Atonement: The Powers in the New Testament, an Introduction

We’re continuing to consider materials from the book God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church, by Gerald R. McDermott.

We’re not presently concerned with his principal argument, that is, the significance of rival religions. Rather, it’s the points he makes about the “powers” and “authorities” that are intriguing because they bear on the atonement. (Yes, we’re still talking about the atonement.)

And we have to begin in 1 Corinthians.

(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.

Paul is careful in his language: “there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth.” He’s not quite willing to concede the presence of “gods,” but only of things called “gods.” And yet he acknowledges, that as the Old Testament says, we can speak truly of “gods” and “lords.”

(1Co 8:7 ESV)  7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

In v. 7, Paul seems to plainly deny the existence of “idols.” But then —

(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 seems to change course, speaking as though “demons” truly exist, so that there are no “gods” and no “lords” but there are “demons”! There are spiritual beings other than the Holy Trinity and angels — and some of these are enemies of God.

Paul is likely influenced by —

(Deu 32:16-17 ESV) 16 They stirred [YHWH] to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger.  17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.


(Psa 106:36-38 ESV) 36 They served their idols, which became a snare to them.  37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons38 they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.

Thus, Paul ascribes “god” only to the Trinity and refers to all beings in rebellion to him as “demons,” not true gods at all but wicked and in rebellion.

(Eph 6:12 ESV) 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Thus, Paul sees sinister, anti-God, spiritual powers behind much of human society. Resistance to the gospel isn’t purely a matter of human weakness and flaws. There’s a war going on that is often invisible to human eyes.

Consider —

(1Co 2:6-8 ESV)  6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.  7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Who are these rulers? Well, “ruler” translates archon, meaning prince — the very same word used in Daniel 10 of the spiritual princes of Persia and Greece and of Michael as archon of Israel.

Compare 1 Cor 15:24, where “rule” translates arche (same root) — “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.” — which certainly seems to be a reference to spiritual rulers.

As McDermott argues, there was never any doubt but that Pilate and the chief priest would die, and so Paul is surely referring to those things not inherently mortal — the spiritual powers behind Rome, for example. As declared in Psalm 82, God will kill those “gods” who stand against him. This is why Paul declares these “rulers” doomed to death.

The neo-Anabaptist position would not so much deny this position as argue that the “rulers” and “powers” include such earthly powers as the lust for power and empire, the warrior state, greed, and other “powers” that pushed Rome into conquering and subjugating Judea and greed, faithlessness, and power lust that pushed the Jewish authorities into preferring the favor of Rome over honoring God’s Messiah. These are also doomed to perish because of the crucifixion.

The prince of the air

I don’t think that’s wrong, but I’m not sure it’s complete. For example, the New Testament repeatedly speaks of Satan as real and at war with God — but constrained by the power of God through Jesus.

(Eph 2:1-3 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Paul speaks of a “prince” (archon) as being at work in those who disobey the will of God. This is obviously Satan — the chief of the demons.

(John 12:31 ESV)  31 “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

(John 14:30-31 ESV)  30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me,  31 but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.

(John 16:8-11 ESV)  8 And when [the Helper] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;  10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

Jesus himself refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world” who has been judged and will soon be cast out.

(Rom 16:20 ESV)  20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

(2Co 11:14-15 ESV)  14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

The New Testament certainly recognizes the concept of a “prince” or “ruler” (both are translations of archon) that is a spiritual being opposed to God, which may be a mere demon or Satan himself.


Paul exults at the end of Romans 8 —

(Rom 8:38-39 NET)  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We see why he exults over the defeat of “heavenly rulers” (translates archē, having the same root at archon). Moreover, given that Michael was an angel and is also called a “prince” battling the princes of Greece and Persia in Daniel 10, and given that Satan disguises himself as an angel (2 Cor 11:14), it makes sense that Paul might speak of angels in this context. But why “powers”?

In the Septuagint, “Lord of hosts” is routinely translated “Lord of powers.” And as we’ve seen in the previous post, the “hosts” are sometimes pictured as gods who are not necessarily subordinate to God himself (1Ki 22:19-23; Compare Job 1:6).

Jesus seems to agree with Paul’s interpretation —

(Mar 13:24-26 ESV)  24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to Atonement: The Powers in the New Testament, an Introduction

  1. laymond says:

    Gen 3:5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
    Gen 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

    What does this mean,? that we are our own keeper now, that we no longer can be kept in the dark and told what to do. That we became creatures of free will (through disobedience) and we now must be swayed to take sides in this great Galactic War. That we are up for grabs? If this is so then this whole thing is not about individual salvation, but which ideology survives “rule by Kingdom” or “democracy rule” the very same thing wars are fought over in this world today.I believe that is why people left England.
    The story of Job was about this same thing whether Job was truly faithful to God or faithful to the easy life. Is it all about an arm wrestling contest between two giants, with us as prize going to the winner, to do their bidding? If so then I choose the cooler weather. It’s hot as Hell here in Texas now.

    Man if this story had been told like this to begin with we would not have any trouble getting people sighed up. Especially children.

  2. Monty says:


    Just finished reading this article and your “Political Church-the Powers Argument.” Both are excellent works. But I am curious as to how you have worked this out for yourself? You seem to be advocating that the church(christians) withdraw itself(themselves) from the political arena. Did I read this right, and have you done so? Do you even vote? Thanks.

  3. Jerry says:

    The neo-Anabaptist position would not so much deny this position as argue that the “rulers” and “powers” include such earthly powers as the lust for power and empire, the warrior state, greed, and other “powers” that pushed Rome into conquering and subjugating Judea and greed, faithlessness, and power lust that pushed the Jewish authorities into preferring the favor of Rome over honoring God’s Messiah.

    In Rome, according to Gibbon, the emperor was also high priest of all of the pagan temples. (This is one reason that when Constantine became a Christian, he became heavily involved with the bishops and rule of the Church. He was continuing to follow the “pattern” of emperors before him.) This very closely identifies Rome with the demonic, spiritual powers of darkness. So, the anabaptist position on this would seem to be both historically and Biblically correct.

  4. aBasnar says:

    I think this has always been the understanding of the persecuted church. Those whole aligne themselves with the powers of this age simply have to come up with a different theology. This happened after Constantine, this happened during the Reformation. The churches of Christ having had their roots in more or less state-church Protestantism (Presbyterians) traditionally have never questioned neither their eschatology (hence they are primarily a-millenialists) nor the understanding of the powers behind the world we live in (Lipscomb – as far as I know – was one of the great exceptions).


  5. Alabama John says:

    Very interesting post from you all. Extra educational and frustrating too.

    I wonder if so much, not all, of the other Gods worshiping was actually the worshiping of the one true God but using a different name and method of worship? I saw a list once of all the names God had been called through out the ages and it was very long. If any of us had come upon a group worshiping any of those names for God that were foreign to us would we think them wrong? Who was Lydia praying too and using what name? Our God answered!

    Powers? We do not know a smidgen about Gods powers and what they have done and can do. Worshiping powers, is more like in awe of to most bible students, then and now.

    I think of the first Europeans coming to this world call America today to teach about God and when they had a Indian audience and told them all about the God above and His power creating and ruling this earth, they were not surprised at all as that is the God they too had been worshiping all their lives. They even gave thanks to God for each thing they killed and ate, even plants. Whatever Tribe they went to the same was true. Would we call them worshiping a strange God? Yes we did.

    Seems their supposed ignorant association with God was much simpler but, far more in a closer personal relationship with God. Hopefully we all seek that.

    I pray to be judged by their law unto themselves rather than the confusing, complicated laws presented here.

    I also pray we are not given a written exam and judged by our grade!

  6. Doug says:

    I really don’t know where this discussion is heading at this point. I’ve always wondered why God created us when He had all of these other beings around Him. And, I’ve always been content to answer that by assuming that He wanted a being that loved Him for who He was, not just because He created them. But then, why did He place the tree of life right in the center of the garden of eden… it was like a neon sign saying “take a bite”. Why put Himself to all these problems and aggravating peoples? He knew how all of this would come back to Him before He started it.

    Man, I’m sounding like a college student talking to his buddies very late at night…

  7. Jerry says:


    You might want to consider this passage: Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12) Is it possible God is using us as an object lesson for the angels? Paul also says that God’s eternal purpose is “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (see Ephesians 3:9-11).

    What happens to us and what God does with us has a purpose that is beyond us. It is a cosmic purpose that involves the angels as well.

  8. Doug says:

    Jerry, I appreciate the scriptural references. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there is a whole spiritual world out there that we don’t see. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it’s just hard to comprehend.

  9. Alabama John says:

    You can’t play a basketball game without a ball and scorecard.

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