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Who is the God of this Age? Five Views of 2 Corinthians 4:4

Who is the God of this Age? Five Views of 2 Corinthians 4:4 November 21, 2021

In 2 Corinthians 4:4 the apostle Paul says: The “god of this age” has blinded the minds of unbelievers from seeing the light of the gospel so that they could understand and follow Christ. In the Greek, there is no distinction between an upper case “God” or lower case “god.” Theos can mean either of these depending on syntax and context. There are a few competing views regarding the identity of this being.

Five Views of the “God of this Age”

  1. Is this God?[1] After all, the one true God, creator of heaven and earth had blinded rebellious Israelites in passages such as Isaiah 6:9-10 and Romans 11:7–8.

The problem with this view is that Paul does not write “God” like he normally does if he simply meant “God.” He writes instead, “the G/god of this age.” Paul associates the present age (aiȏnos) with what is evil and fallen (1 Corinthians 1:20–21; 2:6–8; 3:18–19; Galatians 1:4; Romans 12:2; cf. Ephesians 2:2). Thus, this deity seems to be associated with what is evil and fallen.

  1. Is “god” simply supposed to be a reference to this age?[2] If so, the Greek genitive (what we usually translate as “of”) would be considered “epexegetical.” In other words, “of” in this sense stands for “namely” or “is.” It simply equates the one word with the other (such as in the phrase, “the city of New York,” where “the city” is namely, “New York”). The “god of this world” could then be understood as “the god, namely, this world (god = world) blinds the minds of the unbelievers…” Such an interpretation would mean that the influence and ideology of this world has a way of blinding the minds of people from the truth of the gospel. This metaphorical understanding of the word “god” is evident elsewhere in Paul. For example, Paul speaks of enemies of the cross of Christ, whose “god is their belly” (Philippians 3:18–19).

The problem with this view is that this entity plays an active role in the blinding, and so we might expect an intelligent personal being is behind this deception.

  1. Is this “god” Satan or Beliar (a name or entity associated with Satan)?[3]

This view and character finds support in Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., The War Scroll [1QM]), Jubilees, Testament of the Twelve, and other ancient sources. We notice the parallel in Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah:

“And Manasseh turned aside his heart to serve Beliar; for the angel of lawlessness, who is the ruler of this world, is Beliar, whose name is Matanbûchûs [gift of desolation”?]. And he delighted in Jerusalem because of Manasseh, and he made him strong in apostatizing (Israel) and in the lawlessness which was spread abroad in Jerusalem. And witchcraft and magic increased and divination and auguration, and fornication, [and adultery], and the persecution of the righteous by Manasseh…”[4]

Beliar (also connected with the word, belial – Hebrew for worthless, lawless) is an angel who seems to be more or less synonymous with Satan, embodies a king, and rules over the world as the ruler of that world. In essence, he is the god of this world or present age. He leads others into apostasy, and he will even participate in hanging the Messiah on a tree (Asc. Isa. 9.14–15; cf. 4.4–13). (Though one suspects early Christian interpolation here.)

It so happens that latter on in Paul’s same letter—2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1—Paul will mention Beliar by name as a demonic power opposed to Christ. The aiȏnos in 2 Cor 4:4 may refer to the fallen world comprising of people who are subject to Satan (see the implications of this in 1 Cor 2:8–10; 5:5). As well, Satan is identified as a deceiver, akin with the seduction of Corinthian “minds” in 2 Corinthians (2 Cor 11:13-15; cf. 11:3). This view of Satan is compatible with someone who blinds the “minds” of people, as in 4:4.

This view has a lot of support. That only problem is that Paul claims elsewhere that there are no other gods by nature except the one creator God (Galatians 4:8; cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4–6). However, Paul may be using “god” in a flexible way here, as a metonymy for the dominant ruler of those in the world who do not serve God in Christ. In his view, those who do not serve the Lord serve the devil.

  1. Is this Caesar, the Roman emperor who ruled the world at that time and was venerated as a god?[5]

In ancient literature, Beliar was sometimes embodied a human who was considered a lawless individual who opposes God (Lives of the Prophets 17:9–10; Sibylline Oracles 2.167; 3.63, 73).

In a letter attributed to Paul, the apostle predicts a “man of lawlessness” who claims to be god (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3–4). Some interpreters today claims this to be the Antichrist or “Beast” of Revelation 13. However, the Thessalonian church who first read and heard these words would almost surely associate this man with Caesar, Gaius Caligula, who attempted to set up an image of himself in Jerusalem’s temple just about a decade before Paul wrote this letter.

The problem with this interpretation is that Gaius never succeeded in establishing his image in the temple but was killed before then. However, the believers may have anticipated that another Caesar would eventually succeed at what Gaius failed to do. Another possible problem, is that, one year after writing 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote to the Romans in Romans 13:1–7 for believers to obey the government of Rome. This seems like an awkward thing to do if he thought Caesar was the god who blinds people from following Christ! Nevertheless, for Christ-followers, to obey the laws of the land is not quite the same thing as an endorsement of the ideology of the emperor, Rome, or cults that venerate Caesar. A final problem is this? Would the Corinthians clearly know without further explanation that Paul meant “Caesar” by the god of this world? Was this a standard phrase for Caesar at that time that was widespread along the Mediterranean? Or at least in Corinth? More evidence needs to support this.

  1. Is it a combination of the options above?[6] This is not impossible. For example, we could combine options #4 and #5. If so, then similar to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, Paul is possibly referring to the man of lawlessness (Caesar?) as Satan’s puppet, and in that case, Satan and his representative human who is worshipped as a “god” are both in view.

So, then, what is the conclusion?

Of the five options, Satan/Beliar still appears to be the best.


Notes

[1] So Frances Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 115–17.

[2] So Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Theology of the Second Letter to the Corinthians, New Testament Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 42.

[3] So, e.g., Ralph Martin, 2 Corinthians, WBC (Waco: Word, 2014), 222.

[4]R. H. Charles, ed., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Electronic edition; Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2.160. On Matanbukus as “gift of desolation”: see Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (James Charlesworth, ed.), 2.158.

[5] So Fredrick J. Long, “‘The God of This Age’ (2 Cor 4:4) and Paul’s Empire-Resisting Gospel for Corinth” in The First Urban Churches II: Roman Corinth, ed. James R. Harrison and L. L. Welborn (Atlanta: SBL, 2017).

[6] I raise this as a possibility in B. J. Oropeza, Exploring Second Corinthians: Death and Life, Hardship and Rivalry, RRA 3 (Atlanta: SBL, 2016), 265, though see where I finally take a stand for in this blog.

Image: Shakespeare King Lear Ancient via pixabay.com


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