I recently finished Dr. Michael Heiser’s book Supernatural. It has been recommended by a good friend, as well as a trusted pastor. After finishing the book, I had conflicting emotions.
The book has many positive qualities. I would say the primary thesis of the book is largely established. The book is a challenge to Christians to rethink what the Bible says about the unseen realm. His view of angels and demons are challenging, and thoroughly biblical.
He convinced me that there does exist a divine council of angelic beings that God made decisions with and that carry out His will. He convinced me this council was in Eden, cohabiting the earth with man, and even at one point had dominion over the earth and over man.
The book also has a very bold dominion eschatology which appeals to me. Heiser sees the entire earth as one day being inherited by Christians as God is reestablishing a “new Eden.” The book is filled with hopeful end-times views, views of the meek inheriting the earth and mankind taking dominion just as God originally gave.
However, a theme came up in the book over and over again that ultimately drove me away from this book. Heiser took every opportunity he could to attempt to refute the reformed doctrines of grace.
Every chapter has a “why this matters” section. And apparently Heiser believes that refuting reformed theology is why understanding demons and angels matters. What made this so disappointing was not so much that fact that he rejects these doctrines. Many within my own church do not hold to them, and there are plenty of historic theologians I still would recommend to my church congregation who reject these doctrines. What bothered me enough to respond was the level of argumentation he presented.
Heiser regularly engages in the same kind of caricature misrepresentations typically accompanied by a Christian who has only just been introduced to these issues. For a person of Heiser’s intellect, and given his scholarly credentials, his arguments are inexcusable.
My purpose in this two blog series is to responding to Heiser is to challenge his thoughts and cause the Christians who take his side on the nature of God’s sovereignty. My hope is that these posts will serve as iron sharpening iron. The Christian brothers and sisters who disagree are welcomed to comment; may we reason together!
My aim is to challenge you in the hopes of continuing to reform to the Word together. This is not an attempt to bully or isolate any within my local church who disagree. May we come to the table with love in our hearts, and open Bible in front of us.
The God with a Plan
Dr. Heiser certainly rejects the reformed notion that God decreed all things. He rejects that all things happen as part of a plan (decree) of God. His first reason is because,
“God could just predetermine events to make everything turn out the way He wants. He doesn’t… That tells us that not everything is predetermined” (24).
The problem for Heiser is that the Bible teaches this is exactly what God has done and is doing.
Job 42: 2, “I know that [God] can do all things, and that no purpose of [His] can be thwarted.”
Psalm 135: 6, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”
Ephesians 1:11, “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.”
No plan of God’s can be thwarted as He does all things, anything He wants to do is accomplished, and most importantly, all things are working out according to the counsel of His will. In other words, all things happen because the wisdom of God willed it and does it.
Heiser fails to address important distinctions between the decretive will of God and the prescriptive will of God. Certainly, things happen God does not want to happen according to His prescriptive will. God has given Law to men, and He expects them to follow it. And rarely do the sons of men obey.
But Ephesians 1 is addressing something else. God’s wise counsel, before time began, decreed all things. A great example of this is the cross of Christ itself. Did God want the cross to happen? In one sense He did not. The crucifixion was murder, and murder is against God’s Law. He prescribed that men should not murder.
However, in other sense, He did want the crucifixion of Jesus to happen. It was His plan to redeem His people. Jesus begged God to take the cup of wrath in the Garden, and God said no. Thus, everyone must agree that there is a certain will of God that can be resisted, but according to the clear testimony of Scripture, there is another kind of will, a plan of God, which cannot be resisted, and that plan includes the unfolding of all events in human history.
Heiser clearly believes this view makes God evil, saying,
“Our God isn’t a twisted deity who predestines awful things or who needs horrible crimes and sins to happen so some greater plan works out well (44).”
It is hard to wrap my head around a biblical theologian making a claim like this with the greatest refutation of the claim being the Gospel itself. How would this apply to the cross of Christ? Certainly, nothing can be more awful, no crime could be more horrible. Yet, the Bible directly teaches God planned this awful, horrible crime to work out a greater plan.
Acts 2: 23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Acts 4: 27-28, “[F]or truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place.”
Clearly, the cross of Christ was predestined. The book of Acts makes that clear, along with the Gospel witness that Jesus claimed His death and resurrection was taught in the Old Testament. The Bible is clear. God does in fact use awful things for the purpose of working out greater plans for His glory. This gives them meaning. According to Heiser’s understanding of God’s providence, evil can actually be meaningless. The evil we endure was not planned, it has no purpose, God just takes a detour and continues heading to His final destination. That is bleak, terrifying and unbiblical. It is also what makes a statement like this so difficult to understand,
“[God] had a plan and it will come to pass. Its success neither depends on nor is forced to adapt to human freedom” (156).
Think about this: First, Hieser rejected the notion that God predestined all things. He is now rejecting the notion that God’s plans never adapts to the choices of men. How can both of these be true? What could the blueprint of these plans, which do not include the actions of men, possibly look like?
The cross was a plan of God, but how does the planned cross not include the planned choices of men? Was the original plan of the cross that the nails would float into Jesus in case the Jews and the Romans freely chose to love Him instead of killing Him? How could God plan the crucifixion without planning all of the free will decisions involved in it? Think of all the human decisions that went into the cross: the Jews decided to choose Jesus over Barabbas; Pilate decided to hand Jesus over to the wishes of the Jews against the wishes of his wife, Judas decided to betray Jesus, the guards decided to arrest Jesus. In fact, every single swing of the hammers that nailed Jesus to His cross were each individual decisions the executioner was making. And this only to name a few of the millions, maybe even billions, of free will choices that all led to the events of the cross. How did God plan the cross, but not plan those events?
If Heiser rejects that God predestined those actions, then how was the cross not an adaptation to human freedom? Human freedom carried out the execution! God’s plan of salvation either predestined the actions of men, or it adapted to them, but this position that neither is the case is untenable. If the plans of God don’t decree the actions of men, and also don’t depend on the actions of men, how can it be avoided that they adapt to the actions of men? Heiser cannot reject all three. When one denies the eternal decree of God, His plans being contingent upon the actions of men is an inevitable conclusion. Heiser continues to confuse the notion of God’s plans comes when he says,
“Predestination and freedom work hand-in-hand in God’s kingdom rule. His purposes will never be overturned or halted. He is able to take sin and rebellion and still accomplish – through other free representatives – what he desires” (156).
The problems with this are legion. First, how is the idea that God is able to take sin and rebellion and still accomplish His plans not a direct refutation of the statement made earlier on the same page of the book that the plans of God “neither depends on nor is forced to adapt to adapt to human freedom.” That is exactly what is advocated when Heiser attempts to harmonize predestination and human freedom. This is adaptation; God is adapting to human freedom to find different ways to accomplish his plans. Second, the means God uses to bring about his purposes Hieser says are through “other free representatives.” When one person thwarts God’s plan, God moves on to the next free person and tries again. But this idea completely destroys the hope and confidence we have in God’s eternal purposes. If people are truly free, how can God guarantee the accomplishment of His plans? As He continues to bounce from one free representative to the next, they could in fact all fail. This destroys God’s providence.
Dr. R.K. McGregor Wright, in his book No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism, demonstrates how this view of God’s sovereignty undermines the providence of God.
“If God has to continuously make adjustments in his hopes for the future by modifying his plans to fit the multiple permutations and random fluctuations of millions of human freewill decisions every second of the day, how can I have any confidence that any prayer of mine (or any promise of God for that matter) will be fulfilled?” (59).
Third, how is this bouncing from one free representative to the next not the plans of God being both dependent upon human freedom and adapting to it, both elements Heiser claims he rejects?
“The fact that God knows the future does not mean he predestined it… Foreknowledge does not require predestination” (42, 43).
It’s difficult to imagine being comfortable with a statement like this given the necessary outcomes of the position. With all due respect to Heiser and those who think along his lines, this view of foreknowledge turns omniscience into nothing more than clairvoyance. God is a fortune teller with a crystal ball. Fortune-tellers do not determine the future; they look into the future and relay the information to those who cannot see. Allegedly, this is what God is doing. He sees the future, but He is not creating the future.
Try to wrap your mind around how devastating this idea is to any meaningful understanding of sovereignty. First, this means the future is fixed apart from God’s decree. In other words, we as people are subjects to fate, not to God’s control, for the future has been fixed apart from God’s purposes, God merely saw the future. This begs the question: who created the future?
Two people know the end of any movie: the writer of the script, the person who watched the movie. Which one is God? Those in the reformed camped believe God is the author of history. He knows the future because He decides the future; He creates it. Those in Heiser’s camp believe God merely prescreened the viewing of the movie before it played out in history. Thus, who is the director of this movie? Who created the future God is looking into? This view is not only a direct assault on God’s sovereignty; it is also terrifying to know sinful men created the course of history rather than a good and loving God.
The second issue is that this view makes God, not active, but instead a passive observer. That forces one to wonder whether or not God takes on knowledge. Does God learn? Did He look into time and see the future and take on knowledge? It’s difficult to see how this view of sovereignty doesn’t eventually lead to process theology or open theism.
Lastly, one wonders how God is now not now a slave to the future. Can God change the future He sees? If so, how did He see anything else when looking into the future? If not, in what way is He actually sovereign?
Philosophically, the issues with this notion of foreknowledge are too numerous to consider. Let’s turn from philosophy and look at the text Heiser uses to justify the concept that the future can exist apart from the decree or will of God.
Heiser cites 1 Samuel 23: 11-12,
“‘Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.’” And the Lord said, ‘He will come down.’ Then David said, ‘Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?’ And the Lord said, ‘They will surrender you.’”
Heiser claims there was a future event that God foresaw, but since it did not come to pass, God is then able to see the future without decreeing the future. But as the Genevan reformer Francis Turretin pointed out in the 17th century, the text here is not God relaying a hypothetical future to David. This is God’s present knowledge of the plans, hearts, and intentions of David’s enemies. This is not a hypothetical, un-decreed, future event, but is a genuine present. God is telling David what they will do, in other words, what their desires and plans are.
Notice how Heiser had to give an example of foreknowledge by appealing to an Old Testament text that does not even use the term. The reason He must do this is because the word itself is only used in the New Testament about persons when in reference to an action of God. The elect and Jesus are said to be foreknown, events are never said to be foreknown by God. The reason for this is that the word is not referencing intellectual knowledge, but intimate relationships. It is similar to Adam’s “knowing” of Eve (Genesis 4:1). This was an intimate knowing, not an intellectual one, for it produced offspring. The foreknowledge of God is more closely related to for-loving than it is to knowing events before they happen.
What becomes almost more startling is the concept of God foreknowing His own actions.
“God knew the Pharaoh who honored Joseph would die and be replaced by an enemy. He had foreseen that Egypt would put the Israelites into forced labor. He also knew He would rescue Israel when the time was right” (68).
What does it mean for God to know His own future actions? The view of predestination espoused by Heiser makes God a slave to fate. God does not know what He is going to do as any other person, a self-evident knowledge of will and desire. Instead God knows what He is going to do because He foresaw He would. How could God possibly be subjected to doing that which He saw He must do? We now have something else dictating God’s actions. God has now become the robot Heiser is so distressed the reformed position makes human beings.
Genesis 50: 20 is potentially the most crucial text in this entire discussion. It explicitly resolves this debate. How Heiser interprets this text is truly emblematic of how the Roman Catholic position held by so many Chrsitians today is forced to turn the text around to fit preconceived ideas.
Genesis 50: 20 says,
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
After all of the suffering and horror Joseph went through, he came to realize the reformed doctrine of compatibilism. He became reformed, to speak anachronistically, in boldly affirming that God can predestine evil events, while never retaining culpability, and the actors of such crimes never lose their culpability. Man is held accountable for their evil, while God meant for this to happen in His goodness. But how does Hesier interpret this text? His commentary on the verse says,
“God’s providence turned the harm intended Joseph by his brothers to the salvation of Israel from famine” (67) [Emphasis mine].
He uses the word “turn.” But that’s not the word Joseph used. Moses did not use that word in recording this event. God did not turn the unintended evils for good, He meant them for good. The ESV, ASV, HCSB, NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, and even the NLT all use either “meant” or “planned” or “intended.” Every single reliable, trustworthy English translation translates that Hebrew word to indicate God intended, planned, and meant for these evils to happen. It’s actually extremely difficult to find a translation among the less popular and more obscure that opts to use a word like “turn” (except for The Message…).
Heiser is essentially turning God into a divine janitor. He really does not want bad things to happen, but sometimes His desires and plans don’t work. But don’t worry, when we powerful humans thwart His hopes and dreams, He is able to come clean up our mess and find some way to turn this for good. (This is not to insult the good and honest work of janitorial services. It is simply being used to illustrate the difference between a God who intends evil for good, and a God who turns evil for good.)
No, Joseph does not present God as an all-powerful janitor, but an all-powerful sovereign. Sovereignty is something God is, not something He does. He must be sovereign over all things or He is not sovereign at all. God’s sovereignty is not weak and passive; it has a chest.
And what hope this brings! When the evils and sufferings of the world fall upon us, we know it is part of the good intentions and plans of a loving, all-powerful God. We know there is meaning before and during the pain, not just sometime afterword.
How good it is to know that even when the hand of the Lord comes down hard on us, it is still His hand.