It may not show up on Christian motivational posters, but Colossians 2:15 is one of the great verses of victory in the New Testament. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Our great captain has won the contest. The seed of the woman has bruised the head of the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15).
While not as familiar to us, Colossians 2:15 was beloved in earlier periods of Christian history. It is also regularly invoked in academic theology to support a certain understanding of Christ’s atonement known as the “Christus Victor” model, which argues that Christ’s saving work consists in defeating the evil powers that afflict and enslave humanity. Unfortunately, some go on to argue that this way of looking at Christ’s atonement excludes other important aspects of his work, particularly his satisfaction of divine justice on our behalf.
As we’ll see, properly understanding Colossians 2:15 can help us avoid this error by rightly affirming Christ’s victory over evil in and through his sacrificial death on the cross.
Who Are the Rulers and Authorities?
Colossians 2:15 states that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities.” To whom does this phrase refer? The combination of “rulers and authorities” appears elsewhere in Paul’s writings in reference to human authorities (Titus 3:1), but more often it applies to spiritual powers (Eph. 3:10; 6:12). When we compare Colossians with Ephesians (its parallel epistle), we see that “thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities” are obviously spiritual entities, whether angels or demons (Eph. 1:21; 2:2; 3:10; 6:12).
But if Christ disarmed Satan and his demons and took away their power, how exactly did he do it? At this point, the history of interpretation gets rather interesting.
Did Jesus Harrow Hell?
Many commentators have connected this verse to the so-called “harrowing of hell.” There are varying versions of this concept, but the general story goes like this: after the crucifixion, Jesus descended into the underworld where he defeated Satan and his demons and freed the souls who’d been held captive under the old covenant. Proponents of this view combine Colossians 2:15 with Ephesians 4:8–10 and 1 Peter 3:19 in order to fill out the story.
This is certainly an inspiring narrative. It seems like perfect material for a C. S. Lewis novel. But despite its literary quality, it actually confuses important biblical and theological content.
First, these three passages aren’t necessarily talking about the same thing, but even if they are, none of them says that Christ rescued believers from an underworld. First Peter 3:20 specifies the spirits were disobedient spirits, so this isn’t a reference to the faithful being rescued but rather bad guys (whether human or demonic) being judged. Ephesians 4:8–10 says that he leads a host of “captives” in his train. The captives are those whom Christ has defeated, not those he’s rescuing.
Additionally, there is no biblical reason to believe that Satan was in hell during the old covenant. To the contrary, Satan is presented as prince of the “air” (Eph. 2:2), entering into heaven itself (Job 1:6; Zech. 3:1; Rev. 12:7) and roaming the earth (Job 1:7; Gen. 3:1; Matt. 4:1). Only at the last day is Satan cast into hell (Rev. 20:10).
We must also deny that old covenant believers went to “hell.” What most of us today think of as hell is “Gehenna” and “everlasting fire” (Matt. 5:30; 10:28; 25:41; Mark 9:43; James 3:6; Rev. 20:10). It’s a place of punishment, where God pours out his wrath against sin. Believers do not go here. They are saved from it.
There are two other biblical terms for an “underworld” in a more general sense, and these are the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hades. These terms are used frequently in the Scriptures, and they can refer to the literal grave or the spiritual realm of the dead. They don’t necessarily imply a place of torment. When Jesus tells about Lazarus being taken to “Abraham’s bosom” after his death, this is said to be a place of “comfort” (Luke 16:23).
Nailing Satan’s Chief Weapon to the Cross
Colossians 2:15 isn’t talking about some war in the underworld, then, but of Christ’s victorious work on the cross. In the prior verses, Paul speaks about the “legal debt” sinners were under. Christ has now “set this aside” by “nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). Because of this, no one can condemn us (Col. 2:16).
This is how Jesus has disarmed the powers. He has taken away Satan’s power to hold sinners to the debt of their sins and trespasses.
Indeed, accusation is the chief activity for Satan. He attempted to undermine God’s righteous verdict over Job (Job 1:9–10), stood ready to accuse Joshua the high priest (Zech. 3:1), and accused all believers before God day and night (Rev. 12:10). The power of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56), and Satan attempted to use the demands of the law to destroy God’s people. But Christ, in taking the law’s curse on himself (Gal. 3:13), has wrested this weapon from Satan.
He has disarmed him and triumphed over all the forces of evil precisely in his sacrificial death on the cross. As John Calvin put it, “There is no tribunal so magnificent, no throne so stately, no show of triumph so distinguished, no chariot so elevated, as is the gibbet on which Christ has subdued death and the devil, the prince of death.”
Making a Spectacle of Satan
This understanding also explains the nature of Satan’s defeat. He hasn’t yet been so utterly destroyed or defanged that he can’t do battle against the believer. But he cannot hurt us spiritually or bring a successful charge against us (Rom. 8:33). We’re now free to wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil knowing we will get the victory. In the words of John Davenant, “Those who are vanquished are always more angry than powerful.” While Satan and his minions rage, they can only express frustration that their fate is sealed.
Indeed, Satan was made a spectacle in the cross. Believing that Jesus had been defeated, Satan made his grandest boasts. And yet, the death of Christ was the greatest victory. The cross crushed Satan’s head for good. His boasting became foolishness and his glory shame, as the justification of all God’s people now makes plain.
The cross crushed Satan’s head for good.
Perhaps there is a little something of Lewis in this version of the spoiling of Satan. After all, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was the laws of Narnia that Edmund had violated and that the White Witch tried to use against Aslan. “The Law” (or “the deep magic”) in Narnia was from the Emperor, which Aslan would not contradict. But the deeper magic from the dawn of time—or we might say, from the before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4)—reconciled the demands of the law with the redemption of lawbreakers, bringing about the witch’s defeat.
We could summarize Colossians 2:13–15 along similar lines: the satisfaction of divine justice shames the powers and shows Christ to be our victor.