Do angels really have wings? Who are the cherubim and seraphim? What is an “angel,” anyway? More important than that, why would anyone really care?
I have been a follower of Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast for several years now, and I have read a number of his blog articles. Some of his blog entries made their way into his excellent 60-Second Scholar Series. What is so cool about the 60-Second Scholar Series is that each article only takes a minute to read, but the rewards are for a lifetime.
Then there is his FringePop321 YouTube channel, geared towards ministry with people fascinated by all things fringe and bizarre (I will post a few of the better episodes to Veracity in due time).
Despite all of this, I never committed the time to read any of his in-depth books. So this summer, I finally made the plunge and started with Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host (via Audible audiobook). For those who are unfamiliar, Dr. Michael Heiser is an Old Testament scholar, who is gifted in making serious Bible study content accessible to believers who want to dive really deep into Scripture.
My quick take on Angels: Whoa. This changes the way I look at the supernatural. Why do we not hear more about this kind of stuff in church?
My background is such that I never really paid much attention to the topic of angels before. Sure, I read Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, when it was all the rage. But there was a certain cheesy-ness factor to Peretti that kept me from taking it too seriously. But with Dr. Michael Heiser, formerly a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and his book of Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host, I have changed my tune.
Heiser is an Old Testament scholar who makes a bold and provocative claim, but he has some real meat behind it. For Heiser, a lot of traditions that have floated around, about the supernatural realm, are merely that…. they are man-made traditions…. like the idea that angels have wings (they do not).
Different denominational traditions have come up with interesting ideas about angels. But Heiser contends that if we look back at the development of Second Temple Judaism, and the Ancient Near East context that preceded it, they provide the cognitive background for much of our New Testament. As a result, as scholars discover more about how ancient Israelites viewed the world, we gain valuable insight into understanding a lot of the “weird” passages of the Bible.
Looking for the Trinity in Genesis…. But Missing the Bigger Story
Take, for example, Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our image.” Who is the “us” that God is speaking to? About 99% (give or take) of evangelical Christians would say that this is a reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, embedded right there in the Old Testament.
Not so, as Dr. Heiser demonstrates. Heiser makes the case that the “us” is really a reference to a “divine council;” that is, the heavenly host, including angels, that were created by God in the non-material realm. We see other examples of this “divine council” at work, in several other texts of the Old Testament, including Isaiah 6 and 1 Kings 22:19-22, with no reference to the Triune nature of God.
Not only is the “Trinity” explanation rather ad hoc, a way for Christians to make the Old Testament fit into pre-conceived Christian ideas, it does not even make sense. For if all of the persons of the Godhead are already in cognitive union with one another, God does not need to tell himself what he is going to do. It makes better sense if God is addressing his heavenly host, whom he has already created, to speak about the creation of humanity.1
But why might this even be important? For several centuries now, skeptical scholars have taken this reference to “us” in Genesis 1:26 as evidence supporting a polytheistic conception of God, in early Old Testament history. According to this narrative, popularized in university religion classes and the History Channel, ancient Israelite religion evolved from a polytheistic view of “gods” towards a single, monotheistic conception of God. To put it bluntly, this would mean that Judaic religion, with its emphasis on what would become one “god”, is essentially a theological hack, using a manufactured monotheism to replace its original polytheism.
If you believe that, then it really cuts down the idea of the inspiration of Scripture a major notch.
However, if Heiser’s explanation is correct, and he has plenty of evidence to support his overall thesis, the concept of an angelic heavenly host does two things at once: It knocks out a well-intentioned, yet not altogether convincing apologetic for the Trinity. Plus, it silences at least a two-centuries long critique of Biblical faith, as a type of polytheism that clumsily morphs into monotheism.
This polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story is completely wrong, as Michael Heiser contends. The concept of a monotheistic God, surrounded by his angelic heavenly host, is a theme that runs throughout the whole of Scripture, starting even there in Genesis 1. We do not need to read the Trinity into the Biblical text, when there is a better solution, that has greater explanatory power.
And that is a big deal.2
Getting Solid Scholarship into the Hands of the Everyday Christian Believer
What makes Heiser’s work so surprising is that none of his research is original. Angels is well-documented with footnotes that carefully relies on decades of peer-reviewed scholarship. Essentially, Heiser, though skilled in semitic languages and the Old Testament, is a popularizer of prevailing scholarship, that somehow never makes its way out of the academy, and into the hands of your typical church-going Christian.
Some well-intentioned conservative evangelical writers tend to promote a narrative that denigrates the bulk of evangelical scholarship, as somehow a backhanded slap against biblical inerrancy. But Heiser is not buying that story. Rather, the type of research he is making accessible to the average Christian is meant to support and encourage the evangelically minded believer. That scholarship, far from being an enemy of the faith, actually helps to ground our faith in evidenced-based reality.
One need not be convinced of everything Michael Heiser argues in order to benefit from his thesis. I am still mulling a few things over myself. Yet it is the careful attention to the text of Scripture, buttressed by responsible scholarship, that I find to be the most persuasive about Heiser’s work.
The only main drawback about Angels is that it does make for difficult listening as an audiobook. Angels does lean towards being an academic book. But it is primarily targeted towards someone who wants to do serious Bible study. You do not need to know the Biblical languages, or understand heavy theological concepts here. But you do need have an interest in wanting to dig deep and learn. I found myself having to stop what I was doing, when listening to the book, to go look up the Bible passage under discussion. I would strongly suggest getting the Kindle or paper edition of Angels, to supplement the audio version, to be used as future reference.
Dr. Heiser’s primary work is The Unseen Realm, which expounds his underlying thesis about the supernatural world. After reading Angels, I now want to dig into The Unseen Realm, to get the rest of the background material that permeates Angels. I have heard, that like Angels, there is a lot for the average reader to absorb in The Unseen Realm. To accommodate those who do not need lots of footnotes, a less academic version of the book, entitled Supernatural, is aimed to help those readers, in a more popular audience.
The newest book in Heiser’s literary output, along the same theme, is Demons, basically the “bad-guys” version of Angels, though it is not available in audiobook form… (at least not yet). A lot of Christians talk a lot about “spiritual warfare.” But Dr. Heiser takes a much different approach to the popular view of “spiritual warfare,” that I want to learn more about.3
If you want to try to understand some of the weirder parts of the Bible, or you want to sift through some of the more erroneous popular understandings of angelic beings in Scripture, then Dr. Heiser’s Angels is the best place to dive into, as a start…. Oh, yeah, Dr. Heiser has a great explanation of that weird-weird passage that talks about head coverings for women in 1 Corinthians 11. Fascinating.
Seriously. Go read Angels and it will all start to make sense.
For an 8-minute explanation about why we do not need to read the Trinity directly back into Genesis 1:
I am not familiar with the “Sharpening Report,” so I am not in the position to make any endorsement, but the following interview with Dr. Heiser summarizes the content of the book.
1. That being said, we should be clear in saying that Genesis 1 does not rule out the Trinity. It is sufficient to say that the Trinue nature of God is consistent with what is being taught in Genesis 1, and that God uses the process of progressive revelation to introduce the concept of the Trinity. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any explicit statement saying “one God, three persons.” Rather, even in the New Testament we see the building blocks for the doctrine of the Trinity, that eventually gets fleshed out, in the early centuries of the Christian movement. Therefore, it is perfectly fine, and even necessary to say, that we as humans, male and female, are created in the image of God, reflecting the Triune nature of God, even if there is no explicit mention of the Trinity in Genesis. As Dr. Heiser teaches in the first video above, God addresses the heavenly host in Genesis 1:26, but when God creates humanity in Genesis 1:27, it is God alone who acts. This is consistent with a theology of the Triune God. We do not need to read something from the New Testament, or Nicene theology, back into Genesis. ↩
2. In the world of academia, this critique undermines a view of scholarship, which has been the consensus since the later 19th century. Even well-regarded Christian scholars have uncritically swallowed the polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story into their work. For example, the thoughtful and always illuminating Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins, has been celebrated several times before here at Veracity (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5), and is the author of one of my most well-regarded works of Christian history, his 2008 The Lost History of Christianity. With regret however, Jenkins relies on this polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story in the 2017 Crucible of Faith, his history of the time between the Old and New Testaments, thus marring his otherwise excellent scholarship, according to WORLD Magazine editor Marvin Olasky. As a biblical scholar, Dr. Michael Heiser adds an exceedingly helpful corrective. ↩
3. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington interviews Michael Heiser about his Demons book. Intro, Interview blog entries in reverse order , and here, and here, and here. ↩