Know Your Enemy Part 1: Jesus Reveals the Demonic Puppeteers Behind Human Institutions
This is the first post in a series on exousiology. Part two is here.
Exousiology is a wacky word, so I’ll explain it. Theology in the general sense is the study of things divine and supernatural in the context of a particular philosophy or religion. One subset of Christian theology is angelology, which encompasses the study of lesser divine beings such as angels and demons. The objects of angelology include beings mentioned in the Bible such as seraphs, cherubs, archangels, Azrael, Satan, Beelzebul, unclean spirits, etc. Exousiology is a subset of angelology that focuses on the “powers and principalities. The word comes from the Greek word exousia, which is usually translated “authority.”
In the worldview of the New Testament writers, the created universe (ktisis) is good, as God proclaims in Genesis 1:31. However, the world (cosmos), in the sense of human culture, is under the control of Satan.
What is Satan? Satan is a Hebrew word meaning accuser or prosecutor. In the Hebrew Bible (check out Job 1), “the satan” is an angelic being who appears in God’s heavenly court to accuse Job of having a shallow faith. As Hebrew though developed over the centuries, Satan came to be viewed as a personal being who embodied chaos, disorder, and opposition to God. Satan stands in contrast to the Logos (“Word”), which is the embodiment of reason, order, rationality, and Justice. Satan, the destroyer and accuser, also stands in opposition to Jesus, the life-giver and defense attorney.
As first-century (or more accurately, “Second Temple”) Jews and proselytes, the New Testament authors believed like their contemporaries that Satan ruled the world (the cosmos, meaning human culture.” This is clear in the story of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In Luke 4, “the devil” took Jesus “up” and “showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” The devil then offered to give these kingdoms to Jesus if Jesus would worship him: “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.”
This is a dim yet realistic view of human culture. One of the most useful things the church can do is to nurture a robust skepticism of human culture and its various products and institutions.
As any careful reader of the Gospels knows, Jesus often found himself engaging “demons” or “unclean spirits” that afflicted people in various ways, including taking over their minds, giving them miraculous (but dark) abilities, and inflicting physical ailments. I explore this in some detail in my first book.
But aside from these individual personal spirit beings known as demons or unclean spirits, there are other dark forces at work that inhabit and corrupt human institutions. These forces are hinted at in the Hebrew Bible, which contains the idea that different nations (different ethnic people groups) have their own “princes,” “angels,” or “gods” who represent them in the heavenly realm. This idea is perhaps most vividly illustrated in Daniel 9. Here, the angel Gabriel (who represents Israel) explains that he wanted to visit the prophet Daniel, but “the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me twenty-one days.” This “prince” is the angel that represents Persia in the divine counsel. Gabriel further reports that “Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me.” Only then was Gabriel able to visit Daniel. Michael is also mentioned in the book of Revelation, where he is described as the “archangel,” or leader of the angels.
What we have here, then, is a biblical concept that different human groups are associated with different spiritual beings. As Revelation depicts, geopolitical events that happen on earth affect events in heaven, and vice-versa.
Exousiology gets more fine-grained than that because the New Testament writers use a litany of terms (some of which are found in other ancient Greek and/or Jewish sources) to describe invisible beings that influence events and human institutions.
At the outset, I realize you may conclude that this language of “powers” is a bunch of metaphors, a way of describing systematized human failures using mythological language. However I also invite you to step inside the cosmology of the biblical writers and consider that perhaps it’s all real—that events on earth may be initiated by events in the physical realm. Just maybe, there are dark forces, self-contained malevolent beings who weasel their way into human institutions and possess them just as a demon might possess a human body. Human institutions are inherently subject to corruption. Perhaps, I invite you to imagine, this is because they exist in human culture which is ruled by the devil, and are corrupted by the mechanations of Satan’s minions.
Here are the key scriptures. What you need to know is that the relevant terms all have a pre-New Testament history, either in Jewish or Greek (Platonic) cosmology.
Paul in Ephesians recognizes that God’s people are engaged in a fight. Yet, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers (archas), against the authorities (exousias), against the cosmic powers (kosmokratoras) over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces (pneumatika) of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12). In light of this ongoing warfare, God’s children should arms themselves with good character, faith, the word of God, and prayer (6:13-18).
What is important to note here as a pastoral matter is that human beings are not my enemies. If I, as a child of God, am being opposed, it is these spiritual sources that are the source of my conflict. I find that adopting this conceptual framework allows me to better love my enemies. I can pity them when I realize that they are merely pawns of dark primordial powers.
In Romans 8:38-39, Paul expresses confidence that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers (archai), nor things present nor things to come, nor powers (dunameis), 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.” Though powers oppose us, they are no match for God’s love.
In First Corinthians Paul acknowledges that some sorts of “wisdom” find their source in these dark powers, but not so with him: “we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers (archonton) of this age, who are doomed to pass away.” (1 Corinthians 2:6). These “rulers” do not understand God’s wisdom, “for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). Who crucified Jesus? This passage reveals that it was the “rulers of this age.” In light of Paul’s exousiological language, I think he is saying both that human rulers (like Pontius Pilate and the Jewish Sanhedrin) crucified Jesus (in harmony with the scapegoat-seeking mob), and that the dark forces who puppeteer human rulers (and the mob) are responsible.
In the same book, Paul describes the coming of “the end, when [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule (archon) and every authority (exousian) and power (dunamin). For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). Again, sources of authority and power (whether human or demonic) are “enemies” whose days are numbered in light of Christ’s work.
Speaking of Jesus in another passage, Paul says that God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule (archos) and authority (exousias) and power (dunameos) and dominion (kuriotetos), and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come (Ephesians 1:20-21).
Later in the same book Paul says he wants everyone to see “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God . . . so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers (archais) and authorities (exousiais) in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:9-10). This is a fascinating passage because it says the ruler and authorities in the spirit realm need to learn about God’s plan. Is this because they themselves can be converted and redeemed?
In one of the New Testament’s “high Christology” passages, Paul exclaims that “by [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones (thronoi) or dominions (kuriotetes) or rulers (archai) or authorities (exousiai)—all things were created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16). So we see here that these rulers and authorities were themselves created by the pre-incarnate Logos, just like the physical universe.
However, on the cross, Jesus “disarmed the rulers (archas) and authorities (exousias) and put them to an open shame, by triumphing over them in [the cross]. (Colossians 2:15).
How did Jesus shame, disarm, and defeat these powers, these demonic forces that prey on the structures of human existence? He did so on the cross. By his death as an innocent scapegoat, Jesus exposed human power structures for what they are—hostile toward the reign of God. The Jewish religious leaders and the Roman secular authorities conspired together to kill God-in-flesh when he brought a message of love and healing to the world. The death of Jesus gives a peek behind the curtain. Everywhere you see power, there is a seed of the demonic. Every time you see human structure and organization, there is a propensity to being made captive by Satan. There is no salvation in political, civil, religious, or civic organizations. All of them tend toward corruption.
Where does that leave us? How are we to live once we understand that human institutions (like churches, political parties, educational institutions, bureaucracies, civic organizations, etc.) are easy prey for demonic infiltration? I will address that question in the next post on the topic.
Like this post? Share it! And read more on spiritual warfare in my book, Heaven’s Muscle.
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.) is a lawyer and former minister who lives in the hills of Kentucky.