Many Bible readers assume that, aside from God and Satan, the spiritual world of the Bible is made up of only angels and demons. That isn’t the case. The New Testament actually has a wide range of terms for both good and evil spiritual beings.
“Angel” and “demon” are actually very generic terms. The word translated “angel” in the New Testament is Greek aggelos (pronounced angelos). It occurs roughly 175 times. The term is basically a job description, since it means “messenger.” Occasionally the New Testament uses angelosof human messengers (e.g., Luke 7:24, 27; 9:52; James 2:25). Most of the time it refers to non-human divine messengers (Matt 4:11; 13:41; Luke 2:9; John 1:51; Gal 1:8; 2 Thess 1:7). The word “demon” is actually a transliteration of Greek daimon or daimonion, not a translation of either term. These terms are widely used in classical Greek literature in a neutral way to refer to divine beings whether good or evil. Curiously, though, when they occur in the plural the context is often negative or sinister, and this is way the New Testament writers employ both terms.
One significant point that is missed in English translations—and which helps explain the use of the terms in the plural to denote evil beings—is that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, uses these terms to describe the fallen gods of the nations (Isa 65:11; Psa 90:6; Deut 32:17; Psa 106:37). The related verb forms, daimonao and daimonizomai (“be under the influence of, or be possessed by, a divine entity”) reinforce the context of spiritual evil.
Angels and Demons: What About Paul’s Principalities and Powers?
The fact that Greek daimon or daimonion is used to describe the fallen gods of the nations helps us to discern where Paul’s theology of the powers of darkness comes from. Paul rarely uses Greek daimon or daimonion when speaking of hostile powers of spiritual evil. Instead he employs a range of terms that all have one thing in common—they are terms used of geographical dominion.
Rulers, Principalities (Greek: arche and archon). While both terms can be used of human rulers, spiritual entities are in view in Col 1:16. Paul has evil spiritual beings in view in other passages: Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col 2:10, 15. The Septuagint uses archon to translate the Hebrew word sar (“prince”) in Dan 10:13, 21; 12:1, which describe spiritual entities ruling over nations.
Powers(Greek: dynamis). The Septuagint uses this term of God’s heavenly host or army (Dan 8:10), and Paul choose it in Rom 8:38; Eph 1:21.
Lords(Greek: kuriotē). This term generally refers to the exercise of authority (“lordship”). Paul uses it in 1 Cor 8:5 (“lords”) of pagan powers—but later describes the these powers as demons (1 Cor 10:20). Paul draws on Deut 32:17 in 1 Cor 10:20-21, so it is clear he is using dominion terminology of evil divine beings.
Thrones and Authorities(Greek: thronos and exousia). These terms also denote geographical dominion and authority. They occur alongside arche and kuriotes in Col 1:16. Other passages in which Paul uses this vocabulary 1 Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:10.
Angels and Demons: Elemental Spirits
The descriptive phrase “elemental spirits” is the choice of some English Bible translations for Greek stoicheia. This term has a range of meanings in Greek literature, all of which may be present in the New Testament:
This last option is apparently a factor in some of Paul’s writings. As I wrote in the Lexham Bible Dictionary:
The meanings of the term in several of Paul’s passages are unclear (Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20). For example, in Colossians 2, Paul seems to use the term for spiritual beings, as other terms for spiritual forces (angels, principalities and powers, false gods) appear in the context. Paul’s use of stoicheia in Galatians 4 could be in reference to the Law, spiritual beings, or astral deities. Galatians is focused on the problem of Jewish converts wanting to require Gentile believers to obey the Law. In Galatians 4, Paul speaks to both Jews and Gentiles, so he could be using the term in different ways with each audience. Galatians 4:1-7 likely addresses Jewish converts (see Gal 4:5, “those who were under the Law”), and so stoicheia in Gal 4:3 therefore most likely refers to the elements of the Law. But the Gentiles were not under the Law and did not know the true God (Gal 4:9). Therefore Gal 4:8-11 could be seen as addressing Gentile converts. In this light, and in the context of Gal 4:9-11, stoicheia could be interpreted as astral deities, or perhaps spiritual beings, that were associated with the astrological ideas of “fate.” The belief that the stars determine an individual’s destiny was common in pagan religions during the nt era. This would mean that the “days and months and seasons and years” in Gal 4:11 points to astrological beliefs and practices. Paul is therefore denying the idea that the celestial objects (sun, moon, stars) are deities; these rocks and balls of gas are not actually gods, though the ancients conceived them that way. Paul encourages Gentile converts to not be enslaved again to the idea that these objects control their destiny. Paul does not intend to deny that the unseen world was populated by “gods” (compare 1 Cor 8:4-6; 10:20, which quotes Deut 32:17, where demons are called gods [elohim]); rather, he is denying that physical celestial objects were gods or had divine influence.
Angels and Demons: Powers of Higher Rank than Angels
As I noted earlier, “angel” is just a job description. However, there are terms used in the New Testament that clearly describe entities that outrank angels.
Glorious Ones(Greek: doxas). This term is found in 2 Peter 2:10 and Jude 8. As I wrote in the Lexham Bible Dictionary:
2 Peter 2:10 speaks of human blasphemers who rail against the glorious ones while angels, though greater than those blasphemers, would not dare to do so. This wording suggests that there is a distinction in rank between angels and “glorious ones.” In Second Temple Jewish literature, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, references to angels of the council of God of glory may be analogous to the Greek terminology here (1QHa 18:8; 2 Enoch 22:7, 10; Philo, On the Special Laws 1.45).
Archangels(Greek: archangelos). This term occurs only two times in the New Testament (1 Thess 4:16; Jude 9). Since it means “ruling angel” or “ruler of angels,” it denotes an angel who has authority over other angels. This of course does not require a different in ontology (i.e., a different kind of being); it may just be a functional term—another job description. The analogy of “supervisor” or “boss” in our own human experience illustrates the point. A supervisor or boss is still a human and nothing more, but one tasked with governing other humans.
Listen to Dr. Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast.