Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm (Faithlife Films, 2019)

Michael Heiser is well-known for his books on angels and the supernatural world as well as his Naked Bible podcast. He is a Scholar-in-Residence at Faithlife Corporation. This film is a companion to his book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Lexham, 2015). Heiser’s PhD dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was entitled “The Divine Council in Second Temple Literature” (2004) and he contributed articles on the Divine Council in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings (InterVarsity Press, 2008), Prophets (InterVarsity Press, 2011) and in the Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Actor Corbin Bernsen is the host of the film, but Heiser does most of the speaking. The video has a wide range of soundbites from other biblical scholars, including Eric Mason, Gary Yates, Darrell Bock and Ben Witherington III. The film runs about an hour and twelve minutes and is well-produced as far as documentaries go. The music is dramatic but not distracting and the general tone of the film inviting. Heiser and the other speakers do not present this material as some great secret suppressed by the church (as most biblical documentaries seem to do these days).

Heiser takes the ancient Near Eastern worldview of the Bible seriously. The imagery used in the Bible for the gods, angels and demons is drawn from the ancient world. There are many examples in the Old Testament where God sits at the head of a “heavenly council” (for example, Psalm 89:5-7, Daniel 7).

In the introduction to the book form of the Unseen Realm Heiser says “What you’ll learn is that a theology of the unseen world that derives exclusively from the text understood through the lens of the ancient, premodern worldview of the authors informs every Bible doctrine in significant ways.” Some of these are very helpful and it is important Bible readers hear the echoes of the ancient world rather than medieval paintings. For example, cherubim is a supernatural throne guardian similar to Assyrian and Babylonian throne guardians.

Heiser describes three supernatural rebellions explain the presence of evil in the world: The Fall in the Garden, the Nephilim, and the Tower of Babel. Although I agree each of these represents a rebellion against God, I am not sure the second two rebellions are on the same order as the Fall. Heiser thinks the sons of Anak were descendants of the Nephilim were the actual target of the Israelite conquest. There are more details on this in the book, but I remain unconvinced the “giants” in the land were the literal descendants of the Nephilim (who presumably survived the flood).

With respect to the New Testament, the demons recognize Jesus, but they are “duped into killing Jesus.” Caesarea Philippi (now called. Banias), in the area of Bashan. According to Heiser, Bashan was ground zero for the worship of demons. Heiser argues this location is the “gates of Hell,” which is why Jesus says the “gates of hell will not prevail” against the church Jesus will build “upon the rock” (Matthew 16:18-19).

Heiser points out Paul reflects the ancient worldview, although there is much more which could be said about the unseen realm in the Pauline letters. Two examples which need more development. First, there are far better descriptions of Paul’s view of the defeat of spiritual powers. For example, Timothy Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians (IVP Academic, 2010), Clint Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians (both now reprinted by Wipf & Stock) and Powers of Darkness (IVP Academic, 1992). Second, the worldview of the Old Testament reflects the ancient near east and this is certainly part of the background for Jewish writers in the New Testament. But Heiser does not take fully take into account the Greco-Roman worldview for the Pauline mission to Gentiles. For residents of Ephesus, the Nephilim the Mesopotamian council of the gods would have been unknown. Readers of Paul’s letters and Revelation (written to Ephesus and Asia Minor) were immersed in the gods of Rome, Artemis and the Imperial Cult.

For some viewers, Heiser takes the ancient worldview far too seriously. I suspect some conservative viewers will be shocked to hear how angels and demons fit into the worldview of the ancient worldview. Like John Walton, Heiser recognizes that the Old Testament adopts and adapts the cosmic geography, divine council, and spiritual beings of the ancient world. But less-than-conservative viewers will find Heiser’s acceptance of these elements as “too literal.” Heiser may describe the worldview of the ancient world accurately, but he actually believes that worldview is an accurate depiction of reality. In fact, this film concludes with a clear presentation of the Gospel.

Much of what Heiser says in the film (and the book Unseen Realm) is accurate description of the worldview of the ancient world. I find his description of sacred space and cosmic geography very helpful and the parallels between Eden, Tabernacle and Temple are important (if not commonly accepted today). There are many details in the film which go too far, such as his view of the role of the giants in Canaan during the conquest, the implication Ezekiel 28 refers to Satan, and the background of Banias for understanding Jesus’s words in Matthew 16. Nevertheless, for many viewers, this film will be a good introduction to the discussion of a biblical theology of angels, demons, spiritual warfare, and the “unseen realm.” Along with Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm, this film would be good for a small group Bible study or Sunday School class. The website is unclear on licensing (can the film be used for a small group?) and as far as I can see there are no workbooks or other curriculum available at this time. 

Here is the trailer for the film, View clips of the film at FaithlifeTV.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm (Faithlife Films, 2019)

  1. Thank you for this review Dr. Long. Although I am not too keen on using this book or video, it will help me understand what people will be hearing from it.

    Like

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