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Published: 6 May 2021 (GMT+10)

Helpful survey on demons, but unclear in places

A review of Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness, by Michael Heiser Lexham Press, 2020.

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Michael Heiser (Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies) is the author of many books, including The Unseen Realm, Angels, and the latest in that series, Demons. He is a well-respected, prolific writer, and much of his work is useful and genuinely helpful. That makes it all the more important that we point out where his work is insufficiently clear.

Helpful aspects

In some ways, Demons is a good book, and he has important points of agreement with CMI published views. He agrees that the Bible presents the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 as the offspring of angels and human women. He goes further and suggests that demons are actually the disembodied spirits of the dead Nephilim. He also refutes common views, like demons being the same as fallen angels, the NT view of demons and the devil being adopted from Zoroastrianism, and more. He also explains other mysterious groups and figures such as the Rephaim and Azazel.

Heiser’s survey of the development of the doctrine of demons, including non-biblical documents from the ancient world that would have been known to the biblical authors, is informative. His refutation of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 being various categories of human is comprehensive and convincing. He also shows how the different ‘pieces’ of the New Testament teaching about Satan were already present in the Old Testament, so not invented by the NT authors or appropriated from a false religion.

How is the OT different from other ANE1 documents?

However, clarity in one area would have been very helpful. The non-biblical documents contain obviously mythical elements, and it would have been helpful for Heiser to differentiate a bit more in his discussion of these things. The reader could (wrongly I believe) come to the view that Heiser views the OT as no more than another ANE document.

However, Heiser’s documented errantist view of the Bible (for instance, he believes the Bible teaches a 3-tier cosmology including a flat earth) does raise the question of what he believes is true about the Bible’s teaching. This isn’t calling his salvation into question.

For instance, he says:

“The question of whether the biblical writers thought this way [with a mythical view of natural disasters] is one that arises from the text.
The short answer is ‘yes and no.’ On the one hand, in biblical thought, everything that threatens life is the result of such rebellion. Natural disaster, disease, and death extend from humanity’s failure to fulfill the Edenic mandate, a failure provoked through the deception of a divine rebellion. The earth was under a curse. Eden was lost. Demonic spirits derivative from the transgression in Genesis 6:1–4 became an ongoing scourge of human well-being. God disinherited humanity at the Babel event, assigning the nations to lesser gods who sowed chaos among their charges (Deut 32:8–9; Ps 82). For Israel, raised up by divine intervention on the part of Yahweh after Babel’s judgment, things like plague, infertility, sickness, natural disasters, and external threats of violence were only to be feared in the wake of apostasy (Exod 15:26; Lev 26:14–39; Deut 28:15–68)” (p. 31).

But were the biblical authors correct to think in this way? Heiser’s next paragraph and particularly his footnote show that he is not a materialist and believes that God interacts with creation in response to prayer. But were the biblical authors (both OT and NT) correct to think that the ultimate reason all of these things happen is Adam’s historical rebellion in the Garden of Eden? Elsewhere he refers to John Walton’s view published in The Lost World of Genesis One that the Garden of Eden is described in Temple-like terms. However, that view has come under significant criticism from scholars such as the late historian Noel Weeks, none of which is addressed by Heiser. He says:

“The archetypal nature of Eden as the house-temple of God is why Eden is described as a well-watered garden and a holy mountain. There is no contradiction. An ancient reader would have embraced both descriptions” (p. 63).

However, it is also possible to interpret those details historically. See Where was Eden? Part 1 and Part 2.

Of Behemoth and Leviathan, he says:

These monsters were not considered real animals one could encounter with unfathomably large dimensions and powers. The metaphor communicated the fearful (and often fatal) struggle with earthly and heavenly rebellion and chaos. The entire world might irrupt in chaos, defying the restraint of a good God (p. 33).

Leviathan is at least sometimes described in mythic terms, but the descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, though colourful, are not necessarily mythical. (Behemoth, literally ‘beast of beasts, was probably a sauropod, while Leviathan was probably a giant armoured crocodilian such as Sarcosuchus or Deinosuchus.)

Conclusion

The book jacket promises: “You’ll come away with a sound, biblical understanding of demons, supernatural rebellion, evil spirits, and spiritual warfare.” And in a sense, the book does explain all that. But Heiser also rejects the Bible’s history of Eden and the Fall that he acknowledges forms the foundation of the biblical understanding of the origin of evil. He says that demons are the disembodied spirits of the Nephilim that died in the Flood—but is that Flood an actual event that happened in history?

Someone with a biblical creationist perspective actually has the foundation to gain more from a book like this than someone with a mythical view of Genesis. And we shouldn’t default to simply ignoring books by people with whom we disagree on some important points. We can benefit from the information Heiser presents while maintaining a biblical creationist view.

References

  1. Ancient Near East. Return to text

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $14.00
Soft Cover
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard Cover

Readers’ comments

Steve W.
Michael Heiser is a very interesting author but he does hold some strange views. For example, he appears to hold to a local flood - it beats me how anyone could believe this unless they have never seriously considered the evidence! It is also unclear whether he believes in the Mosaic authorship of the Torah (or at best he places far too much emphasis on so-called post-exilic redactors). Worst of all, he often reads corrupted ANE documents back into the scriptures when he should be doing the exact opposite. Where Michael's writings are concerned we need to "chew the meat and spit out the bones"!
Philip S.
The big trouble with Heiser is he doesn't believe the first Creation chapters of Genesis are literal and he often puts 'other' old beliefs on the same level! In fact I am fairly certain he believes the Gilgamesh Epic etc influenced Genesis instead of, obviously, the other way round! ........And the fact that the author John Collins from Liverpool University and his main researcher for a recent so-called 'scientific' Old Earth 'Theistic Evolution' book are big fans of his....
Christian H.
I really appreciate this review: it is unfortunate that Dr. Heiser and also Derek Gilbert have gained deep insights into the supernatural world the Bible presents, but see a position on historicity of Genesis to be at least unimportant or even incorrect. I enjoyed Last Clash of Titans by Gilbert however, but saddened that he and Heiser won’t accept both the supernatural war and the supernatural creation and catastrophic destruction of the physical world 7-6000 years ago.
Brandon L.
Thanks I wasn’t aware of Heiser’s book on demons, but will check it out. Very good points in this article. It’d be great if he could see the truth of creation and the events in genesis.
Curtis B.
Good article. The Bible is the only Truth we will know in this state of existence.
Wybren T.
Good review!

This is what always annoys me when writers and speakers use words like 'archetypal'. They could talk about how internally consistent a story by Shakespeare is and how it deals with the issues of our lives, without ever adressing whether it truly happened or whether was cleverly constructed. If you then ask, did this story really happen, they'll say 'you're missing the point!'. Whenever the story claims to talk about your ancestors or about your future, it is a valid question.

Sleep may be a great archetype for the truth that humans and all other living beings need to rest regularly and significantly, but at the end of today, you need to physically lie down for real and mentally shut down for several real hours. Jesus is in so many ways archetypal, but ultimately the question is: did He defeat death in the past and will YOU be resurrected in the future? In the end, as physical beings we need physical realities, not just inspiring archetypes.

Let's believe in evolution as a great archetypal story written by modern men, that deals with how things can be improved over time by making incremental changes and culling everything unwanted. And then when the theistic evolutionist asks, 'wait a minute, do you actually believe that evolution happened or...?' we say 'you're missing the point!'.
Lambert D.
Your review of “Demons” by Michael Heiser is excellent in my view. It’s fair and balanced. A great reminder that we followers of Jesus Christ are in the Truth business. We need one another, “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another.”
Calvin G.
Totally agree with your last paragraph. There have been times when some information has been denied to me and for good reason. As I’ve matured then the same information may be presented again to be accepted.
Tim L.
I'm in the process of reading Unseen Realm as well as many of the transcripts from his podcast. In the process of that, I have been greatly disturbed by the way he approaches the study of Scripture and how he argues his case. He uses other ANE texts to impose meaning onto Scripture that isn't there because he believes most of the Pentateuch was written during the Babylonian captivity. As a result, he believes that unless you interpret Scripture from the perspective of the ANE (more specifically, the understanding of the ANE of those in the academic elite), you will be wildly wrong in your interpretations, and his interpretations tend to be very similar to open theism. In the few instances he deals with counter-arguments, he almost never quotes or even cites them. Instead, he briefly summarizes the counter-argument as he understands it, which is a gross-mischaracterization in many cases, and then proceeds to rip the strawman to shreds all while referring to those who hold that position in the most dismissive and condescending manner possible. Finally, he condemns those who impose a modern perspective on Scripture (particularly that of the Reformers), but ends up inventing an even more modern perspective that he imposes on Scripture. Without a doubt, the Reformers got some things wrong, but he casts them aside as mostly worthless and proceeds to do the very thing he condemns others for doing. While I have not read his book on Demons, if it is anything like his other writings, it would seem that it is deserving of more significant criticism than was given here.

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