The Unseen Realm: Rediscovering the Supernatural World with Michael Heiser

Why did I wait so long to read this book?

Every now and then a book comes along that just revolutionizes your thinking. After having this book on my “to-be-read” list for at least five years, I finally got around to reading Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.  Talk about a revolution. I will never read my Bible the same way again. I am not sure that Michael Heiser has EVERYTHING right, but he pretty much nails a lot of things smack dab on the head.

If have not heard of Dr. Michael Heiser before, might I suggest that you look him up on YouTube, as he is big in the world of Christian YouTube apologetics. If you are concerned about reaching the next generation for Christ, you should pay attention to what is going on with the newer, younger generation of thoughtful Christian apologists, in an Internet age. Michael Heiser heads the list of influential Bible scholars, who are leaned on by these young Christian apologists, who make a defense for the Gospel.

Michael Heiser got on my radar a few years ago with the Naked Bible Podcast, where this Old Testament and Semitic languages scholar goes through books of the Bible, mostly passage by passage, and focuses on a lot of the “weird” stuff in the Bible that is simply left untaught in most evangelical churches from the pulpit these days.

Heiser is a great Bible teacher, unafraid to challenge traditional denominational categories. Furthermore, a lot of what you find in popular media regarding the Old Testament is downright skeptical of Scriptural revelation, ranging from your typical college introductions to the Old Testament to televised programs on the History Channel. But Michael Heiser knows his stuff, tackling such skepticism of the Bible head on. Yet he introduces you to a paradigm of understanding Bible that affirms the full trustworthiness of the Scriptures, while maintaining a solid footing in the best of contemporary scholarship. Along with Wheaton College’s John Walton (see here and here), Michael Heiser is pretty much the “go-to” scholar when it comes to all things Old Testament, and relating that world to the New Testament, in the fiery world of Christian apologetics.

Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, will revolutionize the way you read Scripture, making sense out of many puzzling passages, and refuting materialistic skepticism that rejects the Bible.

How Contemporary Evangelical Avoidance of the Supernatural in Holy Scripture Has Obfuscated the Meaning of Many Difficult Texts in the Bible

In 2020, I decided to read one of Heiser’s more recent in-depth books first, Angels, and it was great, but I became aware that a lot of what you find in Angels assumes you understand the basic ideas presented in The Unseen RealmThe Unseen Realm seemed a bit daunting to me at the time, as it is somewhat academic (but not too academic), and I was not ready to dig that deep into the topic. But my goal of reading (errr… listening via Audible) The Unseen Realm on my bike rides this year left me stopping on the bike path, several times, to rewind the last paragraph or two, to fully digest the topic.

Before diving in, let me say that most readers at Veracity will probably get more out of Heiser’s other book, Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches About the Unseen World – and Why It Matters, as it is less academic and does not have footnotes, while still covering the same material. But I like footnotes, so The Unseen Realm was my thing.

So, what is the main idea behind The Unseen Realm?

If you had to pick one passage of the Bible that is totally weird, I bet that I can tell you what might rise to the top of the list, or pretty close to it. Would it be the story of Elisha and the She-bears in 2 Kings 2? Possibly. That one is weird. How about the thing about women wearing head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? That’s weird, is it not? Some might even toss out the entire Book of Revelation as a good candidate. Yes, there is some weird stuff in that book, too.

But let us look at something right near the beginning of the whole Bible. Before you get a few chapters into Genesis, most every Christian I know gets stumped on this one: How about the story in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God” took the “daughters of men” as wives, and the offspring produced were called the Nephilim?

Pretty weird, huh?

In fact, I have always thought that this passage was SO weird, that I wrote a blog post almost 6 years ago explaining that most Christians have no clear idea as to what this passage is talking about, and urging humility when studying it. I still think we need humility, but I am pretty well convinced that Dr. Heiser’s approach is correct (I will leave the old blog post up anyway, just so that you can compare and see where my mind has changed). The amount of explanatory power behind Heiser’s thesis is simply breathtaking.

So, who are the “sons of God” in Genesis 6? A tradition going back to Saint Augustine suggests that these were descendants of Seth, the other son of Adam and Eve, aside from the well known Cain and Abel. In a nutshell, these “sons of God” were godly descendants of Seth, who had sexual relations with women descended from Cain; that is, “daughters of men,” such that God’s anger against humankind was stirred enough to trigger Noah’s flood, as a sign of divine judgment against the world.

Saint Augustine is surely one of the greatest teachers of Scripture of the Christian faith. The entire Protestant movement, for example, finds its backing squarely in the thought of Augustine’s view of justification by faith. Augustine was no slouch! However, Augustine was not proficient in his understanding of Greek, knew close to nothing about the Hebrew language, and lacked the cultural background of Second Temple Judaism, that was pretty well assumed by the original Jewish audience, living in the time of Jesus. Instead, according to Dr. Michael Heiser, a much older tradition, predating Augustine’s views, going back to the Book of Enoch, and other writings in the inter-testamental period, between the Old Testament and New Testament suggests that the “sons of Gods” were actually divine beings that rebelled against Yahweh, the name for God in the New Testament.

Genesis does not give us that many further details concerning these “sons of God,” but Heiser’s overview of the Jewish literature written within a few hundred years prior to the earthly ministry of Jesus reveals that Jesus’ listeners were thinking a lot about the “sons of God.” Are there other “sons of God,” other than the Genesis 6 rebels?

If you take a glance at just about any modern Bible translation, for the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16, you might see a clue here. For years, older translations of this verse spoke about Jesus this way, like in the KJV: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Most newer translations have removed the word “begotten“, an older archaic word, typically having something to do with “birth” or “generation.” But it is not because “begotten” is archaic that this word has been removed. Though still a topic of some debate, recent scholarship indicates the original Greek word, monogenes, actually has a meaning closer to “unique” or “one of a kind,” close to what the NIV 2011 translation has as “one and only Son“.  Michael Heiser probably prefers a translation along these lines: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one of a kind Son“.  In other words, Jesus is the unique, one of a kind, Son of God. Unlike any other divine being, Jesus has a unique relation to God the Father that no other divine being has ever had.

So, what is the big deal about that? Well, have you ever wondered why the Gospels talk so much about demons and demon possession? Today, Christians normally fall into two camps when they think about demons. Either they see demons everywhere around us, even to an extreme, under your bed, in your neighbor’s mini-van, etc., a belief that is particularly strong among certain hyper-charismatic Christians. At the other extreme, other Christians (along with many non-believers) are embarrassed about such talk of demons, as demonic possession is typically thought of today as being an out-dated relic of unscientific, pre-modernistic cultures. Is there another alternative?

In The Unseen Realm, Michael Heiser makes the strong case that the dead Nephilim that were wiped out during the Great Flood of Noah are actually the source of demons. So, when Jesus comes on the scene in 1st century Palestine, he came to do battle against the demonic powers, which is why demons are out in full force in the Gospels. When Jesus makes his appearance as the unique, one of kind “Son of God,” he not only came to resolve the problem of human sin. He also came to conquer and destroy the demonic powers that seek to enslave humanity in that sin.

Furthermore, Heiser argues that this understanding of demons explains the perplexing passage in 1 Peter 3:19-20, where Jesus is said have preached to the “spirits in prison.” This passage is most probably the basis for the (in)famous descensus clause from the Apostles Creed, whereby Jesus descends into Hades (“hell“), between his crucifixion and resurrection. Who are these “spirits in prison?” For Heiser, and according to a large body of contemporary scholarship, these are the dead Nephilim that Jesus preaches to, condemning the demonic powers to their eternal demise and judgment. While not ruling out other possible explanations, that could run side by side with this one, the idea that Jesus was sent to preach a message of condemnation to the demons is a pretty awesome thing to consider.

That is some powerful stuff to think about!

Yes, it does sound quite weird. But then, that is partly why the message of the Bible still has a striking message for our fallen world today, that secularizes just about everything, and robs our day to day life of mystery and deeper meaning.

How an Old Testament Approach to the “Divine Council” Makes Better Sense of the New Testament

Behind Dr. Heiser’s approach to the Bible is the notion of a “Divine Council” being expressed in the pages of the Old Testament, whereby we understand Yahweh, the God of Israel, to have a court of other divine beings, that Yahweh himself created (see the Bible Project). These divine beings, whom we encounter in the Bible, including angels, cherubim, seraphim, and even the rebellious ones, like Satan and the demons, were created originally to serve Yahweh, as most clearly articulated in Psalm 82.

Traditionally, the “gods” of Psalm 82 have been primarily understood to be Jewish elders. On the other hand, Heiser makes the case that these “gods” are not human creatures, but rather they are divine creatures, that bring their supernatural influence to bear among the nations, as members of God’s “Divine Council.”  Heiser makes the bolder case that this “Divine Council” interpretation predates the “traditional” interpretation of Psalm 82, as it is thoroughly rooted in the worldview of Second Temple Judaism, a perspective that many of the great Gentile patristic teachers of the early church never fully grasped.

Once one understands the workings of the Divine Council in the Old Testament, this then unlocks a lot of the mystery behind dozens of passages in the New Testament, that typically confuse the vast majority of Christians. Heiser gives multiple examples of how a Divine Council framework of thinking helps to make more sense out of the New Testament.

Are you ever confused about Paul’s statement that we are to “judge angels” (1 Corinthians 6:3 ESV)? What about the rebellious angels that Jude highlights in his short letter (Jude 6)? Have you ever wondered why the tribe of Dan is omitted from the list of the 144,000 in Revelation 7? Had you ever considered that the plain of Meggido, in northern Israel, may not be the proper location of the battle of Armaggedon? And to top all of that off, what about that strange passage mentioned above in 1 Corinthians 11, requiring that women wear head coverings while praying/prophesying in church, because “of the angels” (verse 10)?

Sure, other competent scholars might suggest other interpretations. But Heiser’s work is most impressive for the broad explanatory power his thesis has in bringing together so many loose ends in Scripture, that continues to puzzle many students of the Bible.

Solving Old Testament Mysteries, Too

Of particular interest to those who are concerned about faith/science issues, as they relate to the Bible, is Dr. Heiser’s understanding that at least some of the Nephilim survived Noah’s flood. The Nephilim, products of the angelic/human procreation rebellion in Genesis 6, were considered to be giants. Heiser links these to the giants that the Israelite spies saw, when they identified the land as being filled with milk and honey. When the Israelites were commanded to wipe out the Anakim, when entering the Promised Land, Dr. Heiser suggests that these Anakim, as giants, were descendants of the Nephilim who survived the flood. Goliath, the great giant that David faced, is also identified as a descendant of the Anakim.

These observations helps to resolve two persistent apologetic quandaries, that have stumped believers and supposedly justified skeptics in their critique of the Bible. First, this would help to rule out a global flood, in favor of a large local flood, to fit within the Noahic narrative. For if the flood was global in nature, that would rule out survivors of the flood, apart from Noah and his family. However, if the flood was local in nature, this easily explains why some of the Nephilim survived into the period of Israel’s journey towards the Promised Land, prior to Joshua’s conquest.

This view of the Nephilim also dampens claims that the Bible advocates genocide of humans, as the wiping out of the Anakim would be for destroying these giant angelic/human hybrid offspring, instead of normal humans. Sure, it is some weird stuff to think about, like something out of a science-fiction movie. But it makes more sense than some of the peculiar ideas put forward by some Young Earth Creationists, regarding a global flood, and answers at least some concerns that skeptics have about the conquest of Canaan by Joshua.

What makes Dr. Heiser’s work in The Unseen Realm so compelling is that none of this research that he brings to bear on the Bible is unique or new to him. Everything you read about in The Unseen Realm is a result of peer-reviewed Biblical scholarship, researched and studied over the past few decades, that often remains locked up in the halls of academia. Instead, Michael Heiser takes this vast treasure of Biblical insight and makes it available to common, everyday Christian believers, putting it lower down towards the bottom shelf, so that everyone can benefit. The Unseen Realm is jam-packed with details that frame the Biblical story in a whole new way.

The main caution I would again point out is that The Unseen Realm assumes that the reader has some advanced understanding of the Bible. The Unseen Realm is therefore loaded with footnotes, which might be off-putting to the casual or uninitiated reader, but that will really help more knowledgeable students of the Bible put all of the pieces together. As an added bonus, Dr. Heiser has a website that gives even more extended notes for Bible students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.

Fortunately, Michael Heiser’s more accessible version Supernatural will really help newer believers and other Bible novices comprehend his paradigm shifting argument. In other words, if you are fairly new to the Bible, get Supernatural instead, and leave the The Unseen Realm to the Bible nerds. If even that sounds too intimidating, Michael Heiser has also written a short introduction to what the story of the Bible is all about, What Does God Want?, that introduces the Gospel within the framework of his research.

Michael Heiser’s Supernatural is a “beginner’s guide” to Heiser’s thesis about the supernatural worldview of the Bible, otherwise known as the less academic version of his groundbreaking The Unseen Realm.

Seeing the Bible in a New Way Can Unsettle Older Ways of Thinking

Like any paradigm shifting work of theology published today, there are bound to be critics who will emerge to pushback on Heiser’s work. A Google search easily brings up a number of Heiser’s critics. I will just cover a few of the interesting one’s I found recently:

In a gracious response, Kenneth Berding at the Talbot School of Theology believes that while Heiser’s works has much to commend itself, Heiser misunderstands how the identification of the “adversary” in the Book of Job, as tied to the Christian concept of Satan, actually works (video link to Heiser’s response). Andrew Moody, the Australian editorial director of The Gospel Coalition’s website in Australia, is grateful for The Unseen Realm, but not convinced that the New Testament term “saints” in the Apostle Paul’s letters should better be translated as “holy ones,” that would include members of the Divine Council, along with human believers, as Dr. Heiser suggests. The Scholarly Dishwasher’s Blog contends that Heiser leaves the Triune nature of God out of the Genesis Creation account. James White, of Alpha Omega Ministries, one of the sharpest Christian apologists out there today, appeals to his staunchly Reformed theological position to dismiss Heiser’s reading of a “Divine Council” being taught in the Old Testament as spurious, if not downright heretical. Then there is a King James Only-ist advocate who admits that,  “Although [Heiser] is probably a saved man and he has decent goals, he is a typical member of the Alexandrian cult who wouldn’t know good Bible doctrine if it hit him on the head with a sledge hammer,all with plentiful exasperations expressed throughout in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, meant to emphatically decry how anyone might benefit one iota from contemporary evangelical scholarship. *SIGH*

To varying degrees, some much more than others, each one of these critiques suffers from the same fundamental flaw. Each critique is at least somewhat nervous, or perhaps even scandalized, that Dr. Heiser seeks to ground his interpretation of these weird Scripture texts within the context of both the Ancient Near East and Second Temple Judaism. Yet this is precisely Dr. Heiser’s point, that we should best interpret the Bible within its ancient context, as opposed to depending on later traditions of thought, centuries removed from the original context, with little contact with ancient culture. The majority of Michael Heiser’s most severe critics therefore fail to appreciate the process of progressive revelation that took place among the Jewish writers and readers of Scripture, stemming hundreds of years back to the era of Moses, and on through the eve of Jesus’ public ministry (including the inter-testamental period, the so-called “Silent Years”).

Dr. Heiser is pretty adamant that we need to have the ancient Israelite “living in our head” if we ever expect to understand and interpret the Bible responsibly. Otherwise, we are simply reading “someone else’s mail,” thus imposing our own 21st century ideas on the text of Scripture, at the expense of neglecting the mindset that the ancient writers of Scripture held.

My teachers back during my years in seminary constantly hounded me for irresponsibly reading things back into the ancient texts of the Bible, and now I understand why. The original readers of the ancient Scriptural text were not able to consciously understand their Old Testament, in its fullness. Prior to the coming of Jesus, they got bits and pieces, but they lacked the full picture. It is a whole lot easier to skip that fact and try to read things back into the Old Testament, than it is to appreciate how God worked in the minds and hearts of His people over hundreds of years, to eventually disclose the mystery of the faith to Jesus’ earliest disciples in 1st century Palestine, and those like the Apostle Paul.

Am I convinced by every reading of controversial texts, cited by Michael Heiser? No, probably not. At times, Dr. Heiser dismisses too easily some of the more significant insights of certain early church fathers, like Augustine, as well as Reformation leaders, like Calvin and Luther. In other words, most of my Reformed friends think he is not “Reformed” enough. But traditional Roman Catholics might be unsettled by the implications of Heiser’s thesis, as he has a very different take on the Matthew 16:18 prooftext used to justify the primacy of Peter.

In other ways, Heiser likes to stand aloof from various controversies that plague the church today. For example, Dr. Heiser often states in his Naked Bible Podcast, that he “does not care” about the various eschatological systems that give us conflicting interpretations about the nature, timing and events associated with the Second Coming of Jesus. He also takes no position on the complementarian/egalitarian discussion regarding “women in ministry” dividing churches today, for pretty much the same reason. Some might find that to be a relief, whereas others might think that he is just dodging controversy. Presumably, I think that Dr. Heiser simply has no interest in trying to resolve any of the “hot-button” issues that trigger many Christians today, in the church, preferring instead to focus on his research into the Divine Council, which in my view, is a whole lot more intriguing and substantial anyway. Finally, some of the “science-fiction-like” interpretations that Heiser offers can sound a little crazy. People who get into fascinations regarding UFOs and paranormal experiences likely will be totally spellbound by Dr. Heiser’s research, whereas skeptics of those type of things might tend to be dismissive of Heiser’s ideas.

However, getting a glimpse as to how so many previously confusing passages of the Bible fit together in a coherent whole is really mind-blowing. More than any other contemporary Bible scholar, who writes for a popular audience, Michael Heiser’s detailed work in the supernatural character of the Bible, and love for verse-by-verse exposition of the Scripture, has created in me a deeper love and interest in the study of the Scriptures. The broad explanatory power of Heiser’s work that simultaneously undermines secularist skepticism about the Bible, and takes Jewish readings of the Bible more seriously, while illuminating the meaning of once difficult passages, makes an appreciation of Michael Heiser’s work both theologically stimulating and exciting. For Christians tired of shallow, thematic-based sermons in church, that dodge the more tricky parts of the Bible, and non-believers who struggle with making sense of the Bible, The Unseen Realm does an excellent job of opening up a whole new way of reading the Bible.

I have not been able to read my Bible the same way ever since.

 

 

Over the past few months, as I was writing the first draft of this book review, I learned that Dr. Heiser has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. An August, 2021, update showed that Dr. Heiser’s medical status was uncertain, and that he has been having trouble eating for the last few months.  But as of early September, 2021, we have some good news, that the cancer growth has not spread beyond the pancreas, which means that the cancer might be treatable. Please pray for healing for Dr. Heiser. His teaching work has been a real gift for the church, for the past decade or so, helping many thousands across the world grow in their deep love for God and His Word. For a quick 5-minute introduction to the book(s), from when Dr. Michael Heiser worked at Logos Bible Software and FaithLife, the following video sums up everything well (But for a deeper dive, check out the following videos, too):

 

Dr. Michael Heiser currently teaches at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Here are three introductory sessions to his teachings, summarizing the basic contour of his book Supernatural, which is essentially his The Unseen Realm, without all of the footnotes.

 

 

 


Have We Finally Found Sodom, the Ancient City Destroyed By Fire and Brimstone?

Those interested in biblical archaeology have perked up recently, as a paper published in the scientific magazine, Nature, suggests that “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.”  Some archaeologists and other scholars identify Tall el-Hammam as the ancient site of the city of Sodom, where its destruction by “fire and brimstone” is recorded in Genesis 19.

The Nature paper describes evidence that shows that a large meteor, roughly the size of the Tunguska 1908 meteor strike in Russia, devastated a region on the eastern side of the Jordan River, around 1650 BCE.  Research shows that melted pottery and other artifacts found at Tall el-Hammam indicates that an explosion 1000 times more intense than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, wiped out the population of the region, and even deposited a large amount of salt, making the area uninhabitable for decades.

(Credit: Nature article, September 20, 2021, in Scientific Reports)

Some Christians have concluded from this paper that we now have strong scientific evidence, demonstrating the historical accuracy of this particular episode from the Bible. However, other Christian archaeologists and scholars are not persuaded. Archaeologist Todd Bolen, for example, argues that the location of Tall el-Hammam does not line up with the standard interpretation of Genesis 18:16, which some suggest indicates that Sodom was located nearer towards the southern end of the Dead Sea, as opposed to Tall el-Hammam’s location, north of the Dead Sea.

A more problematic objection to the story associated with the Nature paper comes from Dallas Seminary Old Testament bible scholar Eugene Merrill, who argues that the timeline for Tall el-Hammam’s destruction in about 1650 BCE does not line up with biblical chronology. Dr. Merrill follows what might be called a strict, literal interpretation of the numbers found in much of the Old Testament, which would place the destruction of Sodom much earlier, about 2067 BCE.  Dr. Merrill’s approach to biblical chronology is consistent with a belief in “Young Earth Creationism”, which places the creation of the world roughly 6000 years ago. He also adopts what is considered to be an Early Date theory of when the Exodus for Egypt occurred, in the 15th century BCE. Dr. Merrill identifies several problems with the 1650 BCE date for Sodom’s destruction:

  • The late Middle Bronze Age date of Sodom’s destruction, driven by archaeological considerations, must be the iron-clad standard against which the biblical chronology is ascertained.
  • This date demands a birth date of Abraham about 1699; since he was 175 when he died, that occurred in 1524, 76 years after the destruction of Sodom.
  • Isaac’s lifespan is 1599-1419 and Jacob’s 1539-1392!
  • Even a 215 year Egyptian sojourn must cover the years 1415-1200, requiring the Exodus to be in 1200 and the conquest, 40 years later, in 1160-1150.
  • The various judges and the reign of Saul must be compressed between 1150 and 1010, the established date of the commencement of David’s reign.
  • The only way out of the conundrum if Hammam is Sodom is to (1) disregard the biblical figures for the ages of the patriarchs; (2) jettison or greatly reduce the 215-year sojourn; and (3) minimize the length of the ministries of the judges and the reign of Saul nearly to the vanishing point.

Dr. Merrill suggests that the 1650 BCE date for Sodom’s destruction would require a chronology that fits within something like the following framework, a framework that Dr. Merrill believes does not fit within the Bible. Non-literal numbering estimates are highlighted below:

  1. Abraham was 75  at the 1600 date of Sodom’s destruction; therefore, he was born in 1675.
  2. Isaac was born in Abraham’s 50th year—1625.
  3. Jacob was born in Isaac’s 30th year—1595.
  4. Jacob moved his family to Egypt in his 60th year—1535.
  5. The sojourn lasted for 215 years—1535-1320.
  6. The exodus took place in 1320.
  7. The Sinai wanderings took 20 years—1320-1300.
  8. The conquest took 10 years–1300-1290.
  9. The administration of the judges lasted for 250 years—1290-1040.
  10. Samuel’s tenure was 10 years in length—1040-1030.
  11. Saul reigned for 20 years—1030-1010.
  12. David ascended to the throne in 1010.

Dr. Steve Collins is perhaps the leading archaeologist who has studied the site at Tall el-Hammam, a committed evangelical Christian, and professor at Trinity Southwest University. Collins fully accepts the 1650 BCE date and location of Sodom at Tall el-Hammam. Collins argues that the arithmetic interpretation of numbers by Dr. Merrill is misleading, and that other biblical evidence lines up better with the 1650 BCE date and location of Sodom at Tall el-Hammam (from a YouTube video recorded at Tall el-Hammam). Much of Collins’ reasoning is aligned with arguments presented by the esteemed Egyptian archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen, and author of the comprehensive On the Reliability of the Old Testament., though it must be noted that Collins does not accept the so-called Late Date theory of when the Exodus happened, dated to the 13th century BCE.

The most central of Dr. Collins’ arguments in favor of Sodom’s destruction near 1650 BCE, at Tall el-Hammam, is from archaeological population and tree density studies conducted in the Jordan Valley area. These studies show that the population of the Jordan Valley area was drastically reduced near the year 1650, which would coincide with the data from the Nature paper, postulating a large meteor strike, which would result in a significant and rapid population loss. However, the same research indicates that the 2067 BCE date for Sodom’s destruction proposed by Merrill does not coincide with any change in population, as the population of the Jordan Valley was already relatively low for 100-200 years prior to Merrill’s proposed date for Sodom’s destruction.

This analysis begs the question: Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush?

Nevertheless, the debate over the timing and location of Sodom’s destruction and whereabouts has not been settled by the Nature paper. But it does lend some credence to the argument that the basic historical chronology of the Bible is still credible, in an age where skepticism is the order of the day.


The Death of John Shelby Spong… (But His Ghost Lives On)

John Shelby Spong, the outspoken Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, a towering voice of progressive Christianity, died on September 12, 2021, at age 90.

By the time Bishop Spong had published his bestselling 1991 Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, the then Bishop of Newark New Jersey was well-known for his controversial, liberal theological views. In some cases, John Shelby Spong, a cousin of a former U.S Senator from Virginia, William B. Spong Jr., had sought rightly to correct some abusive misinterpretations of the Bible, as when many Southern church leaders used Noah’s curse of Ham as a justification for enslaving African Americans, along with more recent misguided attempts by others to read the Bible as a scientific textbook, or marginally ostracize the contributions of women to theology and ministry. Spong had grown up as a child in an unhealthy wing of conservative evangelicalism. Much of his adult life was spent working through a lot of that dysfunctionality.

But Spong’s critique of “fundamentalism” went much further than that, going onto undermine some basic tenets of historically orthodox Christian theology. In his Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, along with his other work, Spong repeatedly echoed a series of common themes of progressive Christianity, popular still thirty years later:

  • Jesus’ work on the Cross, articulated through a doctrine of substitutionary atonement, is to be rejected, as “barbaric.” To say that “Jesus died for my sins” is not only dangerous, it is absurd.
  • The Bible is full of contradictions.
  • The concept of theism, of a supernatural power, is meaningless in today’s world.
  • The Virgin Birth never happened.
  • Neo-Darwinian evolution dispels any concept of “original sin” as being nonsense.
  • There was no bodily resurrection of Jesus, nor any ascension of Jesus, after the resurrection.
  • A lot of the practices of traditional Christianity simply need to give way to a changing new world.
  • Saint Paul was a repressed homosexual, and Christians should drop any sexual ethics concept of marriage between one man and one woman, for one lifetime, as being relics of the pre-modern era.

In the mid-1900s, I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Spong preach at his former parish in Richmond, Virginia, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church. It was a surreal experience, in that his sermon essentially repudiated almost every main point articulated in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, that the congregation had previously recited, just moments before he took to the pulpit lectern.

While Spong’s message appealed to certain persons struggling with how to relate their lived experience with their faith, and though I found in meeting him that he was a congenial and polite fellow, I walked away from my encounter with him wondering why anyone would think that his version of Christian faith would in any way be considered attractive (much less “true”). During his tenure as bishop, church membership in his area of New Jersey Episcopalianism declined by 43 percent.

Bishop John Shelby Spong was like a late 20th century to early 21st century version of the 1963 author of Honest to God, John A. T. Robinson, the English Anglican Bishop of Woolrich, as Robinson argued that a humanist form of religion would likely replace orthodox Christianity. Spong actually developed a correspondence and friendship with Bishop Robinson, before Robinson died of cancer in the 1980s.

It is quite probable that if John Shelby Spong had not been a bishop in the Episcopal Church, few would even know of him today. Robinson, on the other hand, surprised many of his liberal colleagues, when he challenged the broad scope of critical, academic scholarship with his 1976 Redating the New Testament, that argued that much of the New Testament had been written prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, in 70 A.D., a stark contrast with the typical liberal, critical view, that places the dating of all four of the Gospels to having been written after 70 A.D., if not later towards the end of the first century, or even the beginning of the second century.

However, we should be wary of knee-jerk reactions: It is very tempting for an evangelical Christian to overreact to Spong’s in-your-face liberal theology, and embrace a siege mentality, where one tries to circle the wagons, shutting off the rest of the world around them. Instead of hiding the light under a bushel, Christians are called to let the light of Christ shine for all the world to see, even to those who embrace “progressive Christianity.” The “ghost” of John Shelby Spong continues to live on, in the ideas that he popularized, ironically even in some conservative evangelical churches.

There are surely certain critiques that Spong made that needed to be said. At the same time, the precipitous decline of historically orthodox faith, under the tutelage of misguided, at best, teachings propagated by spokespersons like John Shelby Spong serve as a cautionary tale in how not to allow erroneous teachings to gain a foothold among the people of God.

2 Timothy 4:3 is worth quoting here: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Beware of the ghost of John Shelby Spong.

 

William Lane Craig debated John Shelby Spong, on the topic, “The Great Resurrection Debate”:


Remembering September 11…. 1683

King John III Sobieski praying for Christian victory, for his Polish forces, against the Ottomans, outside of Vienna, on September 11, 1683.

When Osama Bin Laden selected the date of September 11, 2001, to attack the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City, this was not just a clever play on the phrase “911,” the standard phone number for making emergency calls. It was a deliberate attempt by Bin Laden to symbolically reverse the devastating defeat of Islamic Turks, at the Battle of Vienna, on September 11, 1683.

The Ottoman Empire had held the city of Vienna in a brutal siege for several months, as the Ottomans sought to take advantage of the disarray experienced in Western Europe, after years of religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants, that divided Christian Europe from within. By attempting to take Vienna, the Ottomans were hoping that a weakened Hapsburg Empire would eventually capitulate to the relentless attempts of the Islamic Turks to take the city, as a gateway into the rest of Christian Europe.

But the Austrian Hapsburgs established an alliance with the Polish-Lithuanians, led by King John III Sobieski. Sobieski led what many historians consider to be the largest calvary charge in world history, as typically dated to September 11, 1683, that broke the Islamic Turkish siege of Vienna, thus ending the threat of Ottoman expansion into Western Europe. As demonstrated in the following 3-minute movie clip, from the 2012 film, The Day of the Siege, Sobieski describes the importance of the battle, in explicitly apocalyptic terms, as a heroic defense of Christendom, with a passionate speech to his troops before the battle.

Twenty years after Osama Bin Laden’s attack on America, a symbolic victory for the radical wing of Islam, a massive visual spectacle imprinted on the minds of nearly all Americans, we can look back at the challenges faced by Christians, in the wake of 911.

In many ways, 911 marked significant shifts in our culture: a decline of the Christian Right, the first major world event to be broadcast across the then infant world of social media, and the rise of the New Atheist movement, a.l.a. Richard Dawkins, that portrayed all religion, not just Islam or Christianity, as the greatest threat against humanity. A new generation of young people, growing up in the wake of 911, have grown increasingly sympathetic to the cries of such skepticism about organized religious faith. After the era of the Post-Reformation religious wars, after the Age of the Enlightenment, and now into the reality of a Post-Christian moment, how will the Christian movement respond?

That is something to think and pray about today.

 


The Rise and Fall of Summer 2021

Now that the last days of summer are waning, I am writing a post to reflect on some spiritual matters that I have been considering lately.

As we near the end of August, 2021, aside from Hurricane Ida bearing down on Louisiana, what is on the minds of many is the deteriorating situation in Kabul, Afghanistan. The obvious quandary is that the Taliban has not had a very stellar record in the area of upholding basic human rights, to say the least. The situation is particularly precarious for women and young girls, due to the strict Taliban interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Critics of the Christian faith have for years sought to fault the Bible for promoting misogyny, but those claims pale in comparison to the strict, Taliban readings of the Koran, regarding the treatment of women.

A friend of mine who served in the U.S. military recently sought to help an Afghan interpreter and his family leave the country. A few days ago that interpreter and his family arrived safely in Virginia, but the status of others left behind in Afghanistan is unknown. Furthermore, we must remember that there is a small, yet vibrant Christian community in Afghanistan, who have endured persecution under previous Taliban rule. We must pray for all who are facing extremely difficult circumstances, that God might deliver them from this crisis.

Please, Lord, protect the weak and powerless, and deliver them from danger. Let your loving Truth be made known to these people.

The famous 1975 Hugh Van Es photo, that sticks in the minds of many people, who lived through the 1970s, that recalls the tragic Fall of Saigon, after an extremely controversial and highly destructive war in Southeast Asia.

Reflections on a Meme: An Iconic Photo Examined

As an American, I particularly feel the angst of the loss of American prestige, following after the speedy fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban, after America’s longest active military involvement, in another country, during the entire history of the United States. More than a century ago, the British had to learn their lesson about how difficult it is to achieve military success in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, it was the Soviet Russians who faced the futility of gaining the upper hand in that country. Now, it is the turn of the United States to face the same scenario. When I saw the first video reports of people falling off of C17 planes, trying to leave Kabul, it made me think immediately of the Fall of Saigon, in 1975. I vividly remember the television reports, back when I was in middle school.
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