A careful reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s letters will reveal that he conceived of Middle-earth as being our own planet set in a misty, legendary time some two millennia before God called Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and make his long, slow pilgrimage to the Promised Land of Canaan. An equally careful reading of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, most of which takes place more than 5,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, will reveal a breathtakingly beautiful creation myth that combines Genesis with the tales of the Norsemen and Plato’s Timaeus.
In Tolkien’s telling, God (Ilúvatar) doesn’t create the world alone, but commissions the assistance of the Ainur, angelic beings whom he had earlier created. Though Ilúvatar alone initiates the song of creation, he allows the Ainur to participate in that song. All goes well until Melkor, one of the chief Ainur, rebels against Ilúvatar and begins to sing his own harsh, discordant tune. Rather than eliminate the cacophony of Melkor’s counter-melody, Ilúvatar weaves it into a song of greater beauty.
Once the song is complete, Ilúvatar embodies it as Arda (the planet Earth) and then allows the Ainur who most love Arda—and the Elves and Men whom Ilúvatar will create to dwell on it—to descend and rule over it as his viceroys. The Ainur who choose to do so become the Valar and are themselves served by lesser angelic beings called Maiar. Sadly, Melkor descends to Arda as well and sets himself up in opposition to the plans of Ilúvatar and the good Valar. As part of that opposition he corrupts several of the Maiar (including Sauron) to his cause, perverts others into the forms of fire demons (Balrogs) and giant spiders, and later perverts Elves and Ents into Orcs and Trolls.
In The Unseen Realm, Michael Heiser examines the ancient context of Scripture, explaining how its supernatural worldview can help us grow in our understanding of God. He illuminates intriguing and amazing passages of the Bible that have been hiding in plain sight. You’ll be engaged in an enthusiastic pursuit of the truth, resulting in a new appreciation for God’s Word.
What readers know as The Lord of the Rings marks the final stage in a protracted conflict that includes wars between angelic beings, the breaking and remaking of the world, a universal flood, and epic battles in which righteous Elves and Men fight bravely and sacrificially against wicked Elves and Men empowered by Melkor and the fallen Maiar. At times, the good Valar and Maiar, under the ultimate headship of Ilúvatar, step in to set things to right, but in most cases, they allow faithful Elves and Men to defend Arda.
Just as most fans of The Lord of the Rings enjoy the novel without being aware of its cosmic backstory of faithful and fallen angelic hierarchies, so most Christians read and believe the Bible while being unaware of its own cosmic backstory. I was mostly unaware of it myself until I read Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, originally published in 2015 but now available in paperback.
Heiser—who holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages and an MA in ancient history and Hebrew studies and directs the Awakening School of Theology at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida—has devoted the last two decades of his life to unpacking and decoding the Bible’s cosmic dimensions.
Although Heiser himself never references Tolkien, I find it uncanny how closely The Silmarillion mirrors what Heiser uncovers by taking seriously biblical passages that are too often ignored or rationalized away by modern, post-Enlightenment readers. By collecting, synthesizing, and presenting in an accessible format the scholarly work of many, Heiser succeeds in reconstructing the vision of the seen and unseen world held by the biblical writers.
By collecting, synthesizing, and presenting in an accessible format the scholarly work of many, Heiser succeeds in reconstructing the vision of the seen and unseen world held by the biblical writers.
And by doing so, he provides insight into a wide array of biblical verses that have stumped preachers and parishioners alike. What are we to make of those strange passages in the Bible where: (1) Eve interacts with a talking snake; (2) sons of God mate with daughters of men to bear mighty Nephilim (Gen. 6:1–4), (3) Old Testament heroes like Abraham (Gen. 22:10–18), Jacob (Hos. 12:3–4), Moses (Ex. 3:1–6), and Gideon (Judg. 6:11–24) interact with Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh; (4) biblical prophets are given glimpses of God’s divine court attended by supernatural beings (Isa. 6; Ezek. 1; Rev. 4); and (5) the One God Yahweh—whom the Bible tells us is supreme above all other gods—addresses a divine council at the time of creation, at the Tower of Babel, and in hard-to-interpret verses, such as “God [elohim] has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods [elohim] he holds judgment” (Ps. 82:1).
Modern Christians don’t know what to do with passages like these because we haven’t been able to view them through the proper lens. In his second chapter, Heiser helpfully states the problem:
Modern Christianity’s view of the unseen world isn’t framed by the ancient worldview of the biblical writers. One segment wrongly consigns the invisible realm to the periphery of theological discussion. The other is so busy seeking some interaction with it that it has become unconcerned with biblical moorings, resulting in caricature. (17)
Heiser spends the rest of his book providing us with the proper frame.
God and gods
Although Yahweh (who is often referred to as elohim) is the sole source, to quote the Nicene Creed, “of all things visible and invisible,” before he created the earth, he created hierarchies of spiritual beings (also called elohim), many of whom he appointed to serve on his divine council. As Heiser explains, the word elohim (like our word “sheep,” it can be either singular or plural depending on the context), while it’s often translated as “God” or “gods,” shouldn’t be equated with the divine properties possessed by Yahweh. Neither does it connote goodness or badness. Rather, it signifies a spiritual being who, unlike us, lives in the unseen realm. In that sense, Yahweh is himself an elohim, but none of the other elohim is like him.
Elohim signifies a spiritual being that, unlike us, lives in the unseen realm. In that sense, Yahweh is himself an elohim, but none of the other elohim is like him.
Yahweh consulted with his council before creating mankind, though, again, he’s the sole source of all creation. Just as Yahweh intended to rule the unseen realm partly through the mediation of his chosen elohim, so he intended to rule the seen realm of the earth partly through Adam and Eve and their descendants. Before the fall, Eden was a sacred space where the fullness of Yahweh’s council (elohim and human alike) could meet. It was Yahweh’s divine intention that man should be fruitful and multiply and rule the earth. Unfortunately, just as some of the elohim rebelled against Yahweh—with one of them taking the form of the snake in Eden to tempt Eve—so man also rebelled.
At that point, God could’ve abandoned his plan to rule the earth through the humans he had created, but he didn’t. He continued to wrestle with us and the fallen elohim, on both of whom he had bestowed free will under his ultimate divine sovereignty. Tragically, the situation worsened when some of the rebellious elohim took bodily form and impregnated human women, giving birth to the Nephilim, who would continue to disrupt the plans of Yahweh both before and after the flood. The two best known Nephilim are Nimrod, the mighty man who oversaw the building of Babel, and Goliath, the giant who was defeated by David, the messianic king. Indeed, as Heiser persuasively argues, one of the main reasons Yahweh ordered Israel to utterly defeat the Canaanite tribes is that they included the last remnants of the Nephilim.
The flood didn’t do away with the Nephilim or human rebellion, and so opposition against God and his rule continued, climaxing in the Tower of Babel. After babbling our languages, Yahweh disinherited the humans he had created, scattering them over the face of the earth and placing elohim in control of the various lands and nations: Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and so on. Even as most of those elohim set themselves against Yahweh and his plans for the earth, Yahweh continued to work through the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel, to whom he promised a land that would be the center of resistance against the Nephilim and fallen elohim.
Eventually, however, Israel turned away from Yahweh toward Baal and was sent into exile in the very land where the rebellion had begun in earnest: Babylon. Still, God’s plan was not foiled. Through the sacred bloodline of Abraham, he brought his incarnate Son into the world, though the Son had already manifested himself numerous times in the form of the Angel of Yahweh. Of the coming of the Messiah, the prophets spoke, but never too clearly lest the fallen elohim try to resist Yahweh’s plan for saving mankind. In the end, the elohim were so fooled by Yahweh’s plan that they brought about the very event that would break their rule over man and the earth: the crucifixion.
In the end, the elohim were so fooled by Yahweh’s plan that they brought about the very event that would break their rule over man and the earth: the crucifixion.
With the resurrection and Pentecost—the divine event that undid the babbling of languages and sent God’s Word into all the nations he had disinherited—the tide of battle turns and God calls on his church, his chosen people, to take his side in the holy war against those spiritual forces that continue to resist Yahweh’s initial plan, and desire to make of the whole earth a sacred space where his divine and human council can meet.
Though modern Westerners prefer neutrality to war, Heiser writes, we must understand that
some wars—and some enemies—don’t offer that option. When an enemy wants nothing but your defeat and annihilation, neutrality means choosing death. The war raging in the unseen world for the souls of human imagers of Yahweh is that kind of war. Neutrality is not on the table. (335)
Offering a fascinating, supernatural worldview reading of 1 Peter 3:14–22, Heiser argues that when Jesus descended into hell (Tartarus), the prison of the elohim who sinned with the daughters of men, he didn’t go to save them but to proclaim Yahweh’s victory. That victory is re-proclaimed every time a Christian is buried and raised again in the waters of baptism.
Join the Battle
In this review I’ve attempted to convey the wide scope of the supernatural worldview that Heiser uncovers in The Unseen Realm. What I haven’t tried to convey is the depth and breadth of Heiser’s scholarship or the exacting care with which he backs up every square inch of this worldview with copious verses and a full command of the culture and language of ancient Israel. From beginning to end, Heiser maintains a high view of Scripture as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, a faithful allegiance to God’s sovereignty, and confidence in salvation by grace through faith. While remaining firmly within Christian orthodoxy, Heiser swings open the gates onto a multi-tiered world where the stakes are high but the final victory belongs to Yahweh and his followers.
In The Lord of the Rings (book 4, chapter 8), Samwise Gamgee experiences an epiphany as he realizes that he and Frodo are carrying a spark of divine light (in the star-glass of Galadriel) whose source goes back to the most ancient of days when Men and Elves and Angelic Valar and Maiar kept close council and strove in epic battles. “Don’t the great tale never end?” he exclaims, to which Frodo replies: “No, they never end as tales. . . . But the people in them come and go when their part’s ended.”
Reading The Unseen Realm afforded me a similar epiphany as my eyes were opened to a cosmic struggle to which I had been mostly blind. An epiphany that included the sober realization that I have a part to play in that struggle, for I, who was once a disinherited Gentile, have been adopted through Christ into a new inheritance. As such, I’ve been made a member of the church—which Heiser defines as “the reconstituted divine-human family of God”—and can step into my destiny of becoming “what Adam and Eve originally were: immortal, glorified imagers of God, living in God’s presence as his children” (308).