Atonement: Reflecting on the Powers, Part 1

This idea of “gods” and “powers” is profoundly disturbing, of course. After all, Christians have long insisted on monotheism.

The classic text is, of course, the Shema

(Deu 6:4 ESV)  4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

But, of course, the Shema declares that God is one, not the only one. This is about the essential unity of God, not whether there might be lesser “gods.”

Indeed, the repeated references to God as “God Most High” certainly seem to imply the presence of gods not most high!

Indeed, one passage appears to plainly state that God divided the nations among lesser “gods.”

(Deu 32:8 NET) When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly.

Most older translations say “according to the number of the sons of God” or even “sons of Israel,” but the NET translation says “heavenly assembly.” The translators explain –

“Sons of God” is undoubtedly the original reading; the MT [the Massoretic text] and LXX [Septuagint] have each interpreted it differently. MT assumes that the expression “sons of God” refers to Israel (cf. Hos 1:10), while LXX has assumed that the phrase refers to the angelic heavenly assembly (Psa 29:1; Psa 89:6; cf. as well Psa 82). The phrase is also attested in Ugaritic, where it refers to the high god El’s divine assembly. According to the latter view, which is reflected in the translation, the Lord delegated jurisdiction over the nations to his angelic host (cf. Dan 10:13-21), while reserving for himself Israel, over whom he rules directly. For a defense of the view taken here, see M. S. Heiser, “Deu 32:8 and the Sons of God,” BSac 158 (2001): 52-74.

And this translation is, of course, entirely consistent with Paul’s understanding of the powers.

But that being said, there remain the classic monotheistic texts that seem to go beyond declaring the unity and superiority of God to declare that there is only one god — God.

(Isa 45:5-6 NET)  5 I am the LORD, I have no peer, there is no God but me. I arm you for battle, even though you do not recognize me.  6 I do this so people will recognize from east to west that there is no God but me; I am the LORD, I have no peer.

(Deu 4:35 ESV)  35 To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him.

(Deu 4:37-39 ESV)  37 And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power,  38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day,  39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.

(Isa 43:10 ESV) 10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.”

(Jer 2:11 ESV)  11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.

(Jer 16:20 ESV)  20 Can man make for himself gods? Such are not gods!”

(1Co 8:4-6 ESV)  4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”  5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”–  6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

There are at least three difficulties with such a reading of these passages –

* First, Satan and the demons may not be “gods” but they are certainly spiritual beings who contest God for supremacy.

(Mat 25:41 ESV) 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

(Rev 12:7-9 ESV)  7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back,  8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

* Second, there are all the other verses we’ve already covered.

* Third, some of the same authors speak of demons and other spiritual rivals to God. Indeed, Paul — in the same context — says,

(1Co 10:19-22 ESV) 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?  20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.  21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.  22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Paul denies that “an idol is anything” but then plainly declares that an offering to an idol is an offering to a demon — and a rival for our loyalty, such that offerings to demons provoke God to jealousy.

(Deu 32:21 ESV)  21 They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.

Paul follows Moses in declaring that the idols are “no god,” but he nonetheless finds a real, evil, spiritual presence in the form of demons. God is one, but he has weaker rivals called demons.

Just so, Isaiah predicts the fall of Satan –

(Isa 14:12-15 ESV)  12 “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!  13 You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;  14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’  15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.

– clearly admitting the presence of a rival spiritual being, even if not a “god.”

Indeed, there is nothing more conventional to Christian thinking than that Satan and his angels/demons are real. Satan is out of fashion these days, I know, but the doctrine of monotheism co-existed with the doctrine of Satan and his minions for centuries.

Thus, I resolve the conundrum as Paul does –

(Gal 4:8 ESV)  8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.

The demons are real, but they are not “gods.” They don’t merit worship. They aren’t co-equal with YHWH. They aren’t creators. They are inferior beings destined for destruction — and capable of bringing great evil to the world. Indeed, humans may become enslaved to them.

Therefore, we see a definite trend in scripture to stop referring to these beings as “gods” and to prefer such terms as “ruler,” “prince,” “dominion,” and “authority.” They are not weak. They are not trivial. But God is stronger.

I think it works like this. At one time, the nations other than Israel had their own gods — Chemosh, Baal, etc. God was ultimately superior but not yet ready to extend his kingdom over these other nations. Therefore, the scriptures sometimes refer to these lesser spiritual beings as “gods,” as they had a degree of sovereignty over their own nations.

But in Christ, the Kingdom came and the nations were invited in to join Israel. At that moment, the “gods” were dethroned and became mere demons. God took away their domains.

(Act 14:16 ESV)  16 “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.”

(Act 17:29-31 ESV)  29 “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

God’s relationship with the nations changed in Jesus. It was once true that –

(Mic 4:5 ESV)  5 For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we [Israel] will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.

– but in Jesus, that changed.

Mankind and demons

Now, to the Western mind, it just seems so tempting, even obvious, to treat these powers as non-existent and to treat the language as accommodationist — speaking in terms that the readers of the day could understand.

But think about it. Think about the world. Think about the earthly powers. Are the sins of, say, the Taliban purely cultural? Do they come entirely from human weakness? What about the Nazis? Pol Pot? The Cultural Revolution in China? Stalin’s starvation of millions?

I would not for a minute absolve these evil governments and rulers of responsibility because of the influence of dark spiritual powers, but isn’t it at least possible that there are demonic powers still at work today?

Maybe?

Oh, and one more thought: it’s also disturbing, I know, to speak of God as only becoming king of the nations through Jesus. After all, he is pictured in the Old Testament as the Creator and the Lords of Hosts and Most High God.

And yet no less an authority than N. T. Wright has recently published How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, arguing that a major theme of the four Gospels is not only the coming of the Kingdom but God becoming King of the nations. After all, a king requires a kingdom. Until the Kingdom came, God wasn’t king over the Kingdom.

God claimed to be king of Israel in Old Testament times –

(Isa 43:15 ESV)  15 “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.”

God has always been God, of course, but we’ll consider in a future post (Lord willing) how God become King by the resurrection.

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19 Responses to Atonement: Reflecting on the Powers, Part 1

  1. Those who would deny that demonic powers exist today will find no biblical basis for such a view. In Mark 16, we find Jesus describing the casting out of demons as a part of the believers’ walk; we find demons being cast out in Acts, after Jesus’ ascension, and we find warnings to the church about demonic powers and activity– warnings from Peter, John, and Paul.

    But even as there is no biblical underpinning for such a doctrine of “demonic cessation”, there is certainly a real motivation for maintaining such a view. When we no longer exhibit spiritual power over demons, as Jesus called and empowered believers to do (Mark 16 again), we are left to offer one of two explanations: either there are no longer any demons to cast out, or there are indeed demons active among us, but we leave them alone to do what they do unopposed by us. As Door Number Two is, to say the least, an embarrassing admission, some of my brothers choose Door Number One, no matter how ill-reasoned that choice may be.

    We have reduced what the Bible describes as persons of a sort to a vague sense of evil which we lump under the heading of “Satan”. As such, we set ourselves to battle a general concept rather than the actual “principalities and powers” which really exist. We do not “set the captives free” from demonic oppression as we do not recognize it as real. We may offer counseling or medical treatment or simple love and support. But while these may all be good things, they are not really effective. As I generally try to explain the differences, just as counseling has no effect on a serotonin uptake imbalance, and one cannot “cast out” memories of a traumatic childhood, neither does a demon give a rip about lithium carbonate.

    We need spiritual discernment to recognize what is going on around us. And it can be a bit traumatic for folks who are quite well-versed in the scriptures to have to admit that all the translations and concordances in the world won’t empower them to discern the presence of demons or to cast them out. Paul once suggested the reality of knowing that the kingdom is not a matter of talk, but of power.

  2. rich constant says:

    1st. pet .
    1:10 Concerning this salvation,21 the prophets22 who predicted the grace that would come to you23 searched and investigated carefully. 1:11 They probed24 into what person or time25 the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ26 and his subsequent glory.27 1:12 They were shown28 that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven –
    things angels long to catch a glimpse of

    .bet ya these angles weren’t the faithful ones

    blessings j

  3. Royce Ogle says:

    Satan is referred to as “god” (little “g” god, not deity which would be “G” God) of this world in the following passage.

    2 Corinthians 4:4
    In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

    And the same idea is stated here.

    19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 1 John 5:19

    The work of Christ was in part to deliver those who were given to him from the grip of the evil one and his power to the glory of God and his power. Only God can open the blinded eyes of the lost so that they can see the glory of Christ.

  4. Adam Legler says:

    I have always be interested in how many stories you hear about demonic activity in third world countires versus what we see here in the U.S.

  5. Jerry says:

    Adam,

    I think we have a lot of demonic activity here in the USA. We just deny what it is and assign it to chemical imbalances in the brain, or some other physical cause. Who is to say that evil spiritual activity does not cause chemical imbalances? It is just that our hyper-materialism keeps us from seeing spiritual causes for what they are – both of good and evil spirits.

  6. I dunno, Adam, I see an awful lot of activity from religious spirits in this neck of the woods…

  7. Adam Legler says:

    I’m just talking about stories I’ve heard from missionaries of people interrupting Sun. morning services with foul language cursing God and when people look at them their eyes are totally red and others stories that you hear missionaries (especially in Africa) talk about of things that just don’t happen here. Or places some missionaries just can’t enter for reasons they cannot explain. One time when I was doing mission work in Mexico we had a man approach my partner before we were at the destination we would spend 3 months at, see the Bible in his hand, and begin shouting my friend’s name and praising God. We never met this man before. Now, that’s a good story vs. a demonic one.

    I know chemical imbalances and the like is part of it, but there seems to be more that occurs in other places. I wonder if here in the U.S. and Europe, Satan has everyone believing against the heavenly realms of any kind so there is no need to show their presence. At least not as much.

  8. aBasnar says:

    Satan is referred to as “god” (little “g” god, not deity which would be “G” God) of this world in the following passage.

    I do agree with you, Royce – just like to add: There were only capital letters in Greek writing back then. So THEOS referring to God is exactly the same as THEOS referring to god.

    Alexander

  9. When nobody tries to bind the strong man or break into his house, he need not advertise either his presence or his powers. He just goes about “seeking whom he may devour” without much opposition, or even much notice, from most of the American church.

  10. Adam Legler says:

    True

  11. Jerry says:

    One manifestation of the power of Satan in our culture is the way he makes it ok for us to sacrifice our sons and daughters in the cause of national defense – and we make them heroes. However, the same families that make heroes of sons/daughters sacrificed in the defense of the nation discourage sons and daughters from giving their lives in the service of God on a foreign field, even on fields where there is no physical danger in serving.

    How is “God” ahead of “country” in our thinking this way? Has not country become a god whom we serve as avidly (or more avidly) than we serve the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

    Doesn’t this suggest to anyone that Satan is very active in our nation, and that he is still the power behind the civil governments of our world – particularly in our nation with all of our jingoistic flag-waving?

  12. Royce Ogle says:

    Jerry,

    Yes, some of what you say is true. However, some of what you offer if way off. Maybe you should read Romans 13:1-7. Those words and those principals were written in the context if the brutal and ungodly rule of the Roman Empire.

    God’s perspective is always better than ours isn’t it?

  13. laymond says:

    Well that is the way it goes, you start out looking for atonement, and find a cure for alzhiemer;s , EXORCISM. :)

  14. Jerry says:

    Royce,
    While we are to obey the “powers that be” by living peacefully if possible (don’t forget the end of Romans 12 either), we are never to forget that our citizenship is in heaven.

    We have one Lord, and He did not rule from Rome, nor does He rule from Washington, Tallahassee, or Baton Rouge.

    I find it very disturbing that we think nothing at all of sending our young men and women out to fight in the name of the nation in which we live and think that this is the way it ought to be – but discourage them from entering foreign missions. I have seen too many families object when one of their sons or grandsons wanted to enter a mission field.

    Jesus spoke of loving enemies and of being peacemakers. He Himself made peace – by His own blood, not the blood of His enemies who killed Him. Somehow there is a tension between His teachings and our acceptance of the militaristic view of the world of today. I believe that tension is between God and the powers of darkness.

    But, what do I know. I’m just an old Florida Cracker – who believes that Jesus meant what He said when He said we are to love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to them. I also believe Paul when he wrote that the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

    Too many of us are too quick on the trigger to give greater authority to government than to God. If that is not idolatry, what is it?

  15. rich constant says:

    rich constant says:
    .

    sorry you guys are so hung up on this….
    Jesus was god no sin…one with god’ only GOOD IN HIM NO EVIL something no man of flesh had ever been after the fall.
    all the Jews gentiles wanted him destroyed.
    god put a cov. for HIS people in place ISRAEL AND ONLY ISRAEL.. EVERY ONE SINED EVERY ONE GOT CURSED…(NOT BLESSED)NOW WHO PUT JESUS ON THE CROSS. GOD??????READ THIS
    PS. 2:2 The kings of the earth form a united front;
    the rulers collaborate
    against the Lord and his anointed king.
    2:3 They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us!
    Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!
    2:4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
    THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE AND THE LIFE IS THE BLOOD.
    CAN’T YOU JUST HEAR THEM
    IF WE PUT HIM ON THE CROSS OUTSIDE THE CAMP “WE GOT HIM! HE IS CURSED OF GOD!!
    WHAT IS THE RIGHTEOUS ACT ???? COME ON U GUYS BEING SEPARATED
    FROM HIS ETERNAL PARTNERS….
    first time that hit me i just cried

    2:29 “Brothers,55 I can speak confidently56 to you about our forefather57 David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 2:30 So then, because58 he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants59 on his throne,60

    2:31 David by foreseeing this61 spoke about the resurrection of the Christ,62 that he was neither abandoned to Hades,63 nor did his body64 experience65 decay.66 2:32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it.

    67 2:33 So then, exalted68 to the right hand69 of God, and having received70 the promise of the Holy Spirit71 from the Father, he has poured out72 what you both see and hear. 2:34 For David did not ascend into heaven, but he himself says,

    ‘The Lord said to my lord,

    “Sit73 at my right hand

    2:35 until I make your enemies a footstool74 for your feet.”’75

    2:36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt76 that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord78 and Christ.”79

    1ST PET2:21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 2:22 He46 committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth.47 2:23 When he was maligned, he48 did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened49 no retaliation,50 but committed himself to God51 who judges justly. 2:24 He52 himself bore our sins53 in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning54 and live for righteousness. By his55 wounds56 you were healed.57 2:25 For you were going astray like sheep58 but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
    rich constant says:
    .

    P.S. JUST WHY DO YOU THINK OUR LORD CRIED OUT
    FATHER ,FATHER WHY HAVE YOU HAVE FORSAKEN ME
    THIS I ABOUT CLEANING HOUSE IN GODS KINGDOM THROUGH RIGHTEOUS FAITH….. SATIN IS DEAD MEAT
    GET A GRIP

  16. Royce Ogle says:

    Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

    Your statement was that Satan is behind the civil governments of the world. Should I believe you or the Bible?

  17. Laymond, speaking as one who has cast out demons and who has loved ones with Alzheimer’s, I find your snide and heartless swipe beneath contempt.

    When you don’t care about delivering those in bondage, and you think suffering people are an appropriate tool with which to express your disdain, you have added to the suffering of others rather than alleviating any of it. I sincerely hope that the people in your life show more compassion to you than you demonstrate for others.

  18. Just as it is a mistake to conflate God’s grant of civil authority with God’s approval of any particular use of that authority, it is also a mistake to attribute every policy with which we disagree to the devil. Sometimes men are simply unwise, or venal, or weak. Even men in government. Even men in church government…

  19. laymond says:

    Jerry says:” I think we have a lot of demonic activity here in the USA. We just deny what it is and assign it to chemical imbalances in the brain, or some other physical cause. Who is to say that evil spiritual activity does not cause chemical imbalances?”
    Charles McLean said ; “Laymond, speaking as one who has cast out demons”
    Charles! you may believe that, but I do not believe you. The only demons you have any control over is those within you. Sometimes they are hard to defeat
    When you start placing yourself on the level of Jesus Christ, I have a hard time believing anything you might say. Jesus said I do nothing of my own, I do as I am told, unless you are the “word of God” in the flesh, I can’t see you having the same power of salvation as Christ. If you can cast out sinful
    demons it only follows you are casting out sin. hard for me to believe.

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