In some translations, I see the term "principalities and powers." To what does this refer?

This will not be exhaustive, but for example, consider the KJV's translation of Romans 8:38-39:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 KJV)

Compare this with another translation, for example ESV:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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. (Romans 8:38-39 ESV)

Now consider NIV1984:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV1984)

So, it seems that "principalities and powers" in the KJV corresponds to "rulers" in the ESV and "demons" in the NIV1984. Does the term "principalities and powers" refer to evil spiritual beings, or just powerful ones?

Also, consider Colossians 1:16:

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (Colossians 1:16 KJV)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16 ESV)

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (Colossians 1:16 NIV1984)

In these translations of this particular passage, the connotation of "principalities and powers" seems somewhat blurry. Can you please help me to understand?


4 Answers 4


"Principalities" and "powers" are separated in the original language. The structure is similar to the ESV rather than the KJV. I will, therefore, treat them separately.


The underlying word here can carry a range of meanings. In Romans 13:3, for instance, it refers to a human magistrate. In Ephesians 6:12 it is instead contrasted with "flesh and blood" and refers to an evil spiritual being. 1 Corinthians 15:24 gives a perhaps ambiguous picture of the human/angelic nature of rulers, but they are enemies of God to be destroyed.

Moving to consider its use here in Romans 8:38, the pairing of death/life, angels/principalities, and things present/things to come suggests that principalities should be understood along with angels indicating that they are spiritual in nature. Whether Paul intends evil beings or evil and good beings here is less clear. Again, though, the pairing with angels suggests a dualism and I'm inclined to accept the NIV's rendering.

In the context of Colossians 1:16, it's a little more difficult to discern. The context of the entire letter suggests that Paul is writing about spiritual beings. It would take us too much space to discuss the Colossian heresy/philosophy, but Paul's purpose in the Christ hymn is to emphasize the exaltedness of Christ over all things and especially over angelic beings (see also 2:10, 2:15, 2:18). While some contexts suggest they are evil (2:15), others are less clear and since Paul places also good things like the church under Christ in the hymn, it makes sense to understand "rulers"/"principalities" as simply spiritual beings, neither necessarily good nor bad.


In Colossians, "powers" can be understood right along with principalities. They are mentioned together as they are in 1 Cor. 15:24 as well. There is nothing to distinguish them, and Paul is probably simply enumerating any spiritual being he could think of to establish the supremacy of Christ over all things.

It's less clear in Romans 8:38 how he uses the term. One strange thing about its use there is that he doesn't pair it with another term as he does all the other items in his list (except "anything else in creation"). Doug Moo in his commentary on Romans (NICNT) notes that elsewhere Paul uses the term for miracles, and so it's possible that he has such in mind ("performed perhaps by Satan"), but there isn't a whole lot to recommend this and the presence of angels and principalities leads us to believe he again means spiritual beings as in Colossians.

  • Thank you for yet another great answer. It's odd that I never noticed the break in symmetry in Romans 8:38. Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 17:25
  • @Soldarnal, What tools do you use to derive this answer?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 15:22
  • @Pacerier It's been a while since I put this answer together, but I'm sure I used an original language search in Logos and then ran through a list of results to see how the words are used in context. With ἀρχή it's a little complicated because it's used in most places to mean "beginning." Today I would probably also consult a lexicon. Obviously Paul's own use of the words is most controlling, but a lexicon might turn up some interesting results in other literature.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 2:57

Arche and dunamis : Arche, I take it, is the Office and Archon the personage. Arche is that which is not only foundational, archetypal, it also has absolute precedence. Thus, that which comes after will, of necessity, be within its realm and under its influence and command.

So principalities were foundational and all that followed would be subservient.

This structure has power, for that is its purpose, to be dynamic. And this Rule revealed itself, very soon, to be of Serpentine character. And many followed, for when he he fell from heaven, a third part fell with him.

But these were triumphed over, in the weakness of God, for they did not understand; their mentality was faulty. They would never have crucified the Lord of Glory had they any conception of who God really was and what His Purposes really were.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. [I Corinthians 1:25 KJV]

  • ““No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” so is mammon a principality, power, the devil or something else? :) Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 22:12
  • @enegue My words 'in the weakness of God' are taken from the KJV see 1 Corinthians 1:25. I have edited and quoted the verse in full. And I have rolled back the edit. Regards.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 20:38
  • Nigel, check your answer history. I referenced 1 Corinthians 1:25 in a footnote because someone edited your answer and removed the "the weakness of God". I didn't quote the verse in full because you didn't, and I knew the reference. Something was needed so that others wouldn't be tempted to edit. The footnote, I thought, was the least disruptive to your thoughts.
    – enegue
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 23:11
  • @enegue Ah. I misunderstood the history. Thank you. Much appreciated. Kind Regards.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 23:19

Angels and Demons, The Cosmic Evil Powers

The principalities and powers cannot be referring to human rulers or kings. It is referring to the spiritual forces of darkness, the evil powers or in simple terms demons. The human rulers are mentioned positively (Rom 13:3, Titus 3:1); compare a similar verse:

[Eph 6:11-12 NHEB] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world's rulers of this darkness, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Robertson's World Pictures:

The world-rulers of this darkness (τους κοσμοκρατορας του σκοτους τουτου). This phrase occurs here alone. In Joh 14:30 Satan is called "the ruler of this world" (ο αρχων του κοσμου τουτου). In 2Co 4:4 he is termed "the god of this age" (ο θεος του αιωνος τουτου). The word κοσμοκρατωρ is found in the Orphic Hymns of Satan, in Gnostic writings of the devil, in rabbinical writings (transliterated) of the angel of death, in inscriptions of the Emperor Caracalla. These "world-rulers" are limited to "this darkness" here on earth.

On Romans 8:38 Utley comments,

"principalities. . .powers" This refers to (1) the evil angelic or demonic forces of this age (cf. Eph. 2:2; 6:12; 1 Cor. 15:24; Col. 1:16) or (2) possibly the impersonal structures of the fallen world (religion, government, education, medicine, etc.) that allows fallen mankind to be independent of God (cf. Hendrickus Berkhoff, Principalities and Powers).

Archon (Greek: ἄρχων, romanized: árchōn, plural: ἄρχοντες, árchontes) is a Greek word that means "ruler", frequently used as the title of a specific public office. It is the masculine present participle of the verb stem αρχ-, meaning "to be first, to rule", derived from the same root as words such as monarch and hierarchy. (Wiki)

  • The plural in Greek ἀρχαὶ (Rom 8:38) is used in the verse, the word order in KJV differs which puts power early in the sequence. The NIV, NLT has used demons for this word taking the phrase parallel to the contrasting 'life and death; present-future; heights and depths'.
  • NET Bible: "heavenly rulers", says in notes: "BDAG 138 s.v. ἀρχή 6 takes this term as a reference to angelic or transcendent powers (as opposed to merely human rulers). To clarify this, the adjective “heavenly” has been supplied in the translation. Some interpreters see this as a reference to fallen angels or demonic powers, and this view is reflected in some recent translations (NIV, NLT)."

It is likely the reference to heavenly or cosmic evil powers includes or directly addresses the Gnostic Archons.

Archons of the Gnostics

Archons are, in Gnosticism and religions closely related to it, the builders of the physical universe. Among the Archontics, Ophites, Sethians and in the writings of Nag Hammadi library, the archons are rulers, each related to one of seven planets; they prevent souls from leaving the material realm. The political connotation of their name reflects rejection of the governmental system, as flawed without chance of true salvation. In Manichaeism, the archons are the rulers of a realm within the "Kingdom of Darkness", who together make up the Prince of Darkness. In The Reality of the Rulers, the physical appearance of Archons is described as hermaphroditic, with their faces being those of beasts.

Hebdomad A characteristic feature of the Gnostic concept of the universe is the role played in almost all Gnostic systems by the seven world-creating archons, known as the Hebdomad (ἑβδομάς). These Seven are in most systems semi-hostile powers, and are reckoned as the last and lowest emanations of the Godhead; below them—and frequently considered as proceeding from them—comes the world of the actually devilish powers. There are indeed certain exceptions; Basilides taught the existence of a "great archon" called Abraxas who presided over 365 archons.

Evidently from works such as the Apocryphon of John, the Ophite Diagrams, On the Origin of the World and Pistis Sophia, archons play an important role in Gnostic cosmology. Probably originally referring to the Greek daimons of the planets, in Gnosticism they became the demonic rulers of the material world, each associated with a different celestial sphere. As rulers over the material world, they are called ἄρχοντες (archontes, "principalities", or "rulers"). As with ancient astronomy, which thought of a sphere of fixed stars, above the spheres of the seven planets, beyond the spheres of the evil archons (Hebdomad), there were the supercelestial regions which a soul must reach by gnosis to escape the dominion of the archons. This place is thought of as the abode of Sophia (Wisdom) and Barbelo, also called Ogdoad.

[Eph 2:1-2 NHEB]

You were made alive when you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience;

"In the NT the air is the realm of the demonic. The lower air (açr) was seen by the Greeks to be impure and therefore the domain of evil spirits. Some see this use of "air" as referring to the immaterial nature of the spiritual realm" (Bob Utley). The “airy spirits (ariel spirits)” who the Gnostics said were the lords of darkness and the mischievousness of spirits of the air. The Christians had considered them to be wicked spirits on high whose habitation was mainly the air which was said to be the mansion of evil spirits, of whom Satan (Great Dragon) is the chief.


Colossians 2:15 (DRB):

And despoiling the principalities and powers, he hath exposed them confidently in open shew, triumphing over them in himself.

Ephesians 6:12 (DRB):

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.

Titus 3:1 (DRB):

Admonish them to be subject to princes and powers, to obey at a word, to be ready to every good work.

Titus 2:8 (DRB):

The sound word that can not be blamed: that he, who is on the contrary part, may be afraid, having no evil to say of us.

The question is so simple:

Who are the principalities and powers?

From the above mentioned verses I suggest that they are the rulers of this world, they are of good works but of bad conscience, hence, they are allegorically of no blood and flesh.

I suggest that Satan is the head of these rulers.

Again, they are of good works but of bad conscience. Exactly like Pharisees and Scribes.

Since they are of good works, they are appointed by God to rule our world.

After we get mature enough, we will be transported to the God/Christ Kingdom.

This is my point of view supported by verses of the Bible.


  • Job 1:6-10.
  • Colossians 1:16.
  • Titus 3:3.
  • 1 Peter 2:1.

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