The following is my interview with Clinton E. Arnold on his excellent book, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters.
The book is one of the best I’ve come across on the subject.
Arnold is Dean and Professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University).
Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”
Clint Arnold: First of all, let me say, ‘thanks,’ Frank, for your interest in this book. It was first published in 1992 when there was a soaring interest in the Christian community about Satanism, demons, angels, and spiritual warfare. I think that interest has subsided slightly, but the relevance of the topic has not. An understanding of the spiritual realm needs to be a significant part of the functional worldview of every Christian.
That is because it is such a thoroughly biblical topic. From the serpent in the garden to the lake of fire in Revelation—and everywhere in between—the role of the powers of darkness is pervasive in the Scripture. And it is relevant for understanding and interpreting daily life here and now. This book will help readers become more discerning, spiritually aware, and biblically rooted.
Over the years, I’ve met some Christians who deny the reality of the demonic/satanic world. They believe that the cosmology of Jesus and Paul was archaic. Mental illnesses were ascribed to “demons.” And “Satan” and “principalities and powers” were metaphors for personal and structural evil, etc. What would you say to such people in order to convince them that the spiritual worldview of Jesus and Paul does in fact reflect reality, even in the 21st century?
Clint Arnold: Many people do not realize how a naturalistic worldview stemming from the Enlightenment era has so thoroughly pervaded the church. There has been a widespread denial of the supernatural in our culture and this outlook has influenced many Christians. When I was a young Christian in the church, it was far easier to accept stories about demonic manifestations when they were told by missionaries than to see the fingerprints of the demonic on anything happening in my community.
Many Christians have had the attitude, “there’s a lot of demonic stuff that happens on the mission field; I’m just glad I live here in the United States where I don’t have to worry about it!” But this is a naively optimistic way of looking at the world that doesn’t fit with reality nor does it fit with what the Bible says. The principalities and powers are alive and well and exert their influence in a wide variety of ways. Instead of denying their work, we need to develop our ability to discern the nature of their work so that we can stand against it. But it is very difficult to see how it has impacted us unless we can step out of our culture and look at it from a different vantage point. This sometimes happens for Christians on mission trips. It can also happen through developing friendships with Christians from a different cultural background who may be more spiritually discerning.
Developing an openness to the supernatural realm does not mean that you should start accepting every manner of nonsense that some people attribute to demons (and there is plenty of this!). Nor does it mean that you are jettisoning a scientific approach to life. Although we have benefitted in extraordinary ways from scientific advances in every field, we need to be more vigilant to insure that in our thinking we do not permit science to encroach upon the spiritual and accept scientific pronouncements on areas that science is not equipped to judge. Just as science cannot prove that God does not exist, neither can it prove that angels or demons do not exist. In fact, there are many phenomena in daily life that science cannot explain.
What is the difference between a cherub and a seraph in Scripture? They appear to be different from their biblical descriptions (number of wings, faces, etc.).
Clint Arnold: There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the beings called “cherubim” and “seraphim” in Scripture. In fact, the first-century Jewish author, Josephus, claimed, “nobody can tell, or even conjecture, what was the shape of these cherubims” (Josephus, Antiquities, 8.73). They were most likely angelic beings who performed various functions in their service of God. It is important for us to keep in mind that the New Testament calls angels “ministering spirits” who serve God and his people (Heb 1:14).
Nevertheless, the cherubim and seraphim apparently appeared to certain people in the OT era in a visible form. Yet there is no consistent portrayal of their appearance. Sometimes the cherubim looked generally like a man, but other times they had two faces or even four. They generally always were described as having wings. Similarly, the seraphim were often human-like with six wings. It is perhaps most important to think of them as an order of angelic beings that served God at his throne, in the tabernacle, in the garden, and in the temple.
What does it mean, exactly, that Satan (the devil) is “the ruler of the dead?” And where can we find this in Scripture?
Clint Arnold: Satan (or, the devil) is never referred to in Scripture as “the ruler of the dead.” He is, however, referred to in the Bible as being “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), which suggests that he is powerful and has extensive and deep influence over people, leaders, and affairs on earth. It is important for us to keep in mind, however, that Satan is not God, that God is infinitely more powerful, and that God has a sovereign and ultimate plan that he is unfolding that will result in the end of Satan’s evil influence.
Related to the above, what does it mean that Satan once had “the power of death” — Hebrews 2:14 — implying that he doesn’t have it anymore.
Clint Arnold: Ultimately, Satan does not have the authority or ability to kill people. He does have the power to lie and deceive, which effectively keeps people from having a relational connection with the source of life. The Apostle Paul said, “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4 NIV). By influencing people to live apart from Christ and by keeping them enslaved to sinful practices, Satan has the power of death.
Practically speaking, how was Satan’s “power over death” different before Jesus died and rose again and afterwards? For instance, doesn’t Satan still kill God’s people today just as He did before Jesus’ death? What changed exactly?
Clint Arnold: Paul declares in his letter to the Romans that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16 ESV). The gospel is the message of redemption—freedom from slavery to sin, deliverance from the realm of Satan, and the liberty to live a life that is pleasing to God.
This is possible because the death and resurrection of Christ accomplished something major with respect to the demonic powers. This is most eloquently expressed in Colossians 2:15: “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (NIV). Both the title “satan” and “devil” signify one who accuses.
Prior to the cross, Satan could justly accuse people before God, leading to their death and separation from God. But now, because of Jesus’ death and his payment for sin, Satan has lost his ability to justly accuse people before God. In Christ their sins are forgiven. And in Christ, they have been clothed with the righteousness of the one who led a perfectly sinless life. We have been reconciled to God and have received eternal life. Satan no longer has the power of death.
Regarding the origin of the devil (“Satan” as the NT calls him), in your view, specifically when, why, and how did he fall?
Clint Arnold: There is a shroud of mystery over when and how Satan and the angelic spirits who are associated with him fell away from God. Neither Jesus nor any of the Apostles say a word about this matter. They simply operate on the assumption that Satan is real and needs to be resisted. There is no historical narrative in the Old Testament that describes what happened. The only possible information that we have are two prophetic texts that directly speak to the fall of two human rulers—the king of Tyre (Ezekiel 28) and the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14).
Jewish and early Christian interpreters of the Bible thought that these texts pointed to the supernatural powers that stood behind these kings and, thereby, provided some veiled insight into the fall of Satan. Although this interpretation is uncertain, there is some good reason for holding it. Some of the descriptive statements about these kings point to someone greater than a human ruler. For instance, the king of Tyre is described as “the signet of perfection” who was “in Eden, the garden of God” (Ezek 28:12-13). He was “an anointed guardian cherub” (v. 14) who was “blameless in your ways from the day you were created till unrighteousness was found in you” (v. 15). The text goes on to say that “your heart was proud” and “you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendour,” thus God “cast you to the ground” (v. 17).
Many theologians believe that “the world” or “world system” as used in Jesus, Paul, and John refers to structural evil, not just to the people who populate it. In this view, the political system is part of the world system. So even if tomorrow, every person in political office was replaced by Christians, the political system itself would eventually become corrupted. Because Satan is the prince over it. What is your view on this?
Clint Arnold: The structures and sytems in our existence cannot be seen apart from people. Satan and his army of spirits influence people. People then create and perpetuate social, political, and economic structures and ideologies. These structures, the “world” systems, are all—to a greater or lesser extent—influenced by evil. Consequently, they can be oppressive and unjust. But they can also be systems for enormous good. Usually there is a mix.Because these cultural and political systems are governed and maintained by people, they will never be perfectly just. Even if every political office were populated by Christians, there would still be issues, problems, and injustices to the degree that each politician is not fully sanctified. Although as Christians, we are in Christ and have been redeemed, we are people still in the process of becoming more like Christ. We have blind spots and areas where the Lord still needs to transform our thinking and behaviors. Our country saw the implications of this two centuries ago with many Christian politicians (and even well-known revivalist leaders) who were also slaveholders. The fingerprints of Satan were on this evil structure.
Satan is called “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. What do you think that means exactly?
Clint Arnold: The following line in Ephesians 2:2 gives some explanation to this. He is “the spirit who is now powerfully working in the sons of disobedience.” When the passage speaks of “the air,” it is a metaphorical representation of the spiritual realm.
As the ruler of the air, Satan is the head of an army of co-belligerents, spirits who are allied with him in opposing the redemptive work of God in the world. Jesus referred to Satan as “the ruler of the demons” (Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). Satan mounts a coordinated effort to keep people in the slavery of disobedience—a life without God in the world.
Throughout Ephesians, the phrase “heavenly places” is used in a positive sense. God’s people are seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2). All spiritual blessings reside in Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 1). However, also in Ephesians, we are told that evil principalities and powers operate in heavenly places (Eph. 6). In your view, what are the “heavenly places” in Ephesians and how can both evil spirits and Christians occupy them at the same time?
Clint Arnold: There are two different, but related, words that Paul uses in Ephesians for the heavens: epouronia and ouranios. He tends to use the epourania (often translated “heavenly places”) in the sense of “the spiritual dimension” or “the unseen world of spiritual reality.” I discuss this in more detail in my commentary on Ephesians (in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series). As such it is both the realm of spiritual blessings to which believers now have access and it is simultaneously the realm populated by evil spiritual powers. It is “the spiritual realm.” This is to be distinguished from the place where God dwells and where Christ ascended—a place that is “far above all heavens” (Eph 4:10).
What is your take on Genesis 6 and the giants mentioned therein. It’s been said that the common view of the early church since the 4th century was that those entities were the offspring of human woman and fallen angels. What is your view?
Clint Arnold: It was also the common view of Jewish interpreters of the Bible from the time of Jesus and before. This whole idea of angels (who are spirits) and women having relationships that lead to pregnancy and offspring seems strange to the point of bizarre. And I do not pretend to understand it. Yet I know it was the common interpretation of Genesis 6 among Jewish and early Christian interpreters. The difficulty of this passage has led to different interpretations of the liaisons, such as women having relationships with demonized human kings or the godly descendents of Seth having relations with the ungodly line of Cain. I look forward to God explaining this to us in the future!
In the NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NKJV, KJV, and the Jubilee Bible, 1 Corinthians 6:3 says we (God’s people) shall one day “judge” angels. Is this the correct translation? If so, what does it mean that we will one day judge angels? If it’s the wrong translation, what does the text and why do so many translations have it incorrect?
Clint Arnold: That is the correct translation! We need to remember that we are co-resurrected, co-ascended, and co-seated with Christ at the right hand of God (see Eph 2:4-6). We will reign with Christ. Part of this co-regency means that we will participate with him in his judgment.
1 Peter 3:19-20 says, Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared …
Who are these “spirits” that Jesus preached to in “prison,” who were “formerly disobedient?” And that was the desired goal of this “preaching?”
Clint Arnold: In my view, the most natural way to interpret this text is to associate the “spirits in prison” with those who fell in Gen. 6:1-4 (the “sons of God” who took up with women). That narrative takes place just before the Noah account (Gen 6:9ff.) and would thus explain, “in the days of Noah” (1 Pet 3:20). In Jewish tradition, those were the spirits who were imprisoned. Jesus preaches to them in the sense that he announces to them his victory over them (and over all the realm of Satan) by his death, resurrection, and exaltation.
Jude 8-10 says,
“Likewise also these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries. Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ But these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves.“
I have two questions about this text:
Question 1: What’s this business about Michael disputing about the body of Moses?
Clint Arnold: There are a lot of mysteries in the Bible—especially when it comes to the supernatural realm! Some of these, like this one, will remain a mystery until Christ returns. The difficulty we face in understanding this stems from the fact that it is an allusion to an event about which we have no account anywhere else in Scripture. There is nothing in the Old Testament that speaks to this. So we are largely in the dark except for early Jewish speculation about what this meant.
Question 2: The parallel text (2 Peter 10-11) says, “They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries, whereas angels, who are greater in power and might, do not bring a reviling accusation against them before the Lord.”
What is the meaning of “speaking evil of dignitaries” and “even angels do not bring a reviling accusations against them before the Lord” – who are these “dignitaries” and how does instruction apply to God’s people today?
Clint Arnold: This, too, is a very difficult passage to interpret with very little help from elsewhere in the Scripture about how to interpret it. Both 2 Pet 2:10 and Jude 8 speak of these particular angels as doxai (“glorious ones”) and warn against slandering or reviling them. Yet we know that in Christ we can exercise authority over demonic spirits (as modeled for us by Jesus and the Apostles). It is quite possible that these “glorious ones” may fall into the category of what some call “territorial spirits,” that is, spirits who have authority over a large area or sphere of influence in the demonic hierarchy.
We know about such spirits from Daniel 10 where spirits over territories or empires are named, such as the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Dan 10:13, 20) and the “prince of Greece” (Dan 10:20). Israel’s angelic prince, Michael, was resisting them in this glimpse into the heavenly battle that was taking place. If Jude and 2 Peter are referring to these kind of high-ranking spirits, this could be a salutary warning to Christians not to directly engage in battle against such “territorial” spirits. We can follow the example of Daniel and pray, but we do not directly engage them by rebuking them, attempting to take authority over them, or commanding them to leave the area.
It is instructive that we never see Jesus casting out a territorial spirit over Jerusalem or Galilee. Nor do we ever find Paul exercising authority over a territorial ruler, say, in Corinth or Ephesus. I have seen such kinds of attempts lead to intense demonic reprisal. In cases where we discern the oppressive influence of a demonic ruler in an area, we can remember the promise of Psalm 91. If we make the Most High our dwelling place and refuge, “he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Ps 91:9-11).
What else would you like readers to know about your book?
Clint Arnold: In addition to expanding your knowledge about principalities and powers (the demonic realm), this book has the potential of impacting your life in three ways:
(1) It will change your prayer life. This is the way my life has changed the most since I began studying this theme. I pray differently for people and I am far more ready to pray with people who are hurting.
(2) It will change your perspective on what it means to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. You will gain a clearer sense of what it means to be identified with Jesus in his resurrection and in his seat of authority at the right hand of God.
(3) You will become less fearful of the demonic realm. By learning more about the ultimate sovereignty of God, the victory of Christ over the powers on the cross, and by the authority you now possess over this realm by virture of your union with Christ, you will have more confidence and more joy in the Lord.