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.

 

 

Satan Has Blocked Our Way (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)

When Paul started the church at Thessalonica he was opposed by the Jewish community as well as the secular authorities (Acts 17:1-8). The Jews reacted to Paul’s message that Jesus was the messiah who was crucified and raised to life by God. The city officials in Thessalonica reacted against Paul’s rejection of Caesar as Lord. The idea that there is another king besides Caesar was politically dangerous. If Paul also taught Jesus was returning soon to judge the word (which 1 Thess 4:17-5:10 and 2 Thess 2 imply), the secular authorities may have interpreted this as a prophecy against the emperor and against Rome. As a result, he was forced to leave the city before he had fully prepared the church, and certainly before he wanted to leave. Acts 17:10 says the believer’s in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas away at night, certainly not the way Paul would have liked to leave these new Christians.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 Paul describes this sudden departure as being “torn away” from the new Christians. The verb ἀπορφανίζω has the sense of a child that is orphaned, but also a parent who has lost a child. This is a separation under great emotional distress. Paul did not want to leave, he was forced to leave under threat from the local officials. Notice the verb is passive: Paul did not cause his own departure, he was the victim of circumstances beyond his control.

The letter was written after a short time after his forced departure and Paul thinks of the church often. The introduction to the letter says Paul prays for the church each day and in 2:17 he says he thinks of the church often. Even though Paul’s desire was to return it is possible his enemies were slandering him by saying he never intended to revisit the church. They accuse Paul of taking all the money he could could from the church and then left them on their own to face a black lash from the Thessalonian officials. The opponents are likely blaming Paul for any persecution the church faces.

Paul says he has a strong desire to return.The word for this desire is one of the strongest words for desire available to Paul, it means to “crave” something, usually in an especially inordinate way. In other places the word ἐπιθυμία is translated “lust.” This strong desire makes him make an effort to return. The verb σπουδάζω is not a light or a token effort, but rather doing “something with intense effort and motivation. Elsewhere the word is translated as “be eager to….” (Gal 2:10, Eph 4:3). His one burning desire was to return to the small community of new believers in Thessalonica and continue to build them up spiritually so they would continue the work of the Gospel in the whole region of Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7).

Even though he has made every effort to return, Satan stopped him. The word“hinder” (ἐγκόπτω) has the sense of“tearing up the road.” If an army wanted to hinder another army from pursuing them they would tear up the road, burn the bridges, etc. Paul sees Satan’s operation as making any progress Paul might make very difficult. The book of Acts does not describe this Paul’s travels in Acts 17-18 as hindered by Satan, although it is possible Paul saw the ongoing threat of further persecution at the hands of the Jews and civil authorities in Thessalonica as a reason not to return. On the other hand, Paul does not usually avoid ministry because of the threat of persecution. He may have in mind his short time in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) where he was distressed at the idolatry of the city (17:16-17) and did not have much success (17:33, no church is formed). The important thing to observe here is that Paul sees any circumstances which kept him from returning to Thessalonica as spiritual warfare.

This hindrance may have been more subtle. Paul’s efforts to travel back to the city were slowed by what seemed to be coincidental problems or bureaucratic nonsense. It is easy for a Christian to read “Satan hindered me” in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 and assume there was some epic spiritual battle. Satan does not need to appear on the road in the form of a great red dragon breathing fire to destroy Paul and SIlas (in fact, does he ever really do that?) More often than not, Satan is in the details. Travel papers are lost, roads are closed, a minor bureaucrat refuses to sign a paper, luggage is lost, etc.

The important thing to see here is that the source of Paul inability to return is Satan. The church is not suffering because of the civil authorities in Thessalonica, nor are they suffering because of jealousy from the synagogue, they suffer because they are engaged in spiritual warfare. As he says in Ephesians 6:10, the struggle is not against  flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers of darkness. And sometimes those spiritual powers of darkness take very subtle forms in order to hinder the Gospel.