3.3) Other sinister figures: Belial, the God of this World, the Elements, the Powers
We have already discussed what Paul thought of Demons, namely, that he considered them to be lifeless Idols. Let us now look at some other figures or entities that he refers to, some of which may have real life beyond the abstract and metaphorical, and may even be identical to Satan or identifiable with him. Such identifications have often been assumed without good reason. Let us see if and when there are good reasons for doing so or not doing so.
I have mentioned that in 1 Thessalonians Paul sets up a dichotomy or dualism between Idols, on the one hand, and, on the other, a living God (1 Thess. 1.9). He expands upon this contrast in 1 Corinthians: we know that there is only one God and one Lord, even though there are many alleged Gods in Heaven and, on Earth, many Gods and many Lords (1 Cor. 8.4-6). He is probably doing a sub-contrast between different types of false Gods: the Olympian Gods, as opposed to humans who became Gods, that is, divinized human heroes.
He makes a more elaborate set of major contrasts in 2 Corinthians. He says:
1) Do not be mismatched with unbelievers.
2) For what partnership is there between Righteousness and Lawlessness?
3) Or what fellowship is there between Light and Darkness?
4) What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?
5) Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?
6) What agreement has the temple of God with Idols?
7) For we are the temple of the living God.
(2 Cor. 6.14-16)
The main contrast here is between believer and unbeliever, or, to put it in his concluding fashion (## 6-7), it is between believers in the living God and believers in nonliving Idols. He compares it to the difference between light and dark (# 3), that familiar contrast; and then to the difference between Christ and Beliar (# 4). We recall that in the Book of Jubilees God was contrasted with Beliar, and also that at Qumran the term Belial was often used as a contrast with God, but we could not decide whether it was an “it” or a “he.”
There is even less to go on here than in Jubilees and the Qumran texts. In fact, the passage constitutes an abrupt change of topic, so much so that it has often been labeled an interpolation from another context. It is the only occurrence of Beliar/Belial in the New Testament, but Belial occurs plenty of times in the Old Testament, especially in the phrase “sons of Belial.”
In short, we don’t know what is meant by Beliar here.
However, there may be an oblique reference to Satan a bit earlier in the same letter. As in the present passage, Paul is speaking of unbelievers, and after admitting that the gospel that he preaches may be veiled, he says that “it is veiled to those who are perishing.” “In their case,” he continues, “the God of this Age 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” (2 Cor. 4.3-4).
So, who is ho Theos tou Aionis toutou, “the God of this present aeon,” who blinds unbelievers?
In the Old Testament, it is Yahweh Himself who is in charge of closing people’s minds, and He orders Isaiah to do the same:
Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Isa. 6.10)
Given this track-record, can we see the God of this aeon as our God, as Yahweh? He is, after all, in charge of everything. Or is Paul sarcastically referring to Satan? At times, Paul does not think much of “this World” (Kosmos) or “this Age” (Aion). In Galatians, for instance, he says that Jesus “set us free from the present bad aeon” (Gal. 1.4).
But Paul does not contrast this Aeon with a different aeon or world. Sometimes, in fact, he says that the present time is splendid. In 2 Corinthians he goes on to speak of the present time as a new creation for right-thinking people, and as the day of salvation (2 Cor. 5.17-6.2).
It is true that Satan seems to have a hand in the preaching of false doctrine, as we have seen. But does he mislead unbelievers? Paul missed an opportunity of saying so earlier on, just after telling the Corinthians that he is aware of Satan’s plans to outwit him (2 Cor. 2.11). For he says, “We are the aroma of Christ to God, among those who are being saved, and among those who are perishing. To the latter, it is the smell
of death leading to death, but for the former, the smell of life leading to life” (2 Cor. 2.15-16). There seems to be no room for an intermediary deceiver here.
Still, we will eventually see many suggestions that Satan has been commissioned to govern the World, and there may be some sign of this idea in Paul’s thought. At one point, Paul speaks of the “Archons” or Rulers of this aeon who crucified Christ, which they would not have done if they had had the proper understanding (1 Cor. 2.6-8). This may be a reference to the Angelic supervisors of earthly governments.
There seem to be delinquent Angels around, for Paul tells the Corinthians that Saints will judge Angels (1 Cor. 6.3). He may even think of Angels as possibly tempted by women, for he says that women should have a veil—literally, a “power,” exousia–on their heads when they pray or prophesy, “because of the Angels” (1 Cor. 11.10). Then again, these passages may simply refer to human authorities.
In Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, which he may have written shortly before 1 Corinthians, he says that before the coming of Christ everyone was enslaved to “them” which/who by nature are not Gods (Gal. 4.8). But whether these are active or passive enslavers is not clear, or whether they have any more life than the Idols of the Pagans do.
Paul continues: God sent His Son to redeem all who were born under the Law, and the Galatians are at fault for returning to the “weak and beggarly” Elements (Greek Stoicheia, Latin Elementa), by “observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years” (Gal. 4.9-10). The question is, were these calendrical observations simply the inventions of humans in their benighted worship of nonexistent astral deities? Or does Paul think of these rituals as authorized and directed by some sort of intelligent cosmic beings?
What about when Paul tells the Romans to be obedient to the “governing Authorities,” or, literally, the “Powers having power on high” or “super-empowered Powers”? He explains that there is no power (exousia, a feminine noun) except from God, and that those
Powers (Exousiai) have been instituted by God (Rom. 13.1). Remember the exousia on the woman’s head for the Angels’ sake (1 Cor. 11.10)? “Therefore,” Paul continues, “whoever resists power [or “a Power”] resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For Rulers (Archontes) are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Rom. 13.2-3).
He goes on to say that those who do wrong should definitely fear the Exousia, because she (it? he?) does not bear the sword in vain, since she-it-he is the Servant (“Deacon,” Diakonos) of God, to execute wrath on the malefactor (Rom. 13.4). Here, Power-personified morphs into the sword-wielding Deacon, and then, in the next verses, “they” are called Ministers (Leitourgoi) of God, to whom the people, including the Christians addressed by Paul, should be subject, and to whom they should pay any taxes that are due, and give them all due fear (or respect) and due honor (Rom. 13.5-7). When Paul talks about taxes, he is clearly referring to the human and terrestrial level. But could he also be referring to celestial or Angelic authorities as well? Could he be referring to Satan and his Angelic associates?
We remember that when the Angel of Yahweh appears to the jenny and Balaam as a satan he bears a sword in his hand, like the Destroying Angel in Samuel, when he stretched out his hand to destroy the populace with plague. This is how the Chronicler envisaged it: “David looked up and saw the Angel of Yahweh standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem” (1 Chron. 21.16). We also remember that Paul considered Satan to exercise proper punishing authority (1 Cor. 5.5).
It would be easy and natural enough to interpret Romans 13 to refer only to the human government of Rome, as most modern exegetes do. But, as we will see when we take up the Deutero-Pauline epistles, especially Ephesians and Colossians, there is strong evidence of a lively belief in fallible Angelic Governors of the World, and that Satan was one of them, or their Chief.