testament and can this explain some of the Messianic secret (Chapters 10 and 11)? When Jesus told Peter he was building his church on this rock, was it all the more poignant because they were standing at Bashan, the traditional place understood to be the mouth of hell (p.113)? Along with Pentecost (p.130), were the 70 or 72 missionaries sent out by Jesus also signs of the reversing of the dispersal of the 70 or 72 nations listed in Genesis 10 (p.111)? Perhaps I can’t be certain of the details, but what Heiser assures me I can be certain of is that Christ’s entire ministry was designed to break the power of the “gods” and that when I embrace and declare his resurrection victory, I am participating in that mission.
That is the second great benefit of the book—its constant call to have confidence in the plan of God in Christ and our declaration of the gospel as the weapons we so desperately needed in a dark world. This is not just about academic interest, this is about agency. If God uses spiritual beings in his ruling of the world, then why not use human agents to roll out the reality of Christ’s victory—“don’t you know we will judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3). God could do it all himself (of course!) but—as uncomfortable as it might make us who want to make much of God’s sovereign power—he uses us because “God is a God of means as well as ends.” These are the words of Graham A. Cole in his Against the Darkness (Crossway, 2019 p. 57) which I’d highly recommend as a companion read: an accessible but academic exploration of the same themes as Heiser’s larger work. But where Cole sometimes minimises one-off Scriptural references (e.g. guardian angels in Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15—see Cole, pp.72-73), Heiser instead makes you go “What did that just say?” and ensures you take every passing reference seriously—even if you end up harmonising it into your only slightly shifted Biblical theology at the end of it all. Cole cites Supernatural and agrees with Heiser’s reading of Deuteronomy 32 (p.61) but never really draws out why it might matter. Cole’s is a brilliant resource, but it is Heiser that gets the blood pumping, and strangely, may force you to confront Scripture more deeply in certain areas as well as build your confidence in the resurrection power of Jesus to confront any power of darkness.
MEGAN CURLIS-GIBSON, VIC