M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense catapulted the director to overnight stardom. Most people who saw the film will never forget the shock they felt when the trick ending was revealed and they were forced to reassess the meaning of each and every scene they had just witnessed. In the flash of an eye, it became a very different movie, far richer and far stranger than they had first imagined.
If I may leap from the secular to the sacred, from pop culture to inspired Scripture, I suppose the two travelers on the road to Emmaus must have felt the same way when Jesus opened up the Old Testament to them (Luke 24:27). So, they must have thought to themselves, that’s what Moses really meant—and David and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel! How could we have missed it when the truth was staring us in the face all these years?
It is as if the viewers of the film and the travelers to Emmaus were trying to put together a thousand-piece puzzle without having been shown a picture of what the finished puzzle looks like. Only when the director of the film, or the gospel, revealed that picture were they able to use it as a key for assembling the pieces into a coherent image and narrative. I felt something of that sense of revelation when I happened upon Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, first published in 2015.
Heiser, who holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages and is the executive director of the School of Theology at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, has devoted his career to expanding the horizons of Bible-believing Christians who have never known what to make of Scripture’s frequent references to “gods” and “sons of God.” Using Psalm 82 as his starting point, Heiser argues that God chose to work through a divine council of supernatural beings whom he created and over whom he holds full sovereignty. He intended for his council to also include human representatives who would meet at Eden, itself a nexus point between heaven and earth.
But man, tempted by a rebellious member of the council, sinned and lost Eden. Things devolved further when a series of supernatural beings assumed bodies and mated with human women to produce a race of giants, the Nephilim (Gen. 6:1–4). The evil of this race furthered the wickedness of men and led to the Flood, but even that event did not put an end to human and divine wickedness. The campaign to build the Tower of Babel showed that evil and rebellion were still rampant among men and gods alike.
As a result of that rebellion, God portioned the land and turned over those portions to the control of supernatural members of his council (Deut. 32:8–9), leaving Israel for himself as a remaining plot of holy land to be inhabited by the descendants of Abraham, whom he called for that purpose. But the supernatural guardians of those portions turned, one by one, to evil, causing God to judge and curse them, as recorded in Psalm 82. Worse yet, the descendants of Abraham turned to evil and began to worship the rebellious gods of the other nations, causing God to exile them to Babylon, the very land where the Tower of Babel had been built.
Since the publication of The Unseen Realm, Heiser has continued to flesh out the supernatural worldview of the Bible with two recent books on the nature, origin, and functions of angels and demons. Cutting through the myths and legends that have surrounded these divine beings, Heiser allows us to see them through the eyes of the writers of the Old and New Testament as well as the Jewish and Greek writers who lived in the intertestamental period.
Although Heiser presents his case and offers his conclusions in an accessible manner, his points are backed up by a mountain of textual, historical, anthropological, and linguistic research. Indeed, one of Heiser’s great strengths is taking findings from esoteric, highly academic papers and helping ordinary, non-specialist readers understand their relevance for interpreting the Bible and seeing the overall shape of God’s work in human history.
In his 2018 book Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host, Heiser explains that message-bearing (what the word angel means in Greek) marks only one of the many functions performed by the supernatural, non-physical beings that God created. Angels also act as ministers of God’s will, watchers who are ever vigilant, soldiers in God’s heavenly host (or army), interpreters to men of God’s messages, protectors of God’s holiness, executors of God’s divine judgment, and members of God’s council who participate in and bear witness to God’s sovereign decisions and decrees.
Heiser presents a dynamic picture of God holding session with his divine council, but he also lays down biblical limits for angelic authority and advice. One of the best examples in Scripture of God convening his council is 1 Kings 22:19–23, when he asks how the wicked king Ahab might be defeated. After performing a close analysis on the passage, Heiser concludes that the “text presents us with a clear instance where God has sovereignly decided to act but allows his lesser, intelligent servants to participate in how his decision is carried out. God wasn’t searching for ideas, as though he couldn’t conceive of a plan. He allowed those who serve him the latitude to propose options.”
In his overview of the study of angels between the period of Exile and the ministry of Christ, Heiser marshals his prodigious research to dispel two popular myths. First, he demonstrates that Second Temple Jewish writers, including the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) and the Qumran community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not eliminate the language of angels as sons of god out of a fear of promoting polytheism. Their writing shows quite the opposite: a clear understanding that Yahweh is the only God but that he is surrounded by a divine council of supernatural beings who are often called gods. Second, he shows that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not embody a dualistic vision of good and evil as equal and opposite forces, but of angelic warfare between beings created by the omnipotent and always-benevolent Yahweh.
Whereas the Old Testament speaks of the angel of the Lord carrying out the judgment of God, the New Testament, written after God became man, no longer mentions the Angel of the Lord—because judgment has been “entrusted” to Christ (John 5:22). Angels are described as exacting God’s vengeance in the apocalyptic book of Revelation, but in the rest of the New Testament, they are usually seen as ministering to believers.
Some have argued that Christ’s death on the cross redeemed fallen angels as well as fallen human beings, Heiser refutes this theory, making it clear that “the sacrifice of Jesus does not help angels. It helps believers—the children of Abraham by faith.”
In his most recent book, Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness, Heiser takes up the story of those fallen angels whom even the death of Christ could not redeem. The book dispels the myth, popularized in John Milton’s classic poem Paradise Lost, of a single rebellion against God led by Satan before the world was created, a myth that has little actual scriptural support. Instead, Heiser defines demons, or evil spirits, as “members of God’s heavenly host who have chosen to rebel against his will.” Rather than taking place once, as it does in Paradise Lost, this rebellion (as noted earlier in this review) took different forms at different times: the serpent in Eden, the sons of God who slept with the daughters of men, and the disobedient sons of god Yahweh put in charge of the nations after the Tower of Babel.
Still, despite their rebellion, the evil spirits continued to be spirits living in a spiritual realm. As Heiser observes, “Their rebellion did not mean they were no longer part of that world or that they became something other than what they were. They are still spiritual beings. Rather, rebellion affected (and still characterizes) their disposition toward, and relationship to, Yahweh.” As for the demons described in the Old Testament, Heiser explains that some are “associated with the realm of the dead and its inhabitants,” some are linked to specific geographical locations opposed to God’s rule, and some are “preternatural creatures associated with idolatry and unholy ground.”
Regarding the third kind, Heiser notes that, while in theory any ground “not occupied by the presence of God” could be considered unholy, all places outside Jerusalem were not therefore places of spiritual danger. Nevertheless, Heiser writes, “forbidding, uninhabitable places in lands associated with other gods were unholy in the sense of sinister and evil. This was especially true of the desert wilderness, whether literal or used metaphorically to describe places ravaged by divine judgment.” It was into that wilderness that the scapegoat was sent on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), a wilderness quite literally viewed as a locus of “a cosmic struggle involving the spiritual world.” Many modern readers, even if they believe in biblical inerrancy, will find these themes unsettling, but they are attested to in the Old Testament, carried forward into the Second Temple period after Israel’s exile, and glimpsed in the exorcisms performed by Jesus in the New Testament.
What Heiser has to say about Satan will be familiar to many, but perhaps not his argument that the demons who seek to tempt, subvert, and possess human beings were believed to have their origin in the hybrid Nephilim that were born to the sons of god and daughters of men. When those Nephilim died, Heiser claims, their disembodied spirits became demons. Another unfamiliar theme concerns the origin of the cosmic, political-territorial spiritual warfare we discover in the Bible. Heiser says it began not in a primeval rebellion by Satan and his minions, but instead when “the sons of god [to whom God had apportioned the nations] transgressed Yahweh’s desire for earthly order and just rule of his human imagers, sowing chaos in the nations.”
But we need not fear, Heiser assures us; after Christ defeated the power of Satan, he opened the way to a reclamation of the demon-controlled nations. This reclamation took place at Pentecost (Acts 2), when the gospel was carried to all those lands previously ruled by the rebellious sons of god. Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost together healed the division begun by Babel, making it possible for the Gentiles to free themselves from false gods and embrace Jesus as Lord.
Breaking Down the Darkness
Though many readers might trip over the technical aspects of Angels and Demons, with their lengthy charts and heavy emphasis on the parsing of Hebrew and Greek terms, Heiser keeps things moving and skillfully sums up his main points. I do wish, however, that he had been more sympathetic to modern spiritual-warfare advocates who share Heiser’s concept of cosmic strife that includes a strong territorial element. Though I agree with Heiser that the fallen sons of god were disinherited by the Cross, the Resurrection, and the spreading of the gospel, it’s hard to deny that certain areas of the globe remain immersed in spiritual darkness.
Spiritual-warfare advocates have located just such an area in a rectangle that stretches from the 10th to the 40th latitude north of the equator. This “10/40 window,” as missions strategists sometimes call it, encompasses North Africa, the Middle East, China, Pakistan, and India. Given that the vast majority of unreached people groups live in this window and that persecution of the church is strongest there, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that a territorial reign of evil (or stronghold) exists in that area of the globe, and that intense prayer on the part of believers may help break down demonic communication.
I believe Heiser’s books can inspire that needed movement of prayer just as they have illuminated the full meaning and extent of spiritual warfare in the pages of God’s Word.
Louis Markos is professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition (Cascade Books).